Caroline Bassett (2007) The Arc and the Machine: Narrative and New Media

Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0719073421.

Kate O’Riordan


The Arc and the Machine interrogates and reconfigures debates in new media studies around information technologies and narrative. It contributes more broadly to the understanding of the relationship between technology and culture. In making this intervention, the book provides insights into the ‘first wave’ of web formations, along with a framework for understanding current developments. It also gives an account of the relationships between science and technology, popular culture, the arts and critical theory. The Arc and the Machine narrates a tale set both in Europe and the USA, with direct reference to a broader sense of global context. In this sense it provides a much needed intervention into a field dominated by US-based accounts on the one hand, and European alternatives on the other. It is at heart an account of new media as a cultural form that simultaneously demands that the specificity of technology is accounted for.

In the first chapter, Narrative machines , Caroline Bassett sets out the terrain of narrative theory as a theory of technology, a formulation which underpins the book. Whilst she foregrounds the work of many contributors to narratology in this section, she leaves us at the end of Narrative machines with an exegesis on the work of Paul Ricoeur and Fredrick Jameson. This critical work of interpretation of Ricoeur and Jameson, which brings their work into conversation, informs the theoretical development of the book and extends the arcs of narrative to an interrogation of the machine.

‘Beautiful patterns of bits’ : cybernetics, interfaces, new media, the second chapter, draws together technical, political and aesthetic theories of technology from a wide range of sources, whilst foregrounding and reconfiguring the possibility of a Marxist analysis of technology. This extraordinarily rich chapter could provide the basis for a whole postgraduate course in technology studies. It is the longest chapter in the book and it brings together both a history of computing and an overview of contemporary technocultures in technical, popular and critical registers. This chapter takes the reader through a chronology of changing technological forms, from big machines to interface computing and beyond, whilst also leading us through an account of the critical responses to these forms. Crossing media and cultural studies and informatics with coherence and ease, the chapter provides a resource for researchers and students across multiple fields. There are two sections of this chapter that I will return to in more detail: firstly the placing of Lyotard’s and Haraway’s work together as transitional writings; secondly the reconfiguration of a Marxist analysis of technology with an exergue into actor network theory. For now, a flavour of this work can be drawn from the resonance and humour of the following quote:

If machines become more intelligent and humans more inert then this attenuation of the human is not intrinsically a consequence of the relationship between technologies and humans, it is as a consequence of the forging of a particular interface in conditions not of our choosing. Facing these different possibilities (and misquoting Haraway), I’d rather be a human if a Marxist analysis pertains than a human object in a Latourean network. (2007: 96)

Chapters three and four provide the closest offerings of what can be thought of as case studies of new media forms. Chapter three, Those with whom the archive dwells , is an interrogation of the role of digital technologies in the constitution of identity through the analysis of a digital art project called Rehearsal , which started in the UK in 1997 . This chapter turns back to the exegesis on Jameson and Ricouer in Narrative machines but also draws on the work of Adriana Cavarero and Cavarero’s dialogue with Hannah Arendt. Chapter four, Annihilating all that’s made? , also interrogates digital technologies in the constitution of identity, but where chapter three might be thought of as dealing with narrative time, Annihilating all that’s made? is an exploration of narrative space. A concise analysis of the technical, political and aesthetic development of GeoCities (an internet community) between 1994-1999, this chapter explores practices of space and/as practices of freedom. Critically evaluating virtual space, and the claims made for it, via de Certeau and Lefebvre, the chapter leaves us with both an examination of Lefebvre – ‘Lefebvre, in the end, seeks a more radical unmasking of the whole’ (2007: 162) – and Bassett’s own force of argument: ‘The “network logic”, which Castells reads as semi-autonomous, is actually a social logic. It is only if one is clear headed about this, that one can find in everyday life in virtual spaces the “starting point for the realisation of the possible”’ (2007: 162).

The final chapter of the book, Just because stories: on Elephant, is both a case study of sorts, and an overarching conclusion. It goes further in the interrogation of the ‘logics of new media as material cultural form’ (Bassett, 2007: 166) than any of the previous chapters, whilst drawing together the steps of intervention that are developed within them. There is an elegant simplicity to the final chapter that brings together the implications of Basset’s lucid but rich and sometimes dense style of critique into a moment of crystalisation and clarity. The final chapter thus both stands alone and draws up the work that precedes it. The clarity of Just because stories: on Elephant leaves the reader with a sense of the ordering of the narratives developed in the book.

