Into the Maelstrom
By Jared Marcel PollenJuly 18, 2022
Mallarmé spent his remaining years attempting to find a form that would help usher this vision into being, and his poem Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance) — published in 1897, a year before his death — is arguably his magnum opus. Its disjointed and nonlinear typography presents verse as lines of code and the poem itself as a hypertext, a great data-collection system. In the coming years, the formal characteristics of the press would be reclaimed by symbolists and surrealists, who made it the basis for a new kind of poetry that hoped to tap into a hitherto unexplored collective unconscious. Mallarmé was also christening modernism and paving the way for works like Ulysses (whose scale of reportage resembles a broadsheet) and The Waste Land (whose many voices and quotations interrupt the text like news updates). But perhaps the best example comes from Walter Benjamin, who seemed to take Mallarmé’s prophecy to heart in attempting to cram every note, quote, and intellectual preoccupation into his über-textual Arcades Project.
Most importantly, Mallarmé intuited that the author’s storytelling responsibilities would be diffused to the rest of society, which would collectively take up the task of assembling narratives for itself, an all-inclusive process he described as “an immaculate grouping of universal relationships come together for some miraculous and glittering occasion” — a line that could easily be plucked from Guy Debord’s diagnosis of modern culture as a collection of mediated spectacles. What this means is that authorship as we know it — that is, singular, capital-A Authority — will become narratively obsolete. It won’t die, or disappear, but merely get integrated into a massive hive mind, a great narrative-making machine (“The newspaper is the sea; literature flows into it at will”). The time Mallarmé lived in was one of increasing specialization, and he was foreseeing a future in which craftsmanship (what Blake called “single mindedness”) would be unable to match the critical mass of an entire society participating in cultural events as they unfold, and in which this participation becomes part of the event — indeed, becomes the event itself. “It terrifies me to think,” Mallarmé wrote, “of the qualities (among them genius, certainly) which the author of such a work will have to possess.”
Let us imagine for the time being, he says, that this author has no name. Or let us imagine instead that its name is All-of-Us. If this strikes you as vague or hyperbolic, consider the vested entanglement of news media with social media (as the distinction between them blurs), which generates a simultaneous production, consumption, and reproduction of events. Digital media (and its regnant business model) is based upon constant participation and interaction, and we are expected to contribute to events (in real time) as reviewers, sharers, weighers-in. What this means is that the moment an event occurs — the moment it is literally uploaded into the culture — the collective process of narrativization begins and we all become authors of an ever-evolving macro-narrative. This collectivity is the only force with enough bandwidth to accommodate the sheer volume of things that Mallarmé (who was still very much living in what Marshall McLuhan called “the Gutenberg Galaxy”) imagined could be contained within a great book. It should be clear enough that this “great book” has already arrived, and is the very thing you are likely using at this moment to read (and maybe share and comment on) this essay.
The Gutenberg Galaxy, and its corresponding psychic modalities, encompassed the epoch of linear, typeset text, in which bound, self-contained works constituted the highest and final narrative unit. This is the essence of the codex, the book that contains “all you need to know.” (The Bible, which of course has many authors, but is treated as “the Word,” is the supreme example of this.) Reading a book is participatory, certainly, but it is fundamentally a private affair, and is therefore predicated on the expectation that some shared discovery will take place between reader and writer. We know this by the name of “epiphany.” Will Self, who has written about the decline of print and the rise of what he calls “bidirectional digital media,” notes that the reader/writer interaction mainly “consists in the creation of one-to-one epiphanies” and that digital media essentially decouples the relationship that makes this experience possible, via its “instantaneous feedback loops between the many and the few,” which turn out to be “inimical to the art of fiction.”
Self is one of the few writers who has spoken and written about this transformation and the unwelcome news it presents for authors. Another is Tom McCarthy, whose 2015 novel, Satin Island, ranks among the best books of the past decade. Its logographic narrator, U., is a “corporate anthropologist” whose job is to seek out structures, lattice-like configurations in meaning, which can then be fed into his company’s gargantuan database. A modern Lévi-Strauss (if Lévi-Strauss worked for Google), he investigates random phenomena: oil spills, a skydiving accident, artifacts, and rituals, attempting to discern a master pattern between them in the hopes of producing a “Great Report,” a kind of theory of everything — a project that, naturally, never comes to fruition. Reflecting on its failure, U. speculates:
[T]he truly terrifying thought wasn’t that the Great Report might be un-writable, but — quite the opposite — that it had already been written. Not by a person, nor even by some nefarious cabal, but simply by a neutral and indifferent binary system that had given rise to itself, moved by itself and would perpetuate itself. […] And that we, far from being its authors, or its operators, or even its slaves […] were no more than actions and commands within its key-chains.
