February 5, 2024

Internet as Novel

Boris Groys

Mikhail Bakhtin

These days, literature is mostly seen as a platform that allows a writer to “give a voice” to a social group that previously did not have this voice. This group can be an ethnic or sexual minority but also a new generation—feeling itself too young and too different to be represented by the existing literary tradition. It is presupposed that a writer who gives a voice to a certain social group also belongs to the same group. The voice “given” is their own voice—which at the same time has a claim to be a “group voice.” Whatever can be said about the problems that arise when an individual voice becomes at the same time recognized as a group voice, there is a more serious issue concerning the relationship of this new voice-writing to the literary tradition.

Indeed, if we remember the tradition of the great European novel—let’s say, from Balzac, Dostoyevsky, and Jane Austen to Thomas Mann—it becomes obvious that the novelists belonging to this tradition avoided having a voice. Instead, they created a literary space in which the voices of others could be heard. They withdrew their own voices to be able to present the “human comedy” in which every social group had its part. The writing was dictated by an interest in others—and not by an interest in the writer’s own social group. This shift of writing from an interest in others to an interest in “sames” becomes especially striking when we compare it with current theoretical discourses that concentrate on the problems of otherness. But where has the old novelistic tradition gone?

Today, the internet has replaced novels by writers like Balzac and Dostoyevsky. The internet is where we go to find out what others think and feel. However, if the internet is the only classical novel of our time, the question emerges: Is this a good novel or a bad novel? Is it a better novel than the novels of Balzac and Dostoyevsky, or not as good as these?

Of course, there is an important difference between the internet and Dostoyevsky’s novels: the internet is a novel that is written with the participation of its users, of its readers. These readers can influence the space that individual voices get on the internet by distributing likes and dislikes among them—or simply by clicking certain voices and thus increasing their popularity. The voices that readers like get greater space, and the voices they dislike get smaller space. This seems like a fair game. Indeed, why do some voices get so much space in the novels of Dostoyevsky even though they are obviously unpleasant—and other voices get less space or are totally ignored? It is obvious that this concerns the authoritarian regime of authorship, in contrast to democratic public opinion. However, this deficit is excusable. In the times in which Dostoyevsky wrote his novels there was no internet—and thus no possibility to analyze and evaluate the public reaction to individual voices.

Today, if we want we can know that a certain artistic or literary voice is liked, for example, by white women having two children and living in the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas but not liked by Black men having no children and living in urban Miami, Florida. Yes, that is what we now know. But we do not know why these people like or dislike what they like or dislike. It seems that they do not have any specific reasons for their taste—or in any case they are not asked about these reasons. It is reason enough that they are what they are. The most surprising thing, though, is the readiness of readers to apply these statistical methods to themselves. They begin to believe that they like certain texts because these texts are written for them—and people like them.

Thus, statistical methods work. These methods can even predict if people will like or dislike a particular voice—but they cannot explain why people like or dislike it. They like a literary voice in the same way they like a certain sort of coffee or tea—without feeling themselves obliged to explain their taste. Kant famously argued that there is a difference between a taste in food and taste in art and literature: when I prefer a certain food, I do not expect from others that they share my taste, whereas in the field of art I want others to agree with my taste. This is why I try to persuade them to join my aesthetic—and, for that matter, also political—judgment. And I do so by using speech.

Of course, we are far away from the epoch of the “enlightened society” that was described by Kant. Today, we know that it makes no sense to persuade people to change their tastes. Firstly, it is impossible and, secondly, it is not clear why this should be so important. But does that mean that today the only way to react to any artistic and literary voice is to like or dislike it—thumbs up or thumbs down? This brings us back to the old pre-Socratic days in which the public followed the speeches of famous Sophists—and silently liked or disliked them. The Socratic revolution was born precisely from a decision to break this silence—to ask questions, to formulate counterarguments, to involve the voices of lonely speakers in a discussion. And, thus, to elucidate what the speech-givers were actually saying. The goal of the Socratic revolution was not to give a voice to people who were previously silent but to make understandable the voices that were already present in the public space. Socrates himself did not pretend to have a voice. He only interrogated the voices of others.

