The death of writing – if James Joyce were alive today he’d be working for Google

If, five years ago, you’d asked me to name
the most important French mid-20th
century writer, I’d have mentally dipped a
hand into a hat in which names of
contenders such as Camus, Genet, Duras
and Robbe-Grillet had been tossed, and
pulled one out at random. Not any more.
Right now I’d answer without hesitation:
Claude Lévi-Strauss. An odd choice,
perhaps: an ethnographer by calling, Lévi-
Strauss wrote neither plays nor novels. Yet,
for my money, his work displays a richer,
deeper literary sensibility than that of his
“proper” literary contemporaries. Not only
is his prose better than theirs (his lyrical
descriptions of the “leprous crusts” of
buildings or the “supernatural cataclysms”
of sunsets and sunrises), it is also infused
with meditations on the very act of writing
– the blindspots that it opens up, the traps
or pitfalls that it sets. Infused, too, with a
sense of structure, pattern, system (the
narrative of Tristes Tropiques, for example,
zaps from culture to culture, continent to
continent, as it remaps the entire globe
along lines of association: between the
layout, concentric or concyclic, of a
village’s huts, the transgenerational
rhythms of exogamy and endogamy of the
tribe to whom these huts belong, and the
symmetry or asymmetry of a caste system
on the far side of the world). And infused,
beyond even this, with a tantalising sense
that, if only he could correlate it all, plot
the whole system out, some universal
“master-meaning” would emerge, bathing
both him and his readers in an all-
consuming, epiphanic grace.
The rise of corporate capitalism forces the
writer to rethink their role and function, to
remap their entire universe
As a novelist, I am fascinated by the figure
of the anthropologist. What he or she
embodies for me is a version of the writer
minus all the bullshit, all the camouflage
or obfuscation – embodies, that is, the
function of the writer stripped down to its
bare structural essentials. You look at the
world and you report on it. That’s it. You
spend time with a tribe, observe the way
they fish and hunt, discern the contours of
their rituals, beliefs and superstitions,
tune into their unspokens and taboos.
Then, after a year or so of this, you lug
your note-packed trunk down to a
dilapidated jetty from which a series of
small rubber-trading boats and giant
ocean liners carry you back to your study,
where, khakis swapped for cotton shirt and
tie, saliva liquor for the Twinings or iced
scotch your housekeeper purveys you on a
tray, you write the Book on them: the Great
Report that maps the world you have been
observing at its deepest and most intimate
level, sums the tribe up, speaks its secret
Certainly, Bronisław Malinowski, the
father of modern anthropology, understood
the discipline that he was forging as
essentially a literary one. His first
commandment was: write everything
down. You never know (he reasoned) what
will turn out to be important and what
won’t; the smallest, most trivial-seeming
episode or situation might contain the key
to understanding larger cultural enigmas –
so capture it all, turn it all into data, into
text. In this respect, his thinking was
remarkably close to that of the man many
would credit as the father of modern
literature, Stéphane Mallarmé.
In his landmark essay-cum-manifesto The
Book, Spiritual Instrument, Mallarmé claims
that everything that exists does so in order
to end up in, or as, a book. This book-to-
come, he continues, using language that
foreshadows Lévi-Strauss’s, would be “an
immaculate grouping of universal
relationships come together for some
miraculous and glittering occasion”, in
which typography itself “becomes a
rite” (he also calls the book “a tomb in
miniature for our souls”). Mallarmé spent
the final decades of his life plotting the
form this uber-book might take: books in
their current state being inadequate for
the task of containing everything, he called
for a radical dismantling and
reconfiguration of the shape and format of
the medium itself, envisaging ways in
which the page might be unfolded and
expanded into performance, social
practice, even cult activity. In so doing, he
laid the foundations for the 20th-century
avant garde, from Cage’s extra‑literary
activities or Burroughs’s revolutionary
ethnographically inflected provocations to
that most immaculate and glittering
grouping of all universal – and quotidian –
relations, Ulysses, in which Joyce
repeatedly states his ambition to make a
whole culture, at micro- and macro-level,
from its advertising slogans or the small
talk in bars to its funerary rituals and the
way the entire past and future are
imagined, to use Mallarmé’s words, aboutir
dans un livre.