As a specialist seeking some final narrative, U. is hopelessly outmatched before he can even begin, as the world he occupies has decoupled him from the single-mindedness that makes such revelations (and even the seeking of them) possible. Like Benjamin’s Arcades or Mallarmé’s supra-livre, it is almost impossible to imagine his project being completed; it can only ever be conceived as a work-in-progress. U.’s ambition can never be realized because, in a universe where every data point is a potential connection, constantly in flux, there is no source of departure and, therefore, no terminus. And this, McCarthy shows us, means no epiphanies.
Another way of thinking about this might be that the author’s time-honored task of locating universals in particulars has become irrelevant because everything is now essentially macro-ready (thus ceasing to be particular). Simply consider the way in which any single event or “isolated incident” is extrapolated, on a daily basis, to serve a narrative trend. As I write this — less than 24 hours after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars — I have had to seek shelter from the salvo of “takes” that have sought to locate this entirely trivial event within some macro-narrative: “toxic masculinity,” “the normalization of violence,” “why comedians are no longer safe,” “why black women need to be protected,” etc. Or, if you still need further persuading, simply check the news on any given day and you’ll find pieces with titles like “What X says about Y” or “Why X is an example of Y-Culture.” It all testifies to our unceasing tendency toward narrativization. We simply can’t help ourselves. Nothing is allowed to stand alone: every event becomes a potential connection waiting to be subsumed into a larger framework.
In spotting these resonant connections and arranging them into meaningful configurations, the culture is performing en masse the duties that were once understood to be well within the domain of the novelist. This is partly a result of living in a relentlessly content-driven world. McLuhan argued that the narrativization of all events is a form of “pattern recognition” and is primarily a response to a feeling of helplessness over the sheer volume of stuff we have to sift through from day to day; it is a kind of coping mechanism we resort to when faced with “information overload.” It is also the only way for tech companies to establish trending topics out of the deluge of data that floods their servers. (“Data classification yields to pattern recognition,” McLuhan notes.) Indeed, pattern recognition is the organizing principle of the entire information economy, without which it would devolve into chaos. Again, we see that this process is participatory and essentially reciprocal: algorithms fashion meta-narratives that are used to help establish the things we would like to think about, which we then engage with and feed back into the system, perpetuating the cycle, thus completing the “immaculate grouping of universal relationships” (language that one could easily imagine as part of Meta’s or Google’s internal jargon).
As an illustration of how this process works, McLuhan cites Edgar Allan Poe’s story “A Descent into the Maelstrom”: a sailor, being swept into a whirlpool, is at first overcome with feelings of terror, until he learns to observe the workings of the storm and then escapes by cooperating with it. “I must have been delirious,” the narrator tells us, “for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below.” This process, which is coldly engaged, semi-detached, perfectly describes how a reader interprets a text. It also perfectly describes how one behaves online. Appropriately enough, the story is a frame narrative in which we listen to a narrator listening to another narrator — it’s a report, a kind of sharing. Though having escaped, Poe’s narrator admits his mystification — neither he, nor anyone else, understands what causes the maelstroms to form in the first place. The story is thus about our failure to secure stable models of reality, which compels us to resort to pattern recognition in order to sail safely. This response, McLuhan makes clear, is essentially a survival instinct: “Pattern recognition in the midst of a huge, overwhelming, destructive force is the way out of the maelstrom.”
Journalistic narratives, to be sure, often serve as a coping mechanism for our inability to assimilate events (especially traumatic ones) into our experience. During the Trump presidency, for example, we saw the proliferation of narratives that sought to explain the Trump phenomenon itself and the nagging, bewildering preoccupation of trying to manage it (“Trump Derangement Syndrome”). These attempts eventually began to resemble a kind of neurosis, often appearing like a nation of victims trying vainly to diagnose themselves by returning again and again to the source of their trauma.
