In his fourth Literary Platform essay exploring the technology in storytelling, Professor David Trotter explains how a familiar modern trope highlights the way tech brings meaning to our narratives – through its absence
Enthusiasts for the high-end TV serial – more fun than Hollywood, less trashy than literary fiction – may have noticed an intriguing convergence between two prime examples of the genre currently doing the broadcast rounds in the UK: the second series of Fox 21’s ‘enemy within’ terrorist-caper, Homeland; and the third and last series of the Danmarks Radio knitwear-inflected police procedural The Killing. These sagas have little in common apart from the increasingly formulaic nature of their plots. Both, however, have recently witnessed a startling outbreak of the effect I think of as rust-belt Gothic.
Rust-belt Gothic is what you add if, as one series stretches profitably into another, you reckon that your chief protagonists have become too deeply pickled in their individualising mannerisms, loyalties, family feuds, traumas, and fashion statements. It adds zest, of a kind.
In both Homeland and The Killing, the intrepid but deeply troubled heroine has recently found herself, rather more often than the strict requirements of truth, justice, and the war on terror would seem to demand, poking around on her own in the pitch-black gloom of some cavernous abandoned factory, warehouse, or underground silo. ‘Turn the f*****g light on!’ But they never do. Instead, they edge cautiously ahead, interlocked gun and torch held out in front of them like a crucifix against a vampire.
These are, of course, moments of supreme narrative tension. The protagonist has been exposed to maximum physical danger for the purpose of testing her resolve to the very limit (feel the inner demons squirm!). We wait for the door to slam behind her, the key to turn in the lock; for the blow which will send gun and torch spinning out of her grasp. Narrative has crystallized into pure formula, into a computer-game. Will she get him before he gets her? It’s all about speed of response.
But it might be more true to say that narrative has in fact been suspended, for a precious moment. While we wait, the beam thrown by the torch illuminates a tableau of industrial dereliction: peeling paint, stained concrete, bent machinery, and a whole array of ducts, tubes, panels, gratings, girders, rungs, chains, bollards, and other assorted Isambard Kingdom Brunel cast-offs. The very air in these places has rusted over. Description – the torch-beam picking out one detail at random, then another, then another, for the camera-lens to capture – supersedes narrative. What has been described, we realize, is human existence at its most abject. For there, in the dereliction, picked out by the beam, is the last refuge of the master-terrorist on the run, or a prison-cell for the paedophile’s victims, its floor littered with scraps of clothing and food. The trail has not gone cold, despite (or because of) the reek of misery. The door slammed shut, the gun and torch sent spinning, merely punctuate that glimpse of a life without dignity.
Rust-belt Gothic brings three kinds of technology into relation. The concrete and metal are the remnant of a nineteenth-century technology based on the thermodynamic conversion of energy into work. The camera which broods on this remnant is the flagship product of a twentieth-century technology based on the electromagnetic conversion of energy into enhancement of the senses (especially of vision). Absent in fact, though present implicitly throughout, is a third technology based on the digital conversion of energy into information, which has become for us the embodiment and cynosure of all that is now modern. For it is a hard and fast rule of the genre that the mobile phones which heroine and villain alike consistently rely on to stay ahead in the game – and without which there would be no plot at all – cease to function once they enter the factory, outhouse, or underground silo.
Rust-belt Gothic allows a particular technology to reflect directly on what went before it while reflecting indirectly on what has come after it.
Why does such a reflection require the temporary suspension of narrative so that human existence may be described at its most abject? That question, to which there is no easy answer, has at least got a name: Naturalism.
Naturalism, a literary movement which took decisive shape in France during the 1870s in and around the fiction and the polemical writing of Emile Zola, became notorious for two pieces of propaganda in particular: its outlandish claim to have applied scientific method to literature; and its interminable preoccupation with the abject, with ‘what is low, what is repugnant, what stinks’ (Edmond de Goncourt). Naturalism proposed to get scientifically to
the very bottom of existence.
It did so by description. ‘Narrate or Describe?’ Georg Lukács asked, in an essay of 1936 which charts the novel’s sorry decline (in his view) into Naturalism, from Scott and Balzac to Flaubert, Zola, and beyond. Lukács understood that decline as a re-ordering of the elements of fiction, so that the emphasis fell on description rather than narrative.
Lukács thought that description’s increasing predominance had adversely affected the novel’s capacity to articulate meaning and value. ‘Narration establishes proportions,’ he observed, ‘description merely levels.’ Description fails to sort the significant from the insignificant. Where there is proportion, between foreground and background, between major event and minor, as in Scott and in Balzac, there can be meaning. And where there is meaning, in fiction, there can be an assessment of value (moral, social, political).
Technology, which organizes our experience of the world, thereby transforms that experience into meaning and value (if we want it to). To grasp technology in its redundancy, its failure any longer to organize, as the heroines of Homeland and The Killing do when they choke phone-lessly on rust, is to be rendered vulnerable, or driven down to the very bottom of existence, in ways that narrative formula cannot even begin to comprehend.
Art, like life, needs meaning and value. But how would we know that if there wasn’t also an art which asks us to imagine life without them?