Against the modular mind
Jena Osman's 'Motion Studies'
Jena Osman’s sixth book, Motion Studies, is a hybrid work consisting of three essay-poems, reaching into the past and a hypothetical dystopian future to offer us urgent warnings about the present: the ubiquity of surveillance technologies, the reduction of the human being to a constellation of data points, and our often-unconscious participation in our own subjugation to these larger forces. True to its title, Motion Studies is a restless book, rarely content to exist in one mode for very long. Prose breaks out into poetry; characters, historical and imaginary, jostle each other for position in the narrative, and haunting images — brain scans, phrenology charts, and early attempts at creating motion capture technology — deepen our appreciation for what the writing describes. Such an audacious and genre-bending work might easily collapse from the weight of its own ambitions or lose the reader on one of its many discursions, but Osman manages the balancing act well, such that by the time the final page is turned, the reader is reconciled to the book’s broad scope.
The opening essay, the eponymous “Motion Studies,” begins suggestively: “A small action sets off the ones to come.” The immediate action is the perusal of a book in a library, leading to the discovery of Étienne-Jules Marey, a nineteenth-century French physiologist and inventor of the “sphygmograph,” a wrist-worn device for measuring blood pressure. “Marey knew that every function of the human body, no matter how hidden in the folds, creates movement: he simply needed to find a way to transfer those movements to paper, turn them into data to be analyzed” (16). Shortly thereafter we are jumped forward in time and place, to a couple who have won “the right to be forgotten” (15), to “disappear beyond the company horizon” (19), where people are kept in a constant state of surveillance. How far into the future are we? Osman does not say, but the rudiments of the ubiquitous surveillance she imagines exist today in China’s “social credit system,” for example, where the power of big data is mobilized against the citizenry, rewarding “good behavior” with favorable loans and travel privileges and punishing “bad behavior” with restricted movement and exclusion from the better schools and hotels. Her use of the phrase “right to be forgotten” is also surely not accidental, for that is the term given to the debate around internet privacy laws in the European Union, where citizens are understandably wary of having too much of their lives permanently documented by search engines. As one of Osman’s characters put it:
He ranted about privacy rights, as if they could exist anymore. The idea of them as old-fashioned as the fake watch-face now sealed to her wrist. She knew there was just one way forward and she understood the cost: the facts of her interior, available for use in a public dataset, as part of some kind of game. (23)
The perfection of the idea inaugurated by Marey’s sphygmograph, that the inner workings of a human being can be translated into data and analyzed, has been mobilized not for our benefit but our enslavement. Worse, still: we have been complicit in building our digital cage, offering up our private information to companies who have only ever been interested in how to profit from it:
There were many records. At first this seemed a good thing, a way to share their life with the world. But with each failure to participate in the system, they had to register their failure with the company. Loan documents. Medical bills. Run-ins with the law while trying to catch up. Each room they visited recorded their presence and submitted their profiles to an algorithm. Each object they carried reported a radio wave in air. Each piece of paper took all of their information and each corner of every room charged their outlines with infrared. Even in his trace state, they compiled him for their records. And with each data extraction, the body bled further out. (32)
One thinks of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, data-mining corporations disguising their real motives behind the promise of building communities, facilitating human connection. From their efforts emerges a frightening vision of a human being quantified, made comprehensible to an algorithm:
The aspiration for the datamined profile is a mirror image of the subject through smoke: to pass the test, to be a real human. The reality is more likely an error-prone doppelganger, made of bits and pieces. You’ll never meet your data-double (it is proprietary), but it will follow you for all of your life. Corporations will flirt with your double and buy it dinner in the hopes of getting to know you and what you might buy, what you might watch, whom you might vote for, what health procedures or prescriptions you might pursue. They will seduce your double so as to determine a price, deny you a loan or service, limit your job opportunities, or give you a longer jail sentence. Your double eagerly tells wacky half-truths about you to whomever will buy it a drink. It is a blabber-mouth. (75)
The better the corporations become at evaluating us through data, at interacting with our “error-prone doppelgangers,” the less need they will have of us as human beings. We are in danger of our digital doubles usurping us.
The second essay, “Popular Science,” shares the forms and themes of the first, comparing the discredited “science” of phrenology — which purported to locate specific character traits in the physiognomy of the human skull — with modern neuroscience, which Osman views as similarly seduced by the “narrative structure of legible cause and effect” (98). At first glance, the comparison seems inapt, if only because phrenology, despite its pretensions to being a science, was conceived to confirm people in their worst prejudices, offering only conjecture and ex post facto assessments, whereas neuroscience — notwithstanding the worst efforts of science reporters, who are prone to wild hypotheses and sweeping rationalizations — is much more firmly grounded in the scientific method and has already advanced our understanding of the human mind to our common benefit. If we look upon epileptics and the mentally ill with sympathy rather than fear of demonic possession, if we have a hope of staving off dementia or curing Alzheimer’s, it is to neuroscience that we owe our thanks. But Osman is correct in noticing that the terminology of neuroscience is often trotted out to advance the kind of nonsensical conjecture once reserved for astrology: “Her front brain is telling her he’s trouble, but her middle brain won’t listen” (108) or “You can almost imagine a time where instead of going to Match.com you could have a test to find out whether you’re an attachment type or not” (109) — conjecture that offers ultimate explanations, grand narratives, seductive stories, that takes the irreducible complexity of a human being and reduces it to a diagnosis. What Osman is really opposed to is the “pattern imposed on flow” (106), the reductive hope that everything human can be neatly summed up and analyzed, quantified, and perhaps, then, interpreted:
The language of cure is the language of knowing where you are on the map. A bump on the head, a signal of electrical activity, moving down the line from fault to perfection, a localized equivalency. This is the physical script of the modular mind, the narrative arc of see-then-solve. The dream of clean borders and limited cross-overs. The perpetual re-searching for cause and explanation. (106)
Only the vulgar and the totalitarian would wish to view human beings in such reductive terms. Artists everywhere are duty-bound to resist the single explanation, the ultimate definition, the final solution. Motion Studies, by contrast, is destabilizing. Reading it, we rarely know “where we are on the map,” as we scramble to keep up with its Protean shifts in form and narrative and time. It offers us no clean borders and an abundance of crossovers, picking up in a poem a motif or theme first introduced in an essay, or drawing a parallel between nineteenth-century medical devices and imagined dystopian surveillance technology.
Against the tidy “physical script of the modular mind,” Osman offers us the challenging complexity of Motion Studies: mixing forms, ranging freely across time and place, even leavening her more frightening insights with a subtle humor. It is a powerful reminder that literature, too, offers us a way of “reading the heart” (13), but unlike the sphygmograph or the most advanced of our advertising agencies’ algorithms, it presents its findings modestly and for our own benefit. Reading it, I was constantly put in mind of T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, who had a horror of being fixed “in a formulated phrase,” and imagined himself “pinned and wriggling on the wall” like some luckless bug. Prufrock would take great comfort in Osman, who is far too nimble to pin down.