Sometimes Mateo wondered if he and his friends were malicious because they’d inherited all the intellectual pretensions of their parents and none of their scope. After all, when the capital had been rich and powerful, the ideas (even the whims) of its nobles had caused things to happen. Now they all took stands—but they were standing on air. Their impotence made them irritable.This quote is from Edmund White’s 1986 novel Caracole, a beautifully rendered novel set in a mythical, conquered country that, as the back cover blurb helpfully informs us, is meant to be “reminiscent of Paris under the Nazis or Venice under the Austrians or Rio under the Portuguese.” The title page furthers this referential refraction by highlighting the multivalent meaning of the word “caracole”: “caper” in English, “prance” in French, “snail” in Spanish. But even to a casual reader (like me) of White’s other, more straightforwardly autobiographical books, it becomes obvious that more than a treatise on any of the specific milieux that inform the creation of this imagined community, Caracole reads as a cunning dissection of the New York intellectual scene White himself is writing from within. The removal of specificity allows him to blend, reconfigure, and distill the personalities within this scene in a way that transforms them into mythical figures, much in the same way that his deliberately imperfect composite of Rio, Paris, and Venice transforms into a setting that resonates beyond the specificities of those cities, evoking, for example, the international semicolony of late 1920s Shanghai or the ambiguous legacy of Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan.
By the time I reached the passage quoted above, I realized that I was finding the novel particularly compelling because it was beginning to read as an acute dissection not of a late 1980s New York of which I had only the vaguest conception or colonial situations I’d only contemplated in academia, but of the communities forming via the internet at sites like Gawker where I was spending a perhaps ill-advisedly large portion of my free time. This feeling only amplified as, shortly after completing Caracole, I found myself reading along as these communities erupted into a cacophony of indignation and invective over former Gawker editor Emily Gould’s account of the messy intersections between her career and her love life, which was published as a cover story in New York Times Magazine. Exhausted by attempting to find my own words to convey my complicated feelings regarding this article, I found myself quoting the passage above in a comment thread otherwise devoted to excoriating Emily’s duplicity, malice, narcissism, and bald-faced fame-seeking. I felt it gave perspective on the compulsion to write comment after comment either asserting her apparent inelegance and insipidity or defending her against these charges, a compulsion that I found myself unable to stifle as well. Why did I feel the need to participate in this public debate about the indelicacy and possible immorality of the actions of someone I never knew and likely never would? Who did I think I was? Who did the other commenters think they were? And who did we think Emily was?
Caracole is written in a studiously ornate third person that examines in extraordinary detail the complicated and shifting psychologies of each of its main characters as they negotiate the fraught terrain of their contentious, petty, and tumultuous world. Like the debate over Emily’s article, these negotiations are conducted primarily through the dissection of personal relationships: love affairs and friendships, rivalries and shifting alliances, spats and make-ups. But what becomes clear in both cases is that the compelling aspects of this dissection lie not in the salacious details so revealed but in the way that parsing these relationships becomes a parsing of a world where the frivolous, all-too-human micropolitics of the love affair and the bon mot intersect directly with the violent, inhuman macropolitics of empire and class warfare. It seems counterintuitive at first to think that a book like Caracole, conceived and published before the rise and normalization of internet-facilitated community formation and set in a even older composite milieu, would provide any insight into a situation so inextricably bound up in the webs-within-webs that make up contemporary internet culture. And yet, the layers of abstraction that transport the characters and setting into the realm of myth also allow them to resonate with the futures superceding their creation; this is how myths work, after all. And it is as a myth of discontented civilization, of leaving the animalistic, retrospectively paradisiacal world of the de facto private country life for the self-conscious, neurotically public life of the city that Caracole speaks most clearly to the dynamics of internet culture that Emily’s story and its reception exemplify so piquantly.
