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Here Beginneth Yon Web Log

January 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Welcome to the course blog for ENGL 115F, First-Year Writing Seminar at Vanderbilt University, taught by Brian Rejack (Dept. of English). The course title is “Imagining the Internet: Representations of Digital Culture.” Instead of giving a course description here (if you want that, just look at the syllabus page), I thought I would present a narrative moment from the long gestation period the course underwent in my brain.

It all began with me watching TV like a good cultural critic–that is, by snarkily scoffing at the ideological claims forwarded by advertisements that I, as a hoity-toity intellectual, was of course immune from (sarcasm comes across on the internet, right?). Here is the particular commercial that caught my attention:

I found myself simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the ad. The attraction stemmed from the cute little kiddie drawings floating about the city, and naturally by Gene Wilder’s soothing tenor. The repulsion resulted from my cultural snobbery. What could a smartphone possibly have to do with imagination, that exalted mental faculty I have come to understand primarily through my study of the British Romantic poets? Would Keats consider playing “Angry Birds” on an iPhone an act of imagination?

After I calmed down (my students know that the first step of analysis is to suspend judgment :)), I began to think more about the relationship between imagination and the internet. Perhaps a virtual space is merely computer-assisted imagination, a new non-space of the mind in which one can form the mental pictures that characterize imagination. But then, like a good analytical reader, I went back to the commercial’s details. The people in the ad, presumably the ones imagining the cartoonish figures, are engaging in mundane tasks like doing laundry, waiting for the bus, commuting to work. Many people are carrying briefcases, and the entire ad takes place in a downtown, urban environment that seems fitting for corporate as opposed to domestic activity. And lots of activity there is! People are in cars, on buses, on bikes, walking–we even see a dog enjoying a car ride, looking wistfully out the window at one of the paper figures. Those paper figures seem envious of all that everyday human activity. The dragon rides along on the road with the cars; the fish swim behind the cyclist; the three-eyed purple creature walks along the sidewalk, hoping to be noticed by the urban professionals. Then all the imagined figures collapse, seeming to gain materiality as they do. The train crumples into the wall, and our three-eyed friend sways in the wind as it drops to the ground.

And then we see the tragic figure on whom the commercial settles. A bearded, middle-aged man in a suit and tie, with his tie loosened, hair disheveled, and posture slumped, all of which suggest fatigue, maybe even despair in the face of the corporate world he presumably inhabits daily (note the lunch, laptop and coffee–essential elements to survive the grind–placed around him on the bench, itself situated oddly amidst the urban landscape, as if it too offered some respite from the world he’ll return to after his lunch break). And then he consults his phone, and it’s back to childhood innocence, the world of pure imagination, apart from the material world and all its trappings.

The commercial presents a fairly typical view of digital culture–technology offers us escape, that escape takes a disembodied form, there is limitless possibility for expression, freedom, etc. It’s not quite as lofty as the early-90s cheerleading of virtual spaces (like Jerry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”), but it operates on the same assumptions: that the internet exists apart from the world of the flesh, of commerce, of suffering, and offers an ideal world in its place.

So this brings me to my point (finally!). The Romantics (Shelley and Keats, especially) understand imagination as the mental faculty that bridges the divide between body and mind. Imagination is sensual; it’s messy; it’s dangerous; it’s revolutionary. But it is all those things because it remains attached to materiality. As Katherine Hayles and Matthew Kirschenbaum, among many others, have argued so well, much of digital culture seeks to elide completely any questions of materiality or embodiment. That’s precisely what this commercial does with imagination. Imagination is “pure,” completely apart from the world, in this ad. What might happen if we think about bodies and matter through digital spaces, as the Romantics did through imagination?

Well that’s one of the things we’ll ask in this course. First up, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, a text deeply conversant with the “prison of the flesh,” but not quite so eager to eliminate it completely.

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