Adam Thirlwell

Polyglots, collectives, copies &
other happy possibilities
for the anxious digital novelist

Keynote Lecture

For over ten years Adam Thirlwell worked as a professional caretaker in a Zoo, near Liverpool, in the small village of Kirkdale. His one and only task was to take care of a Pinguin-lady named Claudine. Claudine was a very ambitious Pinguin-lady and it was her dream to fly. Finally, after an unfortunate incedent including serveral cartons of wine, a banana tree and a free fall, Claudine died.

After that Adam Thirlwell, the professional Pinguin caretaker, was so heartbroken, that he felt now he was really qualified to become a writer.

For now, read an excerpt of Adam Thirlwell’s keynote lecture, which he read at the Congress “Literatur digital”, 21 March 2014, at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.

“A few years back there was a small argument in The New York Times, between Kevin Kelly, an editor at Wired magazine, and the novelist John Updike. In his article, Kelly happily predicted a future where all books would melt into the soup of a digitized universal library: the library not as a collection of works but of all works mixed together. ‘The universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world’s only book.’ And this universal library will allow a different manner of writing, and of reading, argued Kelly—where works are chopped up into snippets, and remixed.

Now, I have some sympathy for this kind of thinking. But I also have some sympathy for the scared reply of John Updike, who worried that what was essential to reading—‘Accountability and intimacy’—would be lost in this digital future. He ended on a simple question: ‘Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges?’ But in this argument, it seems to me that both Kelly and Updike are wrong. They have both failed to see that a work is independent of its medium. And without works, the thinking that is done by reading and writing is impossible.

And yet I do love the possible utopia. I love the idea that these new methods of production also provide us with a new apparatus. It offers a way of writing literature that is not saturated in that literatureʼs history. Or rather, if offers a way of writing where that history can be rearranged, just as the digital reader can rearrange the elements of the individual work. In Walter Benjaminʼs notorious essay on the work of art in the era of mechanical reproduction, he famously argued that the mechanical reproduction of art works had put authenticity in jeopardy, and therefore the transmissibility of history—the objectʼs authority.

But it has always struck me that although he mentions the printing press towards the beginning of his essay, he never returns to the art of writing—and the reason can only be that writing represents a limit case, an extreme on the other side of reproduction. Of course Benjamin could argue that ʻthat which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art… One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.ʼ But I am not so convinced here by Benjaminʼs tone. Itʼs true that I do not want an art divorced from all tradition. But also it seems to me that the art of the novel, this art based on reproduction, has always enjoyed playing with a refusal of its history. In his essay on the new writing, César Airaʼs example of a perfect work was John Cageʼs Music of Changes: based on chance procedures and the I Ching. And Aira added: ‘Cage justified the use of chance, saying that in such a way itʼs possible to make a musical composition… the continuity of which is free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and “traditions of the art”.’ The dream of the avant-garde has always been to dismantle the ghostliness of history.

And yet, still, I do not want to be only happy. And my real melancholy is when I consider the possible problems of distribution. Because sure, on the one hand the digital offers a new possibility of distribution—it allows a kind of new trickling, seeping ecosystem, where texts can be given away: where readers and writers can be in some ideal of proximity. But this is, after all, the era of the Cloud, and of the NSA. The danger, either financially or politically, is of a total surveillance—and the digital is the most beautiful medium invented not just for a future novelist but also a future dictator. For we should not forget that the organizations that often clamor for a new novel, for a novel digitized and made purely electronic, for a novel accessible to a utopian community, are often those who in fact really want a more economically accessible work, one that isnʼt more artistic, but more open to advertising.

In my text for Tacita Dean, I worried about the way in which every page click is monitored—and was fearful for the future of an avant-garde, if every composition were subjected to the terror of the thriller. Just as I worry about that digital library, too—if it will mainly only be accessed by readers advised by algorithms, manipulated into smaller and smaller areas of learning. But then, there is no life without ambiguity. One of the most brilliant recent examinations of this—to offer a Documenta twin to Bellatin—was by Boris Groys, who in a pamphlet for Documenta discussed the new linguistics we all submit to—the philosophy of Google. ‘Today,’ wrote Groys, ‘we practice our dialogue with the world primarily via the Internet. If we want to ask the world questions, we act as Internet users. And if we want to answer the questions that the world asks us, we act as content providers. In both cases, our dialogical behavior is defined by the specific rules and ways in which the questions can be asked and answered within the framework of the Internet. Under the current regime in which the Internet functions, these rules and ways are predominately defined by Google.’

Everyone knows what this dialogue looks like: ‘every question has to be formulated as one word or a combination of words. The answer is given as a set of contexts in which this word or combination of words may be discovered by the search engine. This means that Google defines the legitimate question as one about the meaning of an individual word. And it identifies the legitimate answer to this question as a display of all the accessible contexts in which this word occurs.’ In other words, argues Groys, in a brilliant extrapolation, Google is an avant-garde entity. It is the Futurist machine. ‘Google dissolves all discourses by turning them into the word clouds that function as collections of words beyond grammar. These word clouds do not “say” anything—they only contain or do not contain this or that particular word. Accordingly, Google presupposes the liberation of individual words from their grammatical chains, from their subjection to language understood as a grammatically defined word hierarchy.’

And yet, there is a problem. Because since Google is not infinite, and since we know its algorithm preselects and is therefore a very limited offering of all the available contexts, a certain conspiracy thinking takes over: and so ‘the subject of a Google search becomes involved in a struggle for the truth that is on the one hand metaphysical and on the other hand political and technological.’ That is the ambiguity in which we are currently situated: ‘“Really existing” Google can only be criticized from the poetic perspective of what can be called a utopian Google—a Google that embodies the concept of equality and freedom for all words.’

For letʼs be clear. Politically, the digital is nearly always the agent of division. The digital is the medium not only of literature, but also finance. The digital can enforce an absolute conservatism, aided by its imposition of a total distraction. But while one radical alternative is therefore to abandon the digital entirely, to explore materials, objects, a kind of animalistic avant-garde which in the art of the novel would be represented by a return to the tactility of the book, there is another form of radicalism available, too: to appropriate the digital. And it is the possibility of such appropriation and gleeful misuse that makes me very happy for the unpredictable future.”

The congress program has been developed by Katharina de la Durantaye (Humboldt University Berlin), Mathias Gatza and Ingo Niermann (Fiktion) with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt.