Network Aesthetics: American Fictions in the Culture of Interconnection

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2010

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Abstract

Following World War II, the network emerged as both a major material structure and one of the most ubiquitous metaphors of the globalizing world. Over subsequent decades, scientists and social scientists increasingly applied the language of interconnection to such diverse collective forms as computer webs, terrorist networks, economic systems, and disease ecologies. The prehistory of network discourse can be traced back to descriptions of cellular formations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the invention of the electrical telegraph in the nineteenth century. Even so, it was not until the 1940s that researchers and writers began to rely on a more generalized network vocabulary to reflect fledgling material modes of interlinked organization and construct a new postwar vision of the world.

Since the 1970s, the field of network science has given rise to an even wider range of research on complexity, self-organization, sustainability, group interactions, and systemic resilience. Scientists such as Albert-Laszlo Barabasi have studied network design and new media critics such as Alexander Galloway have addressed network ontology. This dissertation contends that to grasp the effects of networks on globalization, we must also look at the fears, hopes, and affects that they generate. While network scientists have been less concerned with the cultural fears, political investments, and changes in human subjectivity signaled by networks, my study of American literature focuses on writers, filmmakers, and media innovators who have captured the deep transformations of the era of interconnection. These artists have achieved insights about networks not through scientific analysis, but through aesthetic, narrative, and media-specific experimentation.

Network Aesthetics examines how contemporary American literature, film, television, and new media dramatize the affects -- alternatively terrifying and thrilling -- of interconnection. This interdisciplinary project combines numerous methodologies, including literary analysis, media studies, cultural criticism, and political theory. Given the importance of networks to representation, communication, and computing, these structures serve as an ideal hinge for operating intermedia exchanges. Using varied tools, I analyze terrorist networks (Stephen Gaghan's Syriana), financial systems (Don DeLillo's Underworld), computer webs (Marge Piercy's He, She, and It), neoimperial networks (Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow), social networks (David Simon's The Wire), and interactive game networks (Persuasive Games' Killer Flu). In the end, I argue that obsessions with abstract network threats and solutions reveal a change in the most dramatic social protocols of our connected world. Understanding how networks have formally come to evoke fear can help us grow less susceptible to an American politics of terror and more able to act justly as we negotiate our interconnected world.

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Jagoda, Patrick (2010). Network Aesthetics: American Fictions in the Culture of Interconnection. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/2293.

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