Bad Novels, like Good Novels, change nothing

In the Guardian interview Hannah helpfully linked us to, Kobek professes awareness of his limitations: “Every era has its unanswerable questions, so maybe the thing to do, which is what I did in the book, is just to acknowledge the inherent hypocrisy of it all. Though maybe that’s an easy dodge.” I’m trying to think about the Guardian’s criticism, which I think is in line with issues made by my fellow posters this week, and Kobek’s self-awareness about taking an easy way out, which is akin to stating “this is a bad novel,” in terms of how Bellamy and Killen describe the New Narrative movement. Specifically, I’m thinking of Camille Roy’s belief that she could suddenly “engage critically with my whole life in writing” (v) and of the writers’ concluding conviction that New Narrative “presaged the fragmentation, the information overload, the frenetic bleed of emotions, and the general mess of the digital era. The writing was anticipating a new era of multivalence, a new concept of the very boundaries of selfhood, and when the new era finally arrived, we had in some mystical fashion midwived it” (xx).  Contrasting Kobek’s professed self-awareness of his limitations with the New Narrativists’ naïve (?) earlier conviction that they might be on the cusp of something groundbreaking I wonder why we expect that I Hate the Internet might be able to achieve anything at all. Moreover, what does it mean if it can’t? Mike McGurl reminds us that, even in the Internet age, the phenomenologies of reading and web browsing remain distinct. Is it not the surprising, then, that a print book about the Internet can tell us nothing about how better to use the Internet?
The Wikipedia page, which I feel comfortable citing for this kind of subject matter, states that I Hate the Internet “is presented as a non-linear narrative with tangential commentary on real-world people and events, as well as the story of Adeline and her friends.” I’m quoting Wikipedia because someone—presumably a fan of the novel, if not Kobek himself—was so impressed by Kobek’s distortion of the timeline (reminiscent of the New Narrativists’ mistrust of absolute narrative and preference for modernist stylistic strategies, p. ix) that they saw fit to commit it to the novel’s encyclopedia entry. What strikes me most about the particular non-linearity here, though, is that the novel ends up exactly where it starts: Adeline, on the side of the street on the cusp of 2014, being called a “Drp slut” on Twitter. In order to explain the relevance of “Drp slut,” Kobek’s narrator turns not to the future, to Adeline response or personal enlightenment at the hands of an Internet commenter, but embarks instead on an exegesis of Adeline’s past. This bad novel, beyond alerting us to our hypocrisies, does nothing to make us “more woke” in the future because it admits no future. Drunk and alone, surrounded by fanboys of 1960s fiction, Adeline does not look so much into the year ahead as she does stare blankly at her phone and dwell firmly on what has transpired in her past.
I’m wondering what concretely the Internet has changed. Our self-consciousness about our own wokeness, perhaps? Or the target of our vitriol? The New York Times Review of Books ran a piece about I Hate the Internet that concluded, “Like all jeremiads, ‘I Hate the Internet’ is far better at posing questions than formulating answers. You will sometimes wish that a woman, or an African American, had composed these acid observations about feminism and race.” New Narrative’s “critical engagement with life in writing” seemed also to be more about questions than answers, especially once the 1990s hit and AIDS made concrete that words cannot materially change the world. From McGurl’s perspective, this (basically) self-published book has done its job if it makes us feel good about having intellectually grappled with the ills of our time (I appreciate Jordan with his marginal yeps). This has, in its own way, been if not pleasing then at least affirming content. The Internet casts a wider net than a bookshop in San Francisco in the 70s, so maybe we’re more sensitive now to specifically a woman or specifically someone with eumelanin in the basal cells of their epidermis raising questions about women or about eumelanin (or maybe pointing out someone’s XY chromosomes or lack of eumelanin makes us feel better about ourselves, either way). And certainly, now we have racism and sexism in the digital realm to engage critically. We’ve moved past in-person bigotry to attack each other at great distances with more anonymity. At its most basic level, though, I wonder if the questions we’re asking I Hate the Internet to solve really do require turning to the past for answers. Kobek traces the histories of the corrupt institutions he’s alerting us to across decades, even centuries. Did the iPhone change everything? Maybe the way we talk about everything, now that the blurred line between public and private, self and social, that New Narrative pointed towards has effectively been crossed.

Perhaps it’s telling that Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy make cameos in Kobek’s novel by creating the space for Adeline to commit her Unforgivable Sin. The Unforgivable Sin is not airing slightly dated, controversial opinions, but only not realizing that you are being recorded when doing so. The conversation hasn’t changed, any more than has the cast of characters. The only difference seems to be that, the lesson of New Narrative learned, we’ve got to reckon now with the new problem of how our technology affects the way we deliver our diatribes.

politically woke, aesthetically broke?

I want to take up Jordan’s suggestion that I Hate the Internet is a pretty typical (and maybe particularly shallow) left critique of internet culture that, unlike most novelistic versions of this critique, refuses “to pretend any longer about the efficacy of the novel.”

