I get on a train and there, eventually, is Eleni Haifa: about 22, massive hair and five feet tall. She is either Italian, Jewish, Arab, Turkish, Kurdish or Greek. She has olive skin and is wearing high heels with gold tips, a white jacket, an oyster-coloured skirt. She is carrying two iPhones, one in a black case and one red.
She has one iPhone in each hand and is transferring something from one to another by typing using her thumbs. But not the tips of her thumbs because her polished nails are so long that she has to use the pads to type, very fast. She puts one down – the one playing her music – and then goes to Facebook on the other: to her profile, where the picture is some kind of cartoon. She flips to WhatsApp – I can tell it’s WhatsApp from the green message boxes. Between Clapham Junction and Waterloo she spends her time switching between WhatsApp and Facebook. She’s been on the train at least from Richmond.
Cover art from the spring issue ofby Emma Löfström.
“On or about December 1910, human character changed”, wrote Virginia Woolf. Her argument was with her fellow author Arnold Bennett, who claimed there were no good novels being produced because, after the 1914-18 war, writers had become unable to create characters.
Woolf disagreed. There’d been a crisis in literature caused by the emergence of a new kind of person: Edwardian novelists had tried to write about them using old, Victorian storytelling forms. Then, once they’d invented new forms – streams of consciousness, fragmented time and so on – the conventions the audience shared with writers had broken down. But if the conventions could be re-established, she said, “we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature” – as long as we don’t abandon character. To illustrate her point she got on a train from Richmond to Waterloo and observed “Mrs Brown”.
Mrs Brown is the name Woolf gave to an elderly woman she’d watched on the train in the midst of an argument. Woolf unleashed her imagination on this old lady to illustrate how the modern novelist had to approach character from the standpoint of mind and imagination, discarding the circumstance-based characters of Victorian literature. She was, at this time, halfway through writing Mrs Dalloway, which was a non-sequential exploration of her own psyche and postwar guilt. She had written at the top of the manuscript: “A delicious idea comes to me that I will write anything I want to write.”
Woolf’s famous line – “on or about December 1910, human character changed” – haunts the present. Sometime during the 2000s, a combination of technology, broken economic life-chances and increased personal freedom changed human character all over again. From the demonstrations we’ve seen in recent years in places like Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the small exam-revision groups organised by women in hijabs in the coffee bars down the side streets, we are beginning to meet a new kind of person: the networked individual. It’s the technology they use that shapes their consciousness: they communicate across multiple platforms; they use multiple personas and they have weak organisational loyalty. The sociologists Manuel Castells and Barry Wellman each noticed early on that the impact of the network society was not just on behaviour but on the conception of the self. During the past 15 years the concept they pioneered has morphed into a general description of people like Eleni Haifa. They’re people whose being determines their consciousness in a way not possible at any other time in human history, because their being is plugged into other “beings” and ideas have become the “material” of their existence.
This has implications for all forms of storytelling based on character. To explore these, I’ve decided to jump on the same train Woolf took – from Richmond to Waterloo in the early evening – and search again for Mrs Brown.
So I get on the train at Richmond, around 6.15pm. The platform is packed. Richmond shouts “class” at you. It’s overwhelmingly white. There are still the kind of people here who go to the cricket. The whole high street is a playground for non-working wealthy women and their kids, and nannies.
In this experiment, the rule is that I have to describe and maybe build a character for the first memorable “networked individual” I see. But today you can’t call a character “Mrs Brown” – we’re a global melting pot in London and marriage is on the decline except among gays and lesbians. But on Facebook there are always “invented name” memes going around: your porn-star name or your country-and-western name. So I’ve come up with a formula for your “networked individual” name: it’s the name on the badge of the last barista who served you coffee, combined with the place you last saw a riot on TV news. So for me, this woman with two phones has to be called Eleni Haifa.
