MLA 2014: Pynchon at the Bleeding Edge

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May 312013

A second piece of good MLA news for the day: I’ll also be participating on a roundtable on the new Thomas Pynchon novel, Bleeding Edge, scheduled to be published this fall.  Also on the panel are our organizer Cornelius CollinsSamuel Cohen, David Cowart, Amy Elias, Jeffrey Severs, and Alison Shonkwiler. We’ll be a large and diverse group, and I’m excited to get together with both old friends and new collaborators to see what we as a group can do with what is sure to be an exciting novel and publishing event — the roundtable model of brief comments and broad conversation should give us a lot of room for rich engagement.

My own contributions to the panel are best prefigured by the paragraph on media and technology in the abstract below — inspired by the multi-leveled historical questions of the novel and the other speakers, and by Mark Sample’s imaginary DH history of Don DeLillo, I’m thinking about how the online runup to the novel might speak to whatever Pynchon has to say about the culture and economy of technology in the early 21st century — but who knows what the novel itself might actually hold…

If reports are to be believed, September 2013 will see the publication of a new novel by Thomas Pynchon, marking the third in seven years–a rate of productivity formerly unprecedented in this author’s closely watched, illustrious, and, by this point, quite long writing career. The book is sure to be advanced with a good deal of hype from his publishers, received with enthusiasm by his many fans in and outside the academy, and–if the recent pattern of reception holds–reviewed with a mixture of appreciation and skepticism by literary journalists. Pynchon’s canonical status is perhaps unique among contemporary authors in being so long established that each new publication not only presents fresh material for literary analysis, but also inevitably serves as a productive occasion for re-evaluating the writer’s career and public reputation.

Thus after the buzz wanes, January 2014 will be an opportune moment for scholars of contemporary literature to present and share early reactions, impressions, and suggestions for interpreting this new text. For indeed, aside from the intrinsic interest that surrounds any new work by an author of Pynchon’s standing, several aspects of the text as reported suggest that this novel will have special relevance to current issues not only in Pynchon studies, but in the study of contemporary American literature more generally. Our conversation will be an attempt both to situate this new work within the author’s larger career and to begin to imagine how a range of critical frameworks might variously illuminate its place within a larger literary conversation.

Bleeding Edge is evidently set in New York City in the period between the crash of the dot-com bubble in 2000 and the attacks of September 11 in 2001. As such it will be the most immediate chronological setting yet undertaken by Pynchon, whose last four novels have been at the remove of at least several decades. And while 1990’s Vineland turned the clock back only to the early Reagan years, this new work might speak directly to the present in a way that Pynchon has avoided since the ‘60s, for it can be argued–but also contested–that the events of 2001 mark the inauguration of an era that the US has not yet left behind. Thus the new novel may propel a shift in the critical interpretation, emerging over the past decade, of Pynchon as primarily a historical novelist rather than a strictly postmodern one.

The narrative’s temporal proximity to September 11 raises further questions about how, or whether, Pynchon intends to engage with that theme at virtually the moment when “the 9/11 novel” is being established as a genre in contemporary American fiction. Pynchon’s evident politics–that is, what appears to be his religiously inflected radical anarchism and his consistent targeting of the corporate-financial elite as enemy forces in a perennial world-historical conflict–suggest a potentially explosive treatment, or at least one that forces assumptions about the 9/11-novel genre to be reconsidered. Additionally, in light of recent studies that show Pynchon’s narrative method since the 1970s to depend essentially on meticulously researched genre parody, one wonders how this approach will serve the author with such sensitive material, or if he will be led thereby to make major changes to his signature style.

The advertised subject matter–the tech-sector start-up scene of Manhattan’s still thriving “Silicon Alley”–also suggests that in Bleeding Edge, Pynchon will continue his deep examination of the historicity of media and technology. These issues have been recurring concerns in his work, from the underground postal network of The Crying of Lot 49 and the cinematic framing of Gravity’s Rainbow to Vineland’s satire of televisual culture and the cameo appearance by the ARPAnet in his most recent novel, Inherent Vice. Likewise, Pynchon has been a central figure for literary scholars working to interpret technology’s role as a shaping force in the contemporary world. Given this longstanding concern, how might he approach such a charged moment in the emergent history of global digital culture? What lines of relation might he trace between the hypercapitalism of Silicon Alley and the global webs of surveillance that–by many accounts–both anticipated and allowed the attacks of September 11? With the politics of information so urgently at stake in this context, Pynchon’s representation of early twenty-first-century technological forces has the potential to significantly develop this thread in his work and may best attest to his continuing relevance to contemporary literature.

