115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“You Might Also Enjoy”: Big Data and the Second-Person Narrator

Jennifer Tomscha, New York University Shanghai

Big Data turns individuals into categories of identity. Our desires, our actions, and our futures are all predictable--and predicted. Drawing from new media studies and modern letters, this paper argues that the second-person narrative perspective is uniquely suited to depict the surveilled individual of our era.

Proposal: 

We are all tracked by Big Data, aggregated, clumped together with others who share our race, our zip code, our preference for film noir. As new media scholar Wendy Hui Kyong Chun articulates, Big Data turns individuals into categories of identity. We are the kind of