Category Archives: Academic blog

Blog entries by MA students on the Contemporary American Literature and Culture module.

Infinite Detail and the Cultural Relevancy of Cyberpunk

Artwork from the upcoming videogame Cyberpunk 2077
(Source: http://www.psnation.com/2018/08/28/cyberpunk-2077-gameplay-reveal-48-minute-walkthrough/)

The cultural phenomenon of cyberpunk emerged in the 1980s as a multi-media speculative genre that imagined a future of sprawling, neo(n)-noir cityscapes and a high-tech, high-surveillance domination of human life and the human body. From William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer to films such as Blade Runner and The Matrix, cyberpunk was borne out of a cultural and political milieu concerned with accelerating technological advancement, urbanisation, neoliberal globalisation and the possibilities of cyberspace. Yet the echoes of the genre still reach us today, exemplified in the 2017 sequel to Blade Runner as well as television shows such as Altered Carbon and Mr. Robot, not to mention the highly anticipated upcoming videogame Cyberpunk 2077. I want to suggest that Tim Maughan’s novel Infinite Detail represents part of an emergent reimagining of the genre which goes beyond a mere rehashing of cyberpunk aesthetics, instead engaging with its still pertinent critical concerns.

Fredric Jameson viewed cyberpunk as “the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself” (Postmodernism, 419). From the start, critics of the genre have deemed cyberpunk authors to be at best ambivalent towards the worlds they create, pointing to its easy co-option into mass media and consumption. Csicsery-Ronay writes: ““Cyber/Punk” – the ideal postmodern couple: a machine philosophy that can create the world in its own image and a self-mutilating freedom, that is that image snarling back” (‘Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism’, 270). However, since its initial iterations in the 1980s, cyberpunk has proven a malleable form of artistic expression, across a wide range of media, for investigating the major concerns of the contemporary. Maughan’s 2019 novel, Infinite Detail, offers an interesting hybridity between the ‘Before’ chapters of a near-future world of accelerated capitalism, where the internet megacorporations have colonised almost every aspect of daily life, and the ‘After’ world when this system vanishes, and with it, the world as we know it. By intertwining elements of post-apocalyptic fiction with cyberpunk tropes in his narrative, Maughan highlights the blurred boundaries between the two, infusing his depiction of late capitalism with an apocalyptic anxiety.  Just as Blade Runner 2049 expanded the genre to deal with environmental collapse, Maughan’s modern cyberpunk is coloured by themes of chaos, unsustainability and imminent crisis.

Blade Runner 2049 desert scene, inspired by Sydney, Australia’s 2009 dust storm
(Source: https://www.framestore.com/work/blade-runner-2049-art-department?language=en)

The novel’s major antagonist is not a conspiracy of shady characters or megalomaniac supervillains, but rather the impersonal, omnipotent, all-controlling algorithm. The entire social caste of politicians, CEOs and bankers are not in control, but rather “middle managers” who “do nothing more than serve the algorithm” (227). Even Brad, a trader in New York city admits, “The markets are too big and they move too fucking quick. … Market basically runs itself” (126). This unknowable digital machine dictates the structure of human society. As with other dystopian strains of speculative fiction, cyberpunk can be seen as a reaction to the idealism and utopianism of other futurists – at its inception, cyberspace and the internet engendered a revolutionary optimism as a radically new, democratising space which seemingly existed outside the borders of corporate or state control. Yet, as Infinite Detail attests, it did not take long for this space to be swallowed up by a handful of corporate monopolies who not only expanded the neoliberal market logic into the online realm, but also sold their vast mines of data to advertisers and intelligence agencies. Dronegod$, the hacktivist group ultimately responsible for the switching off of the internet matrix, make their motivations explicit: “There was no revolution to be had on the internet … we let ourselves become nothing more than the content between adverts” (224-6). In Infinite Detail, the tie is completely severed, the losses are cut; it becomes cyberpunk without the cyber. This to me seems like a distinctly twenty-first century manifestation of the genre, defined by a lost idealism and revolutionary aspiration.

Student protesters in London, England following the A-level results scandal, August 2020
(Source: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/aug/17/inbuilt-biases-and-the-problem-of-algorithms)

What I found interesting in Maughan’s novel was how the moment of revolution – the tearing down of the system – was not simply a naïve moment of ecstasy but itself felt “both friendly and apocalyptic” (279). The ghosts of the dead or lost Mary and Anika see through their spex are virtual spectres from the final few days of the internet matrix, as supply chains grind to a halt, mass surveillance ceases, and a creeping authoritarianism seeks to weed out resistance. Similarly, in Mr. Robot, Eliot Alderson – a cyber-security worker for E Corp by day and hacker by night – wipes out the world’s credit card debt, yet his revolution creates as many problems as it solves as the corporate world contorts to deal with the situation.

Eliot Alderson looks at a wall of pictures dedicated to the dead and missing in Mr. Robot 
(Source: https://cor-cordiums.tumblr.com/post/168391022888/mr-robot-landscape-cinematography)

The forms of resistance – the heroes of the stories – in cyberpunk fiction are often associated with a seedy underbelly of crime, drugs, private investigators, hackers and the socially marginalised. These elements are all present in Infinite Detail, yet the major forms of resistance in the novel, both ‘Before’ and ‘After’, take place outside of the internet machine. In an urban anarchist commune in the Croft, Bristol, an alternative, decentralised network called Flex is created working off Bluetooth, and it is this technology which is resurrected right at the end of the novel using Mary’s spex. Most evocative, however, is the resurrection of 90s-style industrial music. This to me is the “punk” element, broadly speaking, of Maughan’s novel. On the internet, their rent was paid by the perversion of their revolution into data and capital, yet through music, they find authentic expression and resistance. Tyrone’s new mixes at the novel’s end – jungle and grime infused with the sounds of the Croft’s urban apocalypse – constitute for Anika “Something new, yet old at the same time … the last new music she’s heard in a decade” (346-7).

There seems to me a latent nostalgia in Maughan’s novel, not just for a lost online utopianism, but for the whole urban underground scene of the late 1980s and 1990s. Infinite Detail is a novel haunted by ghosts – virtual ghosts, the ghosts of memory, and the ghosts of lost futures. What it does imagine, however, is a final rupture from the old world, and even the possibility of something new.

Graffiti in Santiago, Chile during mass protests in October 2019.
It reads: ‘Another end of the world is possible’
(Source: http://carcaj.cl/convocatoria-otro-fin-del-mundo-es-posible/)

Bibliography

Biddle, Sam, ‘Facebook Uses Artificial Intelligence to Predict Your Future Actions for Advertisers, Says Confidential Document’, The Intercept, 13 April 2018, available at: https://theintercept.com/2018/04/13/facebook-advertising-data-artificial-intelligence-ai/ [accessed: 29/11/20].

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan, ‘Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism’, Mississippi Review, Vol.16, No.2/3, (1988), pp.266-278, available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20134180 [accessed: 29/11/20].

Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).

Macaskill, Ewan, Dance, Gabriel, ‘NSA Files: Decoded’, The Guardian, 1 November 2013, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2013/nov/01/snowden-nsa-files-surveillance-revelations-decoded#section/1 [accessed: 29/11/2020].

Maughan, Tim, Infinite Detail, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).

Shteyngart’s Brave New World. (Dystopian Horror or Modern Nightmare)

Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is a prominent piece of dystopian fiction equivalent to that of Huxley or Orwell. Shteyngart’s technologically advanced dystopian America warns us of humanity’s impending doom as we lose ourselves further and further into technology and social media. The relationship between humans and information systems in this novel and indeed modern life as we know it has become increasingly one-sided. By this I mean, systems are controlled by the information that we give them, however, it is now the information that these very systems expel that now control us.