The novel tells the story of two young people from the hinterlands, Gabriel and Angelica, who exist in a state of unreflective grace as children scrabbling for food amid the crumbling ruins of a neglected estate before being whisked away by Gabriel’s indolent uncle Mateo to the city. Once lovers, Angelica and Gabriel are kept apart until the last ten pages of the book by Mateo, who acts as a mentor to his scrawny nephew even as he conducts an illicit affair with the beautiful, “tribal” Angelica. It takes an outbreak of civil unrest to dismantle the elaborate machinations Mateo sets up to keep his two charges apart, a violent disintegration that leads them to fulfill their names’ implied promise that they’d become avenging angels of revolution. But it seems equally important that the final transformation is facilitated by an act of violence stemming not from the grand historical narrative of the colonized citizens revolting at last, but from the interpersonal intrigues perpetrated by Mateo and his ilk, whom he describes in the quote above as irritable with impotence. Most of the novel involves the minute descriptions of the tiniest shifts in the emotions and psychological make-ups of members of a privileged demi-monde of intellectuals, artists and writers who make up the upper echelon of the conquered population. The prose’s style is one of piercing observation, a deliberate approximation of the modulated hypersensitivity of Proust or Gide, despite the third person. The reader is privy to every self-delusion, hypocrisy, and Machiavellian calculation the main characters undertake, and tracing these interior contours constitutes the primary “action” of the story, which saves major plot advancement for the opening section and the short, violent final one. The process of civilization Gabriel and Angelica go through is a coming into self-consciousness, a learning of a language that clings to the skin of experience, at once alienating and enlightening. Angelica reflects upon this process as she reunites, at long last, with Gabriel near the novel’s end:
Angelica loved Gabriel. He was her husband. This “love” they talked so much about, as real and invisible as “art” or “happiness” or “work,” now seemed so full and present within her that she looked and looked into Gabriel’s eyes—did he feel it too? Surely anything so strong must be shared. She couldn't be hearing so much love unless he was saying at least some of it to her. She reworked their past so that every tough, animal grappling followed by aversion now seemed to have prefigured love and the promise of happiness. What had been all silence and shame now became talk, the eloquence of love.This passage is typical of the prose filling the entire book: emotions are felt and analyzed simultaneously, the two processes inseparable and coterminous. Further, the third person narrator grants the reader access not only to the innermost workings of each character’s mind, but to insights that exceed these characters’ self-knowledge. The reader glides effortlessly with the narrator from mind to mind, each incident played and replayed from different perspectives and parsed accordingly, in effect giving the reader a kaleidoscopic view into this world in the sense that a kaleidoscope presents a new, differently refracted image with every turn even when it is pointed consistently at the same object. The eventfulness of the novel consists mostly of scenes of frivolous sociality: openings, poetry readings, dinner parties, masked balls. These events provide the venues for the micropolitics of power that govern private personhood — love affairs, friendships, petty revenges — to gain a larger force through the segmented publicity of this privileged yet powerless class of intellectuals, actresses, and bon vivants. Moments of indiscretion are relayed and revisited from several points of view as the third-person narrator guides the reader from mind to mind, and this layering and the constant cogitation and analysis it forces the reader to engage in defines the public sphere the characters live within, one that resembles less a sphere than the chambers of a mollusk’s shell. Like Daedulus’s seeing-eye ant, the reader travels perpetually forward through White’s prose only to discover that the road forward folds inexorably back on itself; unlike the ant, though, the reader is provided no exit out of these delicate, endlessly involuting chambers filled with caprice, just scene after scene of apparently inconsequential action that reflects through bohemian indolence the perpetual carnival of the lower classes of the conquered.
Until the shell itself breaks. Fighting in the streets foreshadows the dissolution of this hermetically sealed world, but the true end occurs during yet another masked ball. A culmination of cogitation and tiny slights, one character shoots and kills another whom she perceived to be a romantic rival for Gabriel’s attentions. The reader has been informed, of course, that this perception is at least partly a delusion, but it hardly matters — the true dynamics are, of course, as endlessly complicated as every interpersonal dynamic has been shown to be in the novel, but these complications are rendered effectively moot by the finality of the action they nonetheless propel, and the revolutionary spark that action provides. The particulars of the action are quickly reconfigured for maximum revolutionary purpose, the true killer whisked away and a woman from the conquering class framed — a consequence of she and the killer showing up at the ball in the same dress, which itself is the result of yet another complexly motivated attempt at humiliation that ironically ends up saving the woman it was engineered to embarrass. As witnesses to and perpetrators of this deception, the newly reunited Gabriel and Angelica find themselves suddenly positioned to be the symbolic standardbearers for this long-delayed revolution, itself the culmination and dissolution of the coming into civilization the entire book portrays.
