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date: 30 April 2017

Networks in Literature and Media

Summary and Keywords

Networks influence practically every subfield of literary studies. Unlike hierarchies and centralized structures, networks connote decentralization and distribution. The abstraction of this form makes it applicable to a wide variety of phenomena. For example, the metaphor and form of the network informs the way we think about communication systems in early American writing, social networks in Victorian novels, transnational circulation in postcolonial literature, and computer networks in late 20th-century cyberpunk fiction. Beyond traditional literary genres, network form is also accessible through comparative media analysis. Films, television serials, video games, and transmedia narratives may represent or evoke network structures through medium-specific techniques. The juxtaposition of different literary and artistic forms, across media, helps to defamiliarize network forms and make these complex structures available to thought. Across subfields of literary studies, critics may be drawn to networks because of their resonance with histories of the present and contemporary technoscience. Scholars may also recognize the sense of complexity and interconnection inherent in networks, which resonates with experiences of intertextuality and close reading itself. In addition to studying representations of networks, literary critics employ a variety of network-related methods. These approaches include historicist scholarship that uses network structures to think about social organization and communication in different eras, quantitative digital humanities tools that map networks of literary circulation, qualitative sociology of literature and reader-response theory that analyze networks of readers and publishers, and formalist work that compares network and aesthetic forms.

Keywords: communication, computer network, digital humanities, embodiment, form, historicism, media, science fiction, social networks, virus

In its most general form, the word network refers to a structure composed of links and nodes. It is the abstraction that the concept affords that allows it to be applied to many concrete objects, phenomena, relations, groups, and systems. The two major uses of the word network refer to social organization and communication systems. On the one hand, the term evokes organizational structures such as ant colonies or interconnected terrorist cells, as well as visualizations used to represent these structures. On the other, it refers to a variety of communication systems, ranging from largely unidirectional broadcast media such as radio and television to multidirectional systems such as the telephone system and the Internet.

Bruno Latour observes that the sociologist Manuel Castells blurs the previously separate organizational and communication-oriented connotations of network by characterizing the concept, in its late-20th-century form, as “a privileged mode of organization thanks to the very extension of information technology.”1 In 1996, Castells declared the rise of the “network society” in which economic, political, and cultural life became more reliant on communication technologies for production, transmission, storage, and organization.2 As sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello argue, it was not until the late 20th century that the network emerged as a normative concept that came to describe everything from the micro-scale of the human brain to the macro-scale of the global economy. This period saw the emergence of a new “mode of judgment which, taking it for granted that the world is a network (and not, for example, a structure, a system, a market or a community), offers fulcra for appraising and ordering the relative value of beings in such a world.”3 The rise of networks as a major concept during the late 20th century has to do with a diversity of developments, especially mathematical innovations in complexity science and network science, the emergence of the Internet and World Wide Web as a major communications infrastructure, and the growing use of network metaphors to make sense of globalization and financialization.4

Literature intersects with network form in myriad ways. Most explicitly, language, themes, and formal innovations in literary texts grapple with the rise of a network society. As early as 1929, Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy reflected on the importance of social networks in his short story “Chain-Links.” In this narrative, a group of friends engages in a thought experiment. One character instructs the others to “select any person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth—anyone, anywhere at all.” As the narrator explains, “He bet us that, using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquaintance, he could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.” As it turns out, “nobody from the group needed more than five links in the chain to reach, just by using the method of acquaintance, any inhabitant of our Planet.”5 Though “Chain-Links” is arguably a minor short story within literary history, Karinthy’s idea introduced what came to be one of the central concepts of 20th-century network science. The “small world” thesis posited by Karinthy would later be explored, systematically, by mathematicians Ithiel de Sola Pool and Manfred Kochen in the 1950s and tested by social psychologist Stanley Milgram in his famous “six degrees of separation” experiment in 1967.

The resonance between Karinthy’s story and later thinkers and scientists represents an invitation to put literature and technoscience into bidirectional conversation. Fiction and social network analysis investigate similar kinds of social forms in ways that may prove complementary and mutually generative.6 Works ranging from historical novels such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) to science fiction films such as Sleep Dealer (2009) depict technological and social networks, while also altering the ways that readers and viewers understand these structures through a variety of formal and narratological techniques. Before elaborating on the relationships between network form and literary form, it is important to explore another crucial effect of the multiplicity of the concept of the network; namely, the generation of a notable diversity of applications and methodologies within literary criticism.

Networks in Literary Criticism

Scholars across literary studies have adopted network metaphors, forms, and methods, particularly in the first two decades of the 21st century. Networks are often associated with the era of digital media and do indeed appear in a great deal of writing about contemporary fiction, electronic literature, and new media.7 However, the form has had an impact on practically every subfield of the discipline.8 The range of publications in which the concept appears is notable. In the field of early American literature, Stacey Margolis argues that Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn (1799) and other antebellum fiction stages “early information society” and networked forms of social order.9 In Victorian studies, Anna Gibson draws from contemporary network science to demonstrate the ways that Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865) uses “mechanisms of a network” to highlight “the attractions and reactions among characters rather than around the psychological experience of a single protagonist.”10 In modernist studies, Maud Ellman foregrounds “nets of intersubjectivity and intertextuality” that are visible within early 20th-century technological networks but also concurrent approaches such as psychoanalytic theory. Ellman then tracks networks of representation, linguistic association, and modernity through texts such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927).11

Beyond strictly demarcated or traditional subfields, scholars have also treated networks as a transhistorical phenomenon that extends into cultural studies. Ned Schantz, for example, traces representations of women’s networks by examining the transmission of information in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), gossip in Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), and telephonic connections in films such as Pillow Talk (1959).12 Furthermore, network metaphors resonate far outside of the Anglo-American literary canon. As Vilashini Cooppan observes about the fields of comparative literature, area studies, and transnational theory, “Inflecting area with network allows us to highlight the principle of circulation, sedimentation, and linkage; distinct objects such as languages, cultures, identities, and aesthetic forms that move rhizomatically; the bedrock comparative category of history newly broken by branching structure; and the peculiar space-time of memory as it entangles with the multiple temporalities of the slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and decolonization that have made areas.”13 In postcolonial and transnational literature, it is worth noting, network concepts are foundational and ubiquitous rather than exceptional or supplementary.

This lengthy catalog of network analysis is far from exhaustive, but it serves to mark the centrality of the concept across literary studies. Furthermore, it raises an important question: Why do literary critics turn to networks so frequently and in so many different ways? While a careful contextualization of any particular subfield would yield specific explanations, some speculative generalizations are possible. Network form—and its corresponding vocabulary that includes concepts such as “node,” “link,” “centrality,” “embeddedness,” and “brokerage”—invites discussions of complexity. Literary critics often invoke the “complexity” of networks and characterize novels, for instance, as “complex,” “intricate,” or “sophisticated.” Arguably, the sense of complexity and interconnection captured by networks resonates with experiences of intertextuality and close reading itself.14 It is then notable that contemporary network narratives—novels such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) or films such as Syriana (2005)—use a network of characters, contexts, and narratives to emphasize and even require the act of rereading. The same is true of earlier literary genres that have increasingly been analyzed for their formal engagement with networks; for instance, Victorian multiplot novels such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–1872).15

Methodologically, the complexity that is marked by networks also occasions complications of traditional methods and modes of ideology critique that might be seen as too totalizing or reductive of connections among economic, political, social, biological, and cultural systems. Even as the concept of networks offers a language for complexity, it also highlights a different, though not necessarily opposed, desire for making sense of social order and structure. This systematic quality of networks makes them a useful form to think alongside within hermeneutic analyses of literature. Beyond traditional literary criticism, it is also worth noting that network analysis may be attractive to humanities scholars in general because of the many ways it intersects with other visible contemporary approaches, such as discussions of relationality in affect theory and accounts of globalization in transnational studies.16

