For me, a scholar of contemporary U.S. literature, the way we read now has everything to do with the way authors write now. In particular, I’ve noticed that an increasing number of authors seem to be thinking about meaning ontologically, as a matter of location, relation, and presence, not epistemologically, as a matter of representation, signification, and reference. Post-critical reading practices are the methodological counterpart to this ontological turn in the literary sphere. While ontological meaning making and post-critical reading are not necessarily unique to the contemporary, there are specific historical reasons for their emergence over the past two decades. In particular, although there’s obviously not enough space here to thoroughly historicize the contemporary, I would suggest that the historical backdrop of contemporary fiction and post-critical reading practices includes the heightened pressures of climate change and environmental collapse, increased technological mediation of the human and the real, the post-national character of global networks of bodies and capital, the prominence of post-racial and post-rights discourses which have changed the nature of politics, and neoliberalism’s production of the post-normative subject homo œconomicus. In admittedly very different ways, each of these historical forces has replaced older modes of meaning making that rely on representation and critique with new modes of meaning-making that rely on connection, adjacency, being, transmission, and presence. It’s not surprising, then, that today’s authors and readers have changing notions of what it means to mean.
The list of contemporary authors rethinking what it means to mean is extensive. I’d mention Jennifer Egan, Ben Lerner, Ben Marcus, Chris Kraus, Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk, Percival Everett, Helena Viramontes, Mat Johnson, Nell Zink, Tom McCarthy, Lynne Tillman, Rivka Galchen, Laird Hunt, Maggie Nelson, Salvador Plascencia, Mark Danielewski, and Tao Lin, just to give you a sense of the cross-section of the contemporary I have in mind. But my favorite example comes from Zone One, Colson Whitehead’s take on zombie fiction. Whitehead makes it pretty clear that the zombie plague represents, or even allegorizes, the brain-dead homogenization wrought by contemporary capital: turns out we were always already zombies before the plague even began. But even as the novel’s language and figures explicitly develop this parallel between zombification and contemporary capitalism, the text also suggests the obsolescence of the type of reading method that would identify and reveal such parallels – that is, the mode of reading that wants to see one thing representing, standing in for, or pointing to another thing. For example, whenever the novel’s protagonist, Mark Spitz, shares stories of his past in an attempt to give meaning to his experiences, no one cares. He and all the other survivors are just generic “templates”: “There were hours when every last person on Earth thought they were the last person on Earth, and it was precisely this thought of final, irrevocable isolation that united them all. Even if they didn’t know it” (108). You think that you’re special, that life is meaningful, that your unique experiences produce the value of your self, but you’re wrong. Paradoxically, it’s when you feel most unique that you’re not; it’s when you feel most significant—the last man on earth!—that you’re not. In Whitehead’s version of the contemporary, the act of giving something meaning robs it of meaning.
So it’s true that the zombie plague allegorizes contemporary capitalism—that’s its meaning. But the very act of designating meaning, of reading representationally, hollows meaning out, homogenizes it away, makes it a mere template. As Zone One suggests, this happens because of contemporary capitalism’s remarkable ability to produce the individual and the homogenous simultaneously. Or, the individual—that which is unique, valuable, meaningful—is homogenous precisely because it’s individual. Facebook profiles come to mind, for example. As for Mark Spitz, he learns this lesson while standing in an abandoned restaurant that reads a lot like the interior of an Applebee’s or T.G.I. Friday’s. Observing the “replicas of gold and platinum records, momentous front pages, concert posters, and sports trophies” hanging on the walls, he remembers being a child and thinking that “they had to mean something if they were up there on the walls. Why else would they be there?” Later, however, he realizes that these objects are unique and homogenous simultaneously: “He was crestfallen when he ate at another location for the first time and saw the same stuff on the walls” (189). Spitz thinks this memorabilia represents history, but it really just represents the impossibility of representing history. In the same way, we might say that Zone One allegorically represents contemporary capitalism, but it really just represents the impossibility of representing contemporary capitalism. Crucially, this impossibility is not a function of Derridean present absence or Lacanian lack; it doesn’t derive from unspeakable trauma or the sublime. Instead, it’s the result of contemporary capitalism’s totalizing commodification of meaning and value. When all human activity has been reduced to the entrepreneurial profit-maximization of human capital, the meaning of that activity becomes moot. Everyone in Zone One, for instance, thinks they know how to interpret the zombie plague: “The human race deserved the plague, we brought it on ourselves for poisoning the planet, for the Death of God, the calculated brutalities of the global economic system, for driving primordial species to extinction: the entire collapse of values as evidenced by everything from nuclear fission to reality television to alternate side of the street parking.” But as far as Mark Spitz is concerned, these theories are “boring.” They neglect the fact that under this new dispensation all acts of interpretive meaning-making are empty. “The plague was the plague,” Spitz tautologically asserts, “You were wearing galoshes, or you weren’t” (153).
