Saturday, 16 March 2019

MA Essay for Contemporary Literature, Culture and Theory. ‘Transparency’ and the mechanised mind in Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY (2017).

This essay was written for the MA in Contemporary Literature, Culture and Theory and scored a 70 (First).

Transparency’ and the mechanised mind in Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY (2017)

In her 2017 novel H(A)PPY[1], Nicola Barker uses language to illustrate the effects of a utopian/dystopian society hinged on the concept of transparency. In doing so, Barker creates a ‘new path’ (to borrow the name of the first chapter) through language; experimenting with typographic variation, bricolage, coloured text, music and visual manipulation. This ‘new path’ is used by Barker to explore the effects of transparency on futuristic bodies through the categorisation and codification of language, moderated by the omnipotent ‘System’. Barker’s systemically-moderated text thus corresponds with Byung-Chul Han’s definition of transparent language as ‘a formal, indeed, a purely machinic, operational language that harbors no ambivalence.’[2] When the System’s moderation is fully operational at the beginning of the novel, language is coloured by its ideology and thus charged with the spirit of the ‘transparency society’[3]. Like language, the subjects of the System’s surveillance, the ‘Young’, are `physically modified to ensure they are as efficient and as transparent as their society. Their bodies are ‘smoother’ (Barker 1) and sexual organs are ‘shrunk and become neutral’ (Barker 1). When the System’s moderation ruptures, the text experiences ‘oscillations’ which disrupt narrative linearity and dredge up a texts from old books; scores, images and articles, alluding to concrete poetry through the breakdown and reconstruction of codified language. Whilst it might be considered that the novel’s linguistic and formal playfulness paradoxically creates unintelligible ambiguity, I propose that it is rather a multivalent act and Barker’s layering and overloading of semiotic codes diversifies meaning making, artfully representing the multiplicity and ever-changing quality of postmodernity and the futuristic human condition. In this discussion, I shall consider the anxieties and paradox of ‘transparency’, as well as considering the ramifications on the titular pursuit of h(a)ppiness.

Transparency is textually performed in the ‘smoothing out’ of consciousness through narrative. This echoes Byung-Chul Han’s notion that the society of transparency, ‘Manifests itself first and foremost as a society of positivity. Matters prove transparent when they shed all negativity, when they are smoothed out and levelled, when they do not resist being integrated into smooth streams of capital, communication and information.’ (Han 1) The System enacts its ideology of control through moderating all language and thoughts under the banner of positivity, depicting all unmoderated language as deviant and ‘Other’ and consequently inciting anxiety in the subjects who reject a manifesto of transparency. Morality and desires are framed in binary terms of good (moderated) and evil (unmoderated). Here, the System is like Bifo’s mass corporations who have ‘[taken] control of the desiring field, digging the immaterial trenches of techno-slavery and mass conformism […] colonizing the field of desire’[4]. There is a co-dependent relationship between pleasure/happiness and surveillance in the text and the Youth must embrace the System’s order to feel satisfied. We read:

There is a satisfaction- a deep satisfaction- in remaining neatly within the parameters of our various graphs. In keeping things even. And we all strive (but not too hard) for that. Because it makes us H(A) [*]PPY: just to contribute, to be utterly aware, utterly informed, utterly sensitive. Utterly open to everything. (Barker 4)

The System ‘smooths out’ Mira A’s consciousness under the guise of positivity using blank space in the chapter ‘Silence’ (Barker 181) wherein Barker spreads the words ‘Must / Not / Speak’ (182-4) and ‘Must / Stay / Quiet!’ (185-8) across single pages, illustrating Mira A’s subversive exclamation’s and the System’s erasure of unmoderated consciousness and free speech. Conversely, the ‘Other’, banned and unmoderated language, is a destabilising and threatening force which can barely be expressed using the language of its opponent. This can be seen in the following extract:

‘The unmentionable. […] The Unknown. A tiny, blanched corner of our dear Mother, Earth, where the Imperfect are still permitted to wander and war and squawk. That place of immense filth and degradation, inhabited by the sordid, deluded and diseased remnants of shattered mankind. Watched and guarded by our Neuro-Mechanicals. A smudge. A violence. A contradiction. A horror.’ (Barker 112)