Network Methods: Historicist, Digital, Sociological, and Formalist

The array of network analyses across literary criticism calls for greater specificity in organizing the numerous possible methods for approaching and studying this form. Though an exhaustive list would require a longer overview, it is possible to highlight four particularly prominent and promising methods. First, historicist scholarship uses network concepts developed in the late 20th and early 21st century to explore earlier literary periods. Second, the digital humanities employ quantitative techniques to map and model networks as they play out within and across literary works. Third, beyond the quantitative techniques facilitated by digital tools, qualitative scholarship in both the sociology of literature and reader-response theory seeks to understand networks of readers and publishers. Fourth, formalist approaches help us compare social, political, and technological network form to cultural forms such as the novel. These methods are not mutually exclusive. In fact, many studies draw on several of these approaches at once. Nevertheless, introducing these methods as separate categories offers a heuristic for thinking about multiple ways that networks have become an increasingly central, even crucial, term within literary criticism.17

First, though a widespread thematic and methodological emphasis on networks has grown in the humanities only since the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the language of networks has exceeded subfields such as new media studies and post-1945 literary studies. The word network itself emerged in the 16th century to describe manufactured fabric in which threads or wires were interlaced into intersecting arrangements.18 Outside of etymological considerations and the changing usage of network over time, the word’s contemporary uses have also expanded our ways of thinking about earlier periods and contexts.19 Some of the strongest scholarship avoids generalizing networks as a stable form that remains unchanged across different eras and cultural contexts. Even so, across historical studies, networks consistently operate as structures or metaphors for making sense of organizational or communication systems. In an excellent account of the concept of networks within media studies, Alexander Galloway uses Aeschylus’s classical tragedy Agamemnon (458 bce) to question the idea that networks “are exclusively endemic to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and, more pointedly, that networks are somehow synonymous with the technologies of modernity or postmodernity.”20 Though a case can be made that networks take a more central and unique role within the period of postmodernism and the era of digital media and social networks that follows it, Galloway’s point that networks are not exclusive to this period is both historically accurate and methodologically generative. It enables us to see a diversity of literary forms and social structures in relationship to networks. If we consider the study of American culture alone, network form becomes productive for analyzing formations as diverse as the United States Postal Service, the Atlantic slave trade system, the transcontinental railroad, the Underground Railroad, the Jim Crow system, and the electric telegraph.

Across work in literary criticism, the language of networks has been used to characterize many different historical contexts using the language of networks. For example, Matt Cohen’s The Networked Wilderness (2010) explores communication systems between English settlers and Native Americans in 17th-century New England. Contemporary contributions from media theorist Friedrich Kittler and network scientist Albert László Barabási inform Cohen’s reading practices of colonial texts such as Roger Williams’s A Key into the Language of America (1643).21 Of course, a great deal of historicist work also exceeds American studies. Scholars such as Jonathan H. Grossman use mobility and passenger networks (especially stage coaches and railways) to think about Victorian novels, such as Charles Dickens’s The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836–1837). Grossman focuses on both the history of transportation and the narratological techniques that Dickens uses to make sense of this form. As he argues, “Along with his readers, Dickens comprehended their networking by public transport through narrative, and their networking by public transport entailed reconfiguring narrative form, particularly the picaresque road novel and travel literature.” Grossman moves relationally between novel and nation form to elaborate on the ways that networks help us to access imagined communities at a specific historical moment.22 Similarly, Caroline Levine reads Dickens’s multiplot novel Bleak House (1853) to show how its narrative networks help us think about sociopolitical form as it unfolds both in England and on a transnational scale. As she puts it in an overview, “characters in the novel are linked through the law, disease, economics, class, gossip, the family tree, city streets, rural roads, and even global print and philanthropic networks.”23

Second, scholars in the digital humanities have used networks to better understand contexts from the language of ancient Greek tragedies to the social interactions within networked digital games.24 Within literary criticism, in particular, scholars have adapted methods from the social sciences, especially social network analysis, to analyze and visualize textual data. These approaches have invited everything from the mapping of individual texts to comparative analyses of transnational literary corpora. Within this grouping of methods, networks operate as techniques or tools that enable systematic and distant modes of reading. Perhaps most famously, Franco Moretti suggests several approaches to using network models in the study of literature. For example, he demonstrates that one can plot character networks in a text such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603), tracking the more robust networks with characters such as Hamlet and Claudius at their center versus the more contained interactions of the leading women in the play, Gertrude and Ophelia, at the periphery. Moretti also maps networks of dialogue exchanges to test for symmetry and asymmetry between characters in texts such as Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone (1791) and Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865). In both of these test cases, network visualizations begin both to confirm lessons of close reading and arguably to reveal something about the structure and meaning of particular literary texts.25

While Moretti shows how network tools might impact readings of familiar literary texts, other scholars in the digital humanities have used social network analysis to make contributions to the broader sociology of literature.26 For example, Natalie M. Houston’s project “The Field of Victorian Poetry 1840–1900” consists of “a database and network analysis of poetry’s publication in single-author volumes.” As Houston observes, “Network graphs are traditionally used to reveal relationships or connections between individual nodes, as visualizing these connections can uncover meaningful patterns in very large or complex data.” In one case, a larger pool of metadata allows Houston to examine a network of Victorian poetry publishing in London in 1866, which includes approximately 550 single-author books. She argues that, in this case, network analysis offers insight into ways that editions of poetry from earlier historical periods came to shape the Victorian literary landscape.27 Though considerable early work in the digital humanities has come out of the subfields of British and American literature, network analyses also exceed these areas. Notably, Hoyt Long and Richard Jean So adapt approaches from relational sociology and social network analysis to undertake a comparative and transnational study of poetry publication across the United States, Japan, and China from 1915 to 1930. In this work, they adapt network science terms such as brokerage and closure to offer a new map of modernist poets and publishers. Their mapping includes not only familiar figures such as Ezra Pound and Carl Sandburg, but also poetic circles that suggest alternative modernisms that include less studied poets such Sara Teasdale and members of the Southern Fugitives Group.28

Third, and related to studies such as Long and So’s network analysis, reader-response theories and sociological reading modes sometimes attend to broad networks of reader communities and publishers of literary works. With this method, networks serve not primarily as tools, as they do in the digital humanities. Instead, they operate as social structures for imagining the precise circulation and reception of literature across communities, nations, and transnational contexts. Though there are quantitatively oriented versions of this scholarship, qualitative methods have also been important. One of the trailblazing books in this tradition is Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984), which focuses on romantic fiction in order to think through the act of reading as an inherently social practice. Through an ethnography of reading, Radway turns her attention from the content of particular literary works to the social networks of women who read romances together, as well as their role relative to magazine distribution networks. At certain moments, Radway explicitly uses the structure of the network to make sense of reading practices. For instance, she argues, “The romance community, then, is not an actual group functioning at the local level. Rather, it is a huge, ill-defined network composed of readers on the one hand and authors on the other. Although it performs some of the same functions carried out by older neighborhood groups, this female community is mediated by the distances of modern mass publishing.”29 Networks, here, serve as a figure for thinking about the reception and interpretation of literature at a larger scale. Instead of imagining an individual and ideal reader, Radway interviewed women in the midwestern town of Smithton. This method offers access to a community of actual readers who, in turn, help Radway to better analyze a national network of romance readers.

