Literature and Theatre
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This chapter maps out the landscape of the current moment of anti-computing through an informal experiment in a form of distant reading drawing on digital humanities methods and approaches. Using a machine-recommendation system, it identifies over sixty publications linked to anti-computing themes which together point to the outlines of the contemporary anti-computing moment. This is explored for itself, but is also considered in relation to earlier forms, and specifically in relation to the earlier and more general taxonomy – enabling identification of new categories of dissent, new elisions and dominant forms, and the recurrence of older tropes. Identifying accelerating tendencies to respond to anxiety and hostility to computational saturation with personal ‘cures’ rather than with demands for political or public responses, it then returns to consideration of what might constitute a fully critical mode of anti-computing, this latter constituting the conclusion of the work.
This chapter considers the temporal dynamics of anti-computing, focusing on the tendency of tropes of dissent and anxiety around the computational to rise and fall but also to return and trouble the present. The goal of the chapter is to produce a form of thinking the technological that is apt for the consideration of anti-computing formations – taking cognisance both of their material underpinnings and the ideological heft of computational capitalism and its claim to be compulsory. The route taken goes first by way of a critical but appreciative engagement with media archaeology, approached by way of Foucault’s discussion of the sleep of history. Media archaeological approaches, drawing on this, but exchanging the document for the technical material, and focusing on disjuncture and on non-linear accounts are then explored, and deployed to develop a sense of anti-computing as non-continuous but recurrent.
The focus then shifts to consider systemic factors that media archaeology largely sets aside in its concentration on the material effects of technical media; this demands a consideration of anti-computing as a formation produced by and within computational capitalism – and produces the conundrum of resistance within what has become compulsory. Finding a way through these conflicts it is argued that anti-computing itself can present a challenge to strongly new materialist forms of media archaeology whilst also making evident the need for forms of cultural materialism that continue to reach beyond representation and that find new ways to grapple with the specificity of digital media.
Drawing on the Harvey Matusow Archive at the University of Sussex, this chapter undertakes a medium-theoretical analysis of the life of Matusow, a Communist Party member, a McCarthyite informer, and a man who recanted. In later life Matusow, who understood the destructive power of lists and databases, became a vocal opponent of computers and of the database society, founding an anti-computing league to fight against the tyranny of the automated sort and the automated cache. At one point he claimed as many league members as there were computers in England. Drawing on documents from the archive, this chapter tells an anti-computing story with medium transformation, mediatization, and the politics of automated identity and witnessing at its heart. It plays into the present as an early iteration of database anxiety, and haunts partly because it foreshadows the dangerous mixture of ignorance, incompetence, and authoritarian malice that characterized dealings around the Snowden events.
The first Cybercultural Conference was held in New York in the mid-1960s and took as its subject cybernation and the evolving society. Focusing on cybernation and calls for the end of wage holding, it drew heavily on a report exploring the Triple Revolution of automation, weaponry, and rights. It brought together individuals from the liberal and radical left, unions and civil rights groupings, the new tech industry – and Hannah Arendt, who was a speaker at the conference.
Arendt’s intervention set out arguments developed in her major work On the Human Condition to a committed audience with its own entrenched positions, at the moment of the cybernation scare. Against the cybernation optimists, she argued that the coming leisure society would not produce cultural flourishing but introduce a form of life characterized by deadly and endless passivity. This chapter considers Arendt’s paper, asks how it relates to other positions emerging at the conference, including those that demanded that attention be paid to the politics of transition, and uses it to refocus issues concerning media technologies as they arise in Arendt’s thinking more generally.
An exploration of the stakes of the early cybernation debates, and of Arendt’s position within them, opens up questions of computation, leisure, and the end of work, finding new salience today as political questions around automation accelerate.
The Two Cultures debate produced a furore in the modernizing era of the early to mid-1960s. The scientist C.P. Snow’s diagnosis of a cleavage that should be healed between the sciences and the arts is still widely invoked. Less well remembered is that his protagonist F.R. Leavis also argued for the benefits of one culture; not the one arising out of a capitulation to technologically administered utilitarianism, but the culture he discerned within a tradition of community, largely lost in everyday life, but held in the English language and in its literature.
This chapter engages with Leavis’ arguments. The mode of radical liberalism Leavis espoused in the journal Scrutiny in the early to mid-20th century produced a response to technology far from technological optimism, but also distanced from Marxist critiques of technocratic rationality. This radicalism is hopelessly tarnished by the chauvinistic nationalism that framed and constrained it, which became increasingly marked in later years. However, Francis Mulhern, amongst others, has convincingly argued for a more nuanced reading of Leavis and the ‘moment of scrutiny’, and this prompts a re-reading of Leavis’ thinking around the specifically technological and a reappraisal of the position he took at the time of the Two Cultures debate.