I think this is probably right, but I’m not sure we should take Kobek’s disavowal of literary efficacy at his word. Or, at least, we shouldn’t write off the possibility that this disavowal is what’s most political about the novel. The question of “escape” seems to be central to the novel, and it’s worth thinking about what Kobek’s escape hatches might be. McGurl, too, is interested in this question and  puts it specifically in terms of Amazon: “What does [Amazon’s role in literary production] say about the form and function of narrative fiction—about its role in symbolically managing, resisting, or perhaps simply ‘escaping’ the dominant sociopolitical and economic realities of our time?”

Kobek seems invested in escaping the exploitative digital hell he describes, even as his narrator performatively denies one’s ability ever to escape racialized/gendered/classed structures of exploitation. In a now-familiar gambit of the woker-than-thou Left, Kobek’s narrator insists that certain subject positions are all bad all the time and there’s no point trying to salvage them (i.e. “Men are the shit of the world”). This kind of denial (i.e. “I know I’m shitty and will never not be shitty”) is figured here and elsewhere as a kind of disavowal through  acceptance, or maybe expiation through confession, and is now a standard escape strategy in the discursive of game of the internet left, which Kobek disparages as content farming for digital platform owners. 

In a similar move, Kobek’s narrator claims to be writing a “bad novel.” Writing a bad novel is the narrator’s way of escaping the formal conventions of a literary style created by the CIA. Writing a bad novel seems like a viable means of escape precisely because it refuses to see itself as political: “The funding of good novels was based on an abandoned misapprehension that writers, being the apparent creators of culture, had some impact on contemporary international affairs. This was, of course, insane” (200). Kobek, of course, calls into question his commitment to this view by writing a novel that is not really that bad and which is clearly invested in, at a minimum, doing something in the world. Whether or not it succeeds in escaping complicity with capitalism/etc. by disavowing both literary quality and political import, the narrator’s claim to be writing a bad novel becomes metonymic for all compromised attempts to escape oppressive socio-political arrangements.  If everything of aesthetic or political value is already captured, the only truly artistic or political move is to deny that one’s work is artistic or political.  

It’s kind of a cheap trick, but it raises some questions: What does it mean for the refusal of legible aesthetic categories to be a symbol, or an act, of political (or maybe apolitical?) resistance? In a world where art is reduced to content, which is reduced to vehicles for advertisements, why continue to invest aesthetic production with political promise, even if this investment takes the form of a disavowal?  

Ultimately, I think Kobek is solidly ambivalent about the political promise of the satirical novel. That said, the novel presents itself as having been written after the collapse of American empire, so maybe the narrator is speaking to us from a neo-Maoist agrarian collective somewhere in the post-human future. Which would be cool. 

One more thing: I’m interested in how the novel asks us to think about recording and communicating history. The novel presents itself as a record of a past historical moment, intended for an imagined readership of future English speakers familiar enough with American culture to get its jokes, but not to know who, for instance, Lady Gaga was. The book, then, takes on an almost encyclopedic function — stable, definitive, true — that it implicitly opposes to digital media’s form of historical production. On the internet, content is enduring (as Ellen’s tragic story demonstrates), but perfectly incidental to the media apparatus it exists to sustain. Kobek doesn’t reflect much on the media specificity of the book, but the act of writing a book— and devoting, Rand-style, a big chunk of text to putting a super fine point on the book’s already completely unambiguous thesis — suggests some attachment to the form. It also suggests some faith in the ability of words to provoke thought, or, at the very least, do something other than make money for capitalists. McGurl, too, doesn’t totally give up on fiction, even as it he attends to the limitations of a medium that only sort of removes the reader from the time pressures of capitalist production: “If fiction promises to ‘resist’ the real-time regime, we will have to admit up front that it is for the most part a virtual resistance, more compensatory than revolutionary, although not necessarily unimportant on that score” (466).


I think Everything really did Change

Hannah B

I think Jordan’s main point – that I Hate the Internet doesn’t take the fullest step to the efficacy it signals, but does avoid a heartwarming liberal fantasy – is a good one from which to build from.

Kobek’s disdain for traditional narrative – as invoked by the non-chapter chapter also reminded me of the beginning paragraph of Bellamy and Killian’s supplemental piece: “one the New Narrative did was tell and tell and tell without the cheap obscurantism of ‘showing’” (i). Indeed, the narrator of I Hate the Internet is hardly shy to tell. I think about 60% of the novel is the narrator telling recent historical events, often on tangents (which is later acknowledged). This, along with the formatting of the novel, short-snappy paragraphs widely spaced apart, can invoke a sort of twitter scroll. Kobek seems to be trying to not be read as a novel. The text can be skimmed, quite effectively at times (I tried). Much like the collaborative efforts of the New Narrative pointed out in the Bellamy and Kilian article, I do think some of this formatting has value.