The stories of The Arc and the Machine drop the reader off at a moment of intersecting narrative arcs, which at the same time distils the movements of those arcs into a moment of stillness. Like the Gus Van Sant film Elephant , which is analysed in the final chapter, it is as though the same moment sees a return from several approaches in this final chapter. There are multiple elephants in the chapter, and there is a return through the object of analysis (the film) from multiple directions. This structure parallels Bassett’s understanding of Van Sant’s camera work in Elephant which she describes as like the motion of a spirograph which traces out different arcs but always returns to the same moment in space and time. The returns through Elephant made by Bassett in this final chapter lead the reader to the same revealing point:

‘Elephant does not express the logic of code, but the logic of a highly informated society . And the form of expression? This is not an ideological unveiling of a traditional kind, perhaps, but the flaunting of the missing centre which is mediation, which is what sits between or in-between depth and surface. Now finally revealed as the figure for a new form of control. (2007: 185)

Extension: Transitional Writings

In Beautiful patterns of bits two versions of the techno-cultural are pursued. The first one of these, The thing itself: technology and determination, is a historical chronology of critical debates which finishes with two ‘transitional writings’: one focusing on the work of Lyotard and one on the work of Haraway. The second version of the techno-cultural is a mapping of a contemporary moment, contemporary technocultures, and this section of the chapter finishes with two exergues into actor-network theory which temper ‘what otherwise might be a simple return to Marxism’ (Bassett, 2007: 47). It is this section of the book which provides a significant departure from, and an important alternative to, the neo-Marxist hybrids that have coalesced around Deleuze and Guattari in certain forms of contemporary technocultural theory (e.g. Hardt and Negri, Terranova, Parisi). This chapter tempers and reformulates Marxist approaches to technology with reference to ANT. In what follows, I want to draw out some of the features of this work.

Two sections on transitional writings then mark the end of the ‘thing itself’, the first transition being Jean François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984). Bassett offers this text as an alternative to Derrida’s poststructuralist critique of cybernetics, and interprets A Report as an attack on cybernetics and information theory. She positions Lyotard as reading cybernetic computerisation in terms of producing the crisis in legitimation that A Report diagnoses in the Europe of the early 1980s. It is tempting to put this alongside Fred Turner’s (2006) account of cybernetics, which he interprets as producing a series of ‘legitimacy exchanges’ in the US context. Although The Arc and the Machine and Turner’s From Counter Culture to Cyberculture cover a similar period , Turner largely eschews Europe and evacuates postmodernism from his account. In his excellent historiography of the technocultures of the USA he focuses on the capacity of cybernetics in particular to be used in the service of new forms of legitimation, explained via Geoffrey Bowker’s work, as legitimacy exchanges in the sciences. These exchanges, in Turner’s account, ultimately provide a very different kind of mapping of the politics of knowledge construction. In Turner’s mapping cybernetics provides continuum rather than rupture, and simultaneously provides the ground for a telos of new media as ‘the triumph of the network mode’ (2006: 237). Bassett’s account also offers a sense of continuity, but the continuity in her account is made by reaching back through cybernetics to Marxism in order to relocate technology as ‘socially embedded and socially shaped by production’ (2007: 94).

In Bassett’s account of Lyotard’s work, A Report marks the end of an era that might be thought of as first wave cybernetics. The transition, then, that Lyotard marks is an ending, made by looking back, not forward. Rather than position A Report as forward looking, or of its time, Bassett locates Lyotard’s account as a response already in dissent of what had gone before – the rise of cybernetics and mainframe computing. A Report in Bassett’s account is an important marker then in thinking about rupture and continuity; it is already historical in this account and in its lament marks a movement from mainframes to complex interfaces. The significance of locating Lyotard’s work in this way, as Bassett highlights, is that it revisits postmodernism to understand it as instantiating technology or ‘technological supremacy’ (2007: 69) as the only grand narrative left. Postmodernism then, whilst appearing to remove the grounds of knowledge formation, simply replaces all other grand narratives, and history, with ‘technology itself’. This line of argument helps to clarify the orientation of much of the technical, critical and popular accounts of ‘technology itself’ that have been a feature of technocultures.

The second transitional writing identified in The Arc and the Machine is Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto . Bassett observes that these two writings and the launch of Apple Macintosh Computers came together in the same year. However, where Lyotard’s lament looks back, Bassett positions the Cyborg Manifesto as looking forward. The cyborg is transitional in Bassett’s account because it stands at the beginning of an era in which the cybernetic mode of computing (although still dominant) changed, as the expansion of intimate computing into ‘areas previously unmediated by information technology’ (2007: 70) came about. These transitional writings are linked in the actual moment of writing, in their shared repudiation of forms of cybernetics, and in the importance of play in both accounts. However, Lyotard looks backwards to the ascendancy of a cybernetic principle which has re-written history, whilst Haraway looks forward to the disruption of cybernetic certainty through new and intimate couplings of body and machine.