Considering the ‘Other’ side of positivity, Han writes, ‘The negativity of alterity and foreignness—in other words, the resistance of the Other—disturbs and delays the smooth communication of the Same. Transparency stabilizes and speeds the system by eliminating the Other and the Alien.’ (Han 2) The text’s ‘smoothing out’ hereby entrenches binary ideas of positivity and negativity through repressing and categorising subversive ideas, identifying oppositional ideas and naming them the Other. When applied to humanity, transparency is ultimately antithetical, as evidenced in Rousseau’s attempts to live as a transparent individual, where Starobinski recounts that:
Having declared himself transparent, he found the masks, separations, and veils he had banished from his soul all now rising up everywhere around him, bringing back the opacity he had sought to overcome and rendering it an external threat. His transparency radicalized this world of lurking shadow.[5]

The System proliferates the ideology of a transparent society through conflating its needs and desires with its subjects of surveillance (the Youth). This transmutes the human being, substituting sexual desire for a desire to be a cyborg who contributes towards the System’s efficiency and is ultimately, in Han’s terms, ‘glassy’ (Han 1). This ‘glassiness’ reflects the essential multiplicity of transparency in that it can never be wholly ‘transparent’ insofar as glass surfaces reflect light as much as they let it pass through. Pierre Boulez elaborates on this idea, writing that:

‘I compose to be crystal clear in the sense that sometimes the crystal reflects yourself and other times you can see through the material […] the work suggests a hiding and opening at the same time. And what I want most to create is a kind of deceiving transparency […] If you’re a complicated self you express yourself in more complicated terms.’[6]

When Mira A discovers she has a counterpart, Mira A, the metaphor of binaries and controlled subjects metaphor is made overt, in, ‘There are two of us, we are two: desire and restraint- we are double, like **** said, there are two of us, the second and the first, A and B.’ (Barker 196). Where the System has full transparent control, we read words selectively illuminated in the colour red. These include, ‘Plagues [*]’ (Barker 1), ‘off-kilter [*]’ (Barker 12), ‘History [*]’ (Barker 11), ‘Lies [*]’ (Barker 2), ‘perplexing [*]’ (Barker 5), ‘suffered [*]’ (Barker 2), ‘imperfect [*]’ (Barker 7), ‘discombobulation [*]’ (Barker 5), ‘darkness [*]’ (Barker 2), ‘chaos [*]’ (Barker 21) and ‘The Past [*]’ (Barker 11). The colours purple, blue, green and pink are also used to varying degrees throughout the text, although the colour red is the most frequently employed. The categorisation of words in this way underscores them as disruptive and diversifies the semantics of the word through conventional allusions to the colours; for instance, green indicating natural, earth-born substances, or the colour red indicating danger/ blood. The reader is unable to avoid subconsciously rationalising the networks of colour categories and Barker’s refusal to objectively demarcate what the categories to which these words belong, lends to the text’s pervading ambiguity and converse lack of transparency. However, Barker perceives her use of colour and design to be less of a radical act and rather ‘comparable to a hand-copied medieval manuscript.’[7]

In the context of Barker’s novel, transparency modifies and transmutes its subjects. As Han reminds us, ‘Transparency is a systemic compulsion gripping all social processes and subjecting them to a deep-reaching change.’ (Han 2). This disruptive relationship between futuristic humans and technology is articulated by Donna Haraway who writes:

Communications technologies and biotechnologies are the crucial tools recrafting our bodies […] Technologies and scientific discourses can be partially understood as formalisations, ie. as frozen moments, of the fluid social interactions constituting them, but they should also be viewed as instruments for enforcing meanings.[8]

The control of social processes and the symbiosis of the human and machinal is reflected where textual ‘oscillations’ become more pronounced and the System’s total textual transparency disintegrates. Whilst the illusion of control is mostly upheld, these oscillations begin in the third chapter, ‘The Farm’, which incites an anxiety in the novel’s protagonist, Mira A, where we read:
H (A) [*] P P Y

I really, really wish it would stop doing that.

Oscillating.’ (Barker 20)

The gradual lack of textual order and transparency incites confusion and anger in the Youth, akin to physical pain. Barker writes, “I see other Graphs purpling in an awful flood of emotion. I see other people’s anger washing through The Stream. A dreadful bruise.” (Barker 45) In this way, colourlessness and emotionlessness are the utopian Systemic ideal which can only be achieved through transparent psychic alignment. Unmoderated physical pain is visualised at a later point in dark red, handwritten script ‘PAIN!!! [*]’ (Barker 267), evidencing the break from moderated congruence through the typographical swift.