Shteyngart being the great satirist he is, generates some of the best meta-irony that I’ve ever seen in literary history by pioneering the use of a live-action trailer for his dystopian novel. The intricacies of this trailer are so relevant to the novel that it needs to be witnessed for yourself it truly is one of the most contemporary pieces of media. From Shteyngart’s own rendition of himself in a parodic Sacha Baron Cohen type performance as an illiterate professor to James Franco a prominent actor in modern cinema, even including Jay McInerny (an author who was in the Brat Pack in the ’80s). The trailer is ingenious by using this type of viral marketing that Shteyngart so enthusiastically trivializes in the novel, it is truly a contemporary piece of media, and what can be more bizarrely contemporary than James Franco starring in a trailer for your book…possibly Ben Stiller picking up the rights to produce and star in a TV adaption of the novel. The reason I enjoyed the trailer so much is that I watched it before I read the novel so it enlightened my sense of the novel and the depiction of humanity throughout by the objectively toothless acting of all that participated.

“Super Sad True Love Story (Trailer)” Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfzuOu4UIOU

“walls and thoughts and faces, which weren’t enough, he needed to be ranked to know his place in this world” (Shteyngart, 268).

To me, this is the biggest problem within Super Sad True Love Story it is a very telling synopsis of “apparat” culture in this novel and the zombification of social media users in general. The constant need for validation and placement within society allows for no individual thought and opinion as our collective mind is constantly fueled by the unexhaustive machine that is social media. The ratings within Super Sad such as “Fuckability” and “FAC” show the characters exactly where their place in society is and while not entirely as crude as Shteyngart puts it, we could compare this to our modern-day apps like Instagram, Facebook, Tinder, Bumble and to some extent Linked. While we can only observe these ratings via arbitrary virtual commendations such as “Matches”, “Followers” and “Likes”. Shteyngart’s “Data Streams” are always prevalent in every area and “Apparat” users are encouraged to keep their streams on at all times so users can view their scores. While this may seem like something entirely improbable in our world of data protection, it is an actual reality for China as of 2020. The Social Credit Score system has been adopted and works much the same as it does in Super Sad True Love Story, citizens are subject to having their social score displayed publically for scrutiny in all iterations of society even public transport in which they have the possibility to be ‘Blacklisted’ or ‘Whitelisted’ from anything that requires the use of their SCS. The true horror of the digital age is nigh and systems like these could possibly be introduced into our western societies soon.https://www.wired.co.uk/article/china-social-credit-system-explained

Source:.https://www.wired.co.uk/article/china-social-credit-system-explained

When researching for the novel, Shteyngart realised that “technology might make possible much more thorough forms of state tyranny” (Hamilton, 66). Which can be seen best in the government-controlled “GlobalTeens” accounts of the characters in the novel as well as the “Welcome back, Pa’dner” program, a scheme devised to analyse American relations with foreigners while abroad and to collect intrusive personal details under the guise of the cartoon friendliness of an anthropomorphous Otter. I think personally that Shteyngart has done a great job of prophecising this idea of government control in social media outlets, an example being the recent US election and the Coronavirus pandemic, governing bodies have tasked social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with incorporating ‘Fact Checking’ systems into their sites. This is to combat false information from being spread and to help show the truth in the media. However, I can’t help but think of how this would be used in Super Sad’s pseudo communist society.

Source: https://www.irishexaminer.com/world/arid-40075775.html

The aspect of eternal youth within this society is one that I would like to look at in further detail. Lennie’s abstract announcement at the start of the novel “I am never going to die”(Shteyngart,1) shows the necessity to remain youthful is something that seems the most prominent and profitable in their society. The company Lenny works for, “Post-Human Services”, promises the extension of life to those who can afford it, yet the heavily satirical name exposes that these people are not quite human anymore and have become an amalgamation of chemicals keeping them upright and “youthful” in appearance, which will ultimately fail: “There was no way to innovate new technology in time to prevent complications… of the old” (Shteyngart, 327). I see similarities in our modern culture from hairline transplants and cosmetic plastic de-ageing surgery to the anti-ageing creams and other forms of grasping onto lost youth. The profiting of insecurity and the need for youth in the modern age is something that will only excel in the near distant future like Shteyngart predicts.

“Why is it so hard to be a grown-up man in this world?” (26). Later he seems to answer his own question by giving up his books and joining the new tribe of a hypermediated digital culture.”(Malewitz,117) To succinctly provide an answer to Meliwitz’s point there is no way to be a grown-up in apparat culture or even modern digital culture as youth/youthfulness sells to everyone no matter the age group.

Sources:

  • Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story: a Novel. Great Britain: Granta Books, 2011.
  • Hamilton, Geoff. “Super Sad True Love Story.” Understanding Gary Shteyngart. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2017, pp. 57-76. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv6sj85n.8
  • Raymond Malewitz, ‘Some New Dimension Devoid of Hip and Bone’,  Arizona Quarterly, 71, 4 (Winter, 2015), pp.107-127.

Shteyngart’s dystopia and the modern-day: Individual autonomy and the Surveillance State

I sort of thought ‘what would an Orwellian future look like without the government actually controlling things?’

(Shteyngart, Talks at Google, 2012)

Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is a dystopian romance that follows Russian immigrant Leonard Abramov and his infatuation with a young Korean American woman, Eunice Park. While the novel tackles issues of globalism, modern romance, and politics, it was Shteyngart’s satirical criticism of surveillance and autonomy in an ever-evolving digital society which I found most compelling, due to Super Sad True Love Story’s similarities with our society today.

‘Okay everybody lets see some big smiles!’ – Ned Flanders

Shteyngart’s figuration of surveillance is used as a means of sorting people by hierarchies in a near-future authoritarian America. In the novel mass surveillance is prominent everywhere, the government uses the American Restoration Authority (ARA) to spy on US citizens, “and uses mass surveillance to instigate targeted waves of repression against Low Net Worth Individuals.” Repression, not in the overt manner of previous dystopian novels such as Nineteen-Eighty-Four where there are solid institutional rules for conformity, but in a more subtle, homogenized manner which is integrated into every fragment of human interaction. The main instrument of this dystopian surveillance is the äppärät, a universal mobile computing device, which coincidently resembles modern-day smartphones. The äppärät collects personal information from everyone in the country, classifying everything about a person, “from their credit to their ‘fuckability’ ratings.”[2] People have credit scores that are ever-fluctuating, this gives the protagonist Lenny constant status anxiety as he watches his credit rating decline, and his health issue levels rise on the äppärät. People’s testosterone and estrogen, triglycerides, and insulin levels are constantly monitored, along with their, “‘mood + stress indicators,’ which are always supposed to read “positive/ playful/ ready to contribute” but which, with enough input from competitive co-workers, could be changed to ‘one moody betch today’ or ‘not a team pleya this month.’”[3]

Even romantic interactions between people are reduced to a numerical system with the ever-so-pleasant name FAC-ing (Forming a Community), where people place their äppärät against their chest and look at the person they are attracted to. The äppärät then monitors the person’s blood pressure and assess the person’s levels of attraction. After combining vitals and personality profiles the FAC score is presented, “Fuckability, Personality, Anal/Oral/Vaginal Preference.”

It is these crude levels of satire that Shteyngart goes to in order to criticize the near-future or essentially a more exaggerated depiction of our modern-day. His satire is key in conveying his poignant message about the data-reliant, socially anxious digital age in which we live and the consequences of reducing the autonomous self to mere metrics.

