The Quest for Interpretive Agency: Zoomxiety in the Realm of Literature

In a 2013 special issue of Theory, Culture & Society on “Cultural Techniques,” Sybille Krämer and Horst Bredekamp critiqued what they deemed the “textualist bias of traditional cultural theory” (20). The metaphor of text emerging after the linguistic turn, they asserted, had transformed “the world of culture into a world of discursive signs and referents” (21). And yet, they posited, was it not odd “that the historical semantics of ‘culture’” refer back to its material tactility and tangible making and doing—its “prosaic origins” lying not in the symbolic but in “agrarian methods and operations” and “hand-based crafts” (21). Culture, they deduced, was and is “first and foremost the [ordinary] work with things . . . that surround us on a daily basis,” and as these working things “recede further . . . into the background” of the cultural imagination, the study of culture “‘forgets’ its genesis” (21).


Krämer and Bredekamp’s assertions, and their invocation of “the literary”—its touting of semiotic modes, particularly—provoke our contemporary circumstances. If symbolic affinities threaten to occlude culture’s everyday “working of things” then the stakes of such occlusion resound today, as the material conditions of front-line and public service work under COVID-19 tell us, in amplified ways, about the structural precarity of the present. And yet, the material stakes of the literary are, too, seemingly amplified. Poetry readings, book clubs, and English Literature and Cultural Studies seminars have become explicitly contingent on Wi-Fi signals and virtual interfaces; on how close one sits to the camera, the speaker, or the router; on log-in passwords and system settings. The hegemony of Zoom thus emphasizes not only how the power of safety is distributed across cultural production and occupation (as Naomi Klein has asserted, Zoom and other big tech are sold as the “only possible way to pandemic-proof our lives”), but how literary culture, circulated largely through Zoom, contends with its place within what Lauren Berlant deems our “crisis ordinariness”: the “traumas of the social that . . . transform the sensorium to a heightened perceptiveness about the unfolding of the historical, and sometimes historic, moment” (“Thinking” 5). Amidst the COVID crisis, Zoom has emphasized the positioning of literary culture and yielded introspection about its value(s). As Zoë Brigley suggests, the Zoom poetry reading, connecting viewers with each other across the world—building community, delivering the arts in a time of isolation—has also rendered other literary values notably absent, and hence, apparent. In an online meeting room of “cropped heads and shoulders in their tiny boxes” and “pixelated simulacra,” the notion of intimacy feels impossible to cultivate: “How much intimacy can there be with the face talking back to us, blurry as ectoplasm, and sticking from time to time in looped internet glitches?”


If Krämer and Bredekamp’s emphasis on everyday material operations invokes Raymond Williams’ 1958 assertion that “culture is ordinary,” Brigley’s analysis emphasizes the particular stakes of virtual “ordinariness” when it feels at odds with a sense of literary cultural value. Indeed, it’s difficult to know how Williams—an anti-bourgeois Marxist advocate of ordinariness, but also a literary scholar and novelist, elucidating ordinary cultural production through the pastoral rhythms of his hometown, newspaper presses, and the din of a tea stop—would feel about today’s “pixilated simulacra.” As George Snedeker has argued, “Williams’ humanism is the untheorized articulation of cultural production” in his work (104). Brigley’s expression of what has been called “Zoomxiety”—the ever-popular neologism for the interface’s anxiety-inducing affects—thus provokes questions about Literature that are uniquely of today, and uniquely situated to think about (as Williams advocated) how literary culture relates to Culture itself. If literary culture is premised on ambient feelings of intimacy, absent in today’s necessarily virtual modes of cultural exchange, then what do we make of the feelings of anxiety and alienation so entangled with today’s current techno-material conditions and connective affordances? What might they tell us about our state of ordinariness, about the nature of work, cultural production and literary cultural production, but also about the ways in which “ordinariness” is itself a polyvalent ideal, cast through disciplinary prisms of ideological investment? That is, what does Zoom tell us about Literature, and what might Literature tell us of Zoom?


Despite Krämer and Bredekamp’s assertions about the limits of semiotic analysis, it is worth noting that such methods seem nonetheless well suited to the moment. Susan Blum’s assertion that “videoconferencing is nearly a replication of face-to-face interaction but not quite” (emphasis original) suggests that Zoom is both an interface and a symbol, reminding us of what once was and that to which we hope to soon return—a simulacra, invoking and threatening to colonize the real. And yet, such interpretive modes must contend with the material work of things on which they are
premised. The rise of Zoom stocks by 370% in the past two years amidst an economic crisis reminds us of the ways in which today’s virtual ordinariness—modes of looking, seeing, engaging, and speaking—are commodified under late surveillance capitalism. Perhaps more than questions of materiality and the symbolic is then the question of methodological utility: What does the symbolic register offer to our understandings of Zoom, as an emblem of the present’s networked machinery? And how does investment in its “working things” expand and benefit literature’s investments in subtext?