Or, capitalism is capitalism, and under its total subsumption there’s no point in interpreting it, critiquing it, or highlighting its injustices. The barricade separating the humans from the zombies—or what one character describes as “the only metaphor left in this mess”—marks the survivors’ last-ditch effort to retain some sort of representational value for their lives (97). They hope to parlay that metaphor into a broader symbol of humanity’s triumphant return. The metaphor will allow them to reinhabit Manhattan, proving that there is a real and meaningful difference between the zombies beyond the barricade and the survivors thriving within. As it turns out, however, that metaphor is just a “public relations stunt” dreamed up by the provisional government in Buffalo, a representation of a distinction between humans and zombies, subjects and objects, that doesn’t actually exist (249). The representational logic of metaphor doesn’t work anymore. Suggesting that one thing stands in for, points to, refers to, allegorizes, represents, portrays, or signifies some other thing no longer yields productive or actionable meaning.
Instead, Zone One suggests that we need to think about meaning, value, interpretation, and critique in a new way. In the novel, Whitehead takes his cue from the zombies, who have their own unique mode of meaning-making: “Looking down at them through the twisting ash, Mark Spitz shuddered. The dead streamed past the building like characters on an electronic ticker in Times Square. . . . Close to the ground, almost at their level, he read their inhuman scroll as an argument: I was here, I am here now, I have existed, I exist still. This is our town” (306-7). Notice that this ontological mode of value production—“I was here, I am here now”—requires a distinct mode of reading. The zombies can still be read, they are still a scroll, but reading them is like reading the opaque letters and numbers that update the stock prices on the Times Square ticker. In other words, reading them is tantamount to reading capitalism. They are what they are, and whatever value one might locate in them derives from their presence, relation, and connection to other things that also are what they are. (After all, in today’s high-speed trading environment, everyone knows that at any given moment a stock price doesn’t actually represent anything other than itself.)
We find another example of such non-referential, ontological signification in the text produced by a woman nicknamed Quiet Storm, the leader of a cleanup crew Mark Spitz works with prior to his time in Manhattan. Outfitted with wreckers, tow trucks, and other hauling equipment, Quiet Storm and her team clear freeways of the many cars whose owners succumbed to the plague mid-escape. Instead of just moving the cars off the road, however, Quiet Storm precisely instructs her team in the proper placement of each vehicle. Mark Spitz doesn’t know why, only that she “favored patterns divisible by five, and grouped them by general size and occasionally by color, sometimes even towing a car for miles to fulfill her conception” (142). It’s only when Mark Spitz hovers above the cars in a helicopter headed to Manhattan that he sees the suggestion of communication in the car configurations ordered by his team leader. He suspects that a “grammar lurked in the numbers and colors, the meaning encoded in the spaces between the vehicular syllables, half a mile, quarter mile. Five jeeps lined up south by southwest on a north-south stretch of highway” (232). But the script remains illegible, her readership non-existent. As Mark Spitz explains, “We don’t know how to read it yet. All we can do right now is pay witness” (233). More than mere representation, Quiet Storm’s text is a transmission that alters the landscape rather than just referring to it. Like the zombies whose “inhuman scroll” argues loudly for their presence, for their inclusion in the city, the non-referential language of this auto text speaks the fact of its own existence, translating Quiet Storm forward and linking her to the things her text comprises as well as to those who encounter it. Readers of such transmissions need not discern the world to which they refer, the meanings they represent. These transmissions make little pretense to representation or reference. Instead, readers must aver the fact of their existence and avow the truth of these petitions for inclusion in the world. In effect, such texts accept the neoliberal condition but also embrace the potential implicit in the attendant shift toward more ontological modes of value production.
What’s particularly cool about Whitehead’s novels is that they don’t just represent this new mode of reading; they require it. The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, even Sag Harbor: each is an allegory that isn’t. They all invite allegorical readings, symbolic interpretations, which they then smash on the obdurate thinginess of the text itself. Like so many zombies populating the shelves of contemporary fiction, the meaning of Whitehead’s work is that it exists. Or to be more precise, the meaning of Whitehead’s work is that you can’t say what it means—not because of poststructuralism, but because of contemporary capitalism.
What does it mean, though, that Zone One aligns itself so thoroughly—in both content and form—with the modes of contemporary capitalism? For one thing, I think it means that Whitehead, like many of his contemporaries, has concluded that critique is obsolete, that neoliberal capital has such a totalizing grasp on our contemporary moment that more might be gained by speaking its language than resisting it. Such potential complicity is precisely the kind of wager that post-critical readers must make—indeed, they do make that wager, although they are frequently not explicit about it and sometimes even deny it. Sure, there’s something very dangerous about speaking the language of capital, but we also know that capital easily subsumes the language of critique that would oppose it, to the point that oppositional critique might be the more dangerously complicit position. And I don’t think we’ve yet explored the non-complicit potential that might arise from making meaning within contemporary capitalism. This is precisely the potential Mark Spitz will presumably explore beyond the ending of Zone One, as he thinks, “Fuck it,” and deliberately “open[s] the door and walk[s] into the sea of the dead” (322).