Review of Modernist Informatics: Literature, Information, and the State | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Modernist Informatics: Literature, Information, and the State

Modernist Informatics: Literature, Information, and the State
by James Purdon

Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2016
224pp. Trade, £41.99
ISBN: 978-0-19-021169-1

Reviewed by: 
Boris Jardine
February 2018

Modernist Informatics pursues an ambitious double thesis: that the apparatus of the modern informatic state was brought into being in the late nineteenth century and consolidated in the early twentieth, and that modernist writers worked with and against entanglement in these ‘new informatic webs’ (p. 16). The first of these claims is pursued in the introduction and serves as a framework for the case studies that follow: of Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent; scenes of identification in ‘dossier fiction’; the social survey movement Mass-Observation; John Grierson and documentary film; and Elizabeth Bowen’s Blitz novel The Heat of the Day.

Underlying the two main arguments of Modernist Informatics – about changes in statecraft, and the ‘entanglements’ of narrative – is a more fundamental proposition: that narrative itself came to be transfigured by the new discourse of protocols and documents. At its broadest, Purdon makes the case that in the period he is considering ‘communications technology moves out of the office to encompass and mediate all human activity’ (p. 18). A highly focused version of the argument comes in the first chapter, on Conrad, who faced the problem that ‘the delimitation of the “literary” as a subset of writing constitutes a preprocessing system of its own’ (p. 30). ‘Novels, no less than empires,’ writes Purdon, ‘seek to manage their own coherence and security by a careful organization of those contingent factors which are the conditions of the real before they become the effects of realism.’ (p. 30) This is a provocative notion, and it is explored in a suitably complex chapter, which weaves together a close reading of The Secret Agent, biographical details about Conrad’s own interactions with information systems, and a history of the dual notion of privacy/secrecy as it played out in the postal service and government offices. Ultimately The Secret Agent is said to resolve paradoxes of representation by ‘acknowledging that impressions are not limited by the senses but are partly determined, or preprocessed, by the wider informatic networks which already structure the possibilities of perception, semiosis, and interpretation’ (p. 19). Purdon’s analysis travels down through layers of cultural history, biography, and narrative until it hits upon the grisly detail that gives The Secret Agent its particular character (and which has determined readings from the first reviewers to recent theorists): amidst the extreme degradation of the body of the Greenwich bomber resides precisely the ‘preprocessed’ clue that unlocks the mystery. High-brow artifice and low-brow schlock meet in mingled flesh and text; the ‘medium’ is, in a gory sense, the message; information survives mortal loss.

This all sets rather a high bar, which is cleared in the chapters on ‘dossier fiction’ and ‘information collectives’. The first of these provides capsule readings of narrated encounters between characters and their ‘data doubles’ alongside rich theoretical reflections on identity, narrative form and paperwork. Here is a modernist, bureaucratic sequel to Leah Price’s How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. Where Price showed how books themselves circulated within narrative – as objects, markers of status, bargaining chips – Purdon brings the range of new early twentieth-century official documents into view within narratives of conflict, travel and pursuit. World War I was decisive in the development of forms of official documentation (the passport, the identity card), and therefore also in the shaping of modern(ist) subjectivity. This involves a series of surprising inversions: the ‘fragmented’ modern selves of older theories of modernism are reintegrated through ‘techniques of identification’ (p. 71); paperwork is nothing like its dry-as-dust ideal type, becoming the substrate of a whole range of affective states, mysteries, confusions and horrors; and that last bastion of coherence, the human body, is ‘abjected’ (p. 76) – a failing index of its photographic and inky traces. This is the fate that befalls ‘D.’ in Greene’s Confidential Agent (1939) after he loses sight of his papers: ‘They were his authority and now he was nothing – just an undesirable alien, lying on a shabby bed in a disreputable hotel.’ Throughout these chapters, pressure is piled onto narrative itself, which incorporates but can barely sustain the flood of information – on the one hand narrative is just another node in a ‘media ecology’ which includes documents, dossiers and files, and on the other it is an increasingly beleaguered opponent to ‘anti-narrative’ ‘informatic genres’ (p. 85).

The breakdown finally comes with the development in the late 1930s of the Mass-Observation network. M-O, as it was and is often called, has long been a bête noire for interwar literary history – never quite substantial enough for treatment in its own right, [1] but by now a staple of accounts of left-wing literature, surrealist writing and the proletarian novel. It is the last of these that occupies Purdon: M-O’s method of collecting a vast amount of reported behaviour and subjective responses to events was ‘fundamentally narrative, in that it sought to relate individual experience to large-scale events and trends’ (p. 93). This is astute: one of the difficulties in accounting for M-O has been that it looks hopelessly methodologically naive, but this is to miss the point about the relationship it encoded between social science and literature. Thinking about narrative offers a new interpretation an episode in the history of paperwork (M-O was, first and foremost, an information clearing house, as Purdon acknowledges). The point is that only now is it possible to trace the fortunes of M-O without resorting to crude oppositions (art/science, theory/practice).

Nonetheless, M-O was transformed beyond recognition by the Second World War. This time, narrative, in the form of M-O’s complex arrangement and re-presentation of individuals as they come together and are influenced by events, cannot survive the informatic regime change. Just as M-O attempted to conjure up a new sense of nationhood out of observed fragments – as in Britain by Mass-Observation of 1939 – the Ministry of Information was seeking ‘to consolidate a single, unified, “national” point of view’ (p. 96). This aggressive act of unification led to a state of national paranoia, in which M-O could at best act as an ‘amplifier’ (p. 98) and at worst as an active collaborator with its government cousin the MOI.

At this point we leave not only modernism behind but also literature: where the documentary turn leaves off, documentary film picks up. More specifically, John Grierson’s theory of documentary, articulated in the context of massive state infrastructure projects which found justification in public information films. Here the analysis is less successful, however, perhaps because this feels like just one part of another story, about infrastructure and Empire, statecraft and propaganda – these are the background of the rest of the book, while literature is the vivid foreground. The reversal is uncomfortable: vast topics that could somehow be telescoped into single quotations now loom into direct vision. Modernist Informatics is at its best when maintaining the high-wire act of telling the history of information through a dual structure of official developments and administrative history on the one hand, and narrative devices, struggles and structures on the other. In the account of documentary film that duality disappears and the result is something altogether more prosaic. Or is this simply the triumph of information over narrative?

Either way, Purdon’s final chapter returns to the evocative literary history so successfully deployed before, with a wonderful opening:

“An eavesdropper’s fascination with unattributed speech permeates the writing of the Second World War, perhaps because such careless talk, floating free in the blacked-out streets, seems at times as if it might become the choric voice of the war itself” (p. 153).

Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948) is the anti-hero of this chapter: ‘a kind of almanac of informatic pathologies’ (p. 156). This is a darkly ingenious chapter and a fitting conclusion to the main body of the book, one strong implication of which is that the new informatic paradigm brought with it wonderful possibilities for prose (the thriller is, as Purdon acknowledges, the informatic genre par excellence).

A useful ‘Coda’ returns us to the overall themes and draws out some resonances with our own deeply ambivalent informatic age. Whether or not the historical proposition – about the specific chronology of informatics – is borne out by other studies, Purdon is surely right that once narrative had become ‘entangled’ with informatic systems the coupling could not be undone. In this sense, Modernist Informatics deserves to be read alongside N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman as diagnostic of the ‘abjection’ of lived experience by its data double.

Notes [1] That has been undertaken by cultural and social historians, most notably Nick Hubble and James Hinton.