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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Topology and Modern Communication Technology in the Novel

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

I am busy writing up an article on how communication technologies, from letters to intranet messaging to mobile phones, have affected the plot possibilities of literary fiction. In particular I've been comparing how technologies influence the plots of three works of a similar genre, namely Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones's Diary, and The Edge of Reason (yes, it's a hard job reading two of these three, but somebody has to do it).

By way of thinking through one of my general findings, which might be of wider interest, I thought I'd share with you an outline of how communication technologies serve to problematise the ways in which we have conventionally thought about space in the novel. This is very much a case of thinking-in-the-process-of-writing, but I hope makes sense as a way of questioning some of our basic narratological theories by throwing technology into the mix.

Conventionally, narratology sees space as being intimately linked to plot, in that plots can be mapped as characters' movements through a world, and thus through time (Dannenberg). Within this model, spaces occupy a hierarchy of containers, nested one within the other (Ronen 1986). For example:



Room in house

According to this view, plot is not simply a manifestation of events progressing through time, but of events moving through space. This can be illustrated with a simplistic example. Suppose we have a character in a room in her house in one part of a city. Her room exists at the same topological level as that of the room of another character in his house in another part of the city. Both are private spaces, intimate to that character but not shared by both. For the characters to connect, they must enter the communal, higher-level space of the city that contains both rooms. They must trace a path out of one space and into another. This in turn can be cognitively mapped by the reader as a plot progressing through time, since we imagine it takes time for such movements to occur; spatial movement also thus signifies character development, since a change in their psychological state triggers their motion to new spaces which in turn incite different cognitive reactions. This temporal progress might be rapid, as in the sweeping motions of my hypothetical story, or at a fine-grain of resolution, such as the intimate movements of Mrs Dalloway around her boudoir as she prepares for a party. Either way, movement through and between spaces takes time to accomplish.

These different spaces also condition different possibilities of behaviour and action. For example, it is not possible for a character to buy herself a new dress whilst sitting alone in her bedroom wondering who she is going to go to the ball with that evening; she must instead enter the higher level space of the city, where perhaps she might meet the handsome man from the other part of town, who has gone to buy some new shoes. Whilst chatting to said handsome man in the city street she might not be fully open about her feelings, but when they head together to the ballroom after dark, different behaviours might manifest themselves.

This is of course a very simplified way of describing things, but one can see how different spaces condition and make certain actions more or less plausible. Each person's room presents a limited palette of opportunities; the shared arena of the city somewhat more. When we see characters in certain spaces, which we recognise either from our own world (in a more realist novel) or from the internal conventions of the storyworld (in a more fantasy fiction), we expect them to behave in certain ways. Thus the topological hierarchy above seems a reasonable way of thinking about how plots and characterisation function, as different levels in the hierarchy frame different types of action.

However, here's where communication technology makes things interesting. Communication technologies allow spaces to intersect, without characters having physically to move between them. In an age of post, this may not have especially radical consequences, since the time it takes for a letter to move between two points may be commensurate with the time it would take for a character to make the transition. But as technologies of communication become increasingly prevalent and ubiquitous, spatial distinctions start to break down. This in turn can be seen to influence the generic conventions available to fiction.

The rules governing my hypothetical example above might hold true up until the 1990s. Characters could not live solely in their own rooms, in different parts of a city, and yet somehow still meet coincidentally without leaving their four walls; were a novel to want to present them as somehow managing to do this, the novel would locate itself within the spectrum of science fiction or fantasy rather than realism. Ordinarily, for our woman to buy her dress, and our man to buy his shoes, they would have to enter the higher level container of the city. However, in the age of the internet one can easily see how space is transcended by technology. The spaces inhabited by either character are irrelevant, as social media might enable them to develop a relationship without ever moving from one space. By invoking this medium, a novel can achieve a similar plot structure but via a different, and this time still realistic, means. The shared space of the digital cloud takes the place of our communal container of the city - but also in turn problematises our traditional topological way of mapping plot.

To see this, here's another example, again hypothetical (though not too far removed from the scenario of a Tom Clancy novel).

Our secret agent has been dispatched from London to the South American jungle, to gather intel on some local drug lord. Ensconced in a hut deep in the rainforest, he is equipped with the latest satellite broadband package and a laptop, connected via virtual private networking to his office in MI6 headquarters in London. How does the hierarchy of spaces work here?

On the conventional model, we might represent this as:

South AmericaUnited Kingdom
hutMI6 HQ

However, given his technological connectedness, what is the most significant container for our spy's hut? Is it the South American jungle? Or is it London in the United Kingdom?

That character may possess informational resources, and be able to discourse with others back home, from which everyone else in the container of the jungle is excluded. These same resources may, however, be readily accessible by another character in the United Kingdom. In this case, the hut is best seen as contained not by the jungle but the United Kingdom, since the resources available in that country (e.g. judicial, informational, personal, dialogic) are as readily available to our man in South America as they would be were he physically present in London. The spatial dimensions and location of the hut has no effect on his degree of containment - that is, the range of relevant actions he can perform.

This also has implications for the way in which space serves to map or denote time. Whilst movement through space is translated by the reader into some form of temporality in the plot, in the milieu of communication systems there need be no physical movement to equate to a significant progression or change in the action. When Mrs Dalloway finally leaves her boudoir and heads back out into the streets of London, time has passed in a momentous way. By contrast, our spy in the jungle may only need to press a key for a similar sense of plot shift to manifest. This is not, of course, to say that as soon as someone has a broadband connection a writer can no longer develop interesting plots. Any reader of popular thrillers knows quite the opposite. Rather, it is simply to point out the limitations of a traditional model that sees physical space and time in correlation, without reflecting how technologies of communication might collapse both categories.

So why does this obscure problem of literary theory actually matter? Well, for a start it shows how literary theory, and perhaps literature too, are affected by the radical shift in space-time relations, energised by technology, that David Harvey has seen as characteristic of our postmodern condition. Looking at novels, such as those I am studying in more depth in my paper, there is a peculiar effect. The world of Pride and Prejudice, though "contained" by England, seems very large; it takes time and energy to propel characters or letters through the space that separates Longbourn from Pemberley. By contrast, the world of something like Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, seems very small, even though its nexuses of action are worldwide. Bridget can readily communicate with any of her friends anywhere in London, simply by using her mobile phone; she can call home from Thailand, or receive calls from her errant mother in Africa.

The way that communications allow a novel's plot to transcend spatial limitations also resonates with real-world politics. For example, in an era of "extraordinary rendition" the laws of one country in which a target is located can be transcended in a supranational imposition of the laws of another. For the Al-Qaeda operative in Kuwait, the law which most applies to him - that is to say, the container within the rubric of which judicial principles are set - may not be Kuwait but the United States. Or, to give a more commonplace example, although I am writing this blog sat in my office in the United Kingdom, it will be published on an American server and potentially read by anyone wordwide. The laws of authorship and copyright that apply in this scenario are unclear, because they do not depend upon the container in which my writing body physically resided when producing its content.

Topology and the boundedness of the body to space is ruptured when we exist as disembodied selves in (through? among?) the no-space of cyberspace. In the same kind of way, communication technologies decompartmentalise the spaces of literary fiction; characters become digital nomads, never fully contained by one specific part of the novel's world.

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Posted by Alistair at 3:31 pm


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