Chaucer and Social Networking

I had a student submit an assignment on Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales the other day that is among the most original submissions that I have ever received.  It takes “The Knight’s Tale” for its topic, the story of Arcite and Palamon that Chaucer retells from Boccaccio’s Teseide.  Rather than assuming the form of a linear text, the assignment is presented through Facebook, each of the various characters having a profile, and it uses the program’s various functions to relate the events of the story.

In the capacity of a teacher of English Literature, I am mostly concerned, of course, with whether this approach to the assignment is effective in saying something useful about Chaucer’s text, but as a observer of contemporary media practises, I am far more interested in its implicit comparison between two modes of textual interaction.  There are some obvious differences between the two that are mostly consistent with a shift from an early-modern cultural aesthetic to a postmodern one: the displacement of a unified  narrator with multiple narrative voices; the rejection of a reliable narrative position in favour of unreliable narrative perspectives; and the shift from an external narrative position to internal ones.  The result of these shifts, according to standard postmodern theory, is a story that is necessarily less unified and less coherent but also more reflective of the multiple ways in which a story is lived and told and experienced, because they replace a single subjective voice with a multiplicity of voices that puts in question the stability of the subject as such.

These kinds of observations have often been made before, and I feel no desire to recapitulate them any further, because the distinction that interests me most between the two stories does not lie in this postmodern shift in cultural and aesthetic sensibility.  Rather, it lies in the technologically driven shift in how the reader is constructed.  The knight, as the narrator of the story in Chaucer’s text, is ostensibly performing for other characters who are as much literary creations as he is, but his performance is also a part of a larger performance by the anonymous narrator of the whole text and of an even larger performance by Chaucer himself, both of whom are in fact literary creations as well.  These performances assume readers who are apart from the text, an audience that certainly performs the text for themselves, but who cannot stage these performances for the literary creations of the text.

The Facebook adaptation of the story, however, constructs its readers, not as an audience apart from the text, but as fellow performers able to participate in the text directly in ways that are not distinguishable from the rest of the performance.  It opens the possibility that readers might interact with my student’s characters in a mode that my student could not control and that either readers could not distinguish from his text.  These additions to my student’s text would not function as commentaries or supplements, but would become an essential part of the story being performed.

These kinds of additions have always been possible, of course, through multiple authorships and other authorial complexities, and they might even be said to be unavoidable, through the essential indeterminacy of the authorial function, but it has never before been possible for a story to incorporate its readers essentially and indefinitely into its own text.  Though the reader always played a performative function in relation to the text, it has never before been possible for the text to be structurally inclusive of this function in an essential way.

The implication is that the reader is, in fact, no longer a reader, but is only another literary creation who can participate indistinguishably in the performance of the story itself.  The reader is no longer separable from the author, even if the reader does not in fact add anything visibly to the story, because the reader must have a profile to read another profile, must actually be inscribed into the other profile in order to be a reader of it.  To read the profile, the reader must already be written into it, must already have contributed to the authorship of the story.  There are no readers, on Facebook, only authors, only literary creations who perform a story that they can never comprehend in its entirety.

This conclusion accords well with my intuitive sense of how new media is functioning.  I suspect that it offers the unprecedented opportunity to be writers of ourselves only at the cost of discouraging our opportunity to be readers of others.  They make imperative the development of reading practices that choose to read as such, for the sake of reading, in order to honour the act of reading, though these practices will almost certainly take the form of a discipline that cannot avoid being called religious.

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