Such work in the sociology of literature continues to the present day. Amy Hungerford builds on this tradition in Making Literature Now (2016). Rather than exploring the shift from individual readers to reader networks, Hungerford argues that the best way to understand the production and distribution of contemporary literature is by studying networks of writers, publishers, and distributors. As such, she approaches the broader McSweeney’s publishing network not by offering biographies of central nodes (such as the writer Dave Eggers) but instead considering long-term employees, interns, editors, writers who have published in the quarterly publication, scholars, as well as “thousands of others [who] read their work, mapping the social geography of McSweeney’s distribution around the world.” In this study of the early 21st-century literary scene, Hungerford also analyzes texts that are networked in every sense of the word. For instance, she demonstrates that social networks can be formed and tracked through The Silent History (2014): a novel and app created by Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn. This novel thematizes networks (it focuses on “a public health epidemic” that is narrated via a multiplicity of voices), requires networked connectivity for a complete experience (it ask readers to go to GPS coordinates around the world to unlock “field reports” that expand the narrative), and imagines a crowdsourced network of contributors (the app allows contributors to submit “field reports” for review and inclusion in the text). As Hungerford argues, “Even simply using the field reports and the GPS mapping an ordinary user can amass a certain kind of data and from that data establish some basic inferences about the novel’s social network.”30 Thus, in a variety of formal and material ways, the concept of networks offers purchase in making sense of the contemporary literary landscape.

Fourth, and finally, formalist methods suggest ways of thinking about networks in literary criticism. Through this method, networks operate as a social, political, and technological form that intersects with literary forms such as novels and poems. In Forms (2015), Caroline Levine argues that a form, as “an arrangement of elements—an ordering, patterning, or shaping,” is a concept that crosses sociopolitical and literary phenomena. Borrowing from design theory, she argues that all forms have affordances—that is, “potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs.” In a variety of ways, forms constrain, differ, intersect, travel, and perform political work in particular historical contexts. Specifically, Levine characterizes the network as a privileged form: “As a form that first and foremost affords connectedness, the network provides a way to understand how many other formal elements—including wholes, rhythms, and hierarchies—link up in larger formations. Specifically, network organization allows us to consider how many formal elements connect to create nations or cultures. It is thus a form absolutely crucial to our grasp of significant assemblages—including society itself.”31 Indeed, literary texts that are attentive to network form also demonstrate the co-presence and inter-animating capacities of other forms.

Though network form is frequently approached as predominantly spatial in nature—for instance, in network graphs and static visualizations—some of the most nuanced work in literary criticism has also attended to its temporal dimensions. As Anna Munster observes in her analysis of avant-garde net art, “Even if a network image is static, imagining it durationally means acknowledging its constitutive dynamism.”32 Taking up a similarly durational approach to networks, literary theorist Sianne Ngai shows how literary texts such as Juliana Spahr’s poetic memoir The Transformation (2007) both demonstrates and channels a network dynamism. As Ngai argues, such texts produce narratives akin to Bruno Latour’s sense of networks as “a very specific kind of plot: a radically dynamic one where every single action by every actor will have significant impact on the action of every single other.”33 Through processes of seriality, such plots offer insight into ways that networks of characters change over time. In sum, a formalist approach to networks enables us to think about matters of form, genre, aesthetics, and media in literary criticism.

Network Aesthetics Across Media

Media theorists Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker contend, “If, as the truism goes, it takes networks to fight networks, then it also takes networks to understand networks.”34 Certainly, approaches like social network analysis use networks to understand networks. Another way to think about this approach, however, is via our contemporary media ecology, which increasingly moves across discrete mediums. For instance, my earlier works pays attention to how cultural works offer medium-specific tools for understanding, channeling, and challenging a network imaginary as it proliferates in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.35 Network form becomes most readily accessible through comparative media work—for instance, by comparing the seriality of a television show to the networked platforms that support an alternate reality game. The juxtaposition of different literary and artistic forms, across media, helps to defamiliarize network forms and make these complex structures (indeed, structures that are even dependent on complexity) available to thought.

Narrative forms interface with networks in a variety of ways. For example, novels ranging from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) to Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (1999) to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) create new languages for understanding intersections among corporate, military, political, social, and cultural networks.36 Collections of interconnected short stories such as Walter Mosley’s Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World (2001) and several of David Mitchell’s books, such as Cloud Atlas (2004) and The Bone Clocks (2014), use constellations of characters and genres to grapple with the scales and complexities of transnational capitalism. Beyond exclusively textual works, comic books from Justice League of America (1977) to The Invincible Iron Man (2008) depict supervillains who emerge from and rely on complex networks to challenge the medium’s most iconic superheroes.37 Using a different set of medium-specific techniques, such as crosscutting and montage, Hollywood films such as Short Cuts (1993), Traffic (2000), Babel (2006), Auf der Anderen Seite/The Edge of Heaven (2008), and Contagion (2011) evoke social networks. Moreover, television shows such as The Wire (2002–2008), Battlestar Galactica (2003–2009), Orange Is the New Black (2013–) and Sense8 (2015–) deploy seriality to explore both real-world and science fiction networks.38

Artistic and literary works that do not privilege storytelling also give us access to networks. Works that open up access to linguistic and social networks, while de-emphasizing narrative, include David Clark’s electronic literature piece 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (to be played with the Left Hand) (2009) and Jena Osman’s poetry book The Network (2010). Both works operate through strings of associations that map linguistic and historical networks without depending on narrative. Many digital, interactive, and participatory art works also model and explore distributed networks. Single-player simulations such as Will Wright’s SimEarth: The Living Planet (1990) model networked ecologies that constitute the planet Earth. Massively multiplayer virtual worlds such as CCP Games’ EVE Online (2003–) produce even more dynamic simulations of worlds and political systems that include both nonhuman actors and human participants. Beyond mere modeling of networks, some video games, such as thatgamecompany’s Journey (2012), connect players at a distance, via computer networks, only to limit their capacity for communication. Such works invite player improvisations that emerge from frustration and the limits of connectivity. Beyond popular art forms, such as video games, there are also many examples of fine art that is networked and explores the parameters of contemporary computer networks, including online works such as Kate Armstrong and Michael Tippett’s net art piece Grafik Dynamo (2005) and museum-based works such as Jason Salavon’s real-time software art piece Rainbow Aggregator (2013).

Certainly, network form is abstract—a dimension that allows it to travel across so many disciplines and media. However, it is important to attend to particular networks (e.g., economic systems versus terrorist networks) and the medium-specific ways that they proliferate across culture. For example, how might a particular genre (science fiction) and subgenre (cyberpunk) enable thinking about networks? A case study—Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991)—models some of the ways to analyze the specificities of network form through a particular novel.

Science Fiction, Cyberpunk, and the Interdependence of Things

The development and popularization of the Internet has elicited decades of commentary by cyberneticists, network scientists, and media theorists. This major transformation in the realm of communications has also impacted literary fiction. In particular, the genre of science fiction has yielded numerous encounters with computer networks. Many of these texts explore fears and worst-case scenarios, including uncontrollable networks and emergences of networked artificial intelligences (AIs). We see this in Fredric Brown’s science fiction short story “Answer” (1954), in which an interplanetary computer network gives rise to a sentient and malicious god-like organism. Well into the 21st century, this theme continues to proliferate in a variety of science fiction thrillers such as Daniel Suarez’s novels Daemon (2006) and Freedom™ (2010), which dramatize the many threats that attend contemporary distributed networked systems and the hackers who may seek to exploit them.39

Though emergent network threats make for compelling narratives, the genre of science fiction has also made possible more diverse encounters with network form.40 Science fiction editor Gardner Dozois observes that we live in “an interlocking and interdependent gestalt made up of thousands of factors and combinations thereof: cultural, technological, biological, psychological, historical, environmental.” Science fiction, he continues, is a literary genre uniquely able to explore this very “interdependence of things.”41 A number of speculative fiction texts produce complex accounts of technological networks and the social interdependence that they entail. Novels such as Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), David Brin’s Earth (1990), Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1991), and Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome (1995) offer socially oriented representations of interconnected systems. Instead of treating networks as atmospheric markers or fatal infrastructures, these works depict them as both technical and social architectures that transform culture.