What becomes abundantly clear, however, through some the form of the text is how impossible of a task this has become. Jordan notes that Kobek’s focus on language, his sights as “both ‘good novels’ and internet discourse’ is undoubtedly true, but two of his other objects are San Francisco and capitalism (which of course are not autonomous from the previous two). According to this guardian article ( Kobek was forced out of San Francisco due to the forces of Silicon Valley-driven gentrification. He moved to Los Angeles, set up his own small press, wrote a book, which, to no one’s surprise, can be bought on Amazon. I guess the question is somewhat open for debate is Kobek actually does or can escape the Age of Amazon by being “servant, server, and service provider, and the reader as consumer, yes, bot more precisely as customer” (453). My instinct, and I think Kobek would agree, at least for now, is that while this delineation of roles is not entirely inaccurate, Amazon does not get subsumed by this process. In fact, the reverse may be true, just as San Francisco itself has become subsumed by Silicon Valley.


Herein lies the merits of Kobek’s novel, which while not earth-shattering, reveal and painful and lasting truth of irreparable damage. Some of this may be compounded with the fact that Kobek seems to be nostalgic for an old San Francisco, one during which the New Narrative movement took place.

The fact that iPhones and iPads “changed everything” is thus far more than a question of the change in language. There are material effects, in which the body becomes so integrated with the technology (I actually found myself thinking through the discussions we had about wearable technologies while reading Snow Crash) and online technologies and personas can quite literally destroy a person’s life, furthering their lack of control. Of Ellen, the narrator writes:

“A person’s identity wasn’t just about what they wanted or how they lived or the choices they made. Life wasn’t made of self-determination. Life was the Chinese wage slave manacled to a factory line building iPhones…And thanks to the corporations headquartered in, around and near San Francisco, the capacity for that damage was infinite” (244-245).

This is all to say that now, the notion of identity is bound up in the Internet, whether people choose to be or not. And the Internet cannot be talked about without talking about Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley cannot be talked about without talking about capitalism. Thus, comments like “the iPhone changed everything!” among countless others in the novel, which at times seem overly facetious, Kobek may just want to hammer into a felt reality.

I didn’t have quite the confidence to write something in as experimental a form as Jordan has and others have in the past, but this response is a bit fragmentary and half-baked. But I think in the context of this week’s readings, it’s ok.



I read I Hate the Internet through the foggy perception of a man sick enough to pity himself but not sick enough to cancel his obligations. I read I Hate the Internet in a pause between scuttling from meetings to a class. I read I Hate the Internet on a chair by my fireplace, when it’s freezing out and later, when the temperature has unexpectedly jumped, I read I Hate the Internet on a bench in the sun, leaves dead and decaying heaped in a drift around my feet. I read I Hate the Internet while drinking more than the recommended dosage of cough syrup (dextromethorphan only — just because we are sick does not mean we have to be uncivilized), and so the haze of a mild cold isn’t the only haze through which I read I Hate the Internet. I read I Hate the Internet aloud in bed to my ailing girlfriend, who really took to “drp slut” not only as an insult but also as a handle. That was back when I was just starting reading I Hate the Internet. She was sick then, and I was not…

I arrive 40 minutes early to a farewell symposium for N. Katherine Hayles and—it seems only appropriate—I read I Hate the Internet. A classmate sits on the couch across from me, pulls out her own copy of the book. Do you hate the internet too? Maggie asks me, before making a crack about how it’s pretty bad, but it’s a “bad novel,” so that must mean it’s OK. I can tell: she’s using irony.

(I had assumed I would not be the first to post to the blog. Since it seems I will be, I use Maggie now as an imaginary interlocutor.)

To begin with, I Hate the Internet is a “bad novel.”

I will say what to me seems obvious. Kobek designating his novel a “bad novel” is not a way to hold his book at arm’s length and excuse its faults. Rather, it is an intentional generic description, one positing, positively, a new genre of novels, “bad novels,” defined diametrically against the dominant form of literary novels today, “good novels.”

Kobek lays out his notion of the “good novel” early. This is the novel funded by the CIA, buoyed by their support of the Paris Review and their engineering of the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature (24). It is the novel that goes by the name literary fiction, that is universally thought of as serious, that is thought to influence people, change culture, and shape international affairs. Why else would the CIA fund it?

It is thus not primarily the “program aesthetic” of the legions of MFA “good novels” that Kobek’s notional “bad novels” protest. Rather, it is the belief in the efficaciousness of novels.

I Hate the Internet is a book that loves to complain, or rather, to espouse vaguely leftist commonsense about the semi-hidden evils of contemporary society. Its bugbears are familiar to any vague leftist who daily trawls the web.

A Partial List; or, Cool Topics, Bro:

Misogyny (28); Eurocentrism in its American form (31); the hypocrisy of the American founding fathers (31); corporate greed (32); bourgeois appropriation (41); the Truth about Walt Disney (45); anti-black language bias (50); the preterition of female to male sexuality (56); corporate surveillance (57); accidental semio-labor, or, the extraction of profits from free expressive labor (58); clicktivism (63); cults of celebrity (64); deregulation (95); Bill Clinton’s (neo)liberalism (96); torture (96); George W. Bush as the Worst President Ever (96); Alan Greenspan (96); reformism (97); inflated corporate valuations (105); the prohibition on Gay Marriage (110); Lady Gaga (119); Weapons of Mass Destruction, and their non-appearance in Iraq (124); gentrification; cultural appropriation (131); misuse of the word “irony” (134); scolds who care too much about misuse of the word “irony” (134); colonialism (169); global warming (184); overpopulation (184); racial bias in policing (202); racism (210) and liberal racism (212); the CIA funding of the crack epidemic (220); and radicalized beauty standards (223).

