• BOOKS:  Connected

Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society
Steven Shaviro, University of Minnesota Press, 2003, paperbound, 240 pp.
ISBN: 0-8166-4363-6

SEMILINEAR CONDUCTOR  Connected, Steven Shaviro’s medley of 213 interconnected ruminations on network society, appears to be a book. Epigraphs, preface, notes, and index appear in the expected order, and each entry in the main text is neatly headlined.  But reading Connected is like nothing so much as surfing the Web. Shaviro’s train of thought keeps pulling out of the station without ever building forward momentum, switching tracks, shunting from one spur line to the next. The structure of the text represents, rather than merely presents, Shaviro’s mapping of postmodern, networked space.

THE FLOW OF SEARCH Search — Web search — appears to be the model for the structure of this book. Each of the 213 passages in the book links conceptually to the adjacent sections, but the transition from one to the other is a jump. For example, Shaviro opens a series of texts related to the proposition that “information wants to be free” with the argument that digitization goes hand in hand with privatization, illustrated with a quote from Ken MacLeod’s novel Cosmonaut Keep and mention of court rulings against music samplers De La Soul and Biz Markie. The following section leads with quotes from the hip-hop album Deltron 3030 before sliding into a discussion of mega corporations monopolizing information; next up is the topic of replacing outright censorship with codes directing information. In rapid succession, Shaviro devotes sections to the commodification of information, a libertarian argument for charging for air, the use of the civil courts to suppress dissent in Singapore, free speech for corporations, the sadistic punishment of copyright violators in K.W. Jeter’s novel Noir, Napster, Illegal Art’s recording “Deconstructing Beck” and Beck’s relationship to black music, William Burroughs on repetition, and more. As Shaviro rummages through contemporary culture for material relating in some way to freedom of information, he finds a hit close at hand: “Today, the samples I am using for this book are still freely available to me, according to the standards of ‘fair use,’ but in the not-too-distant future, they probably no longer will be, and the publication and dissemination of the text you are now reading will be illegal.” (65) 

MAKING STRANGE What Shaviro SAYS is: “I try to write cultural theory as science fiction… Both of these sorts of writing seek to grasp the social world not be representing it mimetically but by performing a kind of ‘cognitive estrangement’ upon it … so that the structures and assumptions that we take for granted … may be seen in their full contingency and historicity.” (ix)

FLATTENED HIERARCHIES What Shaviro DOES is not to write cultural theory as science fiction but to pursue various questions through philosophy, film, fiction, and music with glorious disregard for differentiating between the intentions of his sources. As he caroms through discussions of surveillance, intellectual property, and free speech, the novels of writer K.W. Jeter are referenced in the same tone as the essays of critic Walter Benjamin and cyberactivist John Perry Barlow. Bladerunner mirrors Jean Baudrillard in nostalgia for the real; the science fiction of Maurice C. Dantec illuminates the “space of flows” proposed by sociologist Manuel Castells. While Shaviro gives readers an exhilarating ride, his approach heightens their awareness of the fantastic elements of theory without necessarily deepening their respect for the perspicacity of science fiction. And there are times — as when he reports that one Ryan Drum has a plan to treat heroin addicts by injecting algae cells into their skulls so they can photosynthesize their own food — when the all-sources-are-equal approach actually obscures his material. Drum appears to be an herbalist who claims degrees in chemistry and botany from unnamed universities on his Web site.(1)  He may be just as busily injecting science fiction into culture as the novelists Shaviro addresses, but the context in which his ideas are presented should be identified.

HEAVEN CAN WAIT  Shaviro’s point of departure is that the state of being “connected” has its discontents. It would not be news that a human condition involves trouble, except for the utopian idealizations of the network that accompanied the birth of the Web in the 1990s. As chronicled in Marguerite Wertheim’s The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace (W.W. Norton and Co., 1999), cyberspace became the heaven of the late 20th century. According to this vision, the Internet promised equal opportunity, community, and democracy.

TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT  In his opening remarks, Shaviro contrasts the hope that digital connections will forward both democracy and business with the dystopic world presented in K. W. Jeter’s science fiction novel Noir, in which “connect” is an obscenity — as in “connect you, mother-connector.” Jeter’s characters are trapped in the corporate network. Holographic e-mails buzz around their heads like swarms of flies, they live and die in their cubicles, and they are always in debt. Even death cannot deliver them; the bodies of the “indeadted” are reanimated to work for eternity. Jeter’s bleak story provides the through-line, such as it is, for Shaviro’s text, opening and closing the book.

THE FUTURE THREATENS  Shaviro devotes the rest of the book to explicating the dark side of the network. Instead of agency, communication, and democracy, the network delivers corporate dominion, the death of emotion, exhibitionism, distraction, overload, parasitism, and surveillance. Each of these conditions is vividly articulated with bits of plot, character, speculation, reportage, and philosophy plucked from the four art projects, seven recordings, eleven films, fifty-three poems or novels, one hundred and ninety-six works of nonfiction, and assorted reportage referenced by Shaviro.

COLLAPSING DIMENSIONS Shaviro is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Washington; his doctorate is from Yale University where he was active in helping to found the film studies program. He is always an engaging writer, but the text really comes to life when he talks about film. Only in the descriptions of film does he analyze the formal properties of the artworks he discusses. He does this very beautifully, as in this segment on Chris Cunningham’s music video for Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy”: “The video cuts back and forth between close-ups and long shots, as between images on the television screen itself, and images of the wasteland in which the set was found. Patterns of shot and reverse shot do not map out consistent spatial relations; rather they work as relays, creating a dense network that, in the words of Deleuze and Guattari, ‘connects any point to any other point’. The video refuses to distinguish between physical space and screen space…everything is both body and image, and every body/image has the same ontological status.” (9)

OUR HAUNTED LIVES  Shaviro’s orchestration of cultural fragments to convey his theme is a virtuoso performance. He convincingly presents evidence of unease about networks lurking in our culture and offers many insights worth pondering. So why, as I closed the book, did I experience the strong sensation of something missing? The discussion of networked misery was brilliant, yet it seemed unreal. It was as if Shaviro had mapped an imaginary landscape — the map might be beautiful but if you tried to follow it, you would stumble over real features and wander fruitlessly. I opened the book again, and reread the final words: “[Science fiction] is about the shadow that the future casts upon the present. It shows us how profoundly we are haunted by the ghosts of what has not yet happened. This is the condition that K. W. Jeter describes for us, in his account of the network society: ‘The little machines continued their work, visibly, like some nightmare of a future that had already arrived.’” (250)

Shadows, nightmares, haunts … all immaterial, all disembodied, all “unreal,” except as the fear they inspire drives human actions in the present. Connected is, as Shaviro writes, about the shadow of the future on the present. But shadows are not guides and they are not givens; perhaps they may be warnings. In any case, Shaviro captures them in all their here/not here elusiveness.

1) http://www.ryandrum.com">http://www.ryandrum.com (accessed May 20, 2006)

This review first posted to RCCS in July, 2006.


— Meredith Tromble is a member of the Stretcher collective.