The subgenre of science fiction that has arguably approached computer networks most explicitly is cyberpunk.42 The term cyberpunk—derived from a 1983 Bruce Bethke short story of the same title—combines the words cybernetics and punk in order to convey the genre’s mix of “high”-tech settings and “low”-life characters. Cyberpunk fiction tends to be multi-generic, urbanized, dystopian, and anti-corporate in its orientation.43 Most works in this subgenre feature “hackers” or “console-cowboys” battling powerful corporations via networked computers. In many cases, both the technological architecture of computer networks and the contemporary power structure of global capitalism become the primary stylistic and narrative focal points. Historically, cyberpunk emerged in the 1980s in the midst of Reaganomics, the Japanese microelectronics boom, an American computer culture characterized by fledgling clashes between multinational corporations and hackers, and a widespread virtual reality hype that it encouraged.44 Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, cyberpunk texts experimented with stylistic and narrative elements that sought to capture the impact of the burgeoning era of network technologies. Since the rise of the cyberpunk movement, the literary visions of such writers as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, John Shirley, and Neal Stephenson have shaped the popular imagination of cyberspace: a virtual territory that influenced the imagination of material computer networks. Similarly, films associated with cyberpunk and its liberatory high-tech aesthetic include Blade Runner (1982), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Strange Days (1995), and The Matrix (1999).

Cyberpunk, with its hard-boiled narrative style, postmodern sensibility, hacker protagonists, and emancipatory politics, was itself a relatively short-lived aesthetic movement. Nevertheless, its representational strategies have a great deal to teach us about network form. Arguably, cyberpunk is the first identifiable postmodern subgenre to explore the intersection between the aesthetics of computer networks and the anxieties that characterize the era of multinational capitalism. As Fredric Jameson contends, in 1991, cyberpunk represented “for many of us, the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself.”45 Cyberpunk draws its political topologies and foundational metaphors from network architectures. Through numerous stylistic devices, including “dense language, fast-paced style, collage-like narrative fragments, an overall impression of speed and action, and a noir atmosphere,” these fictions channel and aestheticize networks.46

Experiencing Network Form: Pat Cadigan’s Synners

Pat Cadigan’s 1991 cyberpunk novel, Synners, has much to teach its readers about computer networks.47 In Synners, Cadigan draws more directly from a cyberpunk style than in her other books in the trilogy that also includes Mindplayers (1987) and Fools (1992).48 The fast-paced novel begins in the midst of a diverse network of characters. It chronicles the intersection of two worlds that coexist within a futuristic Los Angeles: the “Diversifications, Inc.” conglomerate and the hacker-infused wasteland of “Mimosa.” The narrative, which weaves together protagonists from both sides of this divide, focuses on the introduction of a “socket” technology that produces “a direct interface for input-output with manufactured neural nets” (p. 171). The socket hardware forms new pathways in user brains, which enable organic syntheses of multimedia objects. Synners uses embodied computer networks to investigate corporate and social networks. Over the course of Cadigan’s novel, Diversifications, Inc. takes over the EyeTraxx company that owns the socket technology patent and, without performing adequate research on the innovation, makes it available to consumers. The first complication sets in when the socket hardware begins to induce neurological illnesses and violent strokes among users. Visual Mark (a multimedia artist or “synner” who synthesizes video and music) is one of the first to develop a socket addiction and lose himself online. Eventually, he suffers a stroke that is immediately passed on to the global network. Mark’s stroke spreads virally, shutting down computer networks around the world. In response, a group of hackers joins Art Fish, a sentient entity that emerges through a fusion between an artificial intelligence and a viral vaccine, to combat this spreading threat.

Synners uses themes and stylistic experiments to produce a bidirectional exchange between novel form and network form. Formally, this is most apparent in the ways that Cadigan minimizes the role of individual characters in favor of the associations that those characters occasion. In place of a protagonist, the novel uses the central object of the socket technology to constellate a network of characters. The proliferating perspectives of Synners, which resist easy immersion in the fiction, are most closely aligned with the novel’s networked intelligences. As Mark blends increasingly with the artificial intelligence Art Fish (a name evocative of “artificial”), he realizes, “none of [the human beings] in their physical world was capable of rapid shifts in pov” (p. 382). Yet the narrative form of Synners is precisely predicated on “rapid shifts” in point of view. It toggles among the viewpoints of about a dozen human, nonhuman, and hybrid characters who are perpetually on the move—and come together through coincidences, conspiracies, and network effects. This subjective, spatial, temporal, and narrative disorientation produces a notably different experience of networks than that which is often foregrounded by the social sciences. Indeed, one difficulty of analyzing social networks in the social sciences comes with the fact that they are discussed as coherent structures but are simultaneously made up of heterogeneous actors. Novels give us access to the multiplicity of networks without requiring considerable reduction or generalization in the process. Cadigan’s frequent perspectival oscillations among narrative nodes, for instance, allow her to experiment with intersections among singular human and nonhuman identities that range across categories of race, gender, and class. The novel does not settle for easy essentialisms or mere averages.49

There are three discrete ways that Synners mediates between novel and network form. First, the text complicates a view of networks as reified objects, inviting readers to imagine them more robustly as distributed topologies and relational structures. Second, Synners departs from fiction that emphasizes network threats and fears, instead occasioning an encounter with what we might call the network ordinary and its inherently nonsovereign or uncontrollable dimensions. Third, and finally, the novel insists upon the centrality of bodies, sensation, and affect to ongoing thought about networks.

From Computational Objects to Networks

One notable accomplishment of Synners is to demonstrate that networks are not objects—whether sublime technologies to be adopted or threatening terrorist networks to be destroyed. By focusing on computer networks, the novel marks the important historical transition in the United States from largely disconnected personal computers in the 1980s to a network of computers in the 1990s. Sociologist Thomas Streeter argues that, through the 1980s, “Networking was ignored in part because the dominant culture was seeing things through free-market lenses and thus imagined that microcomputers were about isolated individuals buying and selling objects.”50 By 1991, when Synners was published, computers were largely a norm in the United States (at least for a notable portion of the population), but going online was only beginning to become common. Cadigan marks this paradigm shift in a number of ways. In one passage, the AI Art Fish explains to the young hacker Sam, “For you the nets are an object. You have self and nonself, and those are both constant. For me it’s something else. The L.A. system wasn’t a where; it was a configuration of me.” When the global computer network breaks down, Art experiences this event as a major perceptual and existential disruption: “Not an arm and a leg, that’s wrong. More like a hemispherectomy” (p. 358).

Synners demonstrates the historical shift from isolated computational machines to networks through its ensemble of characters, but also through its metaphors. Arguably, the primary mechanism around which Synners organizes its metaphors, and its broader exploration of late-20th-century networks, is the computer virus. Cultural theorist Jussi Parikka argues, in his media archaeology of digital contagions: “Computer viruses and worms and similar incidents are not … antithetical to the general culture of networking and digitality but … at the very center of such enterprises.” The word virus, as Parikka further emphasizes, already takes on a pharmakon-like multiplicity when approached through the Latin prefix vir, gesturing to opposed meanings of “poison” and “virility.” Viruses thus reveal the fundamental dimensions and scope of networks by threatening inefficient operation and even collapse; they are not merely anomalies or supplementary phenomena.51