I Hate the Internet is a book that loves to complain about the familiar bugbears of the vague left while doing about the same amount of work to dismantle them as the clicktivism it mocks. Like the online critical gesture, all the book does is unmask injustice. This is the familiar liberal solution: show hidden violence for what it is. After decades of critique, after a vast critical (or semi-critical) apparatus growing up on the internet, perhaps the only shred of subversiveness in I Hate the Internet’s persistent unmasking is in shouting about the mereness of this unmasking. What does it tell me about myself, a sympathetic reader might wonder about himself, that I keep nodding along, and that that feels good. How do the yeps I pencil in the margins indict me?

Kobek’s novel is not an abdication of the efficacy that “good novels” actually wielded over the political sphere. The idea of that influence is “insane.”[1] All that I Hate the Internet does is drop the pretense.

That is the meaning of the refusal to write or include the 25th chapter, which would have “served as the ideological heart of the book” (210). It is a refusal to pretend any longer about the efficacy of the novel. Indeed, it is more than the book that is at stake, since I Hate the Internet takes in its sights both “good novels” and internet discourse: this is an argument about language. “Expressing concern about racism,” Kobek writes, “was a new religion and focusing on language rather than political mechanics was an effortless, and meaningless, way of making sure one was seen in a front-row pew of the new church” (212).[2]

I Hate the Internet doesn’t take the step to efficacy it signals, but—according to its own reckoning—by evacuating itself of its “ideological heart” it at least avoids the heartwarming liberal fantasy it disdains.

[1] “The funding of good novels was based on an abandoned misapprehension that writers, being the apparent creators of culture, has come impact on contemporary international affairs. ¶ This was, of course, insane” (200).

[2] Note, y’all, that he’s talking about us, as he notes on the next page: “The curious thing was that Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Blogspot … were the stomping grounds of self-styled intellectual and social radicals” (213).

A Universal Language

I was very tempted to write my response in Wingdings font, but I figured that it would only be funny for a little bit and then it would be a pain for everyone to figure out exactly what I was saying—which seems to be the point of Ngai’s article on one level. Gimmick and comedy go hand-in-hand, as do gimmicks and labor. She notes that a gimmick is “both a wonder and a trick…a form we marvel at and distrust, admire and disdain, whose affective intensity for us increases precisely because of this ambivalence” (469). Page 493 of Ngai’s article has a great list of the paradoxes that gimmicks possess (saves labor but intensifies labor, works too hard yet works too little, seems outdated though futuristic, etc.). Based upon this argument, is Book from the Ground a gimmick? Possibly. I think Russ’s post makes a strong point regarding this idea based upon the amount of cultural, digital, and technical knowledge required to make sense of certain icons found in the book. We get the initial impression that labor will be saved because we don’t actually have to read anything. However, if you were to consider all of the time spent accruing knowledge of “contemporary life” to get to the point where one is proficient enough to understand all of the icons in the book, there is no way that it is less labor intensive. Additionally, for me, it took much longer than I anticipated to read the book. Icons didn’t save me any labor on my weekly reading assignment.

Regarding the whole concept of a universal language that Russ points out, I’m really interested in the text’s relationship to music. After all, what is a piece of sheet music aside from an arranged collection of icons on a page that communicates an aural idea from one person to another in a universally applicable format? Just like writing or the iconography used in Book from the Ground, musical notation is a matter of translation, especially for those individuals trained in the discipline of sight singing who do not require an instrument to help formulate the correct notes. I know that there is a fundamental difference between words and music in what they can convey (though that is something we can discuss). Still, if we are talking about a universal icon system, we have one, and Xu Bing points to it by giving us several musical passages on the very first page (see the end of this post for links to each of these songs). By seeing this connection at the very outset, I got the impression that this text is not very different from something that we are used to (i.e. music); the alien aspect is that the iconographic representation is used to replace a different style of signification system.

Translating music from the written to the audible is a simpler process than translating icons or pictographs into their meanings because it requires less cultural knowledge. On page one, Xu Bing gives us the time signature, the key, the rhythm, and the notes of the bird’s song. The only thing he doesn’t give us is the tempo, so that is up to interpretation based upon real-life knowledge of bird songs. The only other point of confusion in translating the bird’s song is that there are little breaks at irregular points, sometimes at the end of a measure and sometimes right in the middle of one. In my “performance,” I interpreted them to be slight breaks in the song, though it is impossible to tell how long those breaks may be.

The most interesting part of this whole enterprise is the alarm clock’s jingle. Bing eliminates the grounding elements of musical notation—the staff, the key, the time signature—and only includes several eighth notes, a few sixteenth notes, and a quarter note.

