The Evolution of Virtual Identity in American Literature


Beatrice Melodia festa

pp. 181
Anno 2022 (maggio)
ISBN 9788869482250



Beatrice Melodia Festa
The Evolution of Virtual Identity in American Literature
From the Telegraph to the Internet

What is the origin of virtual identity? Can we trace its evolution in American literature? This book seeks to respond to these inquiries by exploring those narratives that between the end of the 19th century and the present have illustrated redefinitions of American identity through the virtual context engendered by the development of telecommunications. The study opens with an overview of the relationship between the real and virtual self in modern thought and then focuses on the relevance of identity in American culture. Sweeping in its scope, the book proceeds to explore the origin of virtual identity through the telegraph, following its evolution with the telephone and ultimately delving into the digital age to shed light on the computer, the Internet, and virtual reality. In this way, the second section of the volume moves on to tackle the process of exchange between personal construction and narrative technological development. As such, the texts examined are Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes (1879) by Ella Cheever-Thayer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) by Mark Twain, The Broom of the System (1987) by David Foster Wallace, Chronic City (2009) by Jonathan Lethem, and A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) by Jennifer Egan.
Opening new vistas on the narratives, the book shows how American literature has traced the profile of a new, essentially virtual, identity defined by the intersection between real and artificial and by performance as a means to represent the self.

Beatrice Melodia Festa holds a Ph.D. in Modern Languages and Literature from the University of Verona and she has also earned an MA in American Studies from the City College of New York (CUNY) and Ca’ Foscari University. As Adjunct Professor, she teaches American Literature at the University of Bari and at the University of Parma, and English Language at the University of Verona. Her research interests include the relationship between literature and culture, the 19th and 20th century American novel, Faulkner, and cyberfiction. She is a member of the editorial board of “Iperstoria”, journal of the University of Verona.




9 Acknowledgments

11 Introduction

19 1. Exploring Identity across Culture and Virtuality

1.1 An Overview of Identity and the American Self; 1.2 Virtuality: an Additional Definition for Identity; 1.3 Identity Performance

50 2. Technological Utopianism: the Human and the Machine

2.1 America’s “Taste for Progress”; 2.2 Identity in American Literature: the Machine-Based Aesthetic

72 3. Challenges to Identity: Bodies and Telecommunications in Late 19th-century American Literature

3.1 Communicating with Bodies and Machines: The Case of the Telegraph; 3.2 Telegraphic Literature: Electro-Mechanical Narratives; 3.3 Wired Confinement, Virtual Subjectivity and Encrypted Identities in Ella Cheever Thayer’s Wired Love (1879); 3.4 Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and the Technological Performance of self-Identity

102 4. New Media: Hyperrealism, Simulations and Loss of Identity in Postmodern American Fiction

4.1 The self and Hyperrealism; 4.2 Postmodernist Fiction: Fragmentation and Technological Disillusionment; 4.3 Introducing David Foster Wallace’s Challenge to Posthumanism: Personal Dysfunction and self-Disorientation; 4.4 David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System (1987): Identity and the Failure of Subjectivity in the American Posthumanist Rush
128 5. The Self and the Digital World: the Fiction of Technological Complicity and Performativity

5.1 Networked Identity: Subjectivity in Cyberspace; 5.2 Performing the self Online: The Question of “Platformativity”; 5.3 Literature in the Cyberworld; 5.4 Simulation, Virtual Subjectivity and Digital Complicity in Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (2009); 5.5 Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010): Technology, Time, Nostalgia and self-Transformation

163 Conclusion

169 References