Beyond their importance to the history of networking, we might think of viruses as multivalent literary figures in their own right.52 A virus can be characterized, in Latour’s language of actor-network theory, as an “actant” that one can follow to trace associations and understand social connections.53 Particularly in a novel like Synners (the film Contagion offers an example from another medium), a virus operates much like a character, albeit a nonhuman one. There is also a generative, if admittedly broad, analogy to be made between viruses as fundamentally “sequences of symbols” (as Parikka explains via the work of computer scientist Fred Cohen) and novels as assemblages of symbolic sequences.54 In a literal sense, a virus is linguistic insofar as it is composed of the language of computer code. However, a closer look at Synners reveals some of the ways that computer viruses and their networked trajectories are also constructed through figurative uses of language. When it first appears, the network threat in the novel appears to be externalized in the form of a malignant computer virus. Mark frantically describes the threat as a “conscious stroke, a fucking virus” (p. 309). The terrifying system stroke is characterized as a “conscious” agent that will “eat the system alive and everyone connected to it.” Initially, Mark treats the virus as an external entity that aims to invade and infect the network: a creature from a horror movie that will obliterate anything in its path.55

While the virus is a threat in the novel, Cadigan refuses to represent it as a unified aggressor or stable object. As a network entity, it mutates as it spreads, altering the identity of the entire Web in the process: “It came as a small tremor followed by an instantaneous jump in the level of every infection. As if a loose infestation of rats had suddenly been transformed into a battalion of terrorists. The intelligence that drove it was different from [Mark’s] own, brutish in some ways but with the sophistication of an evolved mechanism capable of adapting itself at will” (p. 329). Since the network in the novel links a multitude of human and computational nodes, a change in the network is capable of causing “an instantaneous jump” that changes the infection it carries in every node. The virus is still anthropomorphized as “brutish,” but it also takes on a collective status. The metaphorical transformation from “a loose infestation of rats” to “a battalion of terrorists” implies the emergence of a nonhuman consciousness that is coterminous with the network topology. In Synners, then, the network catastrophe is not the product of a single virus or a solitary actor. Art realizes that the complexity of the technological disaster and its neural consequences for individual users disrupts even the possibility of reifying or naming it. Art stumbles clumsily, attempting a description that never wholly coheres: “It’s not just an infection. It’s not a virus or a bomb, it’s—I don’t know what to call it. A hot flash and a meltdown, a whack in the head with a spike” (p. 357).

Galloway and Thacker have argued that networks do not merely occasion threats. For corporations and the military alike, “connectivity is [itself] a weapon.”56 Similarly, in Synners, Mark realizes that it is the state of the network as such, rather than some threatening anomaly or enemy disruption, that has made possible this cataclysmic crash:

He’d had no idea there was so much infection floating around in the system, coming in, going out, drifting like ocean-going mines or sitting camouflaged in various pockets and hidey-holes. What he had sometimes thought of as the arteries and veins of an immense circulatory system was closer to a sewer. Strange clumps of detritus and trash, some inert and harmless, some toxic when in direct contact, and some actively radiating poison, scrambled along with the useful and necessary traffic .… There was an ecology here, gradually becoming more and more unbalanced, polluted, and infected. Ecological disaster had been inevitable, even before the stroke had been released into the system; there was no way around it. It would be universal. Computer apocalypse, a total system crash (p. 324).

This passage uses a series of metaphors to signal an epistemological paradigm shift from computer networks as technological objects and individual utilities to a vast interdependent system. The network that seemed to operate like a “circulatory system” is compared here to a “sewer” overrun with “clumps of detritus and trash.” The spreading virus has little to do with cyber-terrorist hackers hoping to crash the system. Instead, with increased interconnection comes the risk of a global “ecology” that grows “more and more unbalanced, polluted, and infected.” This systemic muddle is the result of a number of factors, including profit motives that privilege immediate returns over the social well-being.

One other affordance of novel form that Synners uses to challenge a view of networks as synchronic and reified things is the length of the text and its series of narrative developments. During the course of the story, the social network of characters and the networked computer system change over time, demonstrating a polyvalent and dynamic structure. In her analysis of longer-standing national networks, Levine observes: “One could certainly imagine the nation as a unity—understanding it in formal terms as a unified whole—but its multiple print, postal, economic, and regional networks, with their different organizing principles, broken links, and temporal delays, did more to hinder the nation from assuming a whole, unifying shape than to foster that reality.”57 Using similar logic, one can observe that a computer network is never a closed totality. Through updates and a changing constellation of users, for instance, it is always in process. Rather than mapping a comprehensive network, as a scientific visualization might do, Cadigan’s novel gestures impressionistically to other spaces and times that exceed its pages. As the virus impacts the lives of the characters, for instance, a hacker named Gator begins to plot the viral spread in short, staccato sentences that jump across the globe: “Mexico, of course—it’s having a hot time in Tijuana and points south. Sacramento and Seattle took it within seconds of each other. Tokyo reports pockets of infection scattered around the islands but no epidemic. Yet. Hawaii caught it from Bangkok, not us—” (p. 350). Given the speed of information transmission, knowledge and representation of the viral network cannot keep up with its spread and rate of transformation.

Ordinary and Nonsovereign Networks

A second accomplishment of Synners, one related to the distributed nature of networks, is that it foregrounds the ordinary and nonsovereign nature of networks that began to take form in the late 20th century. The socket technologies and the networks to which they enable smoother access are not merely a novelty. Moreover, the narrative of viral threat, though undeniably exciting, is only a single thread. Alongside the apocalyptic threat of networks, which never reaches its apex, the novel emphasizes the ordinary experience of interconnection. One of the hackers, Fez, observes, “You know how people use the net. We take it for granted, just like cars or telephones or refrigerators. If you don’t take it for granted, then you probably don’t have it” (p. 176). By attending to a range of experiences of being online, Cadigan invites readers to think about the non-events, affects, and habits that make up networked life. As media theorist Wendy Chun argues, “To understand the power of our imagined technologies and networks,” we must consider “habits—things that remain by disappearing from consciousness.” Chun explicitly suggests moving “focus away from ‘viral spread’ and ‘viruses’” to show “how so-called obsolescent media remain in users’ bodies.”58 For all of its catastrophic potential, Synners ultimately takes a similar viewpoint. Even the ubiquitous Dr. Fish virus in the novel causes “almost no destructiveness, just unexpected messages taking up space and slowing things down” (p. 29). The inefficiencies caused by this virus do not end in apocalypse. Mostly, they lead characters to make minor adjustments in their everyday ways of living.

Networks, then, are not always extraordinary or sublime, utopian or apocalyptic. A fuller sense of networks might turn from a view of totalizing systems of control to what they are more frequently: nonsovereign systems that make possible common experiences of being ungoverned, disconnected, lost, laggy, intimately entangled, abandoned, frustrated, or broken down.59 Synners takes us beyond this theoretical point, however, and immerses the reader in a world overflowing with nonsovereign networks. The noise and disconnection implicit in networks becomes most visible during the spread of the computer virus, during which Los Angeles experiences “power outages, brownouts, and scrambled signals” becoming “effectively cut off communicationswise from the surrounding region and from the rest of the state” (p. 321). In these scenes, most major infrastructures are shown to have a digital and networked dimension. Even before the novel’s climactic sequence, we see many network breakdowns. For examples, characters repeatedly complain about the “GridLid” network that shares traffic updates but seems perpetually belated with its information, never synchronized with real-time events. In many ways, the diverse group of characters, from marginal hackers to corporate executives, share little in common. Even so, all of the characters manifest a desire to master the networked technologies in their lives, which usually leads to experiences of annoyance, helplessness, and disappointment when those technologies operate in unpredictable ways. In the second decade of the 21st century, computer networks have become so ubiquitous in the lives of many people as to be functionally invisible. Already, in 1991, Synners suggests that utopia and dystopia may be too grand, and thus limited, frames for thinking through networks. We learn more by reflecting on the ordinary and nonsovereign experiences that they occasion.