The äppärät is striking similar to modern-day smartphones, a device in which we, consensually, give all of our personal information to – who we are in a relationship with, what kind of people we are attracted to, on apps like Tinder, where we go, what we do. To the extent that algorithms of our personal data can be contrived to predict us TV shows, music, places to go, people to follow, and things to buy.

“With this book, there is no need for a Big Brother … because everyone’s been deputized to chronicle their lives at all times … The government doesn’t need to spy into your bedroom because everyone in this society is constantly updating where they are, what they’re doing, who they’re sleeping with … and everywhere you go, these streams are everywhere around you.”

(Shteyngart, Talks at Google, 2012)

What I find most interesting in Super Sad True Love Story’s depiction of dystopia is the extent to which a surveillance state is created by the people, not the government. Shteyngart depicts a world where, “surveillance is predominantly decentralized and participatory,” much like our own.

The novel depicts the digital age as reducing individuals to a set of percentages, and managerial metrics. Even dating is a superficial set of explicit sexual categories and preferences with no room for awkward small talk and getting to know someone naturally. This resembles our modern-day trend of ‘swiping right’ on Tinder; where, as Lenny’s friend Vishnu explains in the novel, “it’s like, a way to judge people. And let them judge you,” without ever having to meet each other. “The superficially reductive manner in which these categories are compiled cast the “informatization” of the body as a fundamentally dehumanizing practice.” I believe this to be Shteyngart’s motivation for raising these points, to highlight the contemporary crisis of dehumanization by way of a digital society. These examples accurately highlight the zeitgeist of the contemporary age, checking how many likes an individual has on social media as a form of judgment can be cast as an appropriate example in the modern-day. Another example of societal judgment in the digital age can be seen in, “Aiden M. was lowered from “overcoming the loss of loved one” to “letting personal life interfere with the job” to “doesn’t play well with others.”[3] This shows the extent to which the human experience and individual autonomy are diluted to a number of categories and public titles. In doing so the person’s flaws and differing opinions to the norm are exposed, suppressing them back into a state of ‘positivity.’

Gary Shteyngart discussing humanity in the face of new technological innovation

Reducing the autonomous self to metrics not only renders the individual to managerial exploitation but, “it also increases the prospect of social discrimination,” and goes against the fundamental core of what it means to be human; by-passing the intricate complexities of the individual, “rather than being accurate or inaccurate portrayals  of real individuals … they are a form of pragmatics: differentiated according to how useful they are in allowing institutions to make discriminations among populations.”

Shteyngart’s dystopia warns of the pervasive metrification of the body and soul, highlighting a world that threatens not only individual autonomy but social justice too. Being able to categorize people by numerical digital data and having that data exposed to everyone at all times not only sabotage individual liberty but makes the suppression of the population all the simpler. Shteyngart in 2010 warned of a near-future surveillance state, ten years later, it looks eerily, a lot like our own.


Bibliography:

  • Simon Willmetts, ‘Digital Dystopia: Surveillance, Autonomy, and Social Justice in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.’ American Quarterly, Volume 70, Number 2, June 2018
  • Shteyngart, Gary. 2010. Super Sad True Love Story, Random House.
  • Al-Shawf, Rayyan ‘Äppärät-chic: Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story‘ July 30, 2010, The Millions. Web.
  • “Gary Shteyngart Discusses ‘Super Sad True Love Story,’” Talks at Google, January 13, 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrlaqvH6bzU.
  • “Keen on … Gary Shteyngart: A Super Sad True Love Story” Youtube, July 15, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Me2bqd8uMac

The Posthuman Existence in Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story

Through the pages of Shteyngart’s dystopian novel we enter a world where people’s reality is not just perceived through the judgmental lenses of their äppärät – it is a possible future in which a swipe at someone conveys the information that IS literally reality itself. This world, where the inhabitants from flesh and blood are reduced to an unnoticed medium for conveying information in constant engagement with the disembodied content of digital networks, marks a posthuman existence where surveillance, control and greed for profit are extended into infinity itself.

6a010535e0c68e970c01543256f3c8970c-800wi.jpg
Illustration by Dave Plunkert
Source: spurdesign.com

The posthuman culture whose goal is to escape materiality for the eternal digital realm starts with the human body. The physical regeneration of older men through younger women does not point to the sexual habits naturalised by media forms. It points to “the ways in which technological limitations in a given medium become the frameworks for the aesthetic judgments” (Malewitz 113). The immortal posthuman realm requires nano-sized bodies, training in one of the “Zero Mass” or “No Body” gyms, which can easily become disembodied computer simulations, leaving behind their unnecessary shell of a human body. Celebrated are physical features Eunice has, such as lack of hair and scent which “exist as easily on an äppärät screen as on the street” (112).

But what of those bodies whose form and substance are not as easily translated into technological interfaces of the posthuman age, the ones whose traits differ too greatly from the norm? “The people whose personal information cannot be broadcast digitally are rendered aesthetically illegible” (Malewitz 114). By possessing a body of too much substance and untranslatable features (or by refusing to own an äppärät), they are unrepresented, invisible, unable to participate in “a culture founded upon digital frameworks of subjectivity” (114). Thus they become an undermining threat to the symbolic system of the posthuman fantasy.

Being rendered unhuman, their biological and computational data resist the applications of concepts such as FACing. They cannot partake in human capacities of love and friendship, whose values are recognised only for their ability to be converted into digital data. Since the äppärät’s technologies (such as RateMe) with their influence on who may speak to whom, their calculations whether the relationship is worth pursuing by taking into account everything from sexual preferences to pH levels, form the reality of the posthuman world, such individuals cannot move on the social ladder of the digital world. The only reality being the digital one is proved by Eunice’s friend Jenny’s conclusion that her boyfriend is cheating on her. Although she sees him cheating in real life, the real proof of his infidelity is his electronic “illiterate love notes” on GlobalTeens.

A piece from a comic by Gary Clemens
Source: https://philadams1.wordpress.com/

These ideas might make the reader feel “so TIMATOV”, but there is more to it than “JBF”. The posthuman society’s view on bodies, the encouragement to use web-speech instead of “verballing”, and the desire of improvement of the digital profiles to perfection, have serious political consequences. This posthuman realism possesses absolute power through the controlling system of meanings and values which offer the individuals as a controllable mass that aides the economy and its profiteers more than any other system before.

Shteyngart’s society is one where the fear of “corporate dictatorship in various guises, with the privatization, marketization, and monetization of all available resources, to the benefit of the wealthy” (Willmetts 270) has been realised. It is a world marked by the concept of Zuboff’s “surveillance capitalism” where “the most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data” (Zuboff in Willmetts 271). Enough for maximum surveillance of the people is an all-controlling system which threatens the individual with “a sense of permanent social precariousness” (272) subjecting them to the need for perpetual transformation to achieve perfection. Achieving it is impossible since “under the conditions of surveillance capitalism, identity is always an unfulfilled project” in a permanent state of becoming (Bauman in Willmetts 272).

Becoming towards what? Immortality – the established final desire. This is the most desired product of the market and is obtainable only by the ultimate preservable citizens. The lowly LNWI masses with their low credit and fuckability scores are unworthy of preserving. Their lack of ability to spend and their bodies mutilated by the lack of privilege make them but vermin subjected to “harm reduction”. Immortality is targeted towards the HNWIs which must prove their worthiness by keeping their ratings high enough to deserve to be immortalised. Proof of the existence of a higher-ranking profiting class is Lenny’s notion that “the truly powerful did not need to be ranked” (Shteyngart in Willmetts 276).