Given the far-ranging possibilities of responding to such a new and important literary text, the roundtable structure for “Pynchon at the Bleeding Edge” will emphasize discussion: prompted by a set of framing questions sent to the group by the session organizer in December, opening comments of no more than six minutes from each participant will begin the panel’s critical reflection on Bleeding Edge. The better part, then, of the session time (as kept by the session organizer) will be reserved for open-ended conversation, driven by the interests of both speakers and audience members. Bringing together a range of approaches toward a major event in contemporary fiction, this roundtable session will appeal to MLA members interested in modern and contemporary literature as well as those more broadly interested in the novel, or simply curious about one of American literature’s most eminent, enduring, and intriguing living authors.

May 312013


Update: Our panel is scheduled for Saturday, January 11, from 12:00 noon-1:15 pm in the Purdue-Wisconsin room of the Chicago Marriott.

I’m thrilled that my proposed special session “Deletion, Erasure, Cancellation: Negative Textualities” has been accepted for MLA 2014 in Chicago! I’m excited to be presenting with Laura AllChuk MoranMarjorie Luesbrink, and Andrew Ferguson — a truly interdisciplinary group of thinkers who I think will bring great insight and creativity to a provocative topic with broad appeal. Our original proposal is below, and I’ll post more information closer to the convention — join us in Chicago!

This roundtable offers a new approach to textual and media studies through close consideration of practices such as deletion, erasure, and cancellation—acts that might collectively be termed “negative” textual operations. Recent critical trends in media studies have drawn crucially necessary attention to the materiality of media, expanding scholarly attention within the field beyond its early focus on narrative and representation. Our conversation seeks to build upon and extend this attention to materiality through a specific focus on texts, practices, and histories that hinge on various forms of textual removal. In attending to these negative operations, we intend to foster discussion of a framework in which qualities such as absence, removal, residuality, blankness, and illegibility become essential criteria for critical analysis as well as for authorial and artistic production.

While the question of deletion and erasure has roots that date back at least to early poststructuralist thought, it has new relevance within a moment in which textual materiality is newly at stake in a variety of critical conversations. How might we describe the aesthetics of deletion and erasure across various media forms? What do these practices, and the textual absences they produce, tell us about the materiality of inscription? About authorship, readership, and memory? About how textual artifacts circulate between public and private domains? How might they reshape the very ways in which we write the histories of media and literature?

Laura All begins our consideration of these questions with a textual history of asterisks, dashes, and ellipses as placeholder marks within eighteenth­century novels. She groups these blanks under the category of expletives, marks that stand in for content that is outside the printable, whether obscene or sublime. All shows how expletives play a pivotal role in early print’s constantly shifting process of self­ calibration. As literally unspeakable characters, they draw attention to their printed status, constituting a unique visual grammar. All argues that expletives’ textual idiosyncrasy is a powerful hermeneutic axis for the history of the book, revealing a permeable epistemological border between author and reader and negotiating between public and private in print.

By tracing the early history of the computer undo command, Chuk Moran offers a theory of the temporality of digital deletion. While computer users today expect that any action on the computer can be undone, the undo command did not become common until the 1980s. In providing a new means of error correction, it also shifted the temporal and textual axes of a wide range of knowledge work. Before real­time computing, users entered an entire program at once and the computer processed it all at once, whereas interactive computing let users fix mistakes along the way through the undo command. Moran argues that by allowing users to reverse the commands they entered—in other words, to delete and re­enter information—the undo command positioned deletion as itself a consistent action that was central to a wide range of textual labor.

Marjorie Luesebrink discusses erosion in “born digital” literature in order to consider deletion and erasure with regard to the archive and the literary canon. Tracing the technological history of electronic literature, she shows how changes in hardware and software have dramatically changed readerly experience and access, with some significant phases of electronic literature effectively deleted from any possible historical canon. Early works from the 1990s, for example, cannot be “read” in their original form on contemporary computers, and working computers that can read these texts are increasingly rare, resulting in a historical friction in which seminal developments in this form are effectively erased from literary history, caught between the conflicting vectors of obsolescence and innovation. Considering the historical erasure of several pioneering works, Luesebrink argues for a more sensitive approach to the curation of electronic textuality.

Andrew Ferguson focuses on how digital deletion links video game culture to the archival dimensions of the recent National Security Agency surveillance scandal. In the course of justifying his agency’s massive data hoard, NSA director Keith Alexander recently spoke of his desire to “collect it all”—a phrasing that draws a curious parallel between the NSA and Pokémon. Ferguson carries this parallel to Pokémon Red & Blue to an analysis of the “Missing No.” glitch, which when captured can delete the entire game cartridge. The lesson of Pokémon, he suggests, is that the erasure will eventually escape the archive: the claimed rewards of totalizing collection are always balanced by much vaster risks (or, from another perspective, liberatory potential), up to and including systematic overwriting.