Textual transparency is disrupted by the appearance of a problematic ‘gap’, wherein an anarchic onslaught of repressed texts erupts, and the System loses its moderating control of Mira A’s consciousness. This ‘gap’ can be interpreted as the disruptive presence of blank space, which the System is unable to categorise. As Lydia H. Liu explains, Claude E. Shannon’s theory of blank space as a communicative practise and ‘new letter’, ‘code[d] “space” as an equivalent but non–phonetically produced positive sign.’[9] Han explicates the danger of the ‘gap’ and the intrinsic, etymological relation to happiness within the society of transparency as he writes:

The society of transparency cannot tolerate a gap [Lücke] in information or of sight. Yet both thinking and inspiration require a vacuum. Incidentally, the German word for happiness [Gluck] derives from this open space; up until the Late Middle Ages, pronunciation reveals as much [Gelücke]. It follows that a society that no longer admits the negativity of a gap would be a society without happiness . . . without a gap in knowledge, thinking denigrates into calculation. (Han 5)

Whilst the text is hesitant to blame specifically what has brought about this gap, it can be considered that the titular pursuit of h(a)ppy, as a concept separate from happiness, is partially responsible for this. The presentation of ‘happy’ with parenthesis- h(a)ppy, demonstrates this imperfect simulation. Barker opens the novel with two prefacing quotes on happiness by Saint Augustine and Euripedes[10], foregrounding the importance of cultural and theological histories, in contrast to her text’s strict outlawing of history as ‘The Past’. Here, Barker engages with a conventional form of novel writing which borrows the prestige of cultural forefathers to anchor the text’s cultural capital. Furthermore, Barker challenges the hypocrisy of political transparency by exploring how master narratives shape cultural histories and suppress subversive ideas, creating what Leo Robson calls, ‘a dystopia constructed almost exclusively from utopian concepts.’[11]
The pursuit of happiness can be mapped across the text and is alluded to as an organic process which is prohibited and substituted by the System. In place of happiness, the system supplements the abstract concept with h(a)ppy; a hyperreal simulacrum of unmoderated ‘happy’ which crucially ‘resists symbolization absolutely’[12]. Writing on his theory of simulacra, Baudrillard pens that the proliferation of ‘mass simulations’[13] distinguish the “neighborhood [as] nothing but a protective zone’[14], built on ‘disinfection, a snobbish and hygenic design- but above all in a figurative sense: it is a machine for making emptiness.”[15] This emptiness is marked in the chapter ‘Silence’, wherein blank space separates ‘Must / Not / Speak’ (182-4) and ‘Must / Stay / Quiet!’ (185-8) across pages, before Mira encounters her unmoderated thoughts for the first time. ‘Is it the whiteness? Is it the gaps?’ (Barker 196) she asks, before preparing for the flood of illogical, incomprehensible texts which constitute the complexities of an unmoderated human condition:
Duck! Shield yourself! Draw breath! Here it comes! […] The wall of narrative! The landslide! The mud-slide! The tsunami! The flood!

Here it comes!.’ (Barker 196)

The presence of music within the text undertakes a political role in perpetuating the ideology of transparency and is used to monitor the Youth and encouraging them to work as a deindividuated unit. Music is screened for potentially subversive material belonging to ‘The Past’ and information is heavily restricted. We read,
There are many Art Forms that are no longer compatible with The New Path. Art is, by its very nature, an expression of Ego [*]. Art describes the world- it is once removed from the world […] Art is an expression (a validation, a celebration) of a kind of difference, a kind of vanity [*]. It is interpretation. It is embellishment. It is cynicism [*]. It is ideology [*]. If Art may exist among The Young, then it needs to Shine A Light on to The New Path- to bring greater dispassion, freedom and clarity (if such a thing is possible […])’ (Barker 32-3)

The suggestion that musicality has a natural place within the heart of the individual, the Ego, is made through the recurrent glitch which figures in the text, against the will of the System,, ‘THE TUNING FORK IS IN YOUR HEART’ (Barker 107). Mira A first starts out with a guitar, which she describes as ‘I found myself staring at this guitar’s imperfections [*] and wondering. I am not sure what I was wondering. There was simply a space, a wordlessness, an itch.’ (Barker 7) In her attempts to reconfigure her Information Stream, Mira A attends Kora workshop; an instrument which is moderated by the System in its pitch and tuning.