Networked Embodiment

Third, Synners uses viruses and human interactions online to make network form sensible. It is important to note that most cyberpunk novels, such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, characterize human bodies in a deprecating manner as mere “meat” that cannot hope to compete with experiences of networked sublimity.60 By contrast, Synners is awash in bodily sensation and perception. The title itself signals “sinners” of the hacker underground and digital media art “synthesizers,” but also the “synapses” of the human neural network that become entangled with computer networks. The word synners thus evokes multiple aspects of fleshly experience. Throughout the novel, the socket technology and time spent online have numerous physical consequences including exhaustion, bodily atrophy, even strokes. Characters are also able to sense subtle changes in contexts and networks. Synners imagines the state of being networked as being in “contact with the system” and entering into a space where one can feel “the presence of those people on-line with their sockets” (p. 259). Mark, for instance, reflects on his capacity to feel other entities online: “Already he could distinguish most of the individuals just by their input; little things, the style, the patterns, the rhythms and pauses showed variations that were no longer minuscule to him, no two ever quite the same” (p. 382). Cadigan’s prose often moves into a sensual stream of consciousness that captures an intoxicating blur of space and time that comes with being online. Rather than a cerebral escape from the body, then, networks constitute a different sensual topology.

It is historically significant that Cadigan describes the spreading network crash, at first, through the embodied metaphor of an “infection” and, later in the process, as “a battalion of terrorists.” Galloway shows that the metaphor of a digital virus emerged in the culture of the 1980s. By the 1990s, however, when fears began to shift from the computer virus itself to the virus’s programmer-author, this disruptive entity was framed increasingly as a terrorist tool. The perception of computer viruses produced by hackers shifted, over time, from neutral entities that served as exploratory mechanisms, in the 1960s, to illegal though minor crimes, in the late 1980s, to hard crimes by the late 1990s.61 Synners’s network aesthetic serves to deconstruct precisely this metaphoric series, demonstrating how the systemic shortcomings of networks cede to narratives about external infections and malevolent hackers. As a young Mimosa hacker explains during a news interview, “Every freakin’ time something goes wrong, people say, ‘Oh, must be some hacker doing the virus thing again.’ They like to blame us for all their problems. Prolly the software just gave out all at once … Yeah, you mainstreams, you straights, none of you maintain your software or hardware like you should” (p. 318).

The hackers who are scapegoated for “the virus thing” are marginal figures who are contrasted with “mainstreams” or “straights.” This queering of network culture and critique of misinformed “straights” foregrounds the novel’s extended analogy between HIV and computer viruses. Indeed, this parallel between viruses that target human bodies and computer networks was reflected in the cultural debates in the early 1990s. As Parikka observes, “The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was at the center of numerous contested articulations concerning the actions, sexualities, ethnicities, etc. of human bodies; the computer virus (or the computer AIDS, as it was often referred to) incorporated several similar fields of struggle, on which contests over ‘proper use of computing’, ‘safe hex’, ‘digital hygiene’, and other key discursive events took place.”62 At times, the novel forms analogies between these realms. Sam, for example, analyzes the “the way [the Dr. Fish virus] reproduces,” comparing it to “herpes, not cholera” (p. 30). At other moments, similarly to contemporary novels such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), Synners literalizes the bodily impact of its technologies when it shuts down physical infrastructures. Moreover, in one scene, after Joslin and Galen link themselves to each other in order to be completely connected, they are found dead from a shared stroke that erases the boundaries between technologies and bodies, yielding a scene of “wires, and blood, and piss, and shit” (p. 275). In all of these instances, boundaries between human bodies and silicon, nature and culture, become complicated in a fledgling network culture.

Comparative Forms

Among their numerous conceptual uses, networks invite us to bridge aesthetic and literary form, on the one hand, and social and political form on the other. As the cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai argues, “We need to probe the cohabitation of forms, such as the novel and the nation, because they actually produce new contexts through their peculiar inflection of each other.”63 Network form, in particular, becomes most readily accessible in a comparative mode—for instance by tracking it through the thematic, metaphorical, and formal dimensions of a cyberpunk novel. By reading between novels and networks, as in the case study of Synners, one can defamiliarize both forms, which so often become naturalized. Formal analysis, of course, takes one beyond the novel and network in particular. As Levine observes, “minor forms can sometimes work against major ones—a local mail carrier can weaken a centralized network of imperial power by superimposing another, more local network, and a woman poet can retreat to the boundaries of her bedroom to block the encroachment of some very tiresome social networks in favor of a richer, more expansive world.”64 Even as it imagines global networks, Synners also represents emergent non-biological families that are enabled by those networks but also contrary to their dominant logics. Aesthetically, too, the major form of the novel coexists with numerous genres among which the novel oscillates, including cyberpunk, procedural mystery, zombie horror, action-adventure, and drug trips. These forms compete and intersect, though never quite achieve total synthesis.

If networks often seem like a totalizing form, it might be useful to remember that this is not how hackers tend to see them. Contemporary distributions of power across both social and technological webs suggest new paths to provisional forms of freedom. Galloway and Thacker argue, “Within protocological networks, political acts generally happen not by shifting power from one place to another, but by exploiting power differentials already existing in the system.” More precisely, practices of “protocological struggle” or “exploit” involve “discovering holes in existent technologies.”65 In most cyberpunk narratives, hackers and hacker collectives are the agents of precisely these kinds of exploits. Similarly to hackers, novelists and artists suggest ways of reshaping networks from the inside. They make different dimensions of these infrastructures visible, sensible, and transformable.

Review of the Literature

Network form has had an impact on both the content and methods of literary studies. Discussions of networks often concern social organization such as urban migration patterns or terrorist networks, and communication systems such as exchanges via telegraph or computer networks. Particularly in the early 21st century, networks have impacted a wide range of literary subfields such as early American (Matt Cohen and Stacey Margolis), Victorian (Jonathan H. Grossman and Caroline Levine), modernist (Wesley Beal and Maud Ellman), transnational (Vilashini Cooppan and Édouard Glissant), and 20th- and 21st-century (David Ciccoricco and Katherine Hayles) literature. This work also extends to formalist areas adjacent to traditional literary criticism, including film (David Bordwell and Steven Shaviro) and new media (Wendy Chun and Alexander Galloway) studies. Additionally, the study of particular genres, such as the Victorian multiplot novel (Caroline Levine and Peter K. Garrett) and science fiction literature (Scott Bukatman and Priscilla Wald), lends itself to network analysis. Finally, scholarship in critical theory has used networks to expand areas such as feminist (Anne Balsamo and Ned Schantz) and affect (Anna Gibson and Anna Munster) theory.

Additionally, critics have been inspired by networks to adapt or develop a number of methodologies for the study of literature. One method, which includes many of the subfields mentioned above, uses networks of communication or organization to study literature from periods prior to the late-20th-century rise of network science. Digital humanities scholars have adapted methods such as social network analysis from the social sciences to visualize and interpret textual data (Franco Moretti, Natalie M. Houston, Hoyt Long, and Richard Jean So). Approaches such as reader-response theory have attended to networks of readers and publishers of literary works (Janice Radway and Amy Hungerford). Formalism has put network form and aesthetic forms such as novels and poems in conversation with each other (Caroline Levine and Sianne Ngai). The use of networks in literary criticism has grown in the early 21st century in parallel to the emergence of network science and the proliferation of the metaphor across disciplines in the humanities and sciences.