It is easy to say that Socratic dialogues offer a model for organizing public space—as a place where all discourses will be discussed and answered by all. Socrates—at least as presented by Plato—could create such a space because he did not pretend to have his own voice, opinion, or knowledge. But who is able to take such a neutral, zero position in public space and become an organizer of public discussion without having any desire to intervene into it? The government? That is absurd. Of course, the government has a certain voice—and also has every reason to make this voice be heard. Academia? It follows the intellectual fashions—and must do so because it has to prepare students for life in a society that is shaped by those fashions. The internet? It seems to be neutral but, in fact, it is manipulated by algorithms that prefer certain discourses to others, certain voices to others. In some cases these preferences are obvious; in some cases they are less clear, but still they direct the attention of readers to some voices and divert it from others. And even if the internet were as neutral as the consciousness of Buddha, we would still assume that it had a hidden bias.

After all, Socrates also failed to persuade the public of his neutrality and was sentenced to death. And, indeed, his questions always followed a certain strategy. Socratic dialogues had nothing to do with the “fair competition of ideas.” Rather, they demonstrated that their protagonists did not quite understand themselves and their own ideas. These protagonists felt that there was a certain truth inside them and they tried to give voice to this truth, but they could not even persuade themselves of this truth—let alone others. Socratic dialogues never lead to any consensus or even a temporary logical conclusion. They are instead interrupted by the suggestion to go have dinner or take a rest. Thus, Socratic dialogues never seem to be finished, concluded; they always contain the potentially infinite perspective of their continuation. Indeed, when somebody—as a reaction to the “voice” of the other—says, “I like it” or “I do not like it,” communication ends. After such a reaction there is nothing more to say. The voice of the other dies even before this other dies. But when, instead, somebody asks, “But what did you actually mean by that? Could you explain?”—the conversation goes further. Does such a conversation lead to a commonly accepted truth? Hardly. But it does something different: it makes a voice not only likable but understandable. And that means: this voice becomes separated from its bearer. Indeed, what does it mean when I understand the discourse of another? It means: I can continue it. I can argue as this other would argue. Here the voice of the other survives them.

This was the privilege of classical literature which, following Socrates, was polyphonic and demonstrated not one voice but many voices in their interactions. My earlier reference to Dostoyevsky was not accidental. Mikhail Bakhtin, who introduced the notion of the polyphonic novel, used Dostoyevsky’s novels as his primary examples. Bakhtin had a Marxist background and believed that the individual voices of the protagonists of Dostoyevsky’s novels were not “fictional” but taken from the social reality of their time, reflecting the social positions of their prototypes. But, unlike Tolstoy or Balzac, Dostoyevsky was not very interested in describing the specific social conditions that determined the “ideologies” of his heroes. In his novels he creates a utopian, transparent space of discussion and ideological confrontation that would be impossible in “real life,” where the participants in such discussions would be isolated by obscure, “unsaid” social conventions—and remain silent. This utopian, polyphonic situation allows us, as readers, to identify with Dostoyevsky’s heroes—to position ourselves in this utopian space of communication and conflict, instead of merely liking or disliking this or that individual voice. In this sense, Dostoyevsky’s novels function in the same way as Socratic dialogues.

Literary space opens up the possibility for transparent communication that “real,” social space precludes. As I previously argued, no political authority can be “neutral” enough to organize a transparent, “polyphonic” space of communication in which every individual voice has a chance to enter into dialogue with others. Of course, it would be naive to believe, as Bakhtin sometimes suggests, that an author can reduce their own voice to zero—and thus open space for a totally free-flowing discussion. But such a requirement is, in fact, superfluous. The literary space of the novel is constructed in an explicit, transparent way. In a novel there are no hidden, vested interests in the success of this or that particular protagonist, no hidden algorithms that manipulate the attention of the reader. Every reader understands what Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, or Balzac wants to say. But every reader can also share their genuine interest in the voices of others—an interest that opens a utopian, polyphonic space in which a multiplicity of different voices can be heard and confronted. Thus, any reader can—at least in their imagination—enter this utopian space and begin to contradict some voices and find other voices persuasive. Nowadays, it is the absence of this possibility to enter the space of a novel that makes literature based on the principle of “one author, one voice” so monotonous and depressing.

Literature, Internet

Boris Groys is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and an internationally renowned expert on Soviet-era art and literature, especially the Russian avant-garde.


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