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Home arrow Political science arrow Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction

Digital Alterity

The internet is at least partly us; we write it as well as read it, perform for it as well as watch it, create it as well as consume it (L. Miller 2011: n.pag.).

The precarious nature of Arjun’s US tenancy is exacerbated by a crash in Virugenix’s stock prices, leading to redundancies across the company. In a desperate attempt to remain in the country, he develops his own digital virus that will force Virugenix to retain their viral-security staff and thereby emphasise his usefulness to Western society. The virus becomes his own alteration of the unequal world, informing the global system of his presence by writing himself into the Western narrative. And yet, despite the virus functioning as a marker of resistance and intervention, Arjun is complicit with the dominant financial system. His strategy is anything but subversive, designed to demonstrate his willing obeisance to Western digitalised culture and his submissive place within its structure. The virus is disguised as a fake emotional attachment: ‘[h]i. I saw this and thought of you’, displaying a pixelated image of Arjun’s favourite Bollywood actress, Leela Zahir, moving in ‘jerky quicktime’ (3). The cultural memory of the young actress, whose identity is already eroded by years of media exposure and scrutiny, is ultimately reduced to a virtual image distributed ‘around the world’: ‘the girl with the red shoes, cursed to dance on until her feet bled or the screen froze’ (4). Like Arjun, Leela possesses little agency over her cultural or personal freedoms, exploited by the Bollywood film industry. For Childs and Green, both Arjun and Leela’s digital reinvention therefore suggests a comparison of ‘the colonized body that emerges from negated history and place and the cybernetic body that materializes from the contemporary alliance between technology and capitalism’ (2013: 82). Leela’s digital image evokes the fuzziness and bodily noise of corporeal life as opposed to the slick operability and smooth fluidity of digital processes. Although Western dominance and pervasiveness of the English language undoubtedly limits the accessibility and cosmopolitan potential of the internet, the immediate translatability of the image overrides language barriers across unbounded space. The virus, then, functions as a vehicle for Arjun to control his fate and prevent himself from being reduced to a racialised alien in a confusing and foreign environment. Through Leela’s (and by extension, Arjun’s) overt ethnicity, the digital thus renders new possibilities for the articulation of alterity.

The Leela virus instigates the beginning of the downfall in digital interaction, disrupting a globalised culture that is dependent upon uninterrupted flows ofinformation and data. Crucially, the virus functions as a counterflow to the spread of Western globalisation through utilisation and subversion of its own technologies. Leela’s dance routine ‘taunts the world’ by breaking through global firewalls and infecting thousands of lives, making planetary systems inoperable through what Schoene terms an ‘icon of cosmopolitan subalternity’ (2010a: 145). Johansen concurs, claiming that this projection of Arjun’s frustration disrupts ‘global systems of capital mobility by rerouting them through new or discrepant paths’ (2013: 422). Such rerouting symbolises a subversion of the division between the privileged and marginalised in relation to digital culture, destabilising the centralised control of global networks. Kunzru, speaking on the centralisation of technological networks, claims that ‘decentralisation, the break-up of top-down control structures and the construction of bottom-up emergent ones’ are the best means of circumventing the trajectory of a dominant Western ‘totalitarian Information State’ (1997: n.pag.). The narrative’s virus consequently functions as a form of cosmopolitanism from below to tackle the inherent threats of technocapitalism - a viable strategy of cultural resistance with regards to the rewiring of the global community.

Irr positions Transmission as part of a larger movement in contemporary literature to account for the unprecedented changes wrought by technology on non-elite subjects, ‘reshaping the U.S. immigration narrative for the digital environment’ (2014: 29). Through his refusal to be confined to the margins of US society any longer, Arjun symbolises the emergence of a new marginalised category within contemporary society - the digital migrants: ‘mobile subjects who receive and interpret cultural codes while actively transmitting and translating their own information’ (29). Accordingly, the dissemination of Leela’s image is a virtual projection of Arjun’s repressed ethnicity and a resistance against the obscuration of his identity by Western culture. Yet the virus does not merely contain his own desperation but that of the global multitude. Childs and Green perceive this notion of the multitude to be in opposition to networks of global power: the ‘productive, creative subjectivities of globalization whose movements [... ] and processes of mixture and hybridization express the desire for liberation’ from destructive forms of hierarchical global capitalism (2013: 36). Due to techno-capitalism’s neglect of marginalised subjects, the virus emerges as a microcosmic digital manifestation of globally stifled suppression, giving voice to these marginalised communities.

