The Network Imaginary

By Mary PappalardoNovember 1, 2016

The Network Imaginary

Network Aesthetics by Patrick Jagoda

THE WAY THE STORY GOES, the internet as we know it came to exist in 1989. That year didn’t mark its first appearance — the Department of Defense’s ARPANET had been in development since the late 1960s — but 1989 saw the introduction of the World Wide Web: the information space whose name metaphorized the network form which commonly characterizes and defines contemporary life. This form of the internet, popularized in the early ’90s, is slightly older than I am, a fact I bring up only to highlight both its novelty and longevity. I think of the world in which we now live as a web or a network of connections, in part because I’ve never known anything else. Yet the relative youth of the network form, or at least the technology that has helped it proliferate, should give us some hint that it is not at all a stable one, and our understanding of its function and role in our day-to-day experiences is anything but complete.

Questions, then, of what a network actually looks like and what it feels like are refreshing ones, ones that are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. Without forcing readers to vacate the territory of interconnectedness that they’ve occupied for years (or in my case, my entire life), Patrick Jagoda’s Network Aesthetics demands that we reconsider the omnipresence of the term “network” and the seemingly concrete meanings that have come to adhere to it. It asks us to think seriously about what we mean when we talk about networks, what it means to undergird our daily life with network logic, and what possibilities exist once we start imagining networks — and the connection they enable — differently. 

Network Aesthetics seeks to do just that by arguing that we cannot think through the conditions of contemporary life without first attending to the features and contours of the ubiquitous network form. Rather than focus on day-to-day mechanisms of connection like Facebook, Twitter, our cellphones, or email inboxes, Network Aesthetics — as its title declares — diverges from much of the discourse around contemporary networks to examine various aesthetic works that invoke, represent, and model the network form. The first section of the book focuses on the linear narrative forms of the maximalist novel, the network film, and the television drama. The second engages with distributed forms like digital videogames and transmedia alternate reality games (ARGs). A series of deft readings makes clear that our supposed understanding of networks is governed, at least to some degree, by how we encounter representations of them.

This turn to what Jagoda calls a “network imaginary” is an incisive one that accounts for the impossibility of comprehending, mapping, or describing networks in any tangible way. This is not to say that networks in the 21st century lack materiality; their physical infrastructures are inextricable from the ephemeral connection they enable, and recent work from scholars like Tung-Hui Hu, Nicole Starosielski, and Allison Carruth (to name only a few) shows the wide-ranging ecological, political, and ethical stakes of that materiality. But the network, as a form, is too vast and in flux to be fathomed as whole. As Caroline Levine has noted, “At any given moment we know that we cannot grasp crucial pathways between nodes, and this points to our more generalized ignorance of networks. We cannot ever apprehend the totality of the networks that organize us.” It is no surprise that Levine resonates here, as the approach she suggests in her 2015 book Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network grants form the same primacy that Network Aesthetics develops. Its investment in aesthetics posits that our media shape the way we think about the networks we occupy. In turn, the way we imagine those networks informs how we exist within, move among, and relate to them.

For instance, cautionary tales about the isolation that might accompany an overdependence on digital connection, like Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, or the closing chapter of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, or even Spike Jonze’s Her, make some users suspicious of their own social networks, sometimes to the point of opting out and “going off the grid” entirely. On the other hand, films like Love Actually or Pay It Forward encourage an almost hyperactive awareness that our smallest kindnesses may, in fact, set off a ripple of positive affect toward even strangers who, unbeknownst to us, occupy the same web of kinship or sociality. These two responses — extreme suspicion of technology, or extreme openness to others — are simply illustrative, and in no way meant to be universal. But they do indicate how the art we consume helps mold our way of being in the world.

Comparative in the richest way, Network Aesthetics never privileges one media form over the other, but productively explores how each medium enables different kinds of network imaginings. Network films like Syriana that present multiple singular plots which gradually build atop each other to create a much larger interwoven one are particularly apt for thinking about emergence: how far-flung structures of connection only become visible when perspectives are made to expand. Syriana separately follows an energy analyst, a CIA operative, a Saudi prince and would-be reformer, a corporate attorney, and a Pakistani migrant worker, each of whom seem to operate in separate realms, but come into unforeseen direct or indirect contact with each other. The simultaneous development of transnational capitalism and terrorist network may to some, at first glance, seem coincidental, but the film’s networked narrative, made possible by its quick cuts between apparently unrelated plots, draws out the connectedness of these two features of the 21st century to show that they are impossibly intertwined. In a different, but equally significant way, the contingency of alternate reality games that rely on a fluctuating set of participants grapples with failure and improvisation. Looking at The Project, an ARG he helped design, Jagoda narrates the experience of things not always going according to plan. One entry into the game, which relied on would-be participants spontaneously joining in as they crossed the University of Chicago campus, saw little response. This “failure” fostered a reconsideration of public play and the spaces that games and play occupy in our day-to-day lives and routines. Another opportunity to improvise came when a participant took an unforeseen strategy of participation, which made it possible for the game designers to respond and restructure the finale of the game itself.

