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  • Euphoria in Unhappiness:Technology and Revelation in Jennifer Haley's Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom and The Nether
  • M. Scott Phillips (bio)

Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to pay homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology (1954)

In recent years, a number of American playwrights have been in conversation with issues surrounding our increasingly dystopic cultural landscape. Lisa D'Amour's Detroit (2010) and Airline Highway (2015), Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew (2016), and Lynn Nottage's Sweat (2015) explore the dismal conditions workers face in our neoliberal economy, while Will Arbery's Heroes of the Fourth Turning (2019) interrogates theocratic tendencies in a rising cultural right. Jackie Sibblies Drury's Fairview (2018) and Jeremy O. Harris's Slave Play (2019) brutally attack the comforting mythology of our putative "post-racial" turn, challenging audiences at a moment when white supremacism attempts to legitimize itself in mainstream political discourse. A sense of doom permeates The Humans (2015), Steven Karam's eerie and atmospheric exploration of American anxiety. While warm and compassionate in tone, Karam's play traces the slow percolation of characters who are, as Samuel G. Freedman writes, "teetering on the edge of an elevator shaft."1 [End Page 205]

Also emergent in this troublesome milieu are concerns about technology, its disruptive power and disastrous potential. Ann Washburn's Mr. Burns (2012) and Brendan Pelsue's Wellesley Girl (2016) are post-apocalyptic; the former explores post-grid life after an accident at a nuclear power plant, and the latter, set centuries in the future after an ecological disaster (the result of toxic runoff from the production of robot AI), depicts a United States and a U.S. political structure that are confined to a small Massachusetts suburb surrounded by potentially hostile outsiders. In a sense, these tech-wary examples are merely newer iterations of where we have been many times before. The dystopic ramifications of hubristic technology are well-worn tropes of science fiction: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1927), and the British television series Black Mirror (2011) have all reflected the collective angst concerning the unintended consequences of Promethean overreach. In this article I offer a reading of Jennifer Haley's The Nether (2013), an explosive and deeply disturbing play featuring characters who perform acts of virtual pedophilia on digital representations of children under a protective umbrella of anonymity provided by an advanced future version of the Internet.2 I argue that the play captures the zeitgeist of our current technological moment, a moment in which the focus of our anxieties has begun to shift from the industrial technology of the twentieth century to the emergent digital, computational, and virtual technologies of the twenty-first. As part of this examination, I include discussion of Haley's earlier and, I admit, weaker play, Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom (2008) as important dramaturgical context.3 Neighborhood 3's treatment of digital culture differs somewhat in focus from that of The Nether, but both plays raise fundamental questions about digital life, about what philosopher Bernard Stiegler refers to as "the subject's transcendence and the subject's imagination of transcendence," within the virtual realm.4

Scholars such as David Berry, Scott Bukatman, and Stiegler have all expressed concern about the effects of the digital and the virtual on human perception and behavior, and I rely on them and other scholars, as well as journalistic sources, in documenting the phenomenological landscape from which Haley's work emerges. I also ground the work within the context of the critique of industrial technology and technological instrumentalism offered by the Frankfurt School's Max Horkheimer and [End Page 206] Theodor Adorno, as well as the work of Frankfurt associate, Herbert Marcuse.

The late Dragan Klaic observed that "ideas of the future in twentieth-century literature are expressed in more dystopian than utopian terms," but dystopian drama, even when set at some...