Using the fact that the bird seems to duet with the alarm clock (which is corroborated in the translation at the end of Book about Book from the Ground), I made the inference that both tunes must be in the same key and took a guess at what pitches the notes might represent based upon the downward facing stems, their relative positions to each other, and the fact that I had definite notes for the harmony, meaning that the alarm clock’s melody shouldn’t clash with the bird’s accompaniment. The result of this little experiment produced something pretty cool. The alarm tone is not just a throwaway line of random notes, but a classical-sounding tune reminiscent, for me at least, of Vivaldi’s “Spring” (though it’s not that exact piece).

The elimination of more familiar, grounding elements along with a motion towards using contextual clues in this duet between bird and alarm clock provides readers a type of guide for the rest of the book’s project: some of the more traditional elements of reading/writing will be absent, leading to a less precise understanding of every aspect of the story, leaving room for interpretation and experimentation.

Yes, digital iconography replacing words is a foreign system to us, but Bing provides us a with the methodology for reading on the very first page using a more familiar universal translation system. Maybe, then, the book isn’t so much of a gimmick after all.


The Songs:

Note that for whatever reason, the songs don’t play for me when I open them on my phone. Everything works correctly when I use my laptop. Also, I’m pretty sure I transcribed everything accurately, but I may have made an error or two somewhere. My apologies to the bird if I did.

Initial bird (according to the translation at the end of Book about Book from the Ground):


Long bird passage:




Alarm/bird duet:


Bonus song I made up because I was having way too much fun with this instead of doing actual work:

Sign, Icon, Emoji

I’d like to consider for a moment Ch’ien’s description of how icons function:

Icons communicate meaning to an individual without his or her fluency in a specific or local linguistic culture. They have the capacity to moderate behaviors in global spaces as they have nonlocal specificity. (38)

“For anyone who imagines a global world,” Ch’ien continues, “icons might represent a possibility for a universal language” (38). I’m interested in how this translates into Xu Bing’s desire for “pursuing the possibility of a universally intelligible system” (Ch’ien 63): what are the assumptions that drive this project? Is a universally intelligible system of communication desirable?

It doesn’t seem to me possible to detach signs completely (whether words or emoji) from the contextual (i.e., local) associations they accrue over time. We need only think of how the eggplant emoji has taken on phallic associations, so that for some discourse communities and in some contexts it can signify an eggplant or the category of “vegetables” more generally, whereas other interpretative communities and contexts turn on its phallic signification. These multiple usages overlap temporally: one “meaning” does not supplant another. A sign’s signification in this sense would appear contingent upon the discourse community in which it is used and the prior associations it has accumulated. Signs are understood through an interpretative grid developed prior to an agent’s encounter with the sign or the system of signification.

Xu Bing seems to know this, based on his statements about comprehension (see the extract in Ch’ien on p.43). “You will be able to read [Book from the Ground] as long as you have experience of contemporary life”, Xu Bing posits (qtd in. Ch’ien 43), but what exactly does “contemporary life” entail here? As Ch’ien notes, a “language” such as Xu Bing’s “does not represent a shared sense of one culture – ideologically or aesthetically” (44). To be sure, Marcel Danesi has pointed out in his recent book, The Semiotics of Emoji, that the “thumbs-up” emoji takes on very different meanings (or “signifieds”) in different cultural contexts; while for many this symbol might take on positive valences, it is “hideously offensive in parts of the Middle East, West Africa, Russia and South America” (31). Of course, this is not to mention the limitations of a “digital divide” or the prerequisite of the sort of “technical capital” described by Brock et al. in our reading from a couple of weeks back – both of which might play a role in restricting who is able and who is unable to access this information or read it “properly”. This is to say that emoji, and other icons, do not completely transcend local fields of interpretation.

But Book from the Ground also requires another kind of cultural proficiency: think of all the references to “high” art – for example: Duchamp’s Fountain (25, 56), Andy Warhol’s Munroe (42), Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (43); and works of theatre such as The Phantom of the Opera, Lion King, Cats (43) – although these could arguably have become “middle brow” today as a result of their increased circulation or, as a result of the processes whereby an artwork accrues cultural capital, such as by being awarded an Oscar (an event referenced on pages 72-73). Likewise, there’s an assumed knowledge of works of pop culture, from movies like Silence of the Lambs (21) to Batman (72), to games like Mario and a game contributing to the Marvel universe (110-11). But think also of the references to economic fields, which requires that readers recognize brand logos (say, of postal services [45] or commercial products [[43]) or entire mythologies built around the stock market: i.e., the signifying system of Wall Street, which associates a bull (both verbally and as an image) with price increases and a bear with stocks that are heading down (this same signification system is used in Book from the Ground on p. 21). If Xu Bing develops a signification system that doesn’t require a prior knowledge of localized languages, it does require a “cultured” subject that is aware of and participates in a field of consumer capitalism.