Arjun’s creation of the virus itself reflects how the construction of digital technology often occurs in non-Western markets, as the narrative forces an examination of how Western culture can renegotiate its relationship with the subjects it dominates. Perceived from a Western perspective, the virus emerges as a fear of the cultural other, with the subsequent circulation of unbounded flows and digital connectivities reflective of the fearful discourses associated with transnational exchanges and immigration in general. The novel’s title compounds this threat of digital contact having a physical consequence. Arjun is a foreign body, contaminating the host body of the US and countering the discourse of dominant globalisation. And yet, despite enacting ‘the revenge of the uncontrollable world’, at the same time Arjun is parasitically dependent upon US systems (159). Neither he nor his virus are intentional threats facing Western culture, but rather symptomatic of its own failings in enforcing a dominant homogeneity across global space. As Johansen argues, the Leela virus can therefore be positioned as a ‘disrupting viral cosmopolitanism that challenges, rather than reinforces, seemingly stable hierarchies between an elite and non-elite work force, and between local and global knowledges’ (2013: 427).12 Transnational connections may result in potential dangers, but digital culture ignores the global other at its own risk. Arjun’s employer, Virugenix (a neologism suggestive of its own viral capabilities), is consequently unable to control his creation. By the next morning, the virus infects millions of computers around the world and is seized upon by revolutionaries as a terrorist plot to destabilise financial systems. Such networked cyber-terrorism reveals Western technological dependency as a new outcome of global interconnectedness. While digital culture has the potential to reach beyond cultural borders, carrying liberatory cosmopolitan discourses in its wake, digital interconnectedness in the narrative instead engenders ‘an informational disaster, a holocaust of bits’ (272). Through this ‘invisible contagion of ones and zeros’, both the global economy and interdependent power-relations are destabilised and ‘citizens started to look with suspicion at the computers on their desks’ (4, 154).

That being said, the Leela virus nevertheless increases contact between nodes of the networked world with both elite and nonelite characters in the novel interlinked and equally complicit in an unprecedented globalised culture. According to Kunzru: ‘it is better to think of the global economy not as a singular thing, but as an assemblage, a cluster or colony of systems. It is not a smoothly functioning efficient machine, but a vast jumble of processes, actions and decisions, which effect each other in unimaginably complex (but not in principle unknowable) ways’ (1997: n.pag.). The digital systems of Transmission therefore reflect a consolidation of Beck’s

‘risk society’ in which ‘global threats generate global communities’ (‘World Risk’ 20). The non-corporeal presence of the Leela virus, rather like Ghostwritten’s non-corpum, engages with and adapts to the specificities of geographical place, taking on new unstable forms. Continuing Johansen’s notion of a ‘viral cosmopolitanism’, the virus ‘constantly evolves as it moves throughout the world, becoming more heterogeneous, rather than homogenous, through its various points of global contact’ (2013: 419). By inhabiting computer systems all over the world, the virus serves as ‘a metaphor for [ ... ] a rooted form of cosmopolitics that engages with the particularities of local cultures and spaces’, and (like Guy and Arjun) ‘must adapt and form new hybrid affiliations with multiple places’ (2013: 428). The virus symbolises digital technology's innate capacity for heterogeneity, generating hybrid cultural forms which resist Western homogeneity. In this way, Arjun’s creation is evocative of the intensification of global flows that populate the present, operating above geopolitical divides. By becoming ‘not one thing’ but ‘a swarm, a horde [ ... ] propagating at a phenomenal rate through peer-to-peer networks', the virus therefore engenders a new risk for the post-millennium that breaks ‘completely with the past’, being a ‘step beyond’ all existing digital viruses: she ‘could take on new forms at will [... ] Each generation produced an entirely new Leela' (113).

