Monday, September 13, 2010

Deny and Imply

Gary Shteyngart's new novel Super Sad True Love Story takes place in a not-too-distant future America that reads uncomfortably familiar and, consequently, entirely believable. There, America has suffered a sharp decline in global economic and political importance, and has refashioned itself as an almost unabashedly consumerist Security State-- though the Horatio-Alger-esque resolve (and hubris) that has always buttressed and betrayed her citizens remains unironically intact. Shteyngart's America is one in which each of our lives is supersatuated by an anonymous and ubiquitous conglomerate of Tech, Credit, Sex, Security and Media, which surveils, controls, fashions and corrects us by means of an iPhone-like device (called an äppärät) that each wears around his or her neck. (The äppärät functions a lot like Foucault's panopticon, minus the actual "prison.") It's a fascinating, imaginative, thoroughly engrossing construction of a brave new world-- equal parts utopic and dystopic-- that Shteyngart narrates and navigates with expert ease. And it's scary realistic.

An example: throughout Super Sad True Love Story, the characters find themselves at state-sponsored "security checks," where their äppäräti are scanned for who-knows-what, which will determine whether they can pass or whether they will be transported (extraordinarily reditioned?) to a "facility" in upstate New York. At each of these checkpoints, there is some iteration of a sign that reads:

"By reading this sign, you have denied existence of the [object/person/message/location] and implied consent."

The "deny and imply" leitmotif is one of Shteyngart's most brilliant and most disturbing narrative devices. And the shoulder-shrugging, oh-well-if-we-must, that's-just-the-way-things-are-now passivity with which his characters imply, deny and comply serves to eerily reduce the historical distance between Shteyngart's futuristic America and our own. Like ours, theirs is a world in which it is entirely unclear to what one's implied consent is tacitly acquiescing. I was often reminded in these passages of my own utterly thoughtless practice of clicking on the "I Agree" tab to various internet licensing-agreement "consent" forms. Have I ever actually read even one of them? Would it matter if I did? I know, of course, that not consenting is not a real option, resulting as it would in a prohibition to continue with whatever it was that I wanted to do-- or, what is more likely, resulting in a repetition of the insistence that I consent.

We're not asked-- not explicitly, anyway-- to "deny" the imperative to consent that regulates traffic through our digital worlds today. But there is something of that in it. We deny the existence of whomever or whatever commands it, partly because we must and partly, I think, because it's just too inconvenient not to say "it's because we must." What's more, it's entirely within our capacities, today, to imagine the funhouse logic that might lay behind a directive to simultaneaously imply consent to the very same thing of which one is denying existence. (Just last week, our President declared the end to a "war" that was never declared as such in the first place.) The ol' razzle dazzle, digitized.

As I've said many times before on this blog, I'm not much of a fan of science-fiction literature. Shteyngart's novel is not exactly sci-fi-- it is, in the end, a super sad true-ish love story-- but the mise en scène is thoroughly engrossing and provocative. And so, I recommend it.

**NOTE: By reading this blog, you have denied its existence and implied consent.**


Emma B. said...

It certainly messes with the passivity-activity distinction in a particularly creepy way. I haven't thought this through but I'm wondering if there's a useful distinction to be made between "deny and imply" and "affirm and imply"? Also, I'm reminded of Butler's emphasis on Antigone's performative reiteration of her action: "I say that I did it and I do not deny it." Butler says, "To say, 'Yes I did it,' is to claim the act, but it is also to commit another deed in the very claiming, the act of publishing one's deed, a new criminal venture that redoubles and takes the place of the old." (Antigone's Claim, 8) Subtle post Leigh, thanks.

Curry O'Day said...

A perfect example being the inaccurate profiling, 4th amendment violating, guilty-until-proven-innocent crap that we all have to go through at the airport because "that's just how it is now."

I do, however, take issue with your blanket dismissal of sci-fi literature. There are deep philosophical, political, and practical issues addressed in the works of some of our greatest sci-fi authors, like Clarke, Card, Adams, Bradbury, and even C. S. Lewis (yes, Lewis wrote a little-read sci-fi trilogy, or "Space Trilogy," beginning with Out of the Silent Planet)

DOCTOR J said...

@Emma: Interesting question. My first instinct was to say that the difference between "deny and imply" and "affirm and imply" is that the former involves a kind of cognitive dissonance (an aporia) that the latter does not. "Affirm and imply" is redundant, I think-- something like "consent and (also) imply consent"-- whereas "deny and imply" asks us to do two things simultaneously, each of which constitutes the condition for the impossibility of the other. (Something like "deny the existence of the the thing/person/situation that necessitates consent and (also) imply consent.")

The Butler/Antigone performative dimension is helpful. "Affirm and imply" is, I think, very much of the same form as Antigone's claim. ("I imply my consent in my act of consenting, and I also publish the act of my consent"... the publishing being quite literal in this case, clicking on an "I agree" form and hence digitally signing one's name to the act.) What's interesting is that "deny and imply" might also be of the same form... only, strangely, the content does not suit the form. ("I imply my consent in an act that I deny engaging, and I publish the act of denying the instance in which my consent was at question.")

N'est-ce pas?

DOCTOR J said...

@Curry: To be honest, I have found myself too often qualifying my alleged dislike of sci-fi lit with caveats just like the one here. Maybe it's time to reconsider my prejudice.