The difference between Eleni Haifa and Woolf ‘s heroine, Clarissa Dalloway, is not that she might be living a liberated modern life, zipping over to a hen night in Stockholm via Ryanair, taking the morning-after pill or hitting a punchbag at the gym. These things are just the modern equivalents of what the liberated middle-class woman from Richmond did in the 1920s. The real difference is how she thinks and communicates; how that moulds a version of the self, or several versions of it, and how she deploys them. There are different kinds of “selves” that arise from communicating and thinking in the way that Eleni Haifa does. Here are a few of them:
The multiple self
We present clearly defined versions of ourselves in different digital arenas – on her various online profiles, Eleni can be the woman who works for the ad agency, the girlfriend, the secret girlfriend of someone else, the kickboxer, the Arsenal fan or the Elf in Elder Scrolls Online. When she spins the dial, don’t think of it like an old telephone dial, more like drawing a magnet through ball bearings: all the other selves stick to the selected self and reconfigure around it.
The leaky self
When we’re online, writes Margaret Wertheim in The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, the self “becomes almost like a fluid, leaking out around us all the time and joining each of us into a vast ocean, or web, of relationships with other leaky selves.” Eleni retweets someone’s epithet, shares her friend’s wedding photos on Facebook, subscribes to her boyfriend’s playlist on Spotify. The precondition for all this is that other people are prepared to contribute parts of their online life to hers, so she must too.
The scattered essential self
Though each of the selves is constructed, there will be one self (sometimes more) selected for the processes of reflection that are available online. People will pour out personal stuff on Facebook or Twitter messaging services, or via the closed services like WhatsApp and Snapchat. This self will be scattered across analog and digital spaces and consists of all the unguarded and frank expressions they’ve ever uttered.
The branded self
Below the age of 35, most people are now maintaining a carefully constructed version of the self, aimed at the two most essential things in life: getting a partner and getting a job. They consciously construct this self – though they may not fully believe in it. To find it look at people’s Tumblrs and Facebook profiles. Eleni’s two iPhones could be one provided by work and another she runs herself: or they could contain two separate lives. A lot of people have the latter.
The Cartesian dualist selves
Wertheim asks, pertinently: “Where am I when I am in an immersive online world?” My body is sitting at my computer but my mind is fighting a dragon with 200 other disembodied selves. Though gaming is the condition mostly associated with this, it could be asked of anybody immersed in their tablet or their smartphone. They are newly capable of being in one place and acting in another. The key here is interaction: there are a lot of people on the train “lost” in books and e-books. This is the same as it would have been in 1924. But those who are interacting in real time with other people can develop a different kind of online consciousness that comes close to the old Cartesian dualism of the mind and body being separate.
Woolf understood the idea of multiple selves. She writes in Orlando that “a biography is considered complete if it accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may have many thousand”. But for Woolf, “people” meant upper-middle-class people; people who’d been to Cambridge. You can tell this by the fact that in all her writing the “selves” of working-class people are one-dimensional.
In addition, even for Woolf, many of these selves were publicly suppressed. So her relationship with Vita Sackville- West – her lesbian self – is never fully acknowledged, either in her writing or in her letters to other people; even her letters to Vita are prudish about what may or may not have happened. Her political “self ” is suppressed, even in her late novels when she’s angry about fascism. She takes out of The Waves a brilliant polemic; she self-censors a risqué joke about lesbianism from A Room of One’s Own. Whatever freedom and multidimensionality we think the liberated women of the inter-war era had, they only had it in retrospect: we only know it from their biographies, letters and diaries.
Eleni Haifa has freedom and a public, multi-identity lifestyle on a scale not only unimaginable in Woolf ‘s time but impossible one generation ago. She is also, of course, oppressed, harassed and crushed down by circumstance.
If you made a database of every character in every play in the Western canon and plotted complexity against class, you’d probably end up with a neat curve: until around 1890 most lower-class characters are stereotypes. Not all upper-class characters are complex, but most complex ones are upper-class, or have significant power. The outliers would be underlings who play a part in the downfall of rich men: Iago, Sganarelle in Don Juan, Figaro.
After that, complex working-class characters begin to appear in plays – but usually when the entire world of the drama is working-class: DH Lawrence’s The Daughter-in- Law, Harold Brighouse’s plays, etc. It’s better in novels. There are complex working-class characters in the work of Émile Zola, Thomas Hardy, E.M. Forster, often men and women adrift amongst the disrupted middle classes.