Certainly, the armada of information that is launched at us on a daily basis has a slightly traumatizing effect, and narrativization is the only means we have to figure out what we think. McLuhan astutely points out that the Millian approach to truth, which is quantitative (i.e., give people access to a maximum number of opinions and have them sort out what is right) produces a kind of “mental anguish.” One easily sees that the assignment of random events into prearranged narratives is for most people a matter of intellectual order, and often carries with it the hallmarks of an obsessive fixation, as we persistently search for further confirmation of the pattern. We should also not be surprised that conspiracy theories (which are pattern-recognizing) abound in the digital age. Our narrative-prone minds have no other recourse to deal with the so-muchness of online life. And what are conspiracy theories anyway but living, breathing works of fiction?
Here we approach another important point that I believe presents an existential challenge to the very notion of authorship. It’s not simply that the media has overtaken literature in engagement; it has in a sense colonized the whole of our imagination. Philip Roth said as much when he wrote that the unreality of the American news threatened to put American fiction out of business: “The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality.” Whether he knew it or not, Roth was wrestling with the very thing that Mallarmé had predicted — that is, a culture whose narrative capabilities are constantly outstripping those of the author.
These problems are not new, certainly. What is new, I would posit, is the scale at which it operates and the speed we now have to deal with it. The relationship between the information economy and the attention economy is essentially a temporal one: information has to travel at higher and higher velocities in order to remain competitive, and the higher the velocity, the greater the demand for narrative sense-making. The moment an event gets uploaded, there are a million different “perspectives” before the novelist can even lift his or her pen. Instant communication has engendered the demand for instant understanding. The owl of Minerva no longer has time to wait for the gathering of dusk.
This responsibility is shared by both novelists and journalists, albeit at different speeds. The novelist has two to five years on average to think about an event, while a journalist has until sunrise. And here we find another collapse — of the gap between the event and its reflection. In his book on the craft of writing, The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer claims that a novelist has to obtain experience “without falsifying it by the act of observation.” “[I]t’s easier,” he writes, “to take in such knowledge when you are part of an event that is much larger than yourself.” There is a temptation then, in a culture dominated by mediated spectacles (in which we all participate), for writers to all go in the same direction. As Christian Lorentzen wrote in Harper’s: “The yearning for fictions that make sense of the present is always with us, especially during times of crisis,” and we now seem doomed to endure at least a decade’s worth of Trump novels and other postmortems for an era on which the owl of Minerva hasn’t even taken wing yet. Last year alone, I read three novels (and I’m sure there were more) that open on the night of November 8, 2016, the reeling evening of Trump’s election. These novels also contained such events as the 2017 Women’s March and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of summer 2020. Novels now seem to be ripped straight from the headlines, as writers race to keep up, hell-bent on fictionalizing events to match the narrativizing pace of the culture itself.
I too experienced this collapse firsthand when writing my own novel — a novel about “current events” — in which the protagonist (a journalist) is struggling to write the first draft of history as the world lurches from one crisis to another, and before the most recent crises can even be digested. In doing so, I found myself (metafictionally) engaged in the same struggle as my protagonist, waking up every day and setting down the story, knowing that the events of the following day could outstrip or make obsolete what I’d just written. The novel would then need to be “updated” before it was even finished (and indeed, it was updated several times). And I’m certainly not the only one confronting this challenge. We’ve already seen the first pandemic novels arrive (Ali Smith’s Summer and Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You) and we will surely see many more. Anyone familiar with how long it takes to write a novel, revise it, have it edited, formatted, and printed, will know that any book published in the fall 2021 that contains events that didn’t begin until spring 2020 was either being written at the same pace as journalism or was being updated until the moment it was sent off to be typeset.
As the next Trump novels and pandemic novels begin to roll out, it’s worth thinking about what will become of them. Will they touch anything that hasn’t already been touched? Will we even have the patience to read them, to revisit their events? By the time they arrive, will they already be passé by virtue of simply being late? And will they bring with them any epiphanies? More likely, they will simply be plugged in with the rest of the code, as the novel itself now seems but one datapoint in an all-encompassing and ever-accelerating process of updates and incorporations — the master pattern that is being configured and reconfigured by all of us, all of the time, every minute of every day.
And where, in this “immaculate grouping of universal relationships,” is the place for it? Where, for that matter, is the author? If Mallarmé were alive today, he wouldn’t publish Un coup de dés in a book. No. He would recognize that its rightful place is online, for everything in the world exists to end up in a tweet.
Jared Marcel Pollen is the author of The Unified Field of Loneliness: Stories (2019) and the novel Venus&Document (2022). His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Liberties (forthcoming), Tablet, and 3:AM Magazine. He currently lives in Prague. Twitter: @JaredMPollen.
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