“Networks: Sublime Omnipresence”
July 8 was a type of freaky Friday. Rogers’ communications networks went down across the country, which meant that on the morning of July 8 no Rogers customer could use their cell phones, computers, or watch TV anywhere in Canada. But that was just the beginning. Currently, I’m not a Rogers customer (at home we’ve switched from Bell to Rogers and back, depending on who frustrated us least), but when, after a tiring 40-minute walk in the heat, I couldn’t use my debit card to pay for a small, cold bottle of Perrier at our local Fortinos, I realized—damn it!—that I am in fact shackled to Rogers. My bank, it turns out, relies on Rogers to process purchase transactions.
As I stood at the counter, thirsty and unable to buy a drink, it dawned on me that I was lucky to be relatively close to home, unlike many of the folks who drove to work that morning. They could find themselves stranded because they wouldn’t be able to pay for gas—never mind that they’d have to go without a Starbucks or meal the whole day. Nowadays, do people normally carry cash in their wallets? We’re always being reminded not to leave home without it. Is that cash or a card we’re supposed to have with us at all times?
For me, that July 8 Friday was like a day spent in an alternate reality. Rogers went down and consequently I experienced what is known in literary studies as “defamiliarization,” which produces a feeling of estrangement from our daily lives and the larger world. My world felt different; going anywhere now required some planning because I too could be stranded by an empty gas tank, or have our car locked behind the gates of a lot where I couldn’t pay the parking fee. I was also troubled by a frightening, nagging suspicion that something truly awful must have happened to have caused this nation-wide network outage (surely, it wasn’t due to plain old incompetence on Rogers’ part?!). Were we hacked by the Russians, I asked myself, my neighbours, and random people on the street? Haven’t we been warned by experts that we’re all in for a big shock, and that the veneer of smooth, reliable functionality, with all of the conveniences and comforts we’ve come to expect in our lives thanks to a plethora of technologies, was going to be disrupted and we’d get a taste of apocalyptic times or a crisis on a very large scale? What would that look like? I’d wager it would start with us being disconnected, cut off, and unable to perform the many tasks we’ve come to think of as utterly routine.
As you can see, we had reasons for suggesting networks as a theme for our July 2022 issue of WordCity. It’s also possible that no reason was necessary since we also invited readers to be creative, go ahead and interpret the term and idea of networks in the most broad-minded, freewheeling manner. Our reasoning was that any slant or twist, not to mention wholesale reconceptualization, would do because when one stops to think about it, networks are ubiquitous. What’s worth thinking about too is that they epitomize our present way of life much more than was the case even a generation ago. Almost all of our everyday routines, tasks, and even our attempts at rest (now often dubbed ‘unplugging’) involve one or several kinds of networks. Moreover, networks have a way of shaping our personal — individual and family — lives as well as our careers in ways many people probably don’t view as salutary but can’t avoid.
Networks as omnipresence
While working on this piece on networks, I googled the word omnipresence and found this example of its use: “the omnipresence of the internet in society today.” How coincidental! There’s no need to touch here on the more sinister aspects of smart technology and the business of surveillance (this subject now occupies entire departments in many types of organizations). Suffice to say that even the most unflinching assessment of the current state of Internet tech makes clear that all of us, children included, are counted — literally — as consumers whose interests, likes and dislikes, are tracked and quantified. By now, most folks are aware that the electronic things in our homes conspire to integrate us into market networks. Really, isn’t all of this mundane stuff? The invasiveness, pervasiveness, and inescapability of it — this Internet of all things — can render the notion of networks disturbing and at the same time too tedious a subject to think or write about.
And yet, the word and concept can just as easily stand for disparate phenomena. Some networks denote connectivities that are material: there is hardware or physical infrastructure involved, and the goods moved along these channels or interconnected pathways have substance. This includes signal transmissions in data streaming. Both analog and digital signals are made up of waves, and the interactions these enable involve the transfer of data. Images, videos, text, or sound are things that are tangible, concrete.
Today, the web connectivity that make such streaming of data possible extends over the entirety of the planet. It’s infinite, unfathomably vast, and exceeds our capacities to describe it in ordinary language. In the introduction to Network Aesthetics, published in 2016, author Patrick Jagoda writes the following: “Networks, a limit concept of the historical present, are accessible only at the edge of our sensibilities. Networks exceed rational description or mapping, and it is at this point that we might turn to aesthetics and cultural production for a more robust account.” It’s not just that network is “a figure for a proliferating multiplicity that at once enables and challenges our very capacity to think….[It’s also that] the language and representational strategies associated with these [actual and imagined] structures” are now so hackneyed that network-anything “increasingly lacks descriptive edge” (pp. 3-4). One might argue then, in agreement with Jagoda, that their enveloping presence calls for new metaphors, poetics, or whatever else is conceptually available under the category of the sublime. After all, available definitions of the sublime (philosophical and aesthetic) are mostly associated with phenomena or forces we cannot quantify, wrap our minds around, or protect ourselves from.