These inquiries point to the newfound work of literature. In an op-ed for the New Yorker, professor Rick Moody opined the virtual transition as one profoundly at odds with the literary arts. Literature, he argued, exceeds “dispensing information”: it is “about a human in the room feeling something, expressing it, and the other humans listening . . . bearing witness, grappling with the complexities of another.” As a “humanist form,” literature is different from economics or astrophysics in that it “can’t be converted into data points” and, therefore, is starkly incompatible with the seemingly depersonalized ethos of online learning. Zoom, Moody writes of his own teaching experiences, thus engendered anxiety about the interface, but particularly about the modes of exchange it facilitated, giving rise to “anxiety about the [literary] product itself” that “was . . . [being sold] to the students, a product that was hard to believe would not be inferior.” If Brigley’s Zoomxiety mourned the loss of intimacy, emphasizing the networked yet alienating virtual poetry reading, Moody’s sentiments betray anxiety about the question of value itself—literary value, stripped of its dialogic intimacies and atmospheric potentials, becoming commodified content, produced and circulated by the neoliberal university and consumed within a bleak humanities job market.


Moody’s Zoomxiety—anxiety about literature’s virtual non-translatability—is both of and beyond this moment. John Greig’s 1930 assertion that “[w]e need literature” (emphasis original) during the Great Depression, which posited its “enlargement of our experience” as a necessity amidst the realities of economic disenfranchisement, suggested too that Literature’s plane of value is irreducible to quantifiable worth (420). Richard Poirier’s 1982 assertions took a less instructive approach, observing the vexed relations between Literature and Technology as expletive of differing systems of value within the cultural evolution of the West. With radio and television, Poirier noted, “Technology has brought to thousands of people the delights of high culture they would not otherwise have had . . . threaten[ing] the condition of relative inaccessibility on which the vitality of high culture, and especially of Literature, depends” (65). Technology and Literature occupied different spheres of the cultural imaginary and kept its constitution lively. Before technology “struck back” with its 1980s dexterity and allure, it was literature’s “whipping boy”—a symbolization of a posthuman (or then, perhaps, anti-human) efficiency, at odds with the discipline’s humanist ideals (66). “[F]rom some of its earliest and now classic instances,”Poirier writes, literature “seems always to have been nostalgic for something that has been lost”—an expressive tendency betraying anxiety about the exponential technologization of the future (66, emphasis original). Here, Poirier draws on Spenser’s 1589 The Fairie Queene, focusing on Sir Guyon’s encounter at the Cave of Mammon, the treasure house of the god of wealth. The Cave, a technology of sorts in that it is a “perversion of nature in the interests of financial and industrial progress,” “filled with currency that reproduces its own value without in the process contributing to the growth of anything other than money,” sees Sir Guyon “so appalled” (or perhaps, Poirier notes, so tempted) he flees to knight errantry in pursuit of a life of quixotic heroism (66).


Poirier’s examination of Literature and Technology was written prior to iPhones and videoconferencing, when the option of rendering Technology an abstract monolith was perhaps more viable. As Jonathan Sterne has emphasized, technology
is not a thing unto itself to be studied as an entity but upholds the very conditions of our habitus. Sterne’s assertions indicate how frameworks relying on literary and technological binarism threaten to occlude their entanglement (for example the technological production of literary material culture to literature itself as a technology of cultural dissemination). And yet, despite this significant caveat, Poirier’s analysis is helpful in not only situating Moody’s expression of Zoomxiety in relation to literature’s affective economies and genealogies but in emphasizing the particular relations between technology and value that it seems to anxiously apprehend. More than reservations about technology itself, Guyon’s encounter suggests anxiety about an ethos: the cave’s unimaginative reproductions of value—a kind of limitless ATM—threatening, in its lucrative obviousness, the value less explicit. As Antony Easthope has surmised, while the question of “literary value” across the Western tradition yields emphasis on mimetic, expressive, and formalist forms, all three notably render value in terms of “not presence but an effect of presence”: a matter of “functional polysemy . . . of the reader/text relation” (386). Perhaps more notable than Guyon’s outward repel, then, is Poirier’s sense that he waivers—that his repel is not repel so much as a principled act of errant investment when faced with overt untethered profit. Guyon’s retreat to the halcyon world of knight errantry thus suggests a literary technique of distinguishing between
systems of value that cannot be reducibly distinguished; an investment in art and morality, whose value is affirmed and whose value we trust because of Guyon’s principled choice.