The writer as vanguard ethnographer; the
novel as all-containing Great Report – it’s a
lovely idea. The problem is, the
anthropological model is fraught with
problems; there’s an almost systematic
unworkability inscribed within it – a fact
that Lévi-Strauss recognised all too well.
What makes his work so fascinating is not
so much its colourful accounts of
Nambikwara ceremonies or Caduveo body
art as its constant, melancholic
undermining of itself (whence the tristes of
his signature tome’s title). Walking the
streets of Lahore’s old town, festooned by
the 1950s with electric cables, he describes
being struck with a sense of having come
“too late” to see the vanished, “real”
Lahore; although he knows that the
ethnographer who came here 50 years
before him felt the same thing, and that
the one who’ll come 50 years later will
wish he’d come 50 years earlier to see what
he, Lévi-Strauss, failed to see right there in
front of him. This leads him to write of a
fatal “double bind” afflicting
anthropology: the very “purity” it craves is
no more than a state in which all frames of
comprehension, of interpretation or
analysis, are lacking; once these frames are
brought to bear, the mystery that drew the
anthropologist towards his subject
evaporates. Meeting a tribe that doesn’t
know what writing is, and seeing the
tribe’s chief borrow his pen and scribble
on a sheet in order to dupe his subjects
into thinking that he is versed in this
activity, Lévi-Strauss realises that his own
writing is itself no more than a form of
duping – not just of readers but of himself
too, carrying meaning to the point of
ambiguity again and again in a bid to
generate the very type of mystery on which
it thrives.
If these problems – essentially literary
ones, it should once more be noted,
problems of perceiving, describing,
writing – plagued anthropology in its mid-
century heyday, how much more so do they
now? Since Lévi-Strauss’s era (and due, in
large part, to the systems of equivalence he
drew up that allow all cultures to be
viewed through the same grid), the
ethnographic viewfinder has shifted its
gaze from the “primitive” world to the
developed one, and to the very societies of
which anthropologists themselves form
part. The tribe is us. Where, then, is the
dilapidated jetty? Where the rubber boat
and ocean liner, and the study with its
Twinings and its scotch? For decades now,
the distinction (so vital to classical
anthropology) between “field” and “home”
has imploded – a collapse that goes hand-
in-hand with that of the academy as a seat
of “pure”, unsullied knowledge. As any
contemporary British academic will tell
you, thanks to a double whammy of drastic
cuts in public funding for and creeping
privatisation of higher education,
universities have become businesses – and
not very good ones. Conversely, businesses,
and particularly those at the leading edge
of innovation, have taken over universities’
former role as society’s prime sites of
knowledge generation. That the best
engineers, mathematicians and visual
designers should end up working in
business is perhaps unsurprising – but a
more eyebrow-raising statistic is that more
than half of all anthropology graduates
now work for corporations too. Not on but
for: deploying ethnographic knowledge to
help companies achieve deeper
penetration of their markets, to advise
cities how to brand and rebrand
themselves, and governments how better
to narrate their policy agendas.
That last term – narrate – should bring this
whole discussion back to the point it never
really left. As for the world of
anthropology, so for the world of
literature. It is not just that people with
degrees in English generally go to work for
corporations (which of course they do); the
point is that the company, in its most
cutting-edge incarnation, has become the
arena in which narratives and fictions,
metaphors and metonymies and symbol
networks at their most dynamic and
incisive are being generated, worked
through and transformed. While “official”
fiction has retreated into comforting
nostalgia about kings and queens, or
supposed tales of the contemporary
rendered in an equally nostalgic mode of
unexamined realism, it is funky
architecture firms, digital media
companies and brand consultancies that
have assumed the mantle of the cultural
avant garde. It is they who, now, seem to
be performing writers’ essential task of
working through the fragmentations of old
orders of experience and representation,
and coming up with radical new forms to
chart and manage new, emergent ones. If
there is an individual alive in 2015 with
the genius and vision of James Joyce,
they’re probably working for Google, and if
there isn’t, it doesn’t matter since the
operations of that genius and vision are
being developed and performed
collectively by operators on the payroll of
that company, or of one like it.
