Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Corporate as avant-garde?


While I figured Tom McCarthy's new novel, Satin Island (reviewed in the L.A. Times) might be too much to take on given my busy life and backlog of other books to read for now, I found, thanks to FB friend, the author's Guardian article insightful. It elaborates the anthropological applications that the LAT review and the novel itself document. "The death of writing--if James Joyce were alive today, he'd be working for Google" features this insight among many, near its conclusion:
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.
His final words remind me of a fact that has intrigued me. Many of my students are computer majors and even more are gamers. But they will work in cubicles, they tap away on laptops, they stare at a screen enchanted for far longer than a book may entice most of them. I doubt they'll fall for "metaphors and metonymies" in pagebound fashion. Music fades, films recede unless tied into a reliable superhero or graphic novel franchise, and culture revolves around gadgets.

 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.
I live among this. I study languages, I pore over medieval lore and obscure writers, I dream of the past even if my place within it would likely have been a nearly blind boy, falling off a dark cliff not too long into his appointed span of years, one moonless night, hopelessly myopic and too thin to live. I like how Game of Thrones fascinates many. My older son shared this ingenious attempt at HuffPo to reason its fantasy world's workings into the increasingly complex series about to unveil season five.

Contrary to McCarthy, I'd mention from my vantage point among those who seek corporate jobs that this world of work cannot enchant as many. I read Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End one vacation while my workplace underwent a series of "reductions in force" that are still ongoing. I liked it but I was downcast at the same time. Ed Park's Personal Days tried to tie the keyboard-driven class to a rather post-modern conceit, and the unfinished The Pale King by David Foster Wallace to my surprise drew me into its accountant's vision, working for the IRS at a Midwestern "office park," of the connection between the government's attempts to change the tax code and corporate hegemony.

All these do sound bleak. Few movies take place mostly at work, and few want to escape this setting by finding entertainment about it. Parks + Recreation or the two versions of The Office, of course, can be cited to the contrary, but compared to the vast subject matter audiences prefer, they're rare.

Meanwhile, I integrate the satirical series Silicon Valley into my Technology, Society and Culture course, and my students sit up. They may even put down their phones. For, they see their ambition.

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