This is not to say that Book from the Ground is entirely complicit in representing (and potentially reproducing) this capitalist subject, but that it might be a problem on our end to limit our understanding of what this text does to prior systems of signification. In other words, by interpreting Xu Bing’s project in terms of the development of a universal system of signification (even though Xu Bing’s statements encourage this reading), we might be missing the potential of a text like this to transform the associations we already bring to signification systems like icons and emoji. I’m going on, so I won’t delve into it too much here, but this is where I find Ngai’s argument to be very useful and convincing: if one dimension of a gimmick is to save us labor (e.g., as a “speedy transmission of meaning” [Ch’ien 45]), then Book from the Ground prevents this function by asking readers to sit down and spend some time with these funny little pictures. I think it’s possible to bring to this text all of the antinomies of the gimmick Ngai identifies, and I think in so doing it’s possible to read in Book from the Ground a use of signifying systems and their corresponding interpretative expectations that is more complex, and potentially more transformative, than a project of developing a universal system of communication could be.*

*If only because I can’t seem to imagine a world in which a global system of communication is possible unless some sort of regime is developed that requires all the participants of this signifying system (which raises its own sets of questions about inclusivity) to learn a common skillset and set of indexical associations. Perhaps it’s possible to argue that the English language, and the people and institutions that require people to become increasingly proficient in this language as a sort of lingua franca, is already performing such a regimentation. This process of instituting a lingua franca enacts a specific kind of violence: one that inevitably changes the interpretative frameworks that a person uses to interpret their world, and which, regardless of whether it intends to or not, begins a process of systematically annihilating difference (which I take to be undesirable and aggressive).

Blog posts aren’t radical, but accepting that might be.

I take Russell’s wariness of how he infrastructure and structure model “seems… a formulation that could be applied to basically any situation, which makes it very promising but also makes me a little suspicious of it” (Coldicutt) especially when he puts it into account with traditional Marxist critique through some compelling historicization and a dash of media theory. I look forward to poking at that potentially sore spot in class, but here I’d prefer to lean into the ability of Levine’s proposed methodology to swell to the size of the object and think about Americanah, literary realism, and literary fiction writ large in the same frame.

Levine, I think, makes a very persuasive case for the way in which realist fiction can defamiliarize our habituation to the invisible infrastructures. Levine’s argument allows for realist fiction to supersede its traditional categorization as fundamentally conservative / anti-progressive, a form that reifies social structures rather than upends them, as, say, an avant-garde Modernist novel might. Americanah, and realist fiction in general, then has the capacity not just to paint the structures as they are, but to call our attention to their very making when they are by definition almost impossible to actually comprehend in their totality. As Ian Baucom (quoted in Levine’s article on page 593) argues, “Americanah belongs squarely in the tradition of nineteenth-century realism,” and Levine makes a real case to revisit realist fiction for its inherent radical potential, rather than dismissing it. But there’s a major distinction between Adichie’s novel and the nineteenth-century realist novel, in that it was published in 2013.

We have spent a great deal of time this semester talking about the ways in which literary fiction has responded to the rise of digital media and how this incorporation refigures our conception of genre, canonicity, epistemology, even the form of narrative itself. With a great reading of Americanah that deploys the same moves made in Lupton’s article, Russell points out the way in which the novel, through Ifemulu’s blog posts, points to itself as a book-y book that’s nonetheless part of the broader networked system of blog culture, but I don’t think the blogs themselves do much to really radically destabilize the novel form like Book From the Ground does (sorry, already looked ahead on the syllabus). Blog culture in the novel is mundane, because blog culture has become mundane in the culture – it’s how Ifemulu makes her money, and her role as a blogger is less akin to the liminal hacker of Snow Crash than it is to the itinerant writer or disillusioned shop-keeper of La Comédie humaine.[1] So when we see something like Americanah, it just seems so… old, so nineteenth-century.

But if we take Levine’s advice to pay more attention to the ways in which we’re habituated to avoid seeing infrastructure, perhaps Americanah’s nineteenth-century-ness is what’s really doing the defamiliarization in the first place. Against the crowded subfield of literary fiction working as hard as it possibly can to understand, respond and incorporate the rise of digitality in our contemporary world, Americanah stands out in its refusal to fall into the Modernist trap of “roughened verbal textures and often startling juxtapositions,” in order to “inject a sense of strangeness and surprise into its portrayal of the most commonplace phenomena” (Butler in Levine 596), while nonetheless dealing with the internet all along. The novel treats that which other works on our syllabus have found strange – digitality itself – and renders it commonplace.

Ifemulu drags her boyfriend Curt past racks of magazines to point out the all-too-often ignored system of racialized discrimination embedded in mass-market magazine production. Perhaps we as readers metaphorically walking past racks of review pages and syllabi and nice Barnes & Noble’s tables at the front of the store should see Americanah itself as the defamiliarizing rock in our shoe that knocks us out of our own habits of turning to novels that appear more transparently destabilized in the Modernist sense as the only sites of that radical politics in literature.


[1] Sorry for the near-constant references this semester to Balzac. Perhaps the conservative, anti-progressive realist in this story was me all along.