The two forms are drastically different, not least of all because Syriana is a constructed linear narrative, while The Project was participatory, and occurring in real time. However, they both engage importantly with the features constitutive of networks. These examples, and the other different media Jagoda reads, make up a kind of aesthetic constellation themselves, and taken together they demonstrate the perpetual mutability of the network. Networked narrative forms — the novel, the film, the television drama — represent and help to create our sense of the network, without which more participatory forms, particularly games that facilitate affective encounters with other actors, could not exist. That is to say, the network form is not ahistorical, but rather an ongoing process continuously being developed across and between different media.

Jagoda’s sustained critical engagement with popular cultural forms is welcome at a time where the humanities, publicly and within the academy, are often asked to give an account of themselves and their value. The demand to explain why literature, TV, films, art, video games, and other media forms “matter” and the assumption that they, in fact, don’t, seems to be louder than ever, when everything from bank advertisements to presidential candidate policy plans suggest doing something — anything — else with our time instead of making or studying art. Jagoda is rightly apprehensive of treating the humanities as an overly heroic field, one which offers revolution and resistance at every turn. That apprehension similarly applies to a sometimes too-optimistic view of the liberatory potential of networks that has sprung up in the wake of very literal revolutions, like those during the Arab Spring, and resistance movements, like Black Lives Matter, enabled by new digital technologies. Lionizing humanities and networks this way, though, puts us at risk of slipping into an easy, uncritical view of both, which in turn can stagnate the exact revolutionary work we aspire to. Jagoda is anything but uncritical of the power of the humanities. However, in his careful attention to the interplay between media and the modes of relation they give shape to, he does make the simple, necessary case for aesthetic work and the study of that work in today’s political and cultural reality.

Network Aesthetics opens with an epigraph from Howards End, an imperative to “Only connect!” that Jagoda rightly notes is a condition that seems to go without saying in the 21st century. He spends the rest of the book complicating this, though, gently pushing at each turn against the sentiment that connection is as predetermined as we think. “Everything is connected” is a truism we like to cling to for a variety of reasons. It can be an equally powerful declaration within both a rhetoric of optimism and idealism and a rhetoric of clear-eyed realism and suspicion. It suggests something like a unified whole, one whose seemingly disparate parts are connected and do, despite evidence sometimes to the contrary, add up to something that coheres in an understandable way, a way that makes sense. Perhaps most significantly, it projects a kind of mastery, an insider knowledge of what that unified whole looks like, and how it makes sense.

But it also indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the network(s) it invokes, a misunderstanding that takes for granted the different kinds of networks we encounter, ones that are constantly evolving and developing, responding to innumerable stimuli and variables. There is certainly something attractive about the idea of network as totality: certainty itself. But continuing to treat our current form of networked life as a predetermined and immutable fact tricks us into also accepting as fact the uneven development of control and power that has underwritten the rise of contemporary structures of culture, economics, and politics. When we celebrate the connective power of Twitter, we miss the violent sexist and racist discourse that countless users face every day. When reserving an Uber is as simple as a few keystrokes on an iPhone, it is easy to miss not only the exploitation of labor and resources that made the iPhone possible, but also the exploitation of labor and resources that made the Uber possible. Conversely, when insisting that the success of YouTube celebrities, or the notoriously toxic comments left on their videos, is a sign that culture has reached a new low, we overlook the tight-knit and inclusive online communities that have built up around those content creators. None of these realities supersede each other, but rather exist simultaneously with each other, and a deeper understanding of our network imaginary can help us see this multiplicity of interconnectedness.

This is not to suggest that simply thinking less rigidly about the phenomenon of connection is a revolutionary act, one that can singularly disrupt power and hierarchy. But what network aesthetics can do is teach us how, in this relatively young internet age, to slow down enough to make room, aesthetically, affectively, and otherwise, for the possibility of other kinds of connection. In the face of the impossibility of moving outside of or beyond these networks altogether, Jagoda’s closing thoughts are useful, proposing ambivalence, rather than opting out entirely. Ambivalence here is a kind of “extreme presence” that demands “a deliberate intensity, patience, and willingness to forgo quick resolution or any finality at all.” It is a necessary position of uncertainty, one that creates the space for other ways of thinking about networks to emerge. Ultimately, spending time attending to network aesthetics teaches us something important, generous, and hopeful about how to be in this world now, not only with the networks we’re constantly shaping and reshaping, but also with each other, the myriad friends, loved ones, acquaintances, and total strangers alongside whom we shape and are shaped.


Mary Pappalardo is a graduate student in English at LSU.

LARB Contributor

Mary Pappalardo is a graduate student in English at LSU.


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