And yet, to read Guyon’s retreat as simply allegorical to art’s transcendental or polysemous value tells us little about Zoomxiety other than its sedimentations of sentiment. In a more generative reading, Guyon’s repel might be a very early account of what Sianne Ngai deems “ugly feelings”: the suspended agencies, “affective gaps and illegibilities, dysphoric feelings, and other sites of emotional negativity in literature” (1). More than what ugly feelings are, Ngai’s interest is in what they do. Surveying texts bearing a shared sense of felt ugliness—from Bartleby’s depressive reluctance in Melville’s Wall Street, to Scottie’s disorientations in Hitchcock’s Vertigo—Ngai posits the presence of ugly feelings as allegorical deposits of “autonomous or bourgeois art’s increasingly resigned and pessimistic understanding of its own relationship to political action” (3, emphasis original). At the core of ugly feelings, she asserts, is thus “a very old predicament—the question of relevance—that has often haunted the discipline of literary and cultural criticism,” a predicament whose “urgency seems to increase in proportion to its difficulty in an increasingly anti-utopian and functionally differentiated society” (3).


Ngai’s pre-COVID assertions are undeniably anticipatory and yet retrospectively useful. Guyon’s repel is likely more complex. As Brent Dawson argues, the economies of the Cave, and Mammon’s assertion that its wealth can “kings create,” hinted at the beginnings of mercantilist ideology—capitalism’s nascent form—and thus to the transitions from capital as a question of “ethics to a natural system that can be studied empirically” (178). Under mercantilism wealth was no longer a reflection of the world, but of its very source of production—“Wealth becomes a science, a mechanics of accumulation, exchange, and power” (178). The Cave thus arguably provokes in Guyon (a literary agent very much of the project of “reflecting the world”) not distaste so much as full-blown existential crisis.


Ngai’s corpus similarly points us to the discomfited sense of being produced by the world. Bartleby’s and Scottie’s anxious feelings, and the anxious tone in Melville’s and Hitchcock’s work more generally, are suggestive of contingent, cultural configurations: “anxiety, distraction, and cynicism,” Ngai notes, are “perversely integrated, from the factory to the office”—capitalism’s “classic affects of disaffectation . . . are neatly reabsorbed by the wage system and reconfigured into professional ideals” (4). If Hitchcock’s Vertigo performs anxiety as an “anticipatory structure” linked to the subject’s “quest for interpretive agency” in a disorienting world, it is because of Scottie’s anxious and acrophobic encounters with the film’s own aesthetics: the many thrown projections of people, doubles, and great heights (215). But it is too because of the material conditions of the film’s very production—conditions it anxiously cannot seem to transcend. As Ngai suggests, in Vertigo’s imagery of heights, falling, and doubles, it is as if “the film were deliberately evoking cinema’s dependency on images projected onto a screen” (221). Indeed, Vertigo’s affective-aesthetic sense of vertigo relied on the new affordances of the dolly zoom, and on Hitchcock being the first to utilize them. “Ugly feelings,” Ngai suggests, tell us about art’s own sense of limits, but in that, they “expand the project of criticism and theory” (8).


In distinguishing art’s values of autonomy and negotiations of contingency under late capitalism, Ngai gestures towards an impasse pertinent to Zoomxiety in the realm of literature. Like Bartleby, sapped by Wall Street, or Guyon, at the precipice of mercantilism, Zoom presents a threshold where agency is suspended and called to question; where notions of art’s autonomy come in conflict with the contingency of art, and subjectivity, itself. If techniques of managing Zoom’s chat, hand raise, or self-view functions in poetry readings or book clubs offer means of negotiating Zoomxiety in newly virtualized spaces, such techniques only affirm Zoom’s bearing on behavioural modes of articulating, interpreting, performing, and discussing. Indeed, if, for Ngai literary manifestations of anxiety work to articulate art’s broader grappling with contingent agency, then the sense of anxiety incurred by the institutionalization of Zoom and other platforms’ proctoring affordances surely amplifies such concerns within the realm of individual behaviour. Zoom has become a feature of the everyday, signalling the “links between human and non-human agencies” bearing the “material practices that sustain and enable ‘culture’” (Parikka 147, 150). As Maha Abdelrahman argues, as Zoomxiety and “Zoom fatigue” threaten productivity, the rise of apps such as Spatial, which allow users to adopt an avatar to decrease cognitive load, do not relieve burnout but managerially produce new techniques of optimized production. The notion of the “indefatigable worker” has haunted labour optimization efforts since the early twentieth century. Capitalism,
Abdelrahman reminds us, “does not like to let a good crisis go to waste” (10).


