Recognizing the Patterns

I argue that the question framing this symposium, "What Is Literature Now?" is itself always already an interrogation of the nature of globalization in our contemporary moment. I do so by way of a detailed discussion of William Gibson's most recent novel, Pattern Recognition (2003). The questions Gibson asks in this work concern the future role of one of the most important forms of modern literature, the novel, in a world in the midst of dramatic political, economic, and technological changes. In a present rendered so fluid and unstable as to make the classical vocation of the realist novel impossible—any picture of the present hopelessly obsolete long before the work sees the light of day—the novelist's task shifts to the labor of what Gibson names "pattern recognition," a mapping of broader trends and directions in which our global situation tends. There is a deeply polemical element at work here as well: for Gibson, the novel, like the nation-state to which it is inextricably linked, is a residual form, and the unfinished projects of modernist innovation and Utopian communal formation will be continued only through new electronic media forms allegorized in Pattern Recognition by the "footage." However, underlying this vision is a deeper anxiety that the potentialities opened up by the end of the Cold War and the globalizing 1990s will in fact be derailed by the virulent forms of U.S. nationalism unleashed following the events of September 11, 2001, events too that Gibson's novel is among the first to incorporate directly into its thematic structure. There is thus a performative as well as a constative force to the operation of pattern recognition outlined in this work: Gibson asks us to recognize the real movement of the present before we commit ourselves to a course of action from the "gray muck and bones" of which we may not be able to extricate ourselves for a long time.