In order to explore how negative textual operations trouble the boundaries between public and private, Paul Benzon turns to redaction, the process of blacking out, overwriting, or otherwise concealing sensitive political information in order to make a private document suitable for public dissemination. Benzon argues that redacted documents occupy a paradoxical middle ground between the public and the private, and between writing and cancellation: at the same time that the marks of redaction effectively remove crucial information from the public record, they cannot help but add to that record through their own blank, mute testimony. Reading several technical briefs on redaction from the National Security Agency alongside Jenny Holzer’s 2006 series Redaction Paintings, he shows how redaction’s profoundly material concealments of text frame censorship as a form of writing that is uncomfortably hybrid and uneasily public.

Whether deletion, erasure, and cancellation take place as a result of authorial intervention, of material technological affordances, or of institutional or cultural tensions, they are ripe for a more fully articulated critical and historical context. In seeking to establish such a context, our roundtable brings together perspectives from book history, media studies, the digital humanities, and poetic practice, offering a conversation that will interest MLA members working in a wide range of periods, genres, and media. With each participant offering a timed opening provocation of no more than ten minutes, this session sets aside considerable time for discussion, in hopes of instigating a dynamic exchange on a novel topic with broad appeal.

Header Image from Google Books, courtesy of Krissy Wilson, The Art of Google Books

Electronic Literature, Fall 2013

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May 172013

I’ll be teaching Special Topics II: Electronic Literature this coming fall at Temple — I’m really excited about this course and about exploring this material with students. I’ll hopefully post more specifics as the fall semester gets closer — in the meantime, here’s a flyer with the course description and information. Any interested students are welcome to sign up or contact me with questions at pbenzon at temple dot edu!

Continue reading »

Jan 282013

Recent critical trends in media studies have drawn crucially necessary attention to the materiality of media, expanding scholarly attention within the field beyond its early focus on narrative and representation. Questions of storage, inscription, and circulation have become vital avenues of inquiry in relation to both alphabetic and nonalphabetic texts, allowing for a reconsideration of what it means to produce, consume, and possess textual material in a wide range of media, from print codices and digital files to hard drives, servers, and fiber-optic cables. This panel seeks to build upon and extend this focus on materiality through a close consideration of practices such as deletion, erasure, and cancellation, acts that might collectively be termed “negative” textual operations. These practices, while considered relatively infrequently within media and textual studies, have a great deal to tell us about textuality and how we understand it as scholars and as agents within a culture of information. Indeed, attending to these practices raises a range of questions that complement the recent scholarly focus on the materiality of media, posing a framework in which qualities such as absence, removal, residue, blankness, and invisibility become essential criteria for critical analysis as well as for authorial and artistic production.

While the question of deletion and erasure has roots that date back to the early waves of poststructuralist thought, it has new relevance and urgency within a contemporary moment in which textual objects from throughout history seem increasingly permanent and redundant. Whether deletion and erasure serve to distort the public record and bolster state power or to craft an alternate, fugitive history; whether they take place as a result of artistic or authorial intervention, of random error, or of politically resistant counterstrike; they are ripe for a more fully articulated critical and historical context. How might we describe the aesthetics and poetics of deletion and erasure within and across various media forms? What do these practices, and the textual absences they produce, tell us about the materiality of writing and other media? About authorship, visuality, and memory? About how textual artifacts circulate between public and private domains? About the limitations and paradoxes of the archive? About the very ways in which we write the history of media?

This roundtable invites presentations that address questions of deletion, erasure, cancellation, and similar and related practices across all periods, genres, and media: approaches from book history, textual scholarship, media studies and media archeology, sound studies, videogame studies, the digital humanities, and other critical frameworks are all welcome. In order to allow for both a wide diversity of approaches and contributions and a fruitful, in-depth discussion among participants and audience members, participants will be asked to limit their remarks to ten-minute provocations. Please send inquiries and abstracts with short biographies to pbenzon at temple dot edu by March 1.

Jan 112013

I’m posting below the text and slides of one of the talks I gave at the recent MLA convention. This talk, “Lost in Plain Sight: Microdot Technology and the Compression of Reading,” was part of a panel on “Reading the Invisible and Unwanted in Old and New Media” that I organized with Mark Sample, Lori Emerson, and Zach Whalen. I really enjoyed presenting with all of them, and the conversation in the Q and A period and on Twitter was fantastic as well.

My contribution to the panel is part of a new project that’s still in formation — it may become part of Deletions, or it may end up as its own piece. Either way, I’d love to hear any comments, suggestions, questions, or other responses — thanks for reading, and enjoy!