In the text’s pursuit of textual transparency, Barker uses a range of techniques employed by concrete poets including textual manipulation and colour. The poetic movement is defined in Chris Baldick dictionary of literary terms, where he writes, ‘most concrete poems are apprehended instantaneously by the viewer as visual shapes, since they dispense the linear sequence demanded by language.’[16]  Whilst Baldick takes the stance that the visual quality of concrete poetry redacts the importance of singular words in the composite form, I believe that Barker’s variational blending of colour and typography transcends the ‘anxiety of language’, as named by Derrida, which is ‘the threat of limitlessness, brought back to its own finitude by the very moment when its limits seem to disappear, when it ceases to be self-assured, contained, and guaranteed by the infinite signified which seemed to exceed it.’  In this way, Barker’s codification and categorisation of language alleviates Derrida’s ‘anxiety of language’ through moderating and punishing the mechanised mind.
The final break from transparency occurs when the cathedral is discovered, a ‘building’ (unconsciously) constructed and discovered by Mira A in the novel’s third act, using clandestine information. This is interesting in light of Deleuze’s statement that, ‘The digital language of control is made up of codes indicating whether access to some information should be allowed or denied.’[17] In this way, the cathedral is an anarchic and subversively constituted through its construction from scientific equations and mathematical jargon, symbolising the disintegration of the control society through the human’s reclamation of codified language. The codes can be read singularly as ‘[x+y]’ ‘a’ ‘[‘ ‘2(4x-1)(x+1)=(4x+1)(x-1)-7’ ‘p’ ‘m’ ‘f’ and ‘r’ (Barker 253). Barker uses gradiated grey and black fonts, evoking the work of contemporary visual poet Anatol Knotek, whose work is similarly charged with a political critique of digital cultures and is specifically reminiscent of his piece ‘bye’ (2017)[18]. Barker uses the typography of musical dynamics for the individual letters; ‘p’ ‘m’ and ‘f’, as signifiers which hold resonance in musical, scientific and mathematical lexicons. Through the overloading and agglomeration of languages, like intersecting circles, the individual components, equations and numbers lose their significance and become alternatively symbolic through their composite formation into the image of theistic worship, offering salvation from the incessant control of the System. The absence of divinity is alluded to at the beginning of the novel wherein Mira A explains, ‘When I say ‘they tell us’ I actually mean ‘we tell us’. Because nothing is above us. Nothing is below us. We are In Balance. That is how The System was tooled. We work to stay In Balance.’ (Barker 3). Systemic order, ‘Balance’ and transparency have ultimately eradicated the presence of theology, due to the assumed benevolence of the System’s higher powers. Barker’s Catholicism is perhaps biographically relevant here, as an individual with firmly held views on the place of faith in contemporary society. Speaking in a Guardian interview, Barker stated,
We’re in a society that thinks entirely about faith because we feel a sense of encroachment by Islam […] But no one is Christian. So we’re trying to defend an ideal which we can’t really define ourselves, which we almost entirely don’t believe in […] I feel as if this conflict is entirely about faith, and yet the one thing no one wants to talk about is faith.’[19]
Like the bodies, language and thoughts of the Youth, faith too is heavily equally codified and restricted from view for fear of highlighting its hypocrisies of the transparent society.

Barker foregrounds the destructive capacities of a failing transparency society by mirroring the breakdown of language with the breakdown of the Youth’s consciousness. Glitches are indicated by Barker’s heavy use of repetition which  consequentially complicates the reading process, as critic Leo Robson notices, writing, ‘When presented with a six-page slab of repeated sentences, you are expected to trawl through every word, the better to engage with, or empathetically share, the narrator’s aching head.’[20] This incites a Beckettian sense of nihilistic suffering, paradoxically stripping the words of their signified meanings through the heavy repetition of ‘words’ (Barker 115) where the System falters. The effect of this technique feels reminiscent of leaning on a keyboard and the consequential eruption of meaningless repeated letters or symbols. Indeed, writing in the Guardian in 2017, Barker confessed that in whilst writing on her old laptop, ‘Every so often a key locks and you’ll look down at the screen and see eeeeeeeeeeeeeee or ;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;. It also likes to impose random gaps and spaces on to the text (in geometric boxes) that are impossible to remove so you have to copy the narrative and open a new document.’[21]  Barker’s experiential difficulties in writing through technology can clearly be traced in the text as she highlights their limitations for archiving human experiences. Barker’s use of repetition and typographic distortion is also reminiscent of the work of Scottish concrete poets including Ian Hamilton Finlay and Edwin Morgan, whose works are similarly fascinated with linguistic repetition, colour variation and spatial manipulation. Passages such as the mirror-reflected text in blue font (Barker 172) are specifically reminiscent of Edwin Morgan’s ‘Colour Poems’ series[22], using linguistic repetition to gradiate shape and colour density. The further Mira A drifts away from the system and its screening of her consciousness, the more experimental the text becomes, testing the boundaries of control as the individual break away from transparency. Barker is hereby breaking the moulds of convention as narrative becomes spliced with informative text. As Han asserts,