Zuboff’s surveillance capitalism translates human experience into behavioural data (14). It can thus predict future possible markets where consumers can be herded to in the future (14). Immortality as a future market leads people to offer exactly what its price is – their data. The resulting instrumentarian species of power rightfully predicts that people will be willing to do anything to remain top class citizens, the only group considered for the ultimate product of immortalisation, agreeing with everything to the point where their consent need nothing but to be implied. Would anyone really dare to disobey the otter who controls all their yuan-pegged dollars in a world where losing credit literally equals the death sentence?

Primary Source

Shteyngart; Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. New York: Random House, 2020. E-book.

Secondary Sources

Malewitz, Raymond. “Some new dimension devoid of hip and bone”: Remediated Bodies and Digital Posthumanism in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory, Volume 71, Number 4 (2015): 107-127. Project Muse. Web. Accessed on 21 Nov 2020.

Willmetts, Simon. “Digital Dystopia: Surveillance, Autonomy, and Social Justice in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.” American Quarterly, Volume 70, Number 2 (2018): 267-289. Project Muse. Web. Accessed on 21 Nov 2020.

Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs, 2019. E-book.

Severance: a Millennial Apocalypse.

In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard not to read Severance as a prophetic novel that predicted just how a pandemic of apocalyptic proportion would affect us in the 21st century. The pandemic-inspired fashion shows, designer face masks and the dangers of misinformation caused by Shen Fever, all reflect the strangest ways Covid-19 has changed the contemporary zeitgeist. However, I believe that one must read Severance as Ling Ma’s commentary on the millennial experience of late-stage capitalism and consumerism. Severance blends together touching and intimate accounts of Chinese-American immigration, satirical metaphors and horror to create a “… millennial bildungsroman—with a dash of zombie apocalypse.” (Day)

Ling Ma’s apocalyptic, debut novel bound in Millennial Pink.
Source: (McKhann)

Those infected with Shen Fever, the fevered, disintegrate into zombie-like creatures who are doomed to repeat menial routines in a state of semi-consciousness as their bodies disintegrate and decompose. There is no cure. So, Ma’s apocalypse sees the world’s population die as they set out dinnerware, try on outdated garments and drive taxicabs with no passengers and no destination. Ma’s zombies are created by transmitting fungal spores, but their demise is triggered by nostalgia.

“Memories beget memories. Shen Fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories.”

(Ma 160)

There are fevered who remain trapped within rituals of recreation and daily routine, such as the Gower family whom the survivors kill during a “live stalk” (Ma 79). Furthermore, some individuals remain trapped in routines of employment. Candace, like the fevered, is most strikingly forced to continue her job in a monotonous and solitary routine upon agreeing to work Spectra’s New York to save money for her baby. Candace is trapped contractually and emotionally in “…the uneventful, repetitive, pedantic and generic… details of modern work,” and not by Shen Fever (Martin 164). In Theodore Martin’s Contemporary Drift, the link between post-apocalyptic fiction and labour is identified as the “occupational aesthetic,” wherein “after the end of the world, it no longer matters what you do… it matters only that you find something to do over and over to survive.” (164)

“The crop of recent novels that have been termed “millennial” depict a rootless, anxious life: a rat race whose illusory prize for sacrificing your soul is a bare minimum of social acceptance and financial security.”

(Sudjic)

Unlike other post-apocalyptic narratives exploring labour such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Robert Harris’ The Second Sleep, Candace works through the apocalypse in a job that is not directly tied to physical labour or self-sustaining activities. She seeks meaning and comfort in her job, and it’s routine; her work ethic and contractual obligations allow her to seek stability after a breakup, and throughout her pregnancy and the pandemic. In my opinion, it is the combination of economic exploitation and self-imposed work-ethic against a backdrop of disaster that best characterises Candace as symbolic of the millennial employee. Moreover, the book’s periodisation in which Candace comes of age sets Severance’s protagonist firmly as a millennial. As Candace and her peers entered the job market a few years after the 2008 economic crash, grew up with the emergence of social media and witnessed movements such as 2013’s Occupy Wall Street Movement – all of which feature in the novel. I believe Ma employs the millennial experience to explore the exploitative effects of capitalism and consumerism; thus highlighting the unsustainability and hypocrisy that millennials inevitably cooperate in and contribute to. Even Candace, who at the request of Spectra, places an order for the production of Gemstone Bibles in a Chinese factory, knowing that the production of which will cause factory workers to contract pneumoconiosis. Candace denies responsibility; “I was just doing my job.” (Ma 151) Like the fevered, Candace is absolved of any responsibility or agency as Candace, and the fevered continues to fulfil social and occupational roles mindlessly throughout the apocalypse.

Source: FSG

The link between Zombies and critiques of capitalism and consumerism are well-researched and long-established. With the zombies acting as “vehicles for the expression of the every-accelerating viral nature of capitalism,” the spread of infection which is facilitated “in an increasingly integrated world… which in turn brings about a crisis in capitalism.” (Boluk & Lenz 127)

Ling Ma recognises zombies as a convention of post-apocalyptic writing and even cites the 1978 film, Dawn of the Dead, as influential to Severance in an interview with Madeline Day. One can easily draw parallels between the two. Wherein, a group of survivors, take shelter in a mall and fight off a hoard of zombies, similar to how Severance’s band of survivors move into the repurposed mall, ‘The Facility’. Like the Dawn of the Dead’s zombie’s, the group’s self-appointed leader Bob roams around the rows of familiar shops aimlessly and mindlessly, as he eventually becomes fevered. Both the ‘others’ and the fevered are meant to comment on mindless consumerism in America. However, Romero’s traditional zombies are literal monsters of destructive consuming power. Their ferocity and appetite diagnose and satirise the consumerism associated with the 1970s. Whereas Ma’s fevered do not actively consume, rather they waste away, passively trapped in routines of production, productiveness, or like Bob – who will continue to engage mindlessly in the ambience of consumerism until he passes away and disintegrates.

Skip to 0:26 – 0:57 for the most relevant snippet to draw comparisons to the fevered in Severance.
Source: (Romero)

“Life under advanced capitalism appears as an endless waste of time (watching television, waiting for the Mail).  In response to the depredations of modernity, the apocalypse offers two solutions in one. First, having eradicated all the things we used to do with our time, it shows us how much time we’ve been wasting; and, second, having exposed us to the hard truth of ‘how many hours are in a day,’ it gives us something better to do to fill all those hours – the real work of survival.”

(Martin 167)

The “advanced capitalism” or rather late-stage capitalism of the 2010s, leaves the fevered trapped in the acts of “meaningless activities” as outlined by Martin (167). The only way to break the chain of capitalism in Severance, as in other post-apocalyptic works, is to eradicate the means of our current production and consumption that are symptomatic of consumerism. Therefore, Candace abandons her attempts to placate through her job and is forced to flee New York, then the Facility in the pursuit of surviving and starting over through the birth of her daughter, Luna. Candace must now complete “the real work of survival,” outside of capitalism and alone (Martin 167). Whereas the fevered remain trapped in the memories of the occupations and vocations of advanced capitalism. In a way, fulfilling Ruifang’s (Candace’s mother) dreams of escaping to Chicago and starting afresh with Candace alone, matured but world-weary. Thus, completing the narrative arch that is also typical of a bildungsroman.

Sources Used

Primary Texts

Ma, Ling. Severance. Text Publishing Melbourne Australia, 2018.

Secondary Texts

Boluk, Stephanie, and Wylie Lenz. “Infection, Media, And Capitalism: From Early Modern Plagues To Postmodern Zombies”. Journal For Early Modern Cultural Studies, vol 10, no. 2, 2010, pp. 126-147. Project Muse, doi:10.1353/jem.2011.0001.