Lost in Plain Sight: Microdot Technology and the Compression of Reading

Before I start my talk in earnest, I want to offer up a little backstory by way of introduction. When I posted my abstract for this talk on my website back in the early fall, I started casually following the traffic on that page, and I noticed something intriguing: in addition to the usual spambots and a sprinkling of anonymous visitors, I found that one visitor had found his or her way to my site from the Department of Defense in Alexandria, Virginia, by searching for the terms “emmanual goldberg and microdot,” which are indeed the topic of my talk.

I felt a strange mix of flattery and paranoia about this, but beyond that I couldn’t help but wonder what someone from the DoD in the early twenty-first century was hoping to learn about an obsolete Cold-War technology, or why, or why they thought they might learn it from a literary scholar, of all people—but then I realized that their project is in many ways the same as mine, and that I and this person, whoever they might be, are strangely intertwined doppelgangers. This is a pretty crowded room for the evening of the first day of MLA, and I don’t see anyone lurking in the back with dark sunglasses and an earpiece, but if you’re here somewhere, I hope you get what you came for. Continue reading »

Atari Archaeology on In Media Res

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Aug 272012

My post “Hipster Archaeology” is up today at In Media Res as part of their theme week on Media Nostalgia. This piece builds on work I’ve recently presented at MLA 2012 and ACLA 2012 on questions of digital materiality, archives, trash, and temporality in relation to the Atari video game burial, and comes from a current book project, Deletions: Absence, Obsolescence, and the Ends of Media. Please visit and comment, and be sure to check out the other upcoming posts in what looks to be a great week!

Two Talks at MLA 2013

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Aug 262012

I’m giving two talks at the MLA convention in January 2013, one on experimental form and digital labor and one on microdot technology and media history. I’m excited to have the opportunity to present alongside the other speakers at these sessions, some of whom I’ve known for a while and some of whom I’ll be meeting for the first time. Click on the links in “Upcoming Talks” to the right for more information.

Aug 262012

I am excited to be presenting as part of a special session on Contemporary Novels and the Twenty-First-Century Media Ecology at the 2013 MLA Convention along with Aaron S. Worth and Richard Menke, our chair and panel organizer. In my talk, “From Text to Work: Douglas Coupland’s Digital Interruptions and the Labor of Form, I read formal interruption in the work of contemporary novelist Douglas Coupland as a complex critique of the institution of knowledge work within digital culture. My discussion focuses on jPod (2006), Coupland’s recent novel detailing the lives of a group of computer game programmers. jPod includes a wide range of visual, typographic, and textual interruptions, from a series of oversized Japanese characters for words such as “shopping” and “pornography” to the words “ramen noodles” repeated for an entire page to a complete listing of the first hundred thousand digits of the value pi. Situated within and against the banal flow of the novel’s workplace narrative, these interruptions seem at first almost like a return to a Dadaist strategy of textual collage. I argue, however, that rather than wholly subverting the book’s main narrative, these interruptions impose the circumstances of that narrative upon the reader by establishing a dynamic in which the temporal constraints of intellectual labor under new media and global capital become operational conditions for reading the novel. Through these formal and typographic effects, Coupland uses the surface of the printed page to register the problems and possibilities that digital knowledge work poses for the laboring subject in the language of that work itself.

In formal and technological terms, these moments invoke the sensory experience of screen-based reading within print text, yet they do so in a way that points away from hypertextuality and discursive malleability rather than towards it. The interruption of a hundred thousand numerical digits within an otherwise largely conventional narrative, for example, self-reflexively reverses the disruptive effects of interruption, subjecting the reader to boredom, monotony, and information overload in the name of critical interrogation. Thus by extracting interruption from within the discursive structures of digital capital rather than from outside of them, Coupland foregrounds the contemporary reader’s position as a laborer within the digital economy, forcing him or her to navigate a surplus of data whose meaning is often dramatically opaque. Functioning as an immanent critique of digital modes of production and consumption, these interruptions suggest a complex, contradictory kinship between the politics of literary experimentation and the labor structures of the digital economy, in which reading and writing become part of a practice of intellectual labor that is perpetually disjunctive and partial.

Lost in Plain Sight: Microdot Technology and the Compression of Reading

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Aug 262012

I’m excited to be part of a special session on “Reading the Invisible and Unwanted in Old and New Media” along with Mark Sample, Lori Emerson, and Zach Whalen at the 2013 MLA Convention. In my talk, “Lost in Plain Sight: Microdot Technology and the Compression of Reading,” I use the analog technology of the microdot, in which an image of a standard page of text is reduced to the size of a period, as a framework to consider questions of textual and visual materiality in new media. My discussion focuses on the work of microdot inventor Emanuel Goldberg, who in the fifties worked alongside and in competition with the engineer Vannevar Bush, a seminal figure for new media studies. I read the disregarded history of textual storage present in Goldberg’s work as an alternate narrative to the more hegemonic ideology of hypertextuality that has dominated new media studies.

Click here for more information on the panel as a whole.