From Text to Work: Douglas Coupland’s Digital Interruptions and the Labor of Form
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.