Exergue: Actor Network Theory, Marx and Latour

An exergue stands in advance of an argument, it alerts to what is coming but also establishes a relation to previous thought. It comes before the figure, it sets the date and indicates the intention before the thing in itself. It stands outside of the work in the way that an inscription below a portrait is outside of the work but part of the form. The Arc and the Machine has two exergues. The significance of using them in The Arc and the Machine ’s account of narrative might be that they prevent reduction. They hinder the reader from reducing the theory of narrative and new media developed to ‘only’ a Marxist critique of technology. The book is a study of narrative forms and content and it is the content that aids a reading of the arguments laid out as irreducible to the dropping off point at the end of the book. It extends narrative form, narrative content and narrative interpretation. Thus, the use of exergue refuses a slide through narrative’s arc to only reach its end, and demands that we look at the array of movements that make it up, as we take it in to our own narration as reader. This is an important structural condition of reading, as a central component of Bassett’s narration of the interface is that we need to hold narrative as form, content and interpretation together.

The exergue marks the ANT work of Michael Callon, John Law and Bruno Latour as an inscription before the argument of The Arc and the Machine . However, it does more than this as Bassett unfolds ANT as inscription into interpretative narratology and Marxism. Firstly, Bassett contrasts ANT with a Marxist approach to technology:

Actor Network Theory (ANT) offers a systematic view of the exchange between the social and the technical. ANT offers a theory of innovation in which networks of humans and non-human actors, organised by a model based on narrative semiotics, produce a new social-technical constitution (Latour 2000a). This might be contrasted with the Marxist argument that social relations as a whole, rather than technical networks in and of themselves, constitute the context and logic of technological change. (2007: 84)

However, having provided this contrast, which distances ANT from her own position, she then draws connections by positioning ANT as a narrative account. This is already explicit in the excerpt above as ANT is seen as ‘a model based on narrative semiotics’. Importantly for this discussion Bassett then lays out the narrative connection with Lyotard’s transitional writing. This connection is reached through an exposition of the narrative structure of ANT, through a drawing together of Greimas’s version of narrative structure with Latour’s sense of ‘translation’ (Latour, 2000). This exposition allows Bassett to position ANT as a method in which ‘ technologies write their own stories’(2007: 86, emphasis in the original) and thus a method which propels us until ‘we are suddenly back dancing at the foot of Lyotard’s databases’ (2007: 87).

This exergue is followed by a longer exegesis of Marx’s ‘Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper’, in which Bassett makes her case for a reconfigured understanding of Marxism and technology, tempered by ANT but informed by narrative, through which ‘the force of technology in society – its role in the production of the social individual – can really be grasped’ (2007: 94). This examination of Marx’s work opens up a new theoretical horizon which is orientated towards, and works through, current debates in the field. This horizon opens up the possibility to move through interpretative narratology as an explanatory modality for the social relations of technologies in their indiscrete complexity. This modality foregrounds mediation as technology, the tales it tells and the ways these are taken up. It is this work of foregounding which provides the basis for the analysis that follows. The analysis of the digital art project Rehearsal, the virtual spaces of GeoCities and the filmic multiplicity of Elephant that orientates the rest of the book is then grounded in the detailed theoretical development through technocultural form, theory and practice.

The Arc and the Machine is a complex book which makes a largely successful attempt to hold together – or perhaps, in Bassett’s terms – ‘draw up’ an understanding of multiple registers of the techno-cultural. This attempt is made in relation to what Bassett identifies as particular lacunae and a particular amnesia in the field, and the temptation in media and technology studies to go after either the technology, or the social, and in either case (somewhat ironically in the case of media studies), to fail to provide an account of mediation. In this sense the book is a radical intervention, which is at the same time a very closely detailed mapping, and examination, of the field in which it situates itself, and thus one that might not be accessible (in its entirety) at undergraduate level. It is at one a grand and complex project, and an elegantly simple one. It shares the lucidity of Bassett’s essayist style whilst providing an original and rigorously researched monograph on narrative and new media, in profoundly informational cultures.


Arendt, H. (1989) The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Bassett, C. (2007) The Arc and the Machine: Narrative and New Media . Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Bowker, G. (1993) ‘How to be Universal: Some Cybernetic Strategies, 1943-1970’ Social Studies of Science , 23: 107-27.

Cavarero, A. (1997) Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood. London: Routledge.

De Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Greimas, A. J. (1987) On Meaning. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Haraway, D. (1984) ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’ Socialist Review, 80: 65-108.

Jameson, F. (1981) The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act.London: Methuen.

Latour, B. (2000) ‘How to be Iconophilic in Art Science and Religion’ in C. Jones & P. Gallison (eds) Picturing Science Producing Art . London: Routledge, 418-441.

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lyotard, J. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Marx, K. (1980) ‘Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper’ in K. Marx & F. Engels Collected Works, XIV. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 655-656.

Ricoeur, P. (1984) Time and Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, F. (2006) From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.