The combinatory force of an attachment to nation, a distrust of technocratic forms of knowledge and its claims to universality, and a moment of technological expansion, has been felt in disturbing ways in recent years – notably around the new chauvinism of the Right.
This chapter explores singularity as a posited artificial intelligence future, with particular focus on the rise of various forms of post-human or anti-human being and native artificial intelligences, engaging with writings from three waves of science fiction, each of which judges various forms of life.
Science fiction has long dealt in artificial intelligence, singularity, and the computational. Claiming a privileged relationship to the technological future, it explores, invents, and/or speculates on possible forms of life. Further, it can care about these lives in particularly intense ways, making it ideal grounds for exploring claims for and prospects for emerging forms of artificial being.
Recognizing the tendency of utopian and dystopian accounts to reverse their charge, this chapter avoids polemical accounts (of artificial intelligence ‘life’ as simply for the good or as evil, for instance). The chapter explores aspects of the anti-computational, and considers judgements made on new forms of life, through the more ambiguous explorations of fictional future being in works by Gibson, Piercy, Mieville, and Rajaniemi spanning from the 1980s to the contemporary moment.
James Baldwin was a vocal critic of Hollywood, but he was also a cinephile, and his critique of film was not so much of the medium itself, but of the uses to which it was put. Baldwin saw in film the chance to transform both politics and art—if only film could be transformed itself. This essay blends readings of archival materials, literature, film, and print culture to examine three distinct modes in Baldwin’s ongoing quest to revolutionize film. First, I argue, literature served as a key site to practice being a filmmaker, as Baldwin adapted cinematic grammars in his fiction and frequently penned scenes of filmgoing in which he could, in effect, direct his own movies. Secondly, I show that starting in the 1960s, Baldwin took a more direct route to making movies, as he composed screenplays, formed several production companies, and attempted to work in both Hollywood and the independent film scene in Europe. Finally, I explore how Baldwin sought to change cinema as a performer himself, in particular during his collaboration on Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley’s documentary I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1982). This little-known film follows Baldwin as he revisits key sites from the civil rights movement and reconnects with activist friends as he endeavors to construct a revisionist history of race in America and to develop a media practice capable of honoring Black communities.
James Baldwin’s arrest in Paris in December 1949 gave birth to his perfect storm. His ten days in Fresnes jail weakened him physically and emotionally. He made it out, but upon release he was mired in self-doubt and enveloped in a bout of depression. He returned to his hotel, ready to try to get back to his life, however daunting that effort would be. The hotelier’s demand that he settle his bill, and do it quickly, awakened his obsession with suicide. He simply could not handle one more obstacle in his path; he chose to kill himself in his room. Ironically, he saved his life when he jumped off a chair with a sheet around his neck. In a matter of seconds his death wish was replaced by his equally obsessive need to write, witness, think, party, drink, challenge, and love.
The distinguished critic Professor Cheryl A. Wall (1948–2020) was the Board of Governors Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Her path-breaking scholarship in two highly influential monographs, Women of the Harlem Renaissance (1995) and Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition (2005), helped to ensure that twentieth-century Black women writers were recognized and valued for their power, genius, and complexity. Her most recent book, On Freedom and the Will to Adorn: The Art of the African American Essay (2018), places the essay form at the center of African American literary achievement. Throughout her long career she supported and enabled Black students, and championed racial diversity and gender equality at every level of the university. An Associate Editor of James Baldwin Review, she was the most generous and astute of readers, as well as a wise editor. In this memorial section, fifteen colleagues, former students, and interlocutors share their remembrances and honor her legacy.
Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work (1976) has proven challenging since its publication because readers and critics have trouble classifying it. The challenge may be related to a common feature of Baldwin criticism, namely a tendency to compare late career works to early ones and to find them lacking: the experimental nature of later works of nonfiction like No Name in the Street (1972), The Devil Finds Work, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985) does not square easily with the more conventional essays that made Baldwin famous in his early years. I attempt to reframe The Devil Finds Work not through a comparison to other Baldwin essays, but rather through a comparison to his fiction, specifically the novel Giovanni’s Room. I posit that a greater appreciation for Devil can result from thinking of it as a story, specifically the story of a failed love affair.