Further Reading

Barabási, Albert-László. Linked: The New Science of Networks. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub, 2002.Find this resource:

Beal, Wesley. Networks of Modernism: Reorganizing American Narrative. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Bordwell, David. “Subjective Stories and Network Narratives.” In The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies, 72–103. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.Find this resource:

Chun, Wendy H.K. Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Ciccoricco, David. Reading Network Fiction. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Cohen, Matt. The Networked Wilderness: Communicating in Early New England. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Ellmann, Maud. The Nets of Modernism: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Sigmund Freud. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Galloway, Alexander R. Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Galloway, Alexander R., and Eugene Thacker. The Exploit: A Theory of Networks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Grossman, Jonathan H. Charles Dickens’s Networks: Public Transport and the Novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Jagoda, Patrick. Network Aesthetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Mattelart, Armand. Networking the World, 1794–2000. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Munster, Anna. An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Otis, Laura. Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Parikka, Jussi. Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.Find this resource:

Schantz, Ned. Gossip, Letters, Phones: The Scandal of Female Networks in Film and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Shaviro, Steven. Connected, Or, What It Means to Live in the Network Society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Siegert, Bernhard. Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Wald, Priscilla. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.Find this resource:


(1.) Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 129.

(2.) Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

(3.) Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2005), 151.

(4.) I expand on these historical trajectories in Network Aesthetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

(5.) Quoted in Mark E.J. Newman, Albert-László Barabási, and Duncan J. Watts, The Structure and Dynamics of Networks (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 22–23. One character links himself to a Swedish novelist and Nobel Prize winner (Selma Lagerlof) through just two intermediaries. The narrator links himself to “an anonymous riveter at the Ford Motor Company” in four steps: “The worker knows his foreman, who knows Mr. Ford himself, who, in turn is on good terms with the director general of the Hearst publishing empire. I had a close friend, Mr. Árpád Pásztor, who had recently struck up an acquaintance with the director of Hearst publishing” (p. 23).

(6.) For a fuller exploration of the influence of literature and science fiction on technological and scientific innovation, especially in terms of “fan practice,” see: Colin Milburn, “Modifiable Futures: Science Fiction at the Bench,” Isis: an International Review Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences 101.3 (2010): 560–569. Milburn also offers a robust discussion of the relationship between science fiction and nanotechnology in Mondo Nano: Fun and Games in the World of Digital Matter (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015). Even beyond network form, we see many examples of such resonance. One of the most frequently cited examples of strong influence is the 1914 novel The World Set Free, in which H.G. Wells imagined and named the “atomic bomb” long before the production of its real-world counterpart. Another famous example is William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, in which he coined the term “cyberspace,” thereby affecting the conception of the digital imaginary by computer scientists. Arguably, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash had an even more direct effect on virtual world designers creating spaces such as Second Life. There are many other examples of dialogues between literature and techno-scientific development, even as direct “influence” is difficult to establish. There are countless examples that exceed the ones covered here, including Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward (in which the author imagines credit cards and the radio-like “musical telephone”) and Robert Heinlein’s 1942 novella “Waldo” (that served as an imaginary precursor to Richard Feynman’s 1959 nanotechnology lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”).

(7.) For an example of writing about networks in the area of 21st-century fiction, see: Ed Finn, “Revenge of the Nerd: Junot Díaz and the Networks of American Literary Imagination,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 7.1 (2013). Finn addresses the relevance of networks to contemporary literary studies both via digital humanities methodology and through the networks of translation and cultural distribution (including the literary marketplace and book reviews) that contributed to Díaz’s success, particularly with the publication of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). For a study of network form in electronic literature, see: David Ciccoricco, Reading Network Fiction (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007). Ciccoricco explores “network fiction” that “makes use of hypertext technology in order to create emergent and recombinatory narratives” (p. 4). Through interventions into narratology and critical theory, he delves into first-generation digital literature run on Storyspace software and second-wave network fiction published online. The work on networks in new media studies is various, but one important critical text is Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).

(8.) This is not meant to imply that all subfields of literary criticism have given equal attention to networks as either objects or methodologies. For example, one finds more frequent and detailed discussions of networks in new media studies than in studies of medieval literature. At the same time, premodern and medieval literary criticism does include analyses of merchant and urban networks. See, for instance: Caroline Goodson, Anne E. Lester, and Carol Symes, Cities, Texts and Social Networks, 400–1500: Experiences and Perceptions of Medieval Urban Space (Farnham, Surrey, U.K.: Ashgate, 2010).

(9.) Stacey Margolis, “Network Theory circa 1800: Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn,” Novel 45.3 (2012): 344. For a discussion of networks in later 19th-century literature, including the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, see: Regina Schober, “Transcending Boundaries: The Network Concept in Nineteenth-Century American Philosophy and Literature,” American Literature, 86.3 (2014): 493–522.

(10.) Anna Gibson, “Our Mutual Friend and Network Form,” Novel 48.1 (2015): 63.

(11.) Maud Ellmann, The Nets of Modernism: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Sigmund Freud (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1. For a further development of the importance of networks to modernism, also see: Wesley Beal, Networks of Modernism: Reorganizing American Narrative (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2015). Beal explores the interdependence of stories in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, as well as interconnected forms in Jean Toomer’s Cane and John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy. Such texts exemplify “the dialectical interplay of fragmentation and totality” that characterizes modernism but also network form (p. 2). This book goes as far as to position “the network as the defining figure of American modernism” (p. 7).

(12.) Ned Schantz, Gossip, Letters, Phones: The Scandal of Female Networks in Film and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

(13.) Vilashini Cooppan, “Net Work: Area Studies, Comparison, and Connectivity,” PMLA 128.3 (2013): 616.

(14.) In Reading Network Fiction, David Ciccoricco makes a more specific version of this point in regard to hypertext fiction and electronic literature. Rather than simply disorienting the reader, nodal repetitions can participate in “drawing readers, again and again, into the represented world of the narrative—a world in which they are strangely implicated” (p. 123). For this reason, “pattern recognition is thus implicit in the practice of reading network fiction” (p. 7).

(15.) For more about Victorian multiplot novels, see: Peter K. Garrett, The Victorian Multiplot Novel: Studies in Dialogical Form (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980).

(16.) For one discussion of the intersection of networks and affect theory, see for instance: Gibson, “Our Mutual Friend and Network Form,” 74–80. For an analysis of transnational networks, see: Finn, “Revenge of the Nerd”

(17.) This discussion is restricted to methods that emerge from literary criticism itself. One method left out here, which comes more directly from the arts, is the use of practice-based research to create net art and network narratives that yield additional research. I explore this method in Chapter 5 of Network Aesthetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016) by exploring a networked alternate reality game titled The Project that I co-created in order to study the effects of both computer and social networks.

(18.) Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “network, n. and adj..

(19.) I elaborate on the historically changing nature of the word and concept network in Network Aesthetics. For a fuller media history of networks, which corresponds to the word’s linguistic dimensions, see: Armand Mattelart, Networking the World, 1794–2000 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

(20.) Alexander Galloway, “Networks,” in Critical Terms for Media Studies, eds. W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B. N. Hansen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 282.

(21.) Matt Cohen, The Networked Wilderness: Communicating in Early New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010). For a book that applies concepts such as communication and networks in complementary ways, albeit in the field of history, see: William B. Warner, Protocols of Liberty: Communication Innovation and the American Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). Warner uses network theory to explore how Whig revolutionaries challenged British power in the United States prior to the American Revolution.

(22.) Jonathan H. Grossman, Charles Dickens’s Networks: Public Transport and the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 6.

(23.) Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 125.

(24.) For digital humanities work on ancient Greek contexts see, for instance, the work of Jeff Rydberg-Cox, including “A Visual Explorer for the Language of Greek Tragedy: A Visualization Tool to Allow for the Exploration of Linguistic Data in Greek Tragedy Using Social Networks Overlaid with Linguistic Data.”Accessed April 28, 2016. For network analysis of game networks, see, for instance: Benjamin Stokes, Jeff Watson, Tracy Fullerton, and Simon Wiscombe. “A Reality Game to Cross Disciplines: Fostering Networks and Collaboration,” in Proceedings of DiGRA 2013: DeFragging Game Studies (Atlanta, GA, August 2013). Accessed April 28, 2016.

