English 645: Studies in the Novel

Postmodern Fiction and Information Culture

Prof. Joseph Conte

Fall 2006

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One defining aspect of postmodernism has been the paradigm shift from print to digital culture, from the text as bound codex to the various emanations of electronic media.  Enthusiasts of this shift in media culture have dubbed our present condition the “late age of print,” while others speak more generally of a transition from an industrial to an information age.   Yet a complex dynamics of incommensurability arises in periods of technological overlap, in which the competing values and practices of the two cultures of print and digital media coexist.  Print culture retains an order that is linear, syntactic, privately accessed, and static; and electronic culture is nonlinear in transmission and organization, interconnected through various channels, publicly accessed, and quicksilver in its delivery.  As a result, many works and their “delivery systems” display signs of cross-purposing and redundancy:  the presence of textual and graphical hyperlinks in web browsers; multiple media formats for works previously classified as either “books” or “films;” and full-text CD-ROM scholarly editions of classic works of literature interconnected with archival manuscripts, historical and critical source materials.  Rather than lament the decline of five-hundred years of print technology and an attendant erosion of readerly skills, or applaud the conversion to incipient data forms and their promiscuous linking, one may regard this transitional phase between a print and an electronic order as an unprecedented opportunity to study the art of fiction and the postmodern subject as each undergoes a cognitive restructuring in which vestigial skills of information acquisition and production are gradually exchanged for inventive ones.

During the seminar, we’ll read the work of postmodern novelists who, though still bound to the print order, are provocatively engaged with the terms and conditions of the information age, and who invoke the cascade of associative thought that characterizes the experience of digital media and the Internet.  Where applicable we’ll examine their involvement in digital, film, and other media projects, and visit the scholarly web pages and popular discussion lists that make these novelists the subject of considerable online activity.  Our readings will include a selection of cyberpunk fiction, such as the twentieth-anniversary edition of William Gibson’s Neuromancer; and his Pattern Recognition, which delves into the post-Cold War world of multinational corporate communications.  Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash features a Hiro Protagonist whose digital avatar pursues a virus capable of infecting the cerebral cortex.  In Don DeLillo’s White Noise, the residents of a college town are subjected to the superabundance of information, the pervasive penetration of waves and radiation, and a toxic cloud from a chemical accident.  In Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2, the “author” combines forces with a cognitive neurologist whose project is to model the human brain by means of a computer-based neural network; in his Plowing the Dark, parallel plots relate the sensory deprivation of a hostage in an empty room in Beirut and the efforts of a Seattle-based group to project a virtual reality on the blank walls of “the Cavern.”  Readings are, of course, subject to change without notice, based on availability; no refunds or rainchecks.

As a complement to these works of fiction, the seminar will alternate its attentions with selections from a variety of critical and theoretical texts on the information age and electronic media, possibly including Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext:  Perspective on Ergodic Literature, Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies, Robert Coover’s “The End of Books,” Jane Yellowlees Douglas’s The End of Books, Peter Freese and Charles B. Harris, ed. The Holodeck in the Garden:  Science and Technology in Contemporary American Fiction, N. Katherine Hayles’s Writing Machines, and My Mother was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts, Friedrich Kittler’s Gramaphone, Film, Typewriter, Michael Joyce’s Of Two Minds:  Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics, George Landow’s Hypertext 2.0:  The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck:  The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, William Paulson’s The Noise of Culture:  Literary Texts in a World of Information, Mark Poster’s What’s the Matter with the Internet?, Joseph Tabbi’s Cognitive Fictions, and Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb

Seminar participants who are registered intensively will be required to make a twenty-minute oral presentation and produce a twenty-page research paper.


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Last revised on Monday, 28 August 2006.

Copyright 2006  Joseph M. Conte.  All Rights Reserved.