‘The various forms of control, on the other hand, are inseparable variations, forming a system of varying geometry whose language is digital though not necessarily binary). Confinements are molds, different moldings, while controls are a modulation, like a self-transmuting molding continually changing from one moment to the next or like a sieve whose mesh varies from one to another.’[23]

To conclude, I believe that Barker’s text is demonstrably influenced by contemporary digital postmodernity and Han’s ‘transparency society’, as a work of critical theory very much influenced by Gilles Deleuze’s ‘Postscript on Control Societies’[24]. H(A)PPY is not simply an allegory for the dangers of digital postmodernity, but rather a nuanced exploration of order and power and full of contradictions, with transparency infused into the novel’s presentation, shaping its form. My discussion of the text is guided by form, as Sontag recommends in her writings on interpretation, through “dissolv[ing] considerations of content into those of form”.[25] This is echoed by Barker herself, stating in an interview that, ‘The shape of the text informs the narrative for me and always has.’[26] The novel’s intrigue with form rather than narrative, as well as the partiality of its form, and subjects, is seen in the following passage where we read:

Of course you will be familiar with the narrative form, per se, … the narratives of family and romance and adventure, the masculine and feminine narratives, the narratives of class, of nationalism, of capitalism… still, even knowing these things- as you do as you must- narrative is not really your speciality Mira A. Your story is only half a story. Occasional. Trite. Partial. Meandering. And, strange as this may seem, this is actually a very good thing. (Barker 45)

In this, we are reminded of transparency as a fractional process which cannot be sustained due to the recurrence of glitches and the attraction of what transparency attempts to outlaw; secrecy.

[1] Nicola Barker, H(A)PPY (London: Penguin Random House, 2017) All further references to this edition are given after quotations in the text.
Please note the presence of colour within select quotations, where the capacity for colour printing is not available, these words will be marked with the following symbol [*]
[2] Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society (Stanford: Stanford Briefs, 2015) p.2 All further references to this edition are given after quotations in the text
[3] Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society (Stanford: Stanford Briefs, 2015)
[4] Cited in Gary Hall, Clare Birchall and Peter Woodbridge, ‘Deleuze’s ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’’, Culture Machine, Vol.11, 2010 p.45
[5] Stefanos Geroulanos, Transparency in Postwar France: A Critical History of the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) p.2
[6] Stefanos Geroulanos, ‘Introduction’, Transparency in Postwar France: A Critical History of the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) p.1
[7] India Bourke, ‘Nicola Barker: Interview’ The New Statesman November 22, 2017 [accessed: 21/12/18]
[8] Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism of the 1980s (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2016) p.302-3
[9] Lydia H. Liu, The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) p.45
[10] Barker, ‘preface’ H(A)PPY (London: Penguin Random House, 2017)
[11] Leo Robson, ‘H(A)PPY: when a utopia is just a dystopia that’s kidding itself’, The New Statesman, 2 August 2017, [accessed: 1/1/19]
[12] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 1 Jacques Alain transl. (London: Norton, 1991) p.14
[13] Jean Baudrillard. Selected Writings ed. Mark Poster (Stanford; Stanford University Press, 1988) p.60
[14] Baudrillard, p.58
[15] Baudrillard, p.58
[16] Chris Baldick, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990) p.43
[17] Gilles Deleuze. Postscript on Control Societies, October, Vol. 59, 1992. JSTOR, [accessed: 1/1/19]
[18] Anatol Knotek, ‘bye’, <> [accessed: 5/1/19]
[19] Alex Clark, ‘Interview: Nicola Barker: I find books about middle-class people so boring- I feel like stabbing myself’ Guardian 22 July 2017 <> [accessed: 1/1/19]
[21] Nicola Barker, ‘Each novel has its own specially designed notebook. These are sacred objects to me’, Guardian, 18 November 2017, <> [accessed: 1/1/19]
[22] Edwin Morgan, ‘Colour Poems’, (1978) Scottish Poetry Library <> [accessed: 21/12/18]
[23] Gilles Deleuze. Postscript on Control Societies, October, Vol. 59, 1992. JSTOR, [accessed: 1/1/19]
[24] Gilles Deleuze. Postscript on Control Societies, October, Vol. 59, 1992. JSTOR, [accessed: 1/1/19]
[25] Susan Sontag. Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Picador, 2001) p.16
[26] India Bourke, ‘Nicola Barker: Interview’ The New Statesman November 22, 2017 [accessed: 21/12/18]

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