Atlantic Afterlives in Contemporary Fiction: The New Urban Atlantic

Narrative without Borders Reading Graham Greene in the Information Age

My mother grew up in the district of Härjedalen in northern Sweden. Her small but picturesque village, Överhogdal, was given a modest mention in history books when, at the beginning of last century, a tapestry was found there dating back to 1040–1170. It had remained hidden away in a church storage room (apparently a piece of it had been used as a doll’s blanket by a village girl) for more than a thousand years. Detailed and richly decorated, the Överhogdal tapestry depicts life in the Viking Age.

In its woven design it is possible to read fragments of the past and predominantly they show herds of animals, as well as people on the move. There are people on foot, on horseback, as well as longboats. The extent to which the Vikings explored the breadth of the Atlantic is disputable, although there is said to be evidence of early Norse settlement at the beginning of the eleventh century on the far northern tip in Newfoundland (Winchester, 82). How much of the Atlantic the Norse men explored we do not know for sure, but this tapestry with its longboats reminds us of the role the ocean played in their imagination, despite the fact that many, like those in Härjedalen, lived inland.

Even those who lived near an Atlantic shore would most likely have been unaware of its extraordinary expanse and instead they would have relied on stories about sea monsters and other dangers associated with this massive body of water. It was only after the death of Christopher Columbus in 1506 that cartographers formally named a continent now known as America and a self-contained ocean was christened “Atlantic” (Winchester, 92). Halfway through the twentieth century, these adventurous transatlantic explorers gave way to the passenger who crossed the ocean first by ship and shortly thereafter by airplane.

I draw attention to the find in Overhogdal to remind the reader first that the most recent and dramatic advances in the speed of travel and movement have themselves been accelerating so that they occupy a microscopic amount of time in contrast to the foregoing centuries. Additionally, and constituting a new scale and significance for mobility, I want to highlight the relative limitations of all technologically enhanced physical mobility in comparison to the instantaneous command of virtual spaces offered by the digital revolution.

Despite their advanced performance, all vehicles today are, as Paul Virilio says, “always surpassed by the ‘video performance’ of the transmission of images, and by the instantaneous representation of facts” (32). This book begins at that juncture of history, identified by Virilio, when the speed of information transfer begins to overtake any motorized or jet-propelled movements of people or populations. Now, in our own time, it seems that there are very few places that cannot be vicariously experienced via screen-mediated technology.

The chapter begins with the dawn of the Information Age that has eventually led to a time when, as Isin observes, “citizens without frontiers” can traverse boundaries so as to create series of resonances, solidarities, enmities, alliances, and intensities across space and time that resist domestication under any universalizing narrative of an earthbound nation-state or territory (6). The difficulty of regulating the flows of information has become a controversial topic in the last few years especially since WikiLeaks and other whistle-blowing incidents.

As technology continues to develop quicker and more efficient ways for data about us and our associations to be recorded and distributed, the gap between verifiable knowledge and detached information flow has grown exponentially. As a result, communication technology is a prime facilitator of subjective decentering with a concomitant struggle to achieve agency, political or otherwise. Isin reminds us that the contemporary subject is now imagined in terms of connectivity, the network, and the multitude (72).

In this chapter I read Graham Greene’s The Quiet  American and Our Man in Havana: An Entertainment in the context of the role played by new communication technologies in networking individuals and society, both increasingly detached from place. This is to read Greene’s prescient deposition on the state and trajectory of 1950s postwar espionage against the background of a shift from an oceanic movement of goods and information to what I call an “atmospheric” transmission of representations.

This, I argue, has come to constitute the multiplatform underpinning of the Atlantic’s various afterlives. As a historically contested area of exploration, communication, and representation, this is how the Atlantic still registers what communicating across geographical and cultural borders actually means. I want to read Greene in the context of the future he seems clearly to have described in these novels—our present age in which a digitally mediated oceanic imaginary of global proportions still manages to couple agency with the decentering effects of a prodigiously far-reaching connectivity.

Without ruling out individual agency, this chapter is also a tentative literary critical response to Isin’s proposal for the multitude to become a political subject in its own right, one that is collective and formed through various places and durations. Isin sees this subject as resisting “Empire” (74), a term he borrows from Hardt and Negri’s famous text. I am sympathetic to Isin’s overall claim and see one effect of a digitally mediated oceanic imaginary as furnishing the area of action for such a disparate resistance to what I see as a world order dominated by information.

Greene’s The Quiet American is typically read as an example of transatlantic literature, but in my reading of this novel, I see a shift from the geopolitically situated transatlantic dyad to an increasing awareness of the consequences of highly mobile patterns of information. These patterns should certainly recall what Foucault wants us to know of power, being “the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate” (History of Sexuality, 92) with, however, two important qualifications.

The first is that communication technology has made that “sphere” truly global. The second is that I do not admit Foucault’s founding assumption regarding the topological impossibility of any agential position outside the network of power relations, no place from which to offer resistance to its flows. In my account, knowledge stands in opposition to information by way of an economic arrangement in which knowledge is achieved as a result of work intentionally against the flow, whereas information is consumed with far less effort.

Information is a feature of the ease by which communication is automated; its very ease of assimilation, and its endless propensity to distract and digress, constitutes a seduction into a form of slavery to information masquerading as knowledge. This anticipates my discussion in chapter 3 of the Atlantic slave trade as a setting for present widespread enslavement to commodity culture. We need not conclude from this that information is an intrinsic evil, simply that it is often misrecognized for being something it is not. Information bereft of narrativity serves to disperse rather than secure agency; it is where a diverting sort of powerlessness circulates.

The power of Google to exploit data about us is revisited in chapter 2 within the context of the apocalyptic themes discussed there. Opposed to this is the dogged and necessarily political production of knowledge that owes much to narrative values of structure and local relevance as distinct from the burgeoning ubiquity of automated communication. As a necessary step for creating an autonomous political subjectivity, there needs to be a concerted questioning of the pervasive effect of information, one of the cornerstones of contemporary Empire.

Such an interrogation is also a productive reading of our times and texts toward knowledge as resistance to the mere consumption of information. In my reading of Greene’s spy fiction, I see information being foreshadowed as that to which the multitude would increasingly be enslaved insofar as information engages them in consumption of whatever arises rather than the resistant production of knowledge as a response to whatever is happening.

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