The real revolution, beginning in the 1890s, lies in the depiction of psychology and gender and the rapid fall in the social “centre of gravity”. Plays begin to be set amongst the lower middle class. At the edges lie beggars, dustmen, prostitutes, closet gay men and occasional revolutionaries.
The “change in human character” Woolf is writing about is complete by 1910. She chooses December 1910 not just because it was the date of the Post- Impressionist Exhibition organised by her friend Roger Fry. It was also the year of the general election won by the Liberals on a radical pledge to limit the power of the House of Lords – and 30 November had seen “Black Friday”, when 300 suffragettes demonstrating outside Parliament were physically attacked by the police, sparking a major upsurge in property damage and hunger striking. December 1910 in Britain may have felt a lot like December 2010, with its student uprising.
If we look at it through technology, the 1910 date for the emergence of the modern person is about right. Here’s a list of things you could do in December 1910 that you could not do in, say, December 1895:
– go to the movies – ride in a motor car
– play a 78 rpm record
– read a tabloid newspaper
– make a long-distance phone call
– work in a steel-frame tall building
– radio a message to a ship
People who lived through the second industrial revolution (1898-1914) understood it was a moment of rapid change – in technology, lifestyles and the psyche. And not just for the middle and upper classes. For working-class people there was – via the public library, the labour movement and the night school – the sudden possibility of complexity, challenge, a language of self-reflection.
For the first 100 years of industrial work, life for the working-class person had been one of heavy labour, scant leisure time, constrained conversation or even habitual silence. Even for skilled and literate workers, rigid social codes defined what they said, did and thought. The point here is that the new technology, combined with new social conditions, created the possibility not only of, say, a character like Mrs Dalloway but also of a character like Mellors, the gamekeeper in Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. When we say “a new kind of person” we mean revolutionary forms of thought infesting the world of the ordinary person as well.
This Eleni Haifa person on the train in 2014 is not a revolutionary: her entire mode of dress – the office wear, big hair and the gold shoes – says that. But it is to such people that the revolutions of 2011-13 happened: office workers in Cairo, Istanbul, Moscow, Syria. And what brought it to them were the online networks they habitually used to discuss their ordinary lives.
Woolf’s complaint was that new kinds of people had been trapped in old literary forms. It feels to me like that’s what we are living through now. In the English-language theatre, for example, plays where characters habitually stare at their smartphones, where texting and emails are represented as an additional layer of communication and consciousness, have begun to appear. The first play I saw where this was systematically exploited was Karin Young’s The Awkward Squad (2012) – in all other ways it was a traditional piece of theatre. If I think back to the first play I saw where the characters all behaved as networked individuals, it was either Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking (1997) or his Mother Clap’s Molly House (2000).
Probably the most overt impact of the new, networked reality has been seen in the American drama series. The Wire‘s entire premise was a war between a hierarchy (the Baltimore cops) and a network (African American criminal gangs using cell phones and codes to communicate). But The Wire was largely populated by “old kinds of people”. Only the character of Omar – a gay, self-reflective outsider to all the other worlds in the drama – emerges (by season three) as the kind of multi-self individual we’ve seen in recent years.
By the mid-2010s, however, something more significant has happened: it has become normal to reflect the new complexity of characters through the device of the uncertain or unresolved plot.
In the US TV spy thriller Homeland, and in Britain’s Line of Duty, the protagonists are chronically deconstructed. We do not know what their real motivation is, what the true facts are about them or what they are going to do next. To achieve this, directors have begun to deprive all but the lead actor of any knowledge of how the story ends. Typically the story is not resolved. The beauty of this new device, the unresolved plotline, is that it is implicitly understood by the audience. This looks like extreme innovation in plot: in fact it is about character. It allows the creation of characters in which there is space for the multiple selves of modern life. Because the plots never have to resolve, the entire series becomes a kind of revolving dais for us to see these crystally impure and complex people, revolving round and round, like ourselves. By giving Carrie, the heroine of Homeland, bipolar disorder, the writers award themselves the ability to make her multi-selved and unpredictable.