Day, Madeline. “Apocalyptic Office Novel: An Interview With Ling Ma”. The Paris Review, 2018, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/08/22/apocalyptic-office-novel-an-interview-with-ling-ma/.

Martin, Theodore Jacob. Contemporary Drift. Columbia University Press, 2011, pp. 161-168.

Images

FSG Work in Progress. Severance: Times Square Face Mask. 2018, https://fsgworkinprogress.com/2018/08/24/severance-2/. Accessed 17 Nov 2020.

McKhann, Emma. Severance Cover. 2018, https://aux.avclub.com/in-the-zombie-apocalypse-of-ling-ma-s-severance-the-re-1828173796. Accessed 17 Nov 2020.

Films

Romero, George A. Dawn Of The Dead. United Film Distribution Company, 1978.

‘Thoughts on Severance’ by Laura Curry

I found the novel Severance to be a profoundly thought-provoking novel. I believe it metaphorically holds a mirror up for the reader to reconsider their own lives and possibly their own mundane routines. I regard this post-apocalyptic novel compelling and stimulating. The structure of the novel adds to the novels intrigue. The flipping back and forth of the chronological timeline makes you want to keep reading. The narrative connects satisfactorily like a literary jigsaw puzzle. The more I read through each upcoming chapter the more the elements of the story came together.

I believe Severance by Ling Ma is aptly named as it is a novel about the tearing apart of society. The Shen Fever pandemic rips apart everyday life as people become ‘fevered’ or are forced to flee main cities. I see Severance as painting a picture of what an apocalyptic future might hold. The victims of the fever in Ma’s novel are doomed to repeat their last actions indefinitely. Trapped in an endless cycle of repetition. This could be a critic by the author of modern life and how mundane and dull it can be. We are almost fevered by the routine of daily life.

“Shen fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories. But what’s the difference between the fevered and us? … And our days, like theirs, continue in an infinite loop.”

The novel exposes the problems in modern society and predicts we will be the cause of our own destruction. The fevered people are trapped in a continuous loop and this is not unlike how people hold onto routines in modern society.

The fact that the main character, Candace, is assigned to work in the manufacturing and distribution of bibles – I believe this directly relates to the apocalyptic theme of the novel. Global capitalism is deeply criticised with this novel. The idea that people were working in terrible conditions trying to produce these ‘gemstone’ bibles is ironic. Surely the Christian thing would be to not have these people in such terrible working conditions.  I think the bible verse that Candance picks randomly from the bible is relevant and foreshadows what the rest of the book holds

“And David said unto God, I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the Lord: for his mercies are great: and let me not fall unto the hand of man.”

It is an apt verse to fall across as it describes mankind’s desperation in terrible situations.

Candace is so trapped in routine of contemporary life she refuses to leave New York when her boyfriend Jonathan asks her to. More intensely however, she declines to leave the city after it becomes a ghost town when Shen Fever has wiped out most of the population and any survivors have fled.

The fact that the main character Candace is pregnant brings an element of hope to the backdrop of the apocalyptic theme. She is imprisoned by her fellow survivors for what they believe is for her safely I found infuriating. The idea that the leader of the group is playing God is somehow of great annoyance to me and I am clinging onto any hope that Candace might escape.

The element of Shen Fever in this novel made me explicitly contemplate our own situation. We are living through a pandemic which is not unlike the one explored in this novel. Although apocalyptic literature is not a new genre, it is an interesting coincidence that this novel was written and published so close to a real global pandemic.  

The gradual rolling in of the Shen Fever until it began to disrupt everyday life and silently became a global contagion eerily reflects corona virus in todays society. Our very real pandemic creeped into our lives gradually until it became the very focus on all our minds. I found it unnerving the sheer similarities between this post-apocalyptic book and todays pandemic. There is an interesting coincidence incredibly visible in the novel.  The Shen Fever described in the novel has effectively foreshadowed our own Corona virus global pandemic.

Candace’s NY Ghost blog is relevant in such as that is what New York itself has become.

I think it is a clever allegory depicting the way we live our modern lives.

Severance has opened my eyes to what humans are capable of doing during desperate times. “It’s the humane thing to do, Genevieve replied. Rather than have them cycle through the same routines, during which they degenerate, we put them out of their misery right away.”

They murder their fellow humans who have been ‘fevered’ and I’m not sure how I feel about this morally.

A close up of an old building

Description automatically generated

This novel was a very enjoyable read. It was also unnerving as it is an apocalyptic fiction.

The ending of this novel made left me wanting more. The final line, “I get out and start walking” – makes me think of endless possible outcomes to Candance’s story. I am left wondering about her unborn child Luna and how they both could possible survive a post-apocalyptic world.

“A second chance doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. In many ways, it is the more difficult thing. Because a second chance means that you have to try harder.”

A person taking a selfie

Description automatically generated

Bibliography:

Primary Text

Ma, L. (2018) Severance. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Secondary Texts

Kelly, H. (2020) ‘Severance​ Predicted the Slow-Burn Performance of Our Pandemic’, [Online] Available at: https://www.vulture.com/2020/03/severance-ling-ma-coronavirus-pandemic.html  (Assessed: 15th November 2020).

Hu, J. (2020) ‘‘Severance’ Is the Novel of Our Current Moment—but Not for the Reasons You Think’, [Online] Available at: https://www.theringer.com/2020/3/18/21184516/severance-coronavirus-book-ling-ma (Assessed: 15th November 2020).

Fan, J. (2018) ‘Ling Ma’s “Severance” Captures the Bleak, Fatalistic Mood of 2018’, [Online] Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/ling-ma-severance-captures-the-bleak-fatalistic-mood-of-2018 (Assessed: 15th November 2020)

Women Workers and Neoliberalism in Natsuo Kirino’s Out.

Natsuo Kirino’s Out is a subversive crime novel where the killer and abettors are the protagonists and the ‘detective’ who investigates their crimes is the novel’s antagonist. What arguably makes Out more unique is that the perpetrators are marginalised, female temporary workers. Out has been described as a work of “neoliberal noir” (Breu, 43), distinct from the traditional American noir fiction of the 1940s and 50s but still maintaining the genre’s core of “money, sex and revenge” (Crouch, 2010). While the novel is a refreshingly subversive and entertaining crime thriller, Kirino also highlights the difficulties faced by Japanese women in their neoliberal society.

Each of the female protagonists work the nightshift at a bento box factory; a “casualised workspace, defined by declining wage” and that is “central to the neoliberal city” (Breu, 44). The eerie, atmospheric scenes that are synonymous with traditional noir merge with the banality of the characters’ workplace. The layout of the factory creates a “sinister” (Kirino, 2) atmosphere and has the tangible effect of making its workers vulnerable to assault. Several part time workers report being “pulled into the shadows and assaulted before barely escaping; so the company had just issued a warning that the women should walk in groups” (2). The bathos of the management’s response to quite a serious danger for their employees highlights how the women and immigrant workers are neglected and marginalised within the company and neoliberal society as a whole. This underreaction to the women’s personal safety is juxtaposed to the fastidious rules and procedures required to enter the factory. The workers’ hands are “scrubbed raw” and inspected numerous times for “the smallest scratch on a finger” (8) which would make them ineligible to work and be paid. The work itself is in “icy” (8) conditions and physically painful as “the half-stooping position made it hard on the back” (11) and it is often a two hour wait to go to the bathroom (11).  It is therefore clear that the company is wholly concerned with the experience of the consumers, and therefore with profit, often to the detriment of those in production.

