Complex Machines: Representations of Technology in 21st Century Fiction
Professor Peter Boxall (University of Sussex)
This project examines the representation of technology and human connection in twenty-first century fiction. The overarching research question asks how human experience of technology is explored by contemporary fiction. It will consider how micro and macro technological structures are used in the contemporary novel as significant elements of form, structure and character. It will concurrently explore the ways in which the novel genre is influenced by a twenty-first century environment and what ethical conclusions can be drawn about the status of technological interaction in human experience.
The main body will consist of chapters on four twenty-first century writers: Jenni Egan, Tom McCarthy, David Foster Wallace and Geoff Ryman. Their works possess what Robert Eagleston labels “technological thinking” - a preoccupation with the role of technology in human experience. The project will ask how the twenty-first century novel is evolving to accommodate and explore the role of technological interaction in everyday life and what ramifications this has for our understanding of contemporary genre. This line of thinking builds on work in this burgeoning field by critics including Peter Boxall, Richard Bradford and Robert Eagleston. It also addresses the new turn in ethical criticism – including the work of John Wrighton, Jill Robbins, and James Phelan – pulling together the interrelated critical strands of systems, ethics and genre.
Critical analysis will examine how technological structures condition the public/private identities of characters as well as the interpersonal and self-authored relationships represented in the texts – the relationship between the Self and the Other as mediated by technology. Analysis will work in an interdisciplinary sense, understanding the literary work in the context of systems theory and philosophy of ethics. The main method will be close reading texts in relation to significant themes connected to technological interfaces. The analysis will test the idea that technology influences interaction to the point where there is a tension not only between virtual and physical identities, but a further augmenting of the distinction between a public ‘virtual self’ and a private ‘virtual self’.
From a detailed close reading of human experience in the primary texts, the project will develop a wider theoretical analysis of the ethical status of technology in contemporary fiction and culture. This will involve discussion of how writers relate technology as part of lived experience, as well as the effect of this on the reading experience and our understanding of genre in the twenty-first century.
· To establish a critical language with which to articulate the relationship between the contemporary novel and its technological environment
· To contribute a technologically focused perspective on the contemporary novel
· In what ways are technological structures and forms used by the contemporary novel to interrogate the place of humanity in a world of systems?
· What ethical conclusions can be drawn from the representation of technology in the early twenty-first century novel? In what ways do these writers present alternative models of human experience as structured by technology?
· How does the treatment of technology in these texts contribute to discussions about the genre of twenty-first-century fiction?
Sam Cutting is a PhD student in receipt of a TECHNE Doctoral Scholarship at University of Brighton. His research focuses on the role of technology in contemporary fiction. For six years he taught English Literature and Philosophy at sixth form colleges in Manchester and Haywards Heath. His MA thesis focused on the place-image of Brighton in the work of Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton.
Post-Show Discussion, in The Silence of Snow: The Life of Patrick Hamilton (Chair) 2015
‘Objects, Identity and Matters of Faith in The Heart of the Matter’, in Animate Objects, Inanimate Bodies - Postgraduate Conference, Kings College London, May 2012