If you give Frodo Baggins a mobile phone, The Lord of the Rings becomes a considerably shorter book. So much of old literature’s narrative power hung on the absence of real-time information, or the absence of background knowledge, and the inability to communicate. The future of narrative – where the network is everywhere and suspense or surprise harder to create – has to be in question.
Try it with Othello: just look at Desdemona’s Facebook page, mate. Cassio’s most definitely in the friend zone, it’s that Iago you want to worry about – he’s obsessed with her. Try it with Casablanca: Rick does not tweet but his Facebook profile says, “It’s complicated”. He has just 17 “friends” and he posts YouTubes of old Hoagy Carmichael songs up, late at night, with no explanation.
Try it with Mrs Dalloway, however, and you run into a different problem. In Woolf’s novel, the narrative of Clarissa’s day is just a framework on which to drape her self-exploration, her alter-ego Septimus or her regrets and fantasies about lives she never got to live. What happens to Clarissa Dalloway if you give her a mobile phone is not so revolutionary: she just becomes a 1920s version of Eleni Haifa. She is already a person with multiple selves, liberated in her own mind. Given a smartphone, she becomes the citizen of a world where old things are alive with new information: she expresses these multiple selves in reality, and not in an experimental novel, or in private letters.
The real problem for the novelist or playwright is not describing Eleni from the inside out: it is describing the externals. For her, reality is being bombarded with external messages every minute. Her reality is the music in her earphones, the messages and tweets and emails and likes and photographs arriving on her two iPhones.
In his 2010 book Reality Hunger, David Shields claimed that a new artistic movement was forming in which artists were “breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work.” Shields cited – in music, drama, video, novels and poetry – the increasingly frequent use of “raw” material: “unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored and unprofessional.” He described its typical characteristics:
Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation, an overly-literal tone, as if reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form; pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography; anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) between fiction and non-fiction; the lure and blur of the real.
Notice how this list veers towards variations on a theme of instant and continuous autobiography. That is what Eleni is making on the train.
It is worth noting that Woolf owned a primitive version of what Eleni owns: a self-publishing tool. She and Leonard owned and operated the Hogarth Press in their home. They self-published some of Virginia’s work, and only Leonard had any pre-publication input, and then only at the galley proof stage. She too produced, over the years, many iterations of the instant and continuous autobiography. The “delicious thought […] I will write what I like” and the ability to publish it are linked.
Shields does not like the novel. He believes a novel, in these circumstances, becomes not about reality but about the artifice of writing and plotting and character creation. He says the people doing what the novel used to do are documentarists, non-fiction writers, or those prepared to montage chunks of reality and self-analysis into the prose:
The power to make us feel our one and only life, as very few novelists actually do these days, has come from a memorist, a nonfiction truth speaker who has entered our common situation and is telling the story we now want to be told.
If, in response to the rise of network technology, fictional character is changing, then it is even more likely that physical forms will too. If Shields is right, we should expect change not just in what is done in the theatre but where and when theatre is done, and what it physically consists of; not just how a novel looks on an e-reader but what kind of thing we should write for e-readers. Not just how music sounds but how it is stored and played. In each case, we should expect large chunks of “reality” to enter into works of art.
This is because the background to the change is not a “second industrial revolution” but a move towards the information society. Information is the raw material empowering (or disempowering, we don’t know) the woman with two iPhones on the train. A lot of it will be information that is free, or her own information, or unprocessed information.
In theatre there is already a boom in interactive performance. Alongside this there is the rise of all kinds of reenactment – jousting competitions in the grounds of castles, or fake miners in preserved collieries. When climate protesters staged a series of performance protests against BP’s sponsorship inside the Viking exhibition at the British Museum last year, there were times when the punters wondered if the whole thing had actually been commissioned by the Museum itself.
On top of that there is the rising popularity of physical theatre. If the new generation of protesters are used to using performance – staging a climb up a power-station chimney, or creating a Clown Army to disrupt the Gleneagles Summit – then they are drawing from and adding to these two trends in theatre: interaction and physicality. If protesters use the human body to write graffiti onto the modern city, then dramatists can use them to create theatre in the same way. The vogue for clowning and circus skills in theatre is probably speaking to an unstated desire to break down forms.