Through the dissemination of his virus, Arjun unwittingly pursues a course of action that disrupts Guy’s plans for the development of definitive national borders and boundaries, demonstrating the interdependence and interconnection of networked society. His role as a non-elite social actor points to the democratic potential of global civil networks in destabilising the hierarchical structures of transnational corporate organisations and highlighting the necessity for ethical and cultural accountability. Appropriately, the Leela virus finds Guy in his first-class airplane compartment on the way to London from New York. The innumerable strains of the viral transmission, dispersed and multiplying in virtual space, prevents him from continuing to deny the existence and suppression of the multitude of migrant workers who maintain the digital networks of his corporate world. Through a cosmopoli- tical struggle for cultural agency and equality, the novel forces an acknowledgement that the fates of marginalised subjects are now inextricably entwined with our own. Experts name the digital disaster ‘Greyday’: the name capturing ‘a certain cybernetic gloom’ as citizens deal with the chaotic cosmopolitical fallout (272). The far-reaching effects of the virus demonstrate the extent to which world society is being moulded by the new digital environment. In a succinct form of poetic justice, the Leela virus disrupts PEBA’s own databases and Guy is mistaken for an illegal immigrant in an organised raid. Due to the ‘Variant Eight Leela’, responsible for ‘the destruction of a huge number of EU immigration records’, he is mistakenly suspected to be ‘Gjergi Ruli, Albanian national, suspected pyramid fraudster and failed asylum seeker’ (283). Guy consequently suffers first-hand experience of the indignities of deportation, being sent first to a detention centre and then Albania. This ironic displacement to Europe’s periphery subjects Guy to the harsh reality of the Western gaze and forces him to experience the role of the marginalised other. By unsuccessfully attempting to return to Europe, he is confronted with the reality and corporeality of national borders, which he previously asserted could be manipulated and removed. The multiple variants of the virus act in direct opposition to PEBA’s enforcement of a unitary and monolithic identity, which can be policed by borders. Through an irrational fear of ‘what is lurking outside our perimeter’, organisations like PEBA (and the Circle) drench ‘the world in information in the hope that the unknown will finally and definitively go away’ (271). However, the coda section’s title, ‘Noise’, exploring the events of Greyday, supplants the first section, ‘Signal’, suggesting that the chaotic multiplicity of Arjun’s creation both dominates and disrupts not only the privileged ‘signal’ of PEBA’s elite nation-state system, but the narrative structure itself. The effects of the virus therefore restrict the trajectories of global mobility and reverse cultural positionality, countering the discourses of superficial cosmopolitanism.

The virus has such a profound effect on the narrative, thematically and structurally, that the characters are forced to compare their lives before and after the events of Greyday: ‘ [d]o you know anyone whom Leela did not touch in some way?’ (272). During his ordeal, Guy is shown kindness and empathy by a Liberian migrant who helps him sell his watch in order to return home. Greyday directly contributes to Guy’s ethical paradigm-shift, in which he determines to leave his corporate lifestyle and lead a parochial life. His subsequent retreat to a new home in the North Pennines, working as a potter, complements his new-found beliefin deglobalisation and active ethical agency. The digital virus functions as the catalyst for Guy to reanalyse and reject the frameworks and systems that facilitate his corporate elitism, connecting him to the fate of Arjun. This forced engagement with the threat of global crises results in Guy’s transformation from a detached cosmopolitan elite to an ethical subject who acknowledges the significance of global accountability and cultural interdependence. Correspondingly, following his release of the virus, Arjun attempts to flee the country and avoid the consequences of his role in the fallout. His subsequent surveillance by governmental organisations reflects the intercultural tension raised through his unwitting act of networked terrorism. From initially seeking a way into the US, Arjun is now searching for a border to escape across. However, because Arjun has metaphorically embedded himself into his viral creation, he becomes physically untraceable. His identity is uprooted by the digital and dispersed in a globally infective virus, reflective of his cultural dislocation and marginality throughout the narrative. This erosion of the self - the dissolution of identity in the face of dominant techno-capitalism - indicates that what remains of Arjun is his digital memory. It becomes impossible to extricate his physical presence from the technological. By pondering ‘[h]ow is it possible, in a world of electronic trails, log files, biometrics and physical traces of every kind to slip so completely away’, Kunzru is questioning whether active individual agency holds the potential to escape from the worst effects of the digitally-globalised world (291).

The coda positions citizenship to exceed the limits of the nation-state paradigm and be dependent on more global responsibilities. Through the virus’s metaphorical multitude ofvoices, Kunzru channels an anti-globalist discourse to tackle and interrogate the inequalities of the contemporary global system. Transmission therefore follows Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas in acting as an example of what Aris Mousoutzanis terms ‘network fictions’, which ‘interweave multiple interlocking narratives set in different times and spaces around the globe and involve many characters, often in a state of mobility and travel, who get involved in or affected by incidents from another storylines’ (2014: n.pag.). By demonstrating an interpenetration of local, national and global processes, the novel creates a glocal narrative environment of intercultural engagement and tension at multiple scales. Transmission indicates that the digital age has led to this rapid interconnection of citizens and nation-states into one homogenous system, leaving more marginalised societies and communities open to risk and disjuncture. Contemporary concerns are consequently susceptible to transformation by participatory factions and cooperative transnational affiliations, effectively initiating the emergence of a global consciousness to combat planetary threats.

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