Japan Video Topics- English (YouTube) 2016

The critic, Breu, makes the interesting suggestion that the callousness of the factory’s conditions enable the protagonists to later commit such extreme criminal acts (44). Various elements of the factory merge into the women’s crimes. Masako uses gloves she takes from the factory to dismember Kenji’s body (96) and Yoshie’s initial revulsion is pacified by how “it had become a job” and she takes charge “as if she were directing operations from her place at the head of the assembly line” (99). Yayoi even makes the suggestion that they could add Kenji’s body to the factory’s meat saying “they’d never figure out who it was” (77). Another critic suggests that the “stultifying dullness of their lives” provides an anaesthetising effect from the gruesomeness (Smith, 2004). Masako detaches herself from the horrific task by thinking of it as “one more unpleasant job” (Kirino, 80) and the body itself “was a human being, but now it’s an object. That’s how I’ve decided to see it” (95). Her view of the body is reminiscent of the depersonalising and objectifying nature of her work, apart from the four named protagonists, the other women on the line are anonymised as “the workers” (9).

The company’s abdication of responsibility to their workers and instead suggesting they stay “in groups” also signifies the necessity of a sense of alliance and cooperation amongst the women workers. Masako looks out for Yayoi, having “adopted the role of her protector” (6) and Yayoi similarly helps the struggling new worker with her boxes despite “being hardly able to handle her own” (11). This solidarity is self-preserving as it is the only way to do the work “without ruining your health” (11). Interestingly, for characters such as Yoshie, the factory is where she has a sense of status as the “Skipper”, a title given to her by the other workers “out of grudging respect” (3). Her preferred position “at the head of the line”, makes her the “linchpin of the whole process” who sets the pace for everyone else (9). Her status as ‘Skipper’ is “her one source of pride” but she recognises it as a superficial “role” (28) which allows her to take “everything personal” and put it “somewhere far out of sight” (28). Breu makes the pessimistic point that the workers’ cooperation and care for each other ultimately benefits the company as it ensures they meet the “expectations for productivity” (45). While Yoshie’s skill at the job is appreciated and recognised by her peers, she is not recognised or rewarded by the company she benefits and is exploited by. Her necessity as a “linchpin” alludes to her being simply a part of the factory’s machinery and her trading her self-regard for her tenuous status as ‘Skipper’ “ties her identity more fully to this exploitative work” (Breu, 47).

April Magazine, 2016

 I find the novel’s denouement to be very unsatisfactory after such a strong economic and feminist critique. Masako’s mourning and expressions of affinity to Satake seem utterly bizarre and are made stranger knowing that she is aware he has murdered Kuniko and forcefully taken Yayoi’s money. The concluding chapters of Out seem to show that the previous sense of solidarity from the factory has unravelled completely between the protagonists. If the dissolve of the alliance started with Kuniko betraying the group to Jumonji to have her debts cancelled then it concludes with Masako escaping with the insurance money that Satake extorted from Yayoi. Perhaps this reveals that Masako has internalised and realised the benefit of the neoliberal values of individualised gain and “winners and losers” (Monbiot, 2016) that she had previously been a victim to, making herself a winner but making losers of her friends. The novel ends with Masako deciding to claim all of the profit from their criminality and seeking “her own” freedom not “Yayoi’s, or Yoshie’s” (520), matching the denouements of traditional noir fictions with “no heroes and no happy endings” (Crouch, 2010).

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Natsuo, Kirino. Out. Translated by Stephen Snyder. Vintage, 2004.

Secondary Sources

Breu, Christopher. ‘Work and Death in the Global City: Natsuo Kirino’s Out as Neoliberal Noir’. Globalization and the State in Contemporary Crime Fiction: A World of Crime. Ed. Andrew Pepper and David Schmid. London: Palgrave, 2016.

Crouch, Ian. “Noir Fiction: Money, Sex, and Revenge.” The New Yorker. 5 October 2010. Web. Accessed 1 November 2020.

Monbiot, George. “Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems.” The Guardian. 15 April 2016. Web. Accessed 1 November 2020.

Smith, Joan. “Out by Natsuo Kirino, trans. Stephen Snyder.” The Independent. 22 October 2004. Web. Accessed 1 November 2020.

The Omnipresent Class Oppressor: Odour in Natsuo Kirino’s OUT

Odour is oppressive. It becomes a definite presence which Kirino uses to establish a sense of socioeconomic longing and Out’s putrid smells often define its characters against the backdrop of neoliberalist Japan. Focusing on four female workers at a lunchbox factory, Kirino concerns herself with themes of feminist economic critique; the murder and disposal of Yayoi’s husband Kenji becomes a ‘job’ in need of its own specialised workforce. This ‘job’, with its own descriptive scenes of smells and odours, results in an underground business which the women then use as a means to escape their respective disadvantaged backgrounds. Therefore, as noir, the novel tackles the inimical affect neoliberalism has had on the women and the moral ambiguity of their actions as a result. I, however, would argue that odour is central to Kirino’s imagery and critique, each description of odour coded with socioeconomic and moral underpinnings. 

Out opens with a reflection on odour. Kirino introduces Masako and her situation with smell, which we are to understand as a clear determiner of class and classist structures;

“She could smell the faint odour of deep-fried food, the odour of the lunchbox factory where she was going to work. ‘I want to go home.’ The moment the smell hit her, the words came into her head”. 

Kirino, 1

The smell of the factory instigates a sensory reaction to the physical labour Masako endures during each shift and as Kolnai observes, “the objects of smell are within sufficient proximity to threaten and revolt” (15). The psychological weight of this association between smell and threat becomes clear as Masako realises that she routinely lights a cigarette in an attempt to cover the smell of the factory. Consequently, the odour emanating from the factory becomes intrusive due to its association with Masako’s gruelling labour. Kirino of course goes further, smell and its association with capital – the factory, the workforce etc, becomes intertwined with Masako’s assertion that the job of body disposal was little different to “the one they did at the factory” (368). Moreover, as the women continue the dark and seedy business of body disposal, it is the repetition of completing this ‘job’ which makes dealing with the odour easier; 

“As the work progressed […] the air was filled with a foul stench from the entrails, just as had happened with Kenji; but in the same way that the work seemed easier this time, the horror associated with it was somehow less acute”. 

Kirino, 369.

By mirroring the above description with the vivid odour of the lunchbox factory, it is interesting to note that Masako feels no urge to cover the body’s stench in the same way she does before each graveyard shift at the factory. Moreover, the smell associated with Yoshie’s disadvantaged economic background is what ultimately aids in her defence upon being questioned by a detective; “he was assailed by a powerful smell of excrement […] there was something indecent in suspecting a woman who spent her nights at work and then came home to that” (273, 275). I believe that the description of odour is key to Kirino’s feminist critique. The thanatopolitics of capitalistic society becomes subverted as the women’s self-negation is transformed into assertiveness, odour is manipulated to their advantage, and the authority they have in their resulting labour becomes less ‘acute’. 

Smell, and reactions to smell, reflect a deep-seated cultural disregard for the poor as a systemic calculation of othering through class structures. As Fjellestad delineates, “since odours are invested with cultural values, their cultural coding suggests models for marking and interpreting others as Others” (650). Certainly, there are similarities in the employment of smell to distinguish class between Kirino’s Out and Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite. Set in modern-day Seoul, the film depicts the lower-class Kim family as they scheme their way into jobs working for the upper-class Parks. Odour, as a symbol of status, is central to the film’s twist as it threatens to expose the Kims’ deceit. As Bong himself notes, “Smell really reflects your life. It shows if you’re struggling [and] what kind of work you do”. This notion is consequently reflected upon by the Park’s young son Da-Song, who notices that the family’s driver, housekeeper, and his art therapist all “smell the same”.