Let’s go back to the train and ask: how much narrative creativity does Eleni Haifa actually want? Ask her: “Do you go to the theatre?” – and she will probably say not often. Asked why, she may answer: “Because I can’t afford it.” But this is a ruse. She will pay twice the cost of a theatre ticket for a nail job, or a cheap flight to a city less interesting than her own.
The movies? Yes, but unless she’s some kind of niche intellectual we are talking Hollywood genres: rom-com, action, zombie or ditzy post-modern thriller. Movies are important because they are the raw material for memes in the way theatre is not. Movies are the subject of watercooler moments for this generation: you have to see them to talk about them. And novels? You bet. A lot of other women her age were reading them on the train, too.
You can boil narrative down to plot, character and poetry. If we ask what plots Eleni Haifa can deal with, the answer is “complex”. She is totally schooled in the reversals, twists, surprises, unresolved tensions that range across entire seasons of TV drama, and through multi-part feature movie franchises like Bourne.
How much poetry does she want? The answer is “a lot”. To steal a phrase from Jimmy Stewart’s character in Harvey, nobody brings anything small into a theatre or cinema any more, or to a novel. The milky sunsets, weak violence and unlined faces of the Robert Redford era are gone. In literature, the style – if not complexity – of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Thomas Pynchon, Zadie Smith or Arundhati Roy is a required level of intensity.
But what kind of characters does Eleni Haifa want to hear about? We know what kind of characters she gets. From Hollywood, utter stereotypes. In TV drama it’s the opposite. The new archetype is Homeland’s Carrie – bipolar, physically tougher than most men in the era of Virginia Woolf, and juggling determinedly multiple personalities (woman in the suit, woman in the hijab, the drunk woman in the bar, curled-up foetus in the mental health unit). The novels she reads are dominated by characters who go generally through epiphany and redemption.
Let’s assume the woman on the train “reads”, and can navigate intelligently, all the above formulas in popular fiction and TV drama. What is left for literature, theatre, the art movie, other genres yet to be invented? What are we trying to add? You could try to create – as Woolf did in Mrs Dalloway – the human character on steroids. One woman’s world, bursting so heavily with subtext, trauma and self-reflection that all the other characters are needed just to tell the story of what’s going on inside her brain.
But at a certain point, if that inner narrative is not interacting with networks – messages, memes, the thoughts of multiple selves expressed on social media platforms, long hours spent gaming (Candy Crush Saga is big among the people on the 6.15pm from Richmond) – if these things are not there then it is not her reality. It is an old reality, like portraying the Edwardian era without suffragettes.
Large numbers of young, urban, connected human beings can get up any day of the week and, like Woolf, think “I can write anything I like”. But they will do it with their body – in a university occupation; in a flamenco dance before a Spanish cathedral, spurting fake blood out of their skirt in protest at the abortion law; or in a dance club. Or with their fingers/thumbs using Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr on one or more iPhones.
Woolf ‘s injunction was “never, never abandon Mrs Brown” – that is, never abandon real characters. But what does it mean to “not abandon” our woman on the train? If we are going to depict her in literature or on stage or on TV, we have to find ways of depicting the full person: the tweets, the memes, the text messages, her Instagram photos, the filter she uses on her Instagram photos; what they mean. Then we have to adjust the format of narrative to take account of the fact that she is probably producing a very interesting narrative of her own, every second she is awake.
If writers don’t find ways to adapt to this new reality, Eleni will go on playing Candy Crush, watching movies and sharing responses to them on social media. Theatres will still get public funding, novelists will get dwindling advances, blockbuster TV series will get made that sporadically depict truth by getting less and less structured in their narratives. People will flock to Cirque du Soleil, stand-up comedy and Glastonbury.
But there will be no Rick, no Ilse, no Clarissa Dalloway, no Mellors, no Connie Chatterley, no Yossarian, no Taste of Honey for our time. Brilliant creators will go on creating characters like these in the old conventions – as Bach went on writing Baroque music, perfecting it even as the genre died. Give “Mrs Brown” an iPhone and it is people like Mrs Woolf who have to start worrying.