(25.) Franco Moretti, “Network Theory, Plot Analysis,” New Left Review 68 (March–April 2011).

(26.) Franco Moretti’s work also takes us into the space of what he calls “distant reading.” See, for instance: Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (London: Verso, 2005).

(27.) Natalie M. Houston, “Toward a Computational Analysis of Victorian Poetics,” Victorian Studies 56.3 (2014): 499, 502, and 503, p. 80–102.

(28.) Richard Jean So and Hoyt Long, “Network Analysis and the Sociology of Modernism,” boundary 2 40.2 (2013): 147–182.

(29.) Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 97. Radway also turns to networks of readers in other texts, such as A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

(30.) Amy Hungerford, Making Literature Now (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016), 2, 98, 103, and 112.

(31.) Levine, Forms, 3, 6, 4–5, and 113.

(32.) Anna Munster, An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 3.

(33.) Sianne Ngai, “Network Aesthetics: Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation and Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social,” in American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions, eds. Cindy Weinstein and Christopher Looby (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 381.

(34.) Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 117.

(35.) Patrick Jagoda, Network Aesthetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

(36.) Most of the examples here include literary and art works that respond formally to networks. There are also numerous texts that thematize different types of networks, without encountering them in a primarily formal fashion, such Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle (2013).

(37.) Here, I have in mind the Justice League of America “Return From Forever!” storyline. In “The Five Nightmares” plotline of the more recent The Invincible Iron Man series, Iron Man’s primary villain Ezekiel Stane is a post-national computer genius who fights the superhero’s machine sensibilities with various distributed and mobile network strategies.

(38.) For example, for a reading of Orange Is the New Black that foregrounds the show’s network aesthetics, see: Ryan Pierson, “‘Orange Is the New Black’ Is the New ‘Brute Force’: Prison Melodrama and Network Aesthetics,” Special Affects, August 27, 2013.

(39.) I perform an extended reading of Daemon in Patrick Jagoda, “Speculative Security,” in Cyberspace and National Security: Threats, Opportunities, and Power in a Virtual World, ed. Derek S. Reveron (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2012), 21–35.

(40.) Gardner R. Dozois, Living the Future: You Are What You Eat, Writer’s Chapbook Series, #31 (Eugene, OR: Writer’s Notebook Press, Pulphouse Publishing, 1991). For the centrality of science fiction to networks, also see: Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993).

(41.) Gardner R. Dozois, Living the Future: You Are What You Eat, Writer’s Chapbook Series, #31 (Eugene, OR: Writer’s Notebook Press, Pulphouse Publishing, 1991).

(42.) Ellen L. McCallum, “Mapping the Real in Cyberfiction,” Poetics Today 21.2 (2000): 350. As McCallum observes, cyberpunk also drew from classical science fiction, 1960s and 1970s New Wave fiction, and postmodern literature.

(43.) Urban and cyberspace settings dominate cyberpunk fiction. For more on the simultaneity and blurring of these landscapes, see: Tony Myers “The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibson’s Neuromancer,” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001): 887–909. The transition from the urban “site” or “space” to the more dynamic network “topology” of cyberspace is a key element of cyberpunk’s network aesthetics.

(44.) This framing of 1980s computer culture is drawn from Eugene Thatcher’s Foreword (“Protocol Is as Protocol Does”) to Galloway’s Protocol (p. xii). For more on the historical context of cyberpunk, see David Seed, “Cyberpunk and Dystopia: Pat Cadigan’s Networks” in Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, eds. Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan (New York: Routledge, 2003), 69–90.

(45.) Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 419.

(46.) Sabine Heuser, Virtual Geographies: Cyberpunk at the Intersection of the Postmodern and Science Fiction (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003), xxxiv. Heuser later explains, “In the late twentieth century, networks, webs, and fabrics have become the predominant metaphors for the concept of most complex states. Computer discourse has provided us with countless examples, even if the majority of these have devolved into literalized expressions devoid of poetic power. The very notion of a network seems to serve as a heuristic model for the process of metaphoric construal itself” (p. xxxv).

(47.) Pat Cadigan, Synners (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2001). All additional citations to this work appear in the text.

(48.) Sabine Heuser explains the ways in which Synners both employs and challenges the aesthetic conventions of cyberpunk fiction: “Cadigan does not neatly conform to the label cyberpunk. She shares some of its themes, but she chooses to explore them in a different direction. As a lone woman cyberpunk writer, she implicitly engages with issues close to feminism” (Virtual Geographies, 169). At times, Cadigan even parodies the masculine tendencies of earlier action-adventure cyberpunk tales. For example, the interactive House of the Headhunters simulation that the artistic designer Gabe produces overtly “caters to male fantasies of domination and gratification” (Synners, 156).

(49.) Networks have numerous effects on novelistic characters. Caroline Levine already tracks these effects through 19th-century literature. She writes, “By organizing the narrative around networks rather than persons, Bleak House does for character something like what Marx did for commodities: casting narrative persons less as powerful or symbolic agents in their own right than as moments in which complex and invisible social forces cross. Network form therefore prompts a rethinking of novelistic character” (Forms, 126). If the changing social networks of industrialism already altered novelistic character in the 19th century, the postindustrial and networked condition from which Synners emerges complicates character even further. Though the novel, with its linear text, interpellates an individual reader, Cadigan uses the affordances of science fiction to imagine forms of consciousness that are multiple, distributed, and networked. In one passage, the Diversifications Inc. computer system becomes a character as it inadvertently admits the virus produced by Mark’s stroke (p. 255). Cadigan gives “the system” a degree of agency, but this characterization is largely metonymic, standing in for a series of programs, subroutines, applications, rules, operations, and procedures. The novel represents the network, aesthetically, through what we might call a protocol perspective that circumvents any human consciousness.

(50.) Thomas Streeter, The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 14.

(51.) Jussi Parikka, Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), 3 and 20. Parikka also links viral disruptions to the noise that is central to communication theory: “Communication cannot go on without the element of miscommunication, of contagion, at its center: communication is constituted of both signals and noise, just as the classical communication theory of Shannon and Weaver has taught us” (p. 20).

(52.) For a broader history and extended analysis of viral metaphors and the role of viruses in literature, see: Priscilla Wald, Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

(53.) See, especially: Latour, Reassembling the Social.

(54.) Ibid., 65.

(55.) The horror film aesthetic is both employed and parodied in an extended passage in which Mark finds himself able to take over any socket body, converting it into a temporary zombie avatar. Rather than focusing on a single threatening figure, however, this passage serves more prominently to demonstrate the ubiquity and the extensive reach of networks (p. 342).

(56.) Galloway and Thacker, The Exploit, 27.

(57.) Levine, Forms, 121.

(58.) Wendy H.K. Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), x, 15, and x–xi.

(59.) This idea is drawn from Network Aesthetics (2016). For the idea of nonsovereignty, I draw primarily from Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); and Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

(60.) For an extensive discussion of the body in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, see: Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 25–49. Also, for an exploration of the relationship between bodies and technologies, including the role of bodies in cyberspace, see: Anne M. Balsamo, Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).

(61.) Galloway, Protocol, 178–184. Also, see Parikka, who adds, “the concept of computer crime was, during the 1960s and 1970s (and still at the end of the 1980s, after several larger computer virus and worm outbreaks), hard to grasp” (Digital Contagions, 49). It was not until the late 1980s that earlier viral experiments and pranks began to be replaced by serious payloads with costly consequences (p. 63). Equally important was the expansion of networked connectivity among computer users during this period.

(62.) Parikka, Digital Contagions, 8.

(63.) Arjun Appadurai, “How Histories Make Geographies: Circulation and Context in a Global Perspective,” Transcultural Studies 1 (2010): 3.

(64.) Levine, Forms, 131.

(65.) Galloway and Thacker, The Exploit, 98 and 99.