To clarify, network, a term that is itself a metaphor for ways of organizing or conceiving of connectivity, has lost its capacity to help us explain or fully imagine our daily reality. This is why Jagoda asks readers to consider the need for a “new network aesthetics.” Such aesthetics would consist of interdisciplinary vocabularies and approaches (borrowing from comparative literature’s practices), and would bolster our apprehension of both the objective reality and the subjective experience of networks. “My core interest,” writes Jagoda in this timely, very smart book, “lies in the way that different cultural forms access networks through a range of both medium-specific and transmedia features that include narrative, text, images, audio, and procedural or participatory interactions. These elements prime us to undertake cognitive but also somatic and affective encounters with networks.” Further on, Jagoda states: “Networks leave traces throughout everyday life in the contemporary period. Literary and artistic works pick up these traces and register key tensions and contradictions of network form in a heightened and concentrated way” (pp. 5,16).
Then how about social networks like LinkedIn, which are immaterial but can have a measurable impact on our lives? What are some meaningful ways of depicting encounters with networks about which we might have deeply ambivalent feelings? LinkedIn’s self-assigned mandate as a corporation and platform is to connect job seekers with employers. This is premised on the concept of social networks and their efficacy in building and expanding the reach of individuals and companies. Occasionally, LinkedIn makes a point of reminding members that they should begin their job search by canvassing the people they already know — family members, relatives, friends (or their pets, I’d add with a strained smile).
French sociologist, philosopher of education, public intellectual, and author of many books, Pierre Bourdieu (1930 – 2002), was one of the first theorists to develop the concept of social capital or social connections that function as assets in the struggles of individuals and whole segments of society to ameliorate the socioeconomic circumstances each is handed at birth. Much of Bourdieu’s theorizing has to do with the ways that individual agency is determined by structural factors that dictate people’s access to economic and cultural resources (money and education mostly), but also by the societal groups or cliques to which they do or don’t belong by virtue of familial ties, and the schools and clubs they attended or didn’t as children and young adults. Ultimately, according to Bourdieu, the kinds of networks — social or professional — individuals can tap comes down to the social capital they did or didn’t get the opportunity to accumulate on the way to adulthood.
As per Jagoda’s suggested approach, let’s employ a narrative (a very brief story) to illustrate the functional limitations of social networks — one that aligns well, I believe, with Bourdieu’s writing on social capital. Let’s take a woman who has never been served by LinkedIn in any fashion. It’s not just that a large part of her life unfolded before LinkedIn; it’s also that as an immigrant to Canada, an only child whose parents had no other relations here and were impoverished through the process of immigration, her starting point in life didn’t include much in the way of social capital. What happened then is by no means uncommon. This woman received a wonderful education. She married young, had children early, and spent two decades raising three children and working in small businesses she helped build. Her contacts with people, socially and otherwise, were circumscribed by the fact that she had a family to care for and didn’t have time to grow her social capital or cozy up to people who’d be in a position to assist her at some later point in her professional life. Then, after the 2008-9 recession, when she went looking for a job, she realized that her social network was extremely limited. Additional and all too common barriers only exacerbated the dearth of connections she could call on for support; she also had to contend with gender- and age-related biases, as well as the lamentable fact that nativist sentiment is still prevalent in Canada.
If you ever watched the Netflix series, The Good Wife, you’d remember the first few episodes, in which the protagonist, ex-attorney Alicia Florrick, wife of a disgraced and jailed politician, finally lands a position in a law firm after many fruitless attempts at finding a job. Alicia gets the offer not because she’s smart and highly capable, but because an old friend of hers, Will Gardner, intervenes on her behalf. I hope that my readers have had similar luck if they were ever desperately in search of a job. The woman described above didn’t — mostly due to the fact that her stock of social capital was lower than Alicia Florrick’s.
I’ll end the story here. I believe it served its purpose, especially since the point I hoped to illustrate is fairly straightforward. For the vast majority of LinkedIn members, the platform is of little use. It won’t improve their chances at career success because the social capital (and therefore social network) it purports to expand depends on much more than the services of LinkedIn. I would argue too that this is one of the great inherent contradictions of many of today’s “social” networks. They’re everywhere but they’re not available to everyone, much like memberships in exclusive country clubs.