Marxism and Infrastructure

On reading Levine’s article, I was reminded of a move typically associated with a classical Marxist aesthetics: namely, the metaphoric logic that separates but simultaneously connects the different domains that order lived experience. For classical marxist aesthetics this is often the metaphor of base and superstructure, which tends to designate “the economic” as the base (or, depending on the context of the work, what is sometimes called “the infrastructure”) against the superstructure (which loosely correlates with “ideology”). I found myself wondering: is Levine’s article a way of reformulating this distinction? And, if so, why would Levine want to reinscribe this logic: does she perceive a deficiency with the base/superstructure metaphor?  Is such a reformulation a way of “saving” a logic (i.e., of the base-superstructure metaphor) that has become overburdened by associations that undermine its potential to transform the organization of lived experiences?

I don’t mean to suggest that Levine’s infrastructure-structure model is simply a rearticulation of the marxist metaphor (i.e., I’m not saying that Levine simply gives the base-superstructure model another name while retaining what this metaphor was meant to describe), but rather I’m asking why Levine chooses to use this infra/structure model when there was already a critical apparatus in place (and one fairly well entrenched in literary criticism, although not without its problems). To put my historicist hat on for a moment, I’m wondering whether Levine’s article can tell us something about how we approach a mode of contemporary realism and our capacity to formalize a way to understand it.

To be sure, the base-superstructure model has largely been used by marxist aesthetics to theorize realism, and such theories will often describe realist fiction as interiorizing the base-superstructure distinction by mapping it on to a form / content dichotomy. Henri Arvon can explain this rhetorical move better than I can:

The relations between content and form correspond to the more general relations between the economic base and the ideological superstructure; content is always the governing factor and though form in the final analysis is always necessarily subservient to it, it is not thereby shorn of all autonomy whatsoever.” (Marxist Aesthetics, p. 41).

In this way, people writing through the framework of a classic marxist aesthetics would understand a work of realist fiction as interiorizing the base-superstructure relation in everyday experience by “capturing” it in the relation between literary form and content. As Arvon’s language of “governance” and “subservience” might suggest, this is also a way of formulating a relation between what we would now call technological determinism and cultural constructivism. In other words, does realist fiction produce or construct a “reality” or does it merely describe or reflect a “reality” already external to it? Does content “govern” form, or the other way around?

The work of poststructuralism and the various theoretical paradigms to follow in literary and media studies for the most part put these dichotomies to bed (although not entirely): content was shown to be part of a literary work’s form, and form was also subject to the demands of a text’s content (or even to become content: the medium as message); likewise, many argued that technologies were not entirely responsible for producing cultural formations, and cultural formations were not entirely responsible for shaping cultural forms (this is what Rettberg called last week “co-construction,” as Maggie’s post pointed out). Levine is also careful to do this by “defamiliarizing” the language of structure and infrastructure, emphasizing that each are flexible, pervasive, and codetermined.

And yet, it seems we can’t stray too far from “form” here (perhaps unsurprising, given Levine’s prior work on form). The processes of defamiliarizing the habituated infrastructures taken up in Americanah are linked in Levine’s article to the bildung form (or structure?) of an outsider. Similarly, Lupton’s article traces how novels like Remainder and The Accidental defamiliarize the habituated infrastructure of the material book form. Maybe such frameworks encourage us to think about how the form-content (which, as with Levine’s infra/structures, we might think of as codetermined and, in a way, inseparable) of novels practices a digital logic without necessarily becoming digital.

Take this extract from one of Ifemelu’s blog posts in Americanah:

So light skin is valued in the community of American blacks. But everyone pretends this is no longer so. They say the days of the paper-bag test (look this up) are gone and let’s move forward. But today most of the American blacks who are successful as entertainers and as public figures are light. (265)

Note how Ifemelu writes “look this up”. I think it’s safe to say that someone writing an actual blog would just link to the information referenced. But of course the material conditions of the book don’t permit this in the same way. And yet, this imperative allows another sort of connection to occur: this statement is simultaneously a demand for the reader of the material book to “look this up.” Although operating by way of different material mediums, both a blog using hyperlinks and the representation of a blog in a novel are techniques of “linking” to information beyond their own forms. This action supposes an infrastructure that connects a book like Americanah or blog posts to sites (not only websites) where people can access additional data. The book and the blog are part of a wider information network.

Maybe this is why Levine turns to the model of infra/structure: these terms (once demystified by Levine, of course) lend themselves to uncovering underlying logics for the production and reproduction of texts (as well as structures like racism) that don’t always, or don’t only, turn to economics as the determining factor for explaining how people act and the forms things take. The infrastructure and structure model seems (to me) a formulation that could be applied to basically any situation, which makes it very promising but also makes me a little suspicious of it.

Thinking about material capital

Hannah Borenstein

Like Maggie, I also found myself a bit surprised both at the size of the task that Brock, Kvasny, and Kayla Hales set to take on in their paper. The permutations of their analyses – using cultural capital, technical capital, and Black feminist theory discourses – alongside three different forms – seemed limiting in such a small space. Deep readings and extrapolations to other instances, not just in response to the discourse following the Helena Andrew’s article, felt like there was much left to be desired. I do think they opened up an important door to thinking about the emergent spaces in which the deficit models of minority information are upset is an important intervention. However, what I would have liked to have seen them grapple with more, is what happens when stock characters are created, and when capitalist forms of ICT cloud subaltern struggles.