There are clear parallels between Out and Parasites’ sensational use of smell, particularly in relation to how smell and class structures interact. Putrid smells become an association of labour and capital, and thus the women of Out are able to complete their grotesque work by familiarising and aligning these odours with such. Following a desire to escape ‘social death’, which Breu defines as being “on the losing sides of the neoliberal and gendered cultural divide” (50); the capitalist rhetoric ensures that the disposals are treated as “a start-up business” with each “unit” a means of escaping the very divide which seeks to oppress them (333, 335). Similarly, as the Kim family wade through sewage water after a flood in an attempt to salvage their few belongings, they are seemingly unaffected by the smell. The patriarch of the wealthy Park’s however becomes distracted by the unpleasant odour of a lower-class man during his own life-threatening situation. Therefore, the inability/ability to detect and react to odour becomes central to Kirino’s and Joon-ho’s socioeconomic critique.

Smell becomes a serial instigator of the deadly events throughout Out and Parasite. Mr. Park’s ultimate murder by Mr. Kim comes in retaliation to Park’s verbal and physical reactions to Kim’s “old radish” smell. 

Bong further elaborates on the sense of smell in relation to Parasite, “by talking about different smells, the film puts the class issue under the microscope. Through smells, the film’s tension and suspense mount, which eventually makes a multi-layered foundation for the upcoming tragedy.” Smell is, admittedly, an unusual topic of class othering in literature and film but ultimately I agree with Kirino and Joon-ho, the intimate, albeit threatening, issue of smell creates a socioeconomic tension; a separation and alienation between the rich and poor from which there is no escape.

Primary Sources 

Natsuo, Kirino. Out. Translated by Stephen Snyder. Vintage, 2004.

Parasite. Dir. Bong Joon-ho. CJ Entertainment, 2019. DVD.

Secondary Sources  

Breu, Christopher. ‘Work and Death in the Global City: Natsuo Kirino’s Out as Neoliberal Noir’. Globalization and the State in Contemporary Crime Fiction: A World of Crime. Ed. Andrew Pepper and David Schmid. London: Palgrave, 2016.

Fjellestad, Danuta. ‘Toward an Aesthetics of Smell, or, the Foul and the Fragrant in Contemporary Literature’. CAUCE Revista de Filología y Didáctica, 24 (2001), 637- 651.

Jenny Nulf, Fri. Upstairs, Downstairs: The Metaphors of Parasite. 2019, www.austinchronicle.com/screens/2019-11-01/upstairs-downstairs-the-metaphors-of-parasite/. Accessed 28 October. 2020. Web. 

Jin-hai, Park. “Body Odor Class Gap Guided Bong Joon-Ho’s ‘Parasite’.” Koreatimes, The Korea Times , 29 May 2019, www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/art/2019/06/689_269700.html. Accessed 28 October. 2020. Web. 

Kolnai, Aurel. On Disgust. USA: Open Court Publishing, 2004. 

The Black Body and The Dream in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.

Amber Pollock

Between the World and Me portrays Coates’s struggle through life in his black body. He presents this journey in the form of a deeply emotional memoir to his son. Coates begs the teenager to not excuse America for the atrocities it has committed against black bodies and to remain both vulnerable and sceptical of white America as he endeavours on his own journey in his black body. The deep-rooted fear that Coates feels not only for his own body and for his sons, but also for all the black bodies in America radiates from the text: 

“Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream…”

(Coates, 2015, p29).

We have all heard of the American Dream. It is a national ethos of the United States promoting the idea that hard work and perseverance will bring all Americans the freedom to be successful. Coates is directly debunking this dream as myth and replaces it with the White Dream: a fantasy that enables white Americans to believe that they are living in a post-racist world. Coates describes the Dream as “perfect houses with nice lawns” (Coates, 2015, p11) and as being a world that he wishes he could escape to. But the Dream does not have a place for the black body even though it was black bodies that made the Dream possible for white people. This constructed Dream removes any negative feelings of white guilt or responsibility; Consequently, it complacently allows the continuation of the destruction of the black body.

What triggered Coates to produce a narrative of protest when he did? At the time he was writing there were several violent assaults on African Americans at the hands of those who ironically, are employed to protect them (Williams, 2016, 151). Coates exposes the American police force by listing examples of police brutality on the black body. He begins with Eric Garner, then Renisha McBride, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and finishes with Marlene Pinnock. Coates then warns his son that “the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body… The destroyers will rarely be held accountable” (Coates, 2015, p9). His defiant criticism of the Dream which ignores police brutality and protects white supremacy is unapologetic. Simultaneously, Coates exhibits a detailed history of the atrocities of the slave trade leading Abramoqitsch (2017, p464) to note that “Between the World is a kind of mixtape of violence”. I interpret this placement to force a comparison between slave owners, traders, and catchers with 21st – century American police officers. Both were given the power to harm or destroy the black body as they please. Coates is reminding his audience that the horrors of the past are very much still lingering in the present. Violence against the black body is an established part of American society (Williams, 2016, p151).

Image 2: The Black Lives Matter banner.

Between the World and Me does not provide the resolute ending that the reader naively hopes for. Coates does not answer the critical questions on black lives which he asks throughout the book and he does not offer a solution to the systemic racism that engulfs America (Williams, 2016, p181). In the closing lines of the memoir, Coates’s tone is despairing as he speaks directly to his son: ‘I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves’ (Coates, 2015, p151). This tone mirrors Coates’s expression of feeling disheartened and hopeless at the beginning of the book when describing his conversation with a white television host. The host’s response to his attempt to explain the history of American institutionalised racism causes him to feel “an old and indistinct sadness” (Coates, 2015, p6). He realises that all of his attempts to make white America empathise with the black body are at a loss.  Ultimately, although Between the World and Me is primarily directed to his son, Abramoqitsch (2017, p456) agrees that the secondary audience is white Americans living in the Dream. As Williams (2016, p182) notes “Black people know the horrors being narrated. Therefore, as a public text the default reader beyond young Samori is white people”. Coates is making a final appeal to white America to remove themselves from the Dream and to look directly at the reality of the abuse of the black body. The only hope of a positive change is in the hands of those who caused the destruction in the first place.

Coates looks back to the Civil Rights Movement with disappointment at the lack of progress that has been made since then. Looking forwards from the publishing of Between the World and Me, I struggle to not imagine the pain and helplessness that Coates must be feeling as violent attacks on the black body resume. The murder of George Floyd by the white police officer, Derek Chauvin, triggered a series of national protests around America. Floyd was killed for using a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. This unjust killing is now grouped with others such as Eric Garner who Coates informs was “choked to death for selling cigarettes” (Coates, 2015, p9). The formation of the Black Lives Matter movement which has an international reception appears to be a step in the right direction to remove systemic anti-black racism from America. However, as Pierce (2020, p261) notes “Somewhat predictably… it [the movement] provoked a reactionary response, insisting on the alternative slogan “all lives matter”’. This indicates that the white Dream is still prevalent with ‘All lives matter’ supporters fundamentally denying the existence of oppression of the black body.

Bibliography:

Primary Text:

Coates, T. (2015) Between the World and Me, London: The Text Publishing Company.

Secondary Texts:

Abramowitsch, S. (2017) ‘Addressing blackness, dreaming whiteness: negotiating 21st-century race and readership in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me’, CLA Journal, 60(4), pp. 464-456 [Online]. Available at: https://eds-a-ebscohost-com.liverpool.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=109b5bd9-e883-4114-9694-6e58c809bd99%40sdc-v-sessmgr02 (Accessed: 20th September 2020).

