The Quantfied Self in Literature

Postgraduate Conference

Life Writing in the Digital Age: Quantification, Optimization, and the Self


29 Sep, 2017

The Quantified Self in Literature

Chair: Stefan Benz


Digital Dream Songs

The blogosphere of poetry and graphic art

Classical discussions of confessional poetry tend to focus not just on older poetry, but on comparatively conservative poetry. Part of this is due to the fact that confessional poetry engages in a complex back-and-forth between form and less-informal content. John Berryman’s quasi-sonnets belong here, just as Plath’s intensely form.trained ear.

I suggest that digital media has added a new kind of form to this debate that’s worth examining and interrogating: poetry published on tumblr, Instagram and on the so-called blogosphere. Some of this poetry is now found in paper-bound books, but much of it is still coded in ones and zeros. Adorno’s critical view of the ‘new media’ of his time, and the sense of how the Kulturindustrie made transparent society’s ideology must be re-examined in the digital age.

Digital poetry has completely revived the debate about confessional poetry and privacy – De Man’s notion of autobiography as creating a second, tropological kind of life becomes particularly poignant with the known mechanisms of online behavior, and online personalities. If this new confessional poetry is autobiographical – whose autobiography is it?

Moreover, questions of class, gender and race arise completely anew in the digital age. Mark Fisher’s discussion of “Capitalist Realism,” written in 2009 at the cusp of our current age, belongs here, just as new iterations of old debates of gender, poetry and authority. Digital poetry appears to be accessible to all – does this do away with the old gate-keepers of taste? There’s no wonder that Bourdieu’s work is in demand again, and I propose that his writings on taste and literature should be connected with his work on masculinity.

My paper will close by looking at the other genre of digital confessional work: personal or confessional webcomics, from Rubyetc. to Assigned Male. I will examine them with the framework and tools established in the paper up to that point and see whether they can be discussed in that vocabulary at all.

Marcel Inhoff, University of Bonn, inhoffmarcel@gmail.com


Affective Enhancement in a Genetic and Digital World

Richard Powers’ Generosity: An Enhancement

In our contemporary society, promises of human enhancement become ever more attractive: who does not want to be healthier, smarter or to live longer? The desire to self-improve relies on a belief in a quantifiable self – a self that becomes a mass of either digital or genetic data. In a world governed by both life sciences and digital technology, the biological and computational definitions of life are juxtaposed; the human and the machine become coextensive. In this context, stories of enhancement need to be framed by 1) the discourse of life sciences, 2) posthumanism, but also 3) affect theory. I will argue that affect theory complicates the understanding of the “bodymind” and its optimization. Additionally, it carries an epistemic potential that becomes visible in novels that create what I will call “an affect of aliveness.” I will use Richard Powers’ novel Generosity: An Enhancement (2009) to illustrate the ways in which literary knowledge enriches our understanding of human life and its possible enhancement. The novel challenges merely biological or digital configurations of the human. The feeling of happiness cannot be genetically manipulated, nor is it digitally transferable. It is an affect of aliveness that can awake the body and its senses or inspire the mind, but it is not synonymous with either of them. Accordingly, it rescues a sense of agency that has been lost in stories of biological or cultural determinisms. Even on the narrative level, the text refuses to create a story of progress because it can easily become a confining script; on the contrary, it advances an act of rewriting – which does not seek for better versions, but it sustains an affect of aliveness that has nothing to do with self-tracking, but with a different kind of observation: an awareness that extends itself into the present here and now, rather than being a record of the past or a future-oriented pursuit.

Loredana Filip, M.A. Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, loredana.filip@fau.de


Serialising the Self

Paul Auster’s Autofications

Investigating how contemporary times are shaped by creative imperative, constantly demanding for self-invention and self-fashioning (Reckwitz 2012), the role of self-presentation too has changed over the last years. In line with media developments and the rise of social networks, the articulation of the self is increasingly conceived of as serial in construction (van de Ven 2016), foregrounding self-presentation and self-fashioning as an ongoing and necessarily open-ended process. Instead of advocating closure, serial modes of self-narrative highlight the self as a non-stable entity, which is subject to constant (re)-negotiation.

In such a context, it seems promising to focus on life writing and subforms such as autofiction to account for changed perceptions of subjectivity through serial, serializing and fictionalizing modes of self-narrative. While this can relate to self-presentation in social media, it is however striking how shared effects can be observed in literary narratives and autobiographies, however leading to different intents and purposes. As one contemporary example, Paul Auster’s repeated autobiographical narratives showcase the authorial self as a serially presented entity. Employing diverging narrative techniques such as the use of first, second- and third-person narrative perspective, alongside deferring conventional temporal structures, the serialised self and a serialising author appear as evasive categories. Rather, conventional modes of subjectivity and self-narrative are challenged through both a serial structure, but also through autofictive elements as destabilising fixed truth-claims. Ultimately, by ‘repetition with variation’ (Kelleter 2012), there is more than one story to tell. Thus, seriality can be seen as one epitome for staging (creative) re-inventions of the self, as in Auster’s case through writing. In reading his texts as distinct modes of autobiography, this talk therefore aims to delineate serial self-narrations and autofictions as contemporary phenomena of self-invention and self-fashioning. By examining how serial self-presentations are carried out in literary narratives, this talk also adds to a larger debate on digitalized life-writing by contextualizing re-framed modes of subjectivity.

Ricarda Menn, M.A. Institut für England- und Amerikastudien, Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main, menn@em.uni-frankfurt.de


Technology, Transparency and the Digitized Self in Dave Eggers’ The Circle

In Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel The Circle (2013), a young woman named Mae becomes enmeshed in the shiny, seemingly perfect world of digital communication created by her new employer, a Californian tech company called the Circle. As increasingly complicated social and psychological dynamics unfold, the reader witnesses how the company and its digital social network become places of control, surveillance, and a general limitation of individual liberty. But how do things come that far? Why is it that bright young talents like Mae and her colleagues choose to subscribe to a system that, in the end, comes to resemble a totalitarian state?
The talk will focus on some of the central ideological tenets behind the Circle’s mission—such as instrumental reason, quantification, and utilitarianism—in order to find an answer to these questions. Reading these principles as interrelated elements of a coherent, enlightened world view, the talk will probe into what Horkheimer and Adorno call “the mysterious willingness of the technologically educated masses to fall under the spell of any despotism”. Eggers’ novel will consequently be read as an exemplification of the curiously self-destructive momentum of enlightenment thinking: those dynamics that lead to a fetishisation of numbers, transparency and technology—at a cost for the individual. That cost, finally, will be a further point of consideration: What does the Circle do to Mae, to her life? How does Eggers portray the impact of digital technology on the individual? And what, if anything, can we as individuals take home from The Circle?
Sebastian Tants, University of Heidelberg, sebastian.tants@freenet.de