Order of Multitudes

From Proust and Knausgaard to the Cold War Internet: Sitting Down with Marta Figlerwociz

Marta Figlerowicz is an Associate Professor of English and Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University, where she teaches courses on philosophies of the self, modernism, literary and critical theory, and world cinema. She is the author of two books: Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character (2016) and Spaces of Feeling: Affect and Awareness in Modernist Literature (2017). Professor Figlerowicz and I recently discussed her research and what she sees as the core issues that the Sawyer Seminar at Yale will address.

Sarah Pickman: What are some of your research interests, and how did these interests direct you to “The Order of Multitudes”?

Marta Figlerowicz: I’m a literary and film scholar by training, with a strong interest in philosophy. Over the years I’ve realized that I want to write about the experience of the technological shift from the pre-digital world to the digital-centric world. I’m especially interested in how our thinking about the self and the environment changes when we as humans have different means for, and economies of, storage, as we do in the digital age. Now, we are no longer limited in some preexisting ways in our capacity for memory, our capacity to store personal knowledge, because our digital tools expand this capacity—as it seems—indefinitely. One of the authors I study is Karl Ove Knausgaard. Many people compare him to Marcel Proust, based on how both authors use memory. But I think that’s a tricky comparison. For Proust, memory is difficult and precious to recover, and it needs to be treated as such. With Knausgaard, what we have is a series of novels on data management—his constant list-making, for example—and not novels of remembrance in a modernist sense. Knausgaard spends a lot of time focused on memory, but it’s a very different premise of what memory is and what we can take from it.

I’m also interested in older models of cultural production and their relationship to contemporary, born-digital formats—for example, what can studying born-digital formats tell us about older models of remembrance, like oral traditions? Overall, I explore how data changes your experience of self and affects what is relevant or tangential to your identity. That’s the main angle from which I approach the “Order of Multitudes” project. Moreover, since as a comparatist scholar, by definition my work is never done, the notion of collaboration and what it means to collaborate meaningfully across disciplines has always been fascinating to me.

SP: What specific things to do you think you will bring to this Sawyer Seminar project, either from your own scholarship or your own disciplinary training?

MF: One of the things that attracted me to “Order of Multitudes” was the potential for trans-historical comparison in a way that felt like comparison of genre. The museum, the atlas, and the encyclopedia are material things, but they are also genres of organization. What kinds of expectations do we come to them with? How do these older conventions govern modern databases? How are we still in the “genre” of museums when we talk about big data, let’s say? For me, these are fascinating questions. On computers, we still talk about “pages,” but there’s very little in ontological terms that web pages share with pages that you write on. The metaphor eases us into a technological transition, but then it lingers, determining the new media context we settle into. Those acts of translation and metaphor-making are things I want to grapple with.

SP: Why do you think it is important to talk about how we manage information at this particular historical moment?

MF: Our current moment, if we think of it broadly as a moment of the democratization of lots of kinds of data, can feel unprecedented. However, on further reflection it might remind us of the Renaissance, or the Enlightenment, or the invention of writing. There have been many prior historical periods in which huge amounts of data have suddenly been available to relatively large numbers of individuals in a more accessible, unfettered way. In some ways, the developments we’re facing are cyclical or direct echoes, sometimes even self-conscious echoes, of the past.

On the one hand, it’s important to historicize our current moment. On the other hand, it’s also politically very important to do this work now. We have to ask, what are reliable genres of data production and organization today? Museums, atlases, and encyclopedias are expansive and have often been taken as authoritative sources of information or ways to organize information, but they all have flaws. So they prompt us to think about how we transmit information, what kinds of knowledge we should rely on, and how we think about expertise. Our present-day problem is not only the suppression of information, but also a profusion of information that we have to sift through, when it’s not always clear who the reliable experts are. How can we look to older models as we try to filter through this wealth of apparent facts?

SP: Are you thinking about information on the Internet specifically? That seems particularly pertinent at the moment.

MF: Yes—in my own research, I’m very interested in the history of the Internet, and I’ve also taught it. In all the time I’ve spent working on this history, there have been many surprises. Today, it seems that big companies are in control of the Web, and I think we’re right to be skeptical of those companies, but there are also parts of the Internet that are more idiosyncratic, others that are holdovers from the Cold War, and others that were made by individual tinkerers, not companies, for their own reasons. So many different people were involved in its creation, including academics, people from big private companies, military researchers, and others. As the Internet slowly came together, many of the decisions that deeply affected how it now functions were made with imperfect knowledge even of the full technological structures it would involve, let alone of their potential future uses.

I also think that the metaphors we use to talk about the Internet are telling and important: do we describe it as a political space, or an economic space? Specifically, the question of the Internet as a public space, and the “public-ness” of big data, is something I hope this Sawyer Seminar project will help us address. I’ve been thinking about this because of a lawsuit currently making its way through the court system about Donald Trump blocking people on Twitter. Is it a First Amendment violation or not, since he often posts major government announcements on this platform? Whichever way this case gets settled, it will have an impact on whether we think of social media as a public commons, on the one hand, or a company (meaning “private”) space on the other. If the president of the United States is making an announcement on Twitter that will affect the entire country, can he block U.S. citizens from seeing that tweet? And if so, what ramifications does that have for how those individuals, and Twitter, are governed? Walmart can tell me that I can’t distribute political leaflets inside its stores, but what about Facebook and its digital spaces? What kinds of legal, intellectual precedents from our physical environments should translate into digital ones?

SP: What are you most excited about for this project? What kinds of conversations do you hope “Order of Multitudes” will engender?

MF: We really want involvement from all institutional levels at Yale. One of the things we’re hoping to do is to give a lot of seed grants to students for individual research projects that crisscross Yale in various ways—across different academic hierarchies, from graduate students to undergrads, and across collections and smaller institutions at Yale. The potential for that blurring of institutional hierarchies is very exciting. I hope it will also challenge how we think about our local, on-the-ground data organization, and how data matters to us, within our own departments, working groups, and collections at Yale. I hope this project will engender not only a very general, institutional conversation, but also smaller, more personal ones, at the level where we can have a very immediate impact on our practices of data management.