abstract / in progress: a garden of forking code

Working on this.

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In this essay, I argue that regular social media use imposes unique difficulties on the process of writing fiction, and that these difficulties stem from the social web’s overarching ethos of personal transparency. The essay takes a first-person perspective, drawing on my own experiences online and as a writer, though it is primarily built around arguments from recent theoretical works on literature and the Internet. I begin by identifying myself as a lifelong writer of fiction as well as a social media user and state that I’ve experienced difficulties with writing fiction, problems I believe are related to my own social media use. I then turn to works of literary criticism that argue for the necessity of deception and illusion as tools of fiction before making the claim that the same mechanisms of deception so central to fiction writing are considered anathema on social networks.

Then, I proceed to philosopher Byung Chul Han’s 2012 book The Transparency Society to flesh out this argument. Taking Han’s central claim in this work — that transparency is the guiding principle of the digital age, and that this has a negative impact on the inner lives of individuals  — as a starting point, I argue that digital transparency has a specific chilling effect on the writerly imagination and capacity to storytell. I then build on Han’s arguments about the Internet to argue that social media exemplifies the hyperreal in Jean Baudrillard’s sense of the term: the Internet is a space “more real than real,” I claim, and is thus ontologically further from fiction than the offline world. Because social media exemplifies Baudrillard’s hyperreality, I write, its frequent use widens the cognitive gap between the self and the imaginative mental landscape fiction writers must inhabit.

I move on to discuss Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Funes The Memorious.” “Funes” describes a man who, after a freak accident, begins to remember everything that ever happens to him. In so doing, he loses his ability to generalize, deduce and make meaning from his day-to-day experiences: his awareness becomes so full of details that he fails to abstract any meaning-conferring frameworks from them. I argue that the situation of poor Funes is analogous to the lived experience of frequent Internet use: it extracts so much detailed information about our lives that constructing meaning from them on terms beyond those already provided to use by the web’s frameworks become difficult. Social media use, I argue, defamiliarizes us with the process of intuitive patterning that allows us to make meaning from our lives, offering curated timelines and other other content structures as a substitute for our own personal meaning-making frameworks. I argue that this defamiliarization with the internal narrativization process in turn makes it difficult to imagine stories for made-up characters and situations.

I end my essay with a restatement of my argument: the landscape of the social Internet, a structure that deteriorates the possibility for a cohesive internal narrative in its orgiastic production of ever-more self information, is problematic for fiction writing. It must be tread conscientiously by writers who wish to preserve a healthy relationship to their art.

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