The Silent History: E-lit Looks to the Future

07/01/2013 03:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

This is the 14th post in my series on "born digital" literature

Screenshot from "The Silent History"

"Are words our creation or did they create us? And who are we in a world without them? Are there wilder, more verdant field out beyond the boundaries of language?"
--Prologue, The Silent History

"What the face exposes and reveals is not something that could be formulated as a signifying proposition of sorts, nor is it a secret doomed to remain forever incommunicable. The face's revelation is revelation of language itself. Such a revelation, therefore, does not have any real content and does not tell the truth about this or that state of being, about this or that aspect of human beings and of the world: it is only opening, only communicability." Giorgio Agamben, "The Face" in Means Without End

I wonder what contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben would make of the brilliant new novel The Silent History. Created in the form of an app, it tells the story of the silents, people afflicted since birth with a virus that causes them to be unable to process spoken or written language. Thought, at first, to be unable to communicate, the silents ultilize an alternative language of intricate facial gestures. Made into objects of study, pity, and ridicule, much of society continues to view them as profoundly "other", less than human, and, through technology, a cure is sought and eventually found.

Writing is the first technology. With it, the ineffable, impermanent qualities of spoken word: timbre, accent, tone, and gesture disappear. In writing, the human speaker is evoked in restricted form through peculiarities of word choice, grammatical usage, and syntax. Significantly, The Silent History is meant to be an archived history of the Silent epidemic as recounted by parents, researchers, teachers, and others, including, later, a few of the silents themselves.

Language as a tool of social and political control manifests in the form of an implant, the "soul amp", that mediates the thoughts of the silents turning them into words. A centralized data processing center dictates how words are used and can also control the speaker's accent and block content. When the first implanted silent, Calvin Anderson, purposefully misstates the name of the doctor who developed the implant, calling Dr. Burnham, Dr. "Burned Ham," his rebellion is, in essence, an act of poetry.

If, as Agamben suggests, language is the "most ancient of apparatuses" used "to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings," poetry is the slippage that words cannot contain. It frees language, even as it threatens to silence itself by becoming unintelligible.

When I first began reading The Silent History, the prevalent and overt use of metaphor and simile perturbed me. Frankly, it didn't seem realistic that every character in the novel should speak this way. We have aggrieved father Theodore Greene wondering "how I managed to raise such an incredibly kind and beautiful woman out of the blackest rotting rinds of my gloom", new-age guru Patti Kern who describes how "a car alarm cycled through amplified squeals and shrieks like an assortment of murders" and super-freak, silent wannabe, David Dietrich, "it stunk like medieval abortions under that tarp."

At the same time, despite being the product of several authors, Eli Horowitz, Mathew Derby and Kevin Moffett, the language used by the characters seems curiously homogeneous. Often their words patently fail to capture the emotional intensity of events. There are distinct details attached to each character and the content differs, but the overall tone is flat and distant.

What initially appears to be a problematic use of language turns out to be an ingenious device. The authors have created a meta-language whereby the constricting and liberating potentials of language are played out on top of a rollicking, plot driven story.The novel, which can now be read in its entirety, was initially serialized. Each entry is designed to make the reader want to know more. It is this, more than any kind of real character development, that keeps the momentum. In The Silent History, characters, which in conventional literature are meant to invoke real people, are, here, more or less like online personas, containers for proprietary information.

An entry from "The Silent History"

Russell Quinn's design is equally inspired. Testimonies are represented as segments of perfect circles. Although the accounts are organized according to time frame, the novel spans thirty years (2011-2043), a menu above the posts allows the reader to access all the testimonies from a single character. At first, the simple, clean design troubled me. Recalling the eclectic patchwork of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, I thought it bizarre, even amoral, that the personal stories of an epidemic, even a made-up one, should be presented this way. But, of course, that is the point.

I asked Quinn about this.

Szilak: The design is sleek, seamless and dispassionate which contrasts sharply with the intimacy of the first-person accounts. On the other hand, people actually have to bodily go to a specific location to access the field reports. Can you comment on the dynamic between the machine interface/pure surface and the embodied human in this work?

Quinn: The premise of the story is that a semi-governmental agency has compiled and released a report into the phenomenon -- think 9/11 Commission Report meets Studs Terkel -- so the app itself is ostensibly part of the fictional world. My starting point was imagining how such reports might be presented to the public in the future. So, while the data provided is deeply-personal human accounts, it is just that: data; a formal, public-facing report, from 2044.

The story overflows these boundaries, just as the novel overflows the "page." The Silent History is full of a hectic excess of odd, sometimes absurd details: a woman recounts the story of her online lover betraying her by disseminating a video of her masturbating, one of the main characters buys a farm where he raises and butchers feral wallabies, some silent outcasts use a beehive to battle cops who are trying to oust them from their warehouse squat.

Instead, the "real" is invoked in the second part of The Silent History in the form of Field Reports authored by readers which reference and can only be accessed in a specific real world location. The app displays a GPS map that shows your current location in relation to these reports. In the Field Reports, the banality of real life: a tree, a building adds a human quality to the retelling of a terrible epidemic. Reading the field reports evokes the state of simultaneous intimacy and remoteness that one shares with strangers on the Internet. Visiting the sites of field reports in NYC, I distinctly felt the missing author's presence. I imagined a living, breathing human there composing the text.

In researching this piece, I came upon Eli Horowitz response to a reader who complained that the requirement to actually be present in the specific location added very little to the reading experience.

"Look, very possibly we were stupid for designing a project like this, a project that attempts to bridge the gap between virtual communities and geographic specificity. Maybe those two forces are just fundamentally conflicting. Maybe the current hunger for infinite access and frictionless completion is just too ravenous to allow for a different kind of experience. We knew some people would feel frustrated, but we decided it was worth a try regardless." Eli Horowitz, letter to Jane Friedman

The difficulty of accessing the Field Reports, the effort required, and the need to be there bodily is critical to work. No, it's not critical to the story. But, The Silent History is not just a digital version of a novel. It is also a work of interactive art. As such, it is an important contributor to a tradition that "provides a critical analysis of the automatized communication that is replacing interhuman relationships in more and more social fields. Thus, the distribution of power between user and system is not just a technological issue but a social and political one as well."

Many critics, including Soke Dinkla whose fascinating essay I quote above, trace the origins of interactive art to the Futurists, that motley group of turn-of-the-twentieth century artists and writers who recognized the potential of technology to create new art and new forms of social existence. Though their art practices were wide ranging, encompassing performance, writing, painting and sculpture, they were especially interested in experiments with language. Indeed, both Italian (Marinetti) and Russian (Mayakovsky) Futurism were headed by poets. The sad irony is that both men stopped creating revolutionary art in order to support utopian visions of the future, which, as we know, failed horribly.

The Silent History
is a distinctly anti-utopian novel. Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say that the attempt to use technology to normalize the "mutards" not only fails, it initiates a cascade of events that alters the course of human history. Mutation, glitch, evolution is the nature of existence. If it is our undoing, it may also be our (temporary) salvation.

We are living in a time in which technology allows us to interact with the "other" on a scale never before imaginable, when a lone act of rebellion, can stream along social networks, and congeal into revolution, when, through surveillance techniques, flesh and blood people can be labeled "terrorist" or "normal" by computer analysis of e-mail meta-data, biometrics, and behavioral patterns. In such a time, the difficult issues raised by The Silent History -the use of language to control and to liberate, the relationship between language and "humanness," and the humanizing and dehumanizing potential of technology-- is enough to make it a "must-read." Using technology to create a novel that itself reflects these uncomfortable uncertainties makes The Silent History a vital work of art.