- The Digital Banal: New Media and American Literature and Culture by Zara Dinnen
As counterintuitive as it may sound, digital media have recently gotten a bit lost in the shuffle. At least since the mid-2000s the nascent field of new media studies began to avoid the term ‘new’ and to refer to itself as digital media studies. This shift [End Page 584] corresponded with trends leaning away from its emergence from within literary studies. Notwithstanding having been trained in literary studies, many of the field’s most prominent scholars (Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Alexander R. Galloway, N. Katherine Hayles, Mark B. N. Hansen, Lisa Nakamura, Ian Bogost) moved discussion of digital technologies and cultures decisively away from figures familiar to the imagination of literary theory—an affinity that enabled the field initially to thrive in the 1990s, most obviously in George Landow’s theorization of hypertext in relation to Roland Barthes’s notion of text as a “tissue of quotations.” At roughly the same time, an explosion of trans-historical scholarship in the Digital Humanities displaced more local critiques of digital culture. Finally, with the rise of smartphones, ubiquitous networks, and social media, digital media could no longer be said to be new. They became instead quite ordinary, or as Zara Dinnen’s new book teaches us, something banal.
In attending carefully to the pervasive presence of digital technologies and themes in contemporary literature and visual culture The Digital Banal provides a powerfully synthetic course correction to the too-often-divergent paths of digital media and literary studies. As Dinnen herself notes, a survey of scholarship would seem to indicate that the contemporary novel “is not interested in the technological devices, informational logic, and networked sociality of contemporary digital culture” (166). However, as Dinnen shows again and again in a wealth of insightful and original analyses, contemporary narrative culture remains deeply invested in these issues. The heart of the matter is that the logic informing such devices and networks—the codes and infrastructures making contemporary life possible—remain not only invisible but also obfuscatory by nature. The constantly withdrawing nature of digital media makes them something of a moving, receding target for critical thought. Even as much as they change the dynamics of social life, politics, and culture, digital media themselves seem to remove themselves from the scene.
Adopting language from Lauren Berlant, Dinnen argues that this dynamic contributes to a block or impasse in the stretched-out now of the contemporary moment. Instead of encountering the novelty of “becoming-with” new technologies and recognizing their interruptive and disruptive novelty, we experience instead the digital banal, a lack of awareness of how much mediation colors experience. As Dinnen observes, this lack of awareness has narrative and affective coordinates. The popular version of the digital banal can be found in Apple’s slogan for the iPhone 4: “This changes everything. Again.” The digital banal refers to the ho-hum feeling of living through this type of reality, an affective posture of flatness in response to “the progress that was always going to come” (137).
As its title indicates, the book’s main contribution to literary and digital media studies is the coinage and theorization of the term ‘digital banal.’ It is a term likely to ruffle some feathers, and it is certainly a worthwhile provocation. Dinnen’s focus on the banal notably departs from technicist discourses on ubiquitous computation and speculative philosophy often invoked to analyze it (Graham Harman, Alfred North Whitehead). Instead, The Digital Banal productively adopts a more affectively-oriented critical posture appropriate to the analysis of aesthetic texts. The choice of ‘banal’ also silently foregoes several critical alternatives, for example the everyday and the ordinary. This is a strong and polemical choice. The words ‘everyday’ and ‘ordinary’ themselves carry quite a bit of baggage, and Dinnen’s choice to privilege banality allows for a clear vision of digital media and culture to come into view. Banality provides a wealth of meanings to explore. However, the...