The Internet Unconscious: On the Subject of Electronic Literature
by Sandy Baldwin
Bloomsbury Academic, London, UK, 2015
200 pp. Trade, $89.99
Reviewed by Will Luers
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver
In The Internet Unconscious: On the Subject of Electronic Literature, Sandy Baldwin presents a challenge. Imagine the whole of the internet is you. You wake up every morning and login to yourself. You gather information and experience the world with fascination and horror - on your screen. The internet itself, how it stores and processes data, is of course invisible. There is only the illusion of "a beyond" presented to your personalized interface. Your internet can't possibly be the same as my internet, and yet we experience the net as "a delirium" of shared otherness and novelty. "Net writing brings its elsewhere to everywhere," writes Baldwin. Even if you reject it, it is part of you and you of it. To understand it, the net requires you and you alone to read, write, interpret, and navigate it. Welcome to The Internet Unconscious.
In this informative, bold, tender, political and philosophical book, Baldwin writes himself and his body into the underworld of digital communication. He explores the phenomenology of mime types, permissions, spam, handshakes, CAPTCHA and TCP/IP protocols and reveals that the "internet unconscious" is a vast and largely invisible technological infrastructure that seeks to extract the body from human communication. This is not a conspiracy. We all willing accept the cybernetic control of human discourse because it manages our connections with others and makes efficient the exchange and storage of our messages. Why would I not want my messages to arrive complete, well-structured and time stamped? Baldwin shows that this acceptance of the apparatus results in the absent body of digital writing. The transcoding of alphanumeric symbols favors abstract meanings over any messy bodily context. Human exchange is "purified, cleansed and detoxed of subjectivity and embodiment." He discounts VR and haptic media as signs of a return to the body in inscription because these technologies only solidify the "weaponized body" gesturing at an interface. The avatar, Baldwin argues, "is the transcendence of the body and subject." This may all sound like the author is overstating his case, but he is very persuasive and thorough in his presentation - be prepared to highlight pages at a time.
Baldwin is the current vice-president of the Electronic Literature Organization, and this is a book "on the subject of electronic literature." Though he references some digital works and their authors, he claims not to be interested in any particular work of electronic literature. "I tell you there are no works of digital literature, only a continuum." The literary is a vast spectrum of expressive writing practices. In fact, "all digital writing turns literary." Spam with a title becomes a poem. What defines electronic literature beyond its label for a group with certain shared interests, creative lineages, or expressive tools? What is the practice of electronic literature beyond the demonstration of new formats, platforms, and interactive techniques? In other words, what is the subject of electronic literature? Baldwin intimates that the subject remains unknown and that we have no real theories because we don't yet know what we are talking about when we talk about digital literature. There are no easy answers to these questions, and Baldwin thankfully does not sum up his findings with predictions or prescriptions for the future of literature. But his thinking is provocative and challenging. Through short meditations that sometimes explode into poetic prose, he opens fields of inquiry for scholars, writers, and artists. For example, what if the subject of electronic literature is the disappearing body? "No flesh is bared" in electronic writing because there is no flesh. The body remains outside digital space, tapping away on the other side of the screen. Ironically, this release of the imaginary from the limitations of the body has always been the dream of literary practice, but it has also been its consistent theme and warning: to forget the human body is to forget the human subject and literature itself.