Pierce, Andrew J. (2020) ‘Whose Lives Matter? The Black Lives Matter Movement and the Contested Legacy of Philosophical Humanism ‘, Journal of Social Philosophy, 51(2), pp. 261 [Online]. Available at: https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.liverpool.idm.oclc.org/doi/full/10.1111/josp.12305 (Accessed: 20th October 2020).

Williams, D. A. (2016) ‘Everybody’s protest narrative: ‘Between the World and Me’ and the limits of genre’, African American Review, 49(3), pp. 151-182 [Online]. Available at: https://eds-b-ebscohost-com.liverpool.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=5ee2e7e9-e549-42f0-8dba-b06530b2d833%40sessionmgr103 (Accessed: 20th October 2020).

Black Bodies/ White Spaces: Invisibility and Hypervisibility in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen consists of a series of aggressions against the Black body; both microaggressions and the macro. Microaggression, as I am using the term here, does not earn the prefix ‘micro’ because of their (lack of) impact or significance, but rather because of the frequency and environments that they happen in; occurring often, in passing, in any number of interpersonal situations.

Whilst the microaggressions of Citizen all navigate language and emotional response or bodily effect, most also deal with the collision of Black bodies in white spaces; in a predominantly white Catholic school, outside a therapist’s office, or in the world of elite tennis. In these racialised spaces the Black body may become invisible and/or hypervisible. At school, the speaker becomes invisible; “Sister Evelyn must think these two think a lot alike or she cares less about cheating and more about humiliation or she never actually saw you sitting there.” (Rankine, 2015, p.6). This manifests again in “the “all black people look the same” moment”, and again in the most literal sense in a shop, 

Oh my God I didn’t see you.


You must be in a hurry, you offer.


No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.

(Ibid. p.7, p.77)

These moments of invisibility and hypervisibility are all mediated by the white gaze, how the white subject views (or doesn’t view) the Black object. George Yancy (2016, p.xxxiii) outlines that “[w]ithin the context of white racist America, whites inherited the privileged status of being the “lookers” and gazers, with all the power that this entailed.” White people adopt the status of the gazer, and inflict assumptions upon the black subject, assumptions that are intrinsically caught up in the history of America, and the history of slavery (Ibid. p.3). We see these assumptions played out in Citizen as Piers Morgan informs Serena Williams that yes, she does look “like a gangster to him” (Rankine, 2015, p.34). This is a history that is figured into the construction of the Black body and of white spaces.

American concepts of race can be considered as oppositional. Rankine, quoting Frantz Fanon, reminds us that “It is the White Man who creates the black man.” (Ibid. p.128). The Black, African, slave body, is one that has been possessed, objectified and displaced and Hume (2016) highlights that under these conditions, the connection to the land is a violent one, because “America as we know it is constructed out of the instumentalization of and violence against black bodies.” (Hume, 2016, p.96). She continues; 

Rankine suggests that… the effects of discrimination accumulate in the body. History is like a tumour or a tree with roots and limbs, one that continues to grow and spread… African Americans cannot see nature without also seeing a history of incarceration and violence.

(Ibid, p.99)

Under these conditions, in which the trauma and memory of instututional racism remain present in the body throughout generation, then all space in America is subject to become racialised, and all public space may be considered white space, claimed through colonial genocide and made profitable and prosperous through the labour and violent subjugation of Black bodies. 

Image 1 and 2: Rankine, 2015, pp.52-53

Rankine, in this hybridised lyric form, employs visual imagery and artwork. This piece, by Glenn Ligon, repeats a quote from Zora Neale Hurston “I do not always feel colored. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” highlighting this concern of hypervisibility in white spaces. When defined in opposition, it is that very difference that draws attention to the Black body. Mary-Jean Chan (2018, p.148) suggests that Rankine is calling “attention to the materiality of black bodies,” here, and I see this exemplified by the repetition of this statement in this piece. The words become increasingly unclear and ill-defined as they become less distinct against their background, they become camouflaged among the black. This piece both brings to the forefront the affective qualities of race and the racialised, and also how Blackness and ‘colored-ness’ is constructed and reconstructed in white spaces, rendering the Black body hypervisible. 

This hypervisibility can be experienced from both the white gazer and the Black body turned subject as the Black body is “othered” by and in white spaces (Yancy, 2016). The Black body can be rendered hypervisible and invisible simultaneously in racialised space; 

And you are not the guy and you still fit the description because there is always one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.

(Rankine, 2015, p.108)

Here, Black men end up a monolith, indistinguishable from one another, their individuality and personhood made invisible in the view of the state. Concurrently, they are made hypervisible, targeted and brutalised by the state who can only ever view them as threats, through “white ontological assumptions about Black bodies,” (Yancy, 2016, p.3). Their existence in the white space becomes unsafe under the white gaze.

Image 3: Rankine, 2015, p.91

Hypervisibility can also transform the Black body into spectacle. Rankine subverts this using an edited photo, removing the Black corpses, redirecting the gaze onto the white spectators.  This is an important contemporary distinction when increasingly images of collective Black mourning and remembrance are turned into “a spectacle for white pornography”; pictures and videos of Black bodies brutalised at the hands of the state are readily available and easily shared (Rankine, 2016, p.149). This voyeurism once again transforms the Black body into subject. Under the continued racial trauma, living alongside the trauma inherited, inherent to Black living, Black personhood, citizenship and humanness are also pulled into question. This is only disorientated further when we look beyond the physicality of the Black body, with Fred Moten (2008) characterising blackness as a location and Rankine (2016, p.146), in a later work, suggests that there is, in fact, “no living while black.”. The bodily remains only one small aspect of the ‘citizen’  at the centre of this work; theorising and conceptualising the whole Black personhood is a much more complex task.

Bibliography

Chan, M.J. (2018) Towards a Poetics of Racial Trauma: Lyric Hybridity in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Journal of American Studies, 52(1), pp.137-163. 

Harney, S. and Moten, F. (2013) The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions.

Hume, A. (2016) Toward an Antiracist Ecopoetics: Waste and Wasting in the Poetry of Claudia Rankine. Contemporary Literature, 57(1), pp.79-110. Available at: doi:10.3368/cl.57.1.79 [Accessed 19 October 2020]

Moten, F. (2008) The Case of Blackness. Criticism, 50(2), pp.177-218. 

Rankine, C. (2015) Citizen. London: Penguin Books.

Rankine, C. (2016). The Condition Of Black Life Is One Of Mourning. In: J. Ward, ed. The Fire This Time. New York: Scribner. pp. 145-155.

Sharma, M. (2014) ‘On Blackness as the Second Person’ Guernica. 17 November. Available at: https://www.guernicamag.com/blackness-as-the-second-person/ [Accessed 19 October 2020]

Yancy, G. (2016) Black Bodies, White Gazes : The Continuing Significance of Race in America. Lanhan: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Images

Image 1 and 2:
(Rankine, 2015, pp. 52-53)
Ligon, G. (1992) Two of four etchings. In: Untitled: Four Etchings, Available at: https://mcachicago.org/Collection/Items/1992/Glenn-Ligon-Untitled-1992 [Accessed 19 October 2020]

Image 3:
(Rankine, 2015, p.91)
Lucas, J. after Beitler, L. (1930) Public Lynching . Hulton Archives. 30 August. Available at: https://www.oxfordamerican.org/magazine/item/1813-great-american-press-release [Accessed 19 October 2020]