The rise of corporate capitalism, and the
astonishing, almost exponential rate of its
recent acceleration, I would argue, present
a huge challenge to the writer, forcing him
or her to rethink their whole role and
function, to remap their entire universe.
There is no space outside this matrix, no
virgin territory of pure “aesthetics” or
neutral “reflection” on which it hasn’t
impacted. If this situation isn’t entirely or
categorically new (writers have been
dependent on some kind of marketplace
since time immemorial, of course), one
aspect of it has (I’d suggest) reached
tipping point: the issue of data saturation.
Western literature may have more or less
begun, in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, with a
lengthy account of a signal crossing space,
and of the beacon network through whose
nodes the signal’s message (that of Troy’s
downfall) is relayed – but now, two and a
half millennia later, that network, that
regime of signals, is so omnipresent and
insistent, so undeniably inserted or
installed at every stratum of existence, that
the notion that we might need some
person, some skilled craftsman, to compose
any messages, let alone incisive or
“epiphanic” ones, seems hopelessly quaint.
Malinowski may have urged his craft’s
practitioners to Write Everything Down –
but now, it is all written down already.
There’s hardly an instant of our lives that
isn’t documented. Walk down any stretch
of street and you’re being filmed by three
cameras at once – and the phone you carry
in your pocket is pinpointing and logging
your location at each given moment. Every
website that you visit, each keystroke and
click-through are archived: even if you’ve
hit delete or empty trash it’s still there,
lodged within some data fold or enclave,
some occluded-yet-retrievable avenue of
circuitry. Mallarmé, the first to introduce
the category of the “virtual” into poetics,
would have gasped (and not entirely
joyfully) at the unfolded and expanded,
omnipresent, omniscient “book” or data
tomb within whose soft walls we live now –
and gasped most loudly at the irony that
this “book” renders the role of its writer
redundant. Who, nowadays, maps our
tribe’s kinship structures, our systems of
exchange, the webs of value and belief that
bind us all together? Software does,
tabulating and cross-indexing what we buy
with who we know, and what they buy, or
like, and with the other goods that are
bought or liked by others who we don’t
know but with whom we cohabit a shared
buying or liking pattern. Far from being
unwritable, the all-containing Great
Report is being written around us, all the
time – not by an anthronovelist but by a
neutral and indifferent binary system
whose sole aim is to perpetuate itself, an
auto-alphaing and auto-omegating script.
The surrealists might have pioneered a
form of “automatic writing” – but that now
seems quaint too. The issue has become
one of automatic reading. The script, the
Great Report, is here, there, everywhere –
but who can read it? From what jetty
leading to what study (since all jetties and
all studies are already written into it)
could it be viewed, surveyed, interpreted?
None. Only another piece of software could
do that.Michel de Certeau, perhaps the leading
claimant to Lévi-Strauss’s crown, a
visionary thinker whose writing blurs the
boundaries between anthropology,
philosophy, politics and even theology to
such an extent as to make it virtually
uncategorisable, advances a similar
argument. In his key 1980 volume The
Practice of Everyday Life De Certeau
presents all the various apparatuses and
axes of society – its laws and institutions,
trading systems and technologies – as parts
of a giant “scriptural system”, a “scriptural
enterprise”, a “scriptural project”.
“Modernisation,” he states with a nod to
the historian François Furet, “modernity
itself, is writing.” The scriptural system,
like the giant writing machine of Kafka’s
“In the Penal Colony”, inscribes its mark
across all surfaces, be these inanimate or
human, that come within its frame (in
other words, across all surfaces), ensuring
that every single aspect of experience “will
thus be transformed into texts in
conformity with the western desire to read
its products”. This machine is not in the
service of any operator; rather, “by an
inversion that indicates that a threshold
has been crossed, the scriptural system
moves us forward on its own … it
transforms the subjects that controlled it
into operators of the writing machine that
orders and uses them”.
