Digital Humanity: The Novel and the Computer in the Information Age
Monson-Rosen, Madeleine C.
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This dissertation offers a historically specific account of the emergence of particular technologies within a particular literary and scientific moment. It identifies in three postmodern novels contemporary with the appearance of first-order cybernetics, digital computing, and computer networks, a specifically historicist incorporation of new technologies. This incorporation includes an embrace of new technologies in both a formal and material sense: the language of information technoscience becomes a new repository for literary signification, yet the novels also mark the material consequences of the emergence of cybernetic, information, and computer science. Those material consequences represent the register of the human in this project. In these novels, the human is always constrained by the conditions of labor, property, and embodiment. Yet these constraints, I argue, do not separate the human from the machinic. Rather, they represent a terrain of vital connection, which these novels, and this project, attempt to map. This dissertation considers three novels, published in the years 1964-1972. Each negotiates with the emergence of what science historian Lily E. Kay characterizes as the “scriptural” modality of science in the cybernetic period. For these novels, the “scriptural” includes traditions of writing and print culture, as well as cyphers and codes, that constitute a shared ground on which literary and scientific discourse constructs a mutual intelligibility. In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, the computer communications network emerges in the midst of the displacement of intellectual labor and the rise of speculative economics. Mumbo Jumbo, by Ishmael Reed, negotiates the media virus as a technological, biological, and cultural contagion, situating it in a history of communication. Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman reckons with the effects of a media network that distributes images, constructed by the intersection of biological bodies and technological bodies, that is, automata. Carter refuses to privilege the real over the simulated, instead locating the work of ideology in the exploitation of bodies and of resources. Each of these novels is contextualized with additional primary sources, including research and communication within the fields of computer and genetic science, and additional chapters situate this research within contemporary debates about the human, as well as about the “two cultures” of science and literature.