Bourdieu’s ideas may be illuminating to some, particularly those who are philosophically-minded or who work in academic setting, but for most folks, let’s face it, notions related to social capital wouldn’t be nearly as helpful at rendering the dysfunctional or obstructed/ive realities of social networks as clearly or meaningfully as a well-conceived Netflix series (the serial itself is based on one of the formal features of networks). This is also part of Jagoda’s argument: that the incomprehensibility of a networked totality — whether composed of material infrastructures or social relations (kinsfolk, political, scholarly, cultural, etc.), whether an intertextual web, or the affective sense of belonging or rootedness in particular contexts — requires use of “aesthetic strategies to render, intensify, and influence the way we understand and interface with a network imaginary” (p.28). Such strategies can also help readers or viewers experience and grasp network failures: their “interruptions,” “contradictions,” and I would add the adverse affects of one-way or restricted flows, or of flooding that overwhelms and hegemonizes nodal zones or certain endpoints.
Social capital and related concepts have been addressed by other philosophers, Robert D. Putnam for one, as well as scholars of Bourdieu in a range of academic disciplines. There is even a group, the International Social Capital Association, that has an online presence and that arranges lectures given by experts on social capital, its contemporary meanings and applications. This group is in effect creating a social network of its own, aiming with its educational activities to make several things more evident: First, that notions surrounding the concept of social capital or social networks unquestionably possess explanatory depth and utility; as theoretical tools, they lay bare the instrumentalities of social linkages — as determinants of privilege, influence, or physical and psychological wellbeing in small and large social settings. Second, social networks are inescapable features of our contemporary lives whether we like them or not. Third, oftentimes, particular problems can only solved by means of the conscious forging of new, smaller or more specialized networks between people who share an understanding, a vision or purpose.
Trust, as Putnam theorized, is a crucial component of network formations. Many voluntary associations are established this way. They’re born of people’s willingness and mutual interest in addressing a perceived need due to some deficiency or absence — an aporia in already-extant networks. Perhaps it has always been thus. Social networks are as old as trade itself (the Silk Road and various ancient spice routes, for instance). Yet today’s heightened interconnectivity and amplified potential for collaboration, mutual support, and balanced exchange makes networks much more consequential. Conversely, this current reality of “omnipresence” also renders their impact — that is, their absence, or limited availability, or exclusion from for some people — more crucial to grapple with, and more necessary to define and describe. We are all affected. We need to ask the following: Which networks are virtuous and which ignoble? Which should be made available to all, a public good, and which should be treated as a “private” resource? And, finally, which should be cauterized or switched off altogether?
Meanwhile, for readers and/or contributors who are still unsure about what can be done with the notion of networks, I offer the passage below from Patrick Jagoda’s Network Aestethics, which so articulately captures the ways that different forms of art convey the ubiquitous, ineffable, and disquieting thereness of networks:
In literary fiction, novels such as Marge Piercy’s He, She and It have used narrative form to grapple with a world transformed by transnational corporations. In poetry, texts such as Jena Osman’s The Network follow etymological and historical networks through their processes of emergence. In cinema, especially since the early 1990s, films from Robert Altman’s Short Cuts to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion have depicted interlinked systems through crosscutting, audio bridges, and parallel narratives. On television, series such as The Wire approach social networks through experiments with seriality. In comics such as Warren Ellis’s Global Frequency, we see medium-specific elements such as panels and gutters, as well as ekphrastic techniques that gesture toward video and computational media, that invoke the use of networked organization to address networked threats. Museum-based artworks such as Sharon Molloy’s painting Transient Structures and Unstable Networks and installations such as Chiharu Shiota’s In Silence make networks visible and tangible, inscrutable and haunting, without instrumentalizing them in the service of information visualization. (p. 28)
WordCity’s all-female editorial team came together just months after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. WordCity is the product of a network of creators — writers, poets, and editors — who are scattered across the globe. The mandate of the magazine is to offer an inclusive space for writers, a way of confronting the exigencies and hardships of a global crisis together. With the passing of the pandemic, this magazine will continue as an intimate gathering of far-flung but like-minded creators. As we envision it, WordCity is a space, a node, or a coming together of diverse perspectives and experiences. Importantly, it’s an intersection point for different literary cultures. We hope that the conversations we engage in, whether about lives, the current state of the world, or about writing itself, will flow generously and freely in all directions.
Jagoda, Patrick. Network Aesthetics. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.
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