Contemporary internet culture is frequently spoken of as a system of interwoven webs, a metaphor that seems to function similarly to Caracole’s segmented shell. And like this shell, it seems to be a series of interlocking scenes of little inherent consequence that are nonetheless worried over in a series of endless cogitations as blog after blog, commenter after commenter, decides to “weigh in” on whatever event has been caught in the webs of publicity that brought it to his or her attention. There is an odd leveling that takes place in clearinghouses of such events such as Gawker, which is less a blog than a venue that reduces/raises everything it publishes to the status of the events that take place at the masked balls and dinner parties of Caracole. News of Ted Kennedy getting diagnosed with cancer is given the same level of attention as Emily Brill comparing cancer to excess weight; a photo of Julia Allison pursing her lips at a party is considered and reconsidered as endlessly as a Presidential campaign speech. There is a dividend of frustration with this that becomes apparent whenever a comment thread turns serious — a frustration that mirrors precisely that described by Mateo in the opening quotation. It is a frustration of people given just enough power to feel their own essential impotence. On the internet, we are transformed instantly into a demimonde, our every word public yet mostly inconsequential, every speech act a moment of potential reckoning that can ruin or exalt the speaker within this world of pure rhetoric at the same time as it remains for the most part invisible outside it. We want to change the world through our words but are terrified at the possibility that it may actually happen, since the motivation behind these words are the product of the fluid eternal present of constantly updated content and the shifting ground of off-the-cuff conversation that accompany each new post.
In a follow-up feature wherein she answered a select few of the mostly antagonistic questions volleyed at her in the comment section accompanying her article’s online incarnation, Emily writes that she is reading The Future of Reputation, a book she claims is helping her think about the redefinitions of public and private that the internet is catalyzing and that her own story illuminates as a kind of wounded and wounding parable. Ironically, a commenter on her personal site revealed just before the publication of her article that s/he saw Emily reading this book on the subway, a comment that neatly inverted the dynamics of the gaze that Emily herself defended during a television appearance conducted while still at Gawker that focused on the aspect of the website that she had the least to do with directly: the “Gawker Stalker” map that allows readers to submit sightings of celebrities in and around New York. As Emily writes in her article, it was this appearance that launched her into precisely the sort of visibility that rendered her a target of this feature herself, a visibility that continued even after she quit Gawker, as the comment on her personal site demonstrated (and which will inevitably amplify again in the wake of the New York Times Magazine cover), and which forces her to confront on a personal level the redefinition of public and private the book she was seen reading itself examines.
Emily’s conundrum exemplifies a central paradox of contemporary internet culture, the simultaneous insularity and permeability of its eventfulness. We are all initiates in one way or another, all able to learn how to participate in this eternal present tense and let its language civilize and alienate us, render us sophisticated and indolently clever, able to footnote and link and refer and allude and analyze in a series of public speech acts that in themselves both create chambers to stage new scenes and link them to others: every new blog, every new comment, every new profile represents both a new wall and a new doorway, a new more or less permeable membrane. As readers, commenters, participants in social software, writers, and bloggers, we are constantly negotiating a world defined almost entirely by modulations in the publicity of the words we write on this internet. All internet writing is public. Yet learning what this means involves a constant confrontation with the vicissitudes of power within a privileged demimonde frustrated at the prospect of only being able to change the world by supporting and promoting each other’s fame. There are grander, exponentially direr things that deserve the attention Emily receives for being a particularly articulate participant in this process, and so when she attains the fame and rewards that accrue to her for doing essentially a version of what any of us theoretically could do, she becomes a convenient scapegoat for the frustrations inherent in realizing that we really cannot do much more. Elections, genocides, human rights abuses, wars, careers – these things too are affected by the chatter within the rooms of little consequence that make up the internet, and yet the process by which this happens seems inescapably accidental and capricious. It is easy to trace how Emily became a celebrity within a few of the linked chambers in the internet through her sparkling conversation and manipulation of persona, but it seems impossible to trace, for example, why Obama will never stop being linked to a Muslimism he’s repeatedly disavowed and which commenters, bloggers and journalists have spent so much time asserting his distance from. Like the end of Caracole, the chain of events that lead to this or that instance of essentially impotent yet incessant public speech to suddenly accrue real power is so divorced from any one person’s control that a kind of hyper-articulated hum of worldly frustration permeates the atmosphere online, reflecting in microcosm a larger, increasingly decentralized geopolitical field of power that nonetheless features an increasingly centralized conglomerate of governmental and corporate interests as its major players. All we can really hope for is that one of our random shots in the dark will strike lucky and pierce this complacent shell once and for all, and we can find our exit, and a different version of ourselves, in the revolutions this shattering precipitates. We’re all angels of revolution in this sense, but it is not within our control how or when or whether we’ll ever get our wings. So we mope and bitch and whine and make jokes, then analyze these utterances endlessly as we wait and see how it all ends.