Does anything escape this system’s, this
scriptorium’s, clutches? No, De Certeau
claims – not even our mute bodies, since
all bodies are already seized hold of and
written, transformed into code (a situation
that, since De Certeau’s time, has become
all the more loaded with the rise of
bioinformatics). But, intriguingly, De
Certeau ponders what might happen when
bodies turn what he calls “obscene” – that
is, when they become the carriers (not
unlike those of Lévi-Strauss’s tattooed
Caduveos) of half-forgotten legends that
have not yet been decoded, floating
through everyday life as disconnected
clusters whose data compatibility or
legibility has fragmented into “audible
citations”, “reminiscences”. These
fragments, he continues speculating, might
then lodge themselves within the script
“like white pebbles dropped through the
forest of signs … incised into the prose of
the passage from day to day, without any
possible commentary or translation”. He
sees this turn as ultimately an “amorous”
one when he writes, with haunting beauty:
“There are everywhere such resonances
produced by the body when it is touched,
like ‘moans’ and sounds of love, cries
breaking open the text that they make
proliferate around them, enunciative gaps
in a syntagmatic organisation of statements
… the linguistic analogues of an erection,
or of a nameless pain, or of tears: voices
without language, enunciations flowing
from the remembering and opaque body …
an aphasic enunciation of what appears
without one’s knowing where it came from
… without one’s knowing how it could be
said except through the other’s voice.”
If this sounds vague, it is – deliberately so.
Careful not to fall back on some naive
escapist fantasy (of individual self-
expression, or the transcendent human
spirit, or art-as-redemption and so forth –
in other words, the very fantasies to which
a conservative view of fiction still clings),
De Certeau is nonetheless groping his way
towards some kind of resistance to or
rupture of the machine’s logic. And,
increasingly, he finds this resistance
lurking in the vicinity of Mallarmé’s tomb.
In a section titled (after Beckett) “The
Unnameable”, De Certeau invites us to
consider the role and status of the dying
man. “Set aside in one of the technical and
secret zones (hospitals, prisons, refuse
dumps) which relieve the living of
everything that might hinder the chain of
production and consumption”, the dying
man finds his own body transformed from
a palimpsest on which the scriptural
enterprise has stamped its law into a
liminal, disgusting and yet almost
miraculous new space in which the
binaries of life and death break down. The Practice of Everyday Life is ultimately,
just like Tristes Tropiques, a meditation
about writing – not only the meta-writing
of the scriptural system of control, but also,
as a form of opposition-from-within, an
errant counter-writing that is born of
traditional writing’s own collapse. To put
it another way: it is a meditation about
writing in the wake of its own death. As
early as the dedication page, De Certeau
describes “the straying of writing outside
of its own place … the metaphor and drift
of the doubt which haunts writing, the
phantom of its ‘vanity’ … the relation that
writing entertains with all people, with
the loss of its exemption, and with its
death”. Towards the end he picks up this
sentiment again, claiming: “To write [this
book], then, is to be forced to march
through enemy territory, in the very area
where loss prevails, beyond the protected
domain that had been delimited by the act
of localising death elsewhere. It is to
produce sentences with the lexicon of the
mortal, in proximity to and even within
the space of death.” And, so as to leave us
in no doubt as to the inspiration for this
march through enemy territory, the flag
under which it advances, he adds: “Since
Mallarmé, scriptural experience has
deployed itself in the relation between the
act of moving forward and the death-
dealing soil on which its wandering leaves
its track. In this respect, the writer is also a
dying man who is trying to speak. But in
the death that his footsteps inscribe on a
black (and not blank) page, he knows and
he can express the desire that expects from
the other the marvellous and ephemeral
excess of surviving through an attention
that it alters.”
These thoughts are difficult, elusive, hard
to parse. Yet I suspect they are vital if we
want to think of what it means to write
today – to write, that is, in the shadow of
omnipresent and omniscient data that
makes a mockery of any notion that the
writer might have something to inform us,
and of a technologically underwritten
capitalism that both writes and reads
itself. We could quite easily dismiss these
thoughts as French bollocks, brush them
aside and pen great tales of authenticity
and individual affirmation, even as the
sands in which we’d need to bury our
heads in order to do so are being blown
away. Alternatively, we could explore,
with trepidation and with melancholy joy,
this ultra-paradoxical and zombie-like
condition, this non-life-restoring
resurrection that, if De Certeau is correct,
is writing’s true and only lot, its afterlife.
What would this afterlife look like? What
forms might these melancholy-joyful
explorations take? It is impossible to
prescribe these – nor would I want to. I just
hope they happen: let a thousand zombies