Americannah is the perfect text to explore these questions because, firstly, it engages the question of opening up online spaces for shared experiences through Ifemelu, but also, because Chimamnda Ngozi Adichie, has become such an essential in both literary and popular discourse.


To the first point, I think the importance of online spaces that support Brock, et al’s claim, that “articulation of cultural touchpoints promoting a more diverse set of beliefs will raise ICT participation rates” (1057) is extremely well-exemplified when Ifemelu tries to fix her hair falling out. Curt doesn’t understand or take her sadness seriously, and so she texts Wambui. “Wambui’s reply came minutes later: Go online. It’s this natural hair community. You’ll find inspiration” (259). What’s telling about this passage is not just what we learn a few pages later – that Wambui is right, and that this website has, for Ifemelu conversations, ideas, recommendations, etc., on how to think about and cope with her hair – but the swiftness of Wambui’s response. Not only does this online world of conversational productivity exist for women unrepresented in mainstream beauty magazines, but Wambui’s ready knowledge and sharing of it indicates that this is a space in which these conversations are already established. Of course Curt, and pretty much all white people, would have no idea that conversations related to black women’s hair would exist, undercutting the notion that various underserved populations are accessing the virtues of the open web (Brock, et al 1041).


However, as Maggie points out, Ifemelu, who we know participates in this online world, passes up an opportunity to make money from her blogging. Because this online world has become so embedded in the spirit of capitalism – when bloggers get a certain amount of visits, or action on their websites, they can turn a profit – we also have to consider how capital can be diverted.


Perhaps I think this through Adichie as a figure because of an article that popped up, of course, on my twitter account just a few days ago. In April Sisonke Msimang’s post on Africa is a Country entitled “All your faves are problematic: A brief history of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, stanning and the trap of #blackgirlmagic” (


The post is basically about Adichie’s rise to extreme fame and the implications of when one person gains such a high level of (cultural and technical) capital that they stand in to be overly representative. Adichie has become, many argue, something of a spokesperson on issues regarding race, feminism, and conceptions of Africa, throughout the years, despite having what many agree are some problematic views (particularly surrounding an issue of an insensitive statement she made about trans-women. While of course alternative online spaces proliferate around such a figure, question of subaltern status must emerge here. This may be a bit controversial and I’ll just leave this here but I do think Adichie is a very particular figure, undoubtedly the most famous we’ve read this semester, but we should be thinking about what gaining a certain level of cultural, technical and economical capital means in the context of this week’s readings.

Posting on Behalf of Andrew

Microaggressions: Straightforward or Oblique?

Caroline Levine’s article on Americanah presents Ifemelu and Obinze as two characters who learn to defamiliarize themselves from the dishonest and hypocritical social (infra)structures around them. What I’m wondering about, though, is how our own reading practices of a novel like Americanah may prevent us from fully engaging with the de-familiarizing experiences of Ifemelu and Obinze, especially if we haven’t shared those experiences ourselves.

In the first half of the book, Ifemelu experiences a number of disconcerting microaggressions in America. A white guy with dreadlocks tells her on the train that race no longer matters as a social issue; Ifemelu’s first roommates give her snide racialized comments about Africa; the carpet cleaner is hostile when he thinks Ifemelu is the owner of the house she’s babysitting at. In our previous class we talked about the perceived dubiousness or unreliability of microaggressions (i.e. the recipient of a microaggression casting doubt on their own perception), but the point of these racial incidents in Americanah seems to be that they are actually rather egregious: a liberal, reasonably socially aware reader of these passages is in some ways prompted to feel a kind of “shock” or at least a disapproval of what happened, seeing the incident ‘through Ifemelu’s eyes’ as opposed to the oblivious microaggressor. Might the white liberal reader who never experiences microaggressions be trained through this reading experience into a kind of defamiliarization? Or does this reader, in keeping with the unreliable perception of microaggressions, rather cast doubt on Ifemelu’s perception or on perhaps the reliability of the novel itself? I can see a situation where the reader thinks, “These microaggressions are so stereotypical that of course Adichie would put them all into the life of one person so that she can make her point; but we also think it is improbable for someone to experience this level or amount of microaggression within the given time span”).

This kind of reading casts doubt precisely on the “plain language” Adichie uses for her descriptions, associating straightforwardness with a “selectivity” of realist information that distributes attention and resources unequally, in line with Susan Stewart’s critique of realism (Levine, 4). I suppose the suspicion of microaggression could work in line with a Eurocentric modernist reading practice that eschews plain language but likewise fails to defamiliarize readers from deadening habits of ‘color-blind’ perception.

I do realize that I may be invoking this counter-reading without basis, but I also think it is worth bringing up because Adichie’s realism feels in some ways so familiar to us that, from the perspective of modernism, “stereotypes” like microaggressions abound, and as ‘modernist readers’ we are supposed to recognize this stereotypicality and either “make something new” from it (in the traditional modernist sense) or make a performance of it (a la Flarf and conceptual poetry, for example).