Zoomxiety thus might tell about the reflexively anxious experience of being produced as a subject, and particularly of being produced as subject in a world bent on optimization. And yet, simultaneously, Zoomxiety returns us to the agential
body—its reflexive, adaptive, and reactive impulses—and in that, the fleeting acts of interpretation that link feeling to the world’s broad configurations. If, as Berlant suggests, the endlessly labour-inducing promise of “the good life” perpetually masks the precarity and fragility of the present, then Zoomxiety offers an encounter with what the collapsing of public and private, work and leisure, and the encroachments of surveillance feel like, granting opportunity to be “reflexive about a contemporary historicity as one lives it” (Cruel Optimism 5). As Jussi Parikka argues, “[b]esides analysis of capitalism,” tending to material techniques yields the errant and wilding possibilities of everyday embodiment; the “histories of counter-techniques” that have always persisted might too come to the fore (157). Indeed, Zoom has both inscribed
and engendered. As UCLA instructor Jacquelyn Ardam tweeted in March: “I started off one of my classes by asking students to share in the chat what they’d do if they had an extra hour in their lives & then I cancelled the rest of class & told them to go do that thing” (@jaxwendy). Online responses were varied: some commenters found inspiration in Ardam’s reimagining of Zoom’s expectations, some criticized Ardam’s shirking of professorial labour, and many were interested in what the students said. Many students, Ardam relayed, wanted to sit out in the sun.


Around the same time this March in Montreal’s Mile End, Welch’s bookstore entered what was described as a David-and-Goliath faceoff with one of the city’s most prominent real-estate agents, Shiller-Lavy Realties (Kelly). Faced with a rent increase of $3,000 come August, the outcome looked bleak for the independent bookstore in a gentrifying neighbourhood. In an interview with the Montreal Gazette, owner Stephen Welch recounted his plea: “‘The argument I’ve made to them is that my business attracts people to the street. . . . So there’s an intangible thing that my business does . . . [it creates an] ambience.’” Of the product itself, he noted, “‘I’m offering an alternative. . . . A book is an art object. It’s a physical tangible memory of history and a good read potentially.’” Danny Lavy, of Shiller-Lavy Realties, rebutted to the Gazette that “there’s
a limit to how much of a break they can give”: “‘The guy’s selling antique books,’ said Lavy. ‘You have to ask yourself: Does anybody buy books today?’” (Kelly). The statement, of course, went viral, resulting in public pressure to which Lavy eventually conceded. Regardless, on March 13 people staged a “read-in,” lining the streets holding books—many talking to their friends, staring into space, or texting, but holding books nonetheless. If Welch’s bookstore, an emblem of a lost art, still endures, it is because hundreds took to Twitter. Where the symbolic begins and ends is here ambiguous, and yet its bearing on public assembly and economic shift is clear.


The Welch’s read-in, arguably a prime example of “literary culture,” testifies as well to the politics of slower, personalized, and principled leisure. About more than reading, the moment was the staging of sitting on St-Viateur on a sunny day, the techniques of milling and talking that produce the ambience of the street—ambience that Welch knew, more than the books themselves (which could be good, could be bad), to be his contribution. The next day, no doubt, pictures were posted by those who had stood in solidarity with the antique bookstore’s “memory of history.” Many, surely, wished they had gone.



Figure 1 and 2. Sadie Barker, “Reporters and read-in participants gather outside Welch’s bookstore (Montreal) on March 13, 2021.”

Figure 3. Sadie Barker, “A screen-printing shop in the neighbourhood sells Welch’s bookstore shirts in solidarity.”


Figure 4. The event page on Facebook for the Welch’s “read-in,” “Does Anybody Buy Books Today? (A Read-In)”.


Works Cited


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—. “Thinking about Feeling Historical.” Emotion, Space and Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2008,
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@jaxwendy. “I started off one of my classes by asking students to share in the chat what they’d do if they had an extra hour in their lives & then I cancelled the rest of class & told them to go do that thing. I am now reading their class reflections, and this is what they all mention.” Twitter, 18 Mar. 2021, 10:20 a.m., Accessed 21 May 2021.

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Parikka, Jussi. “Afterword: Cultural Techniques and Media Studies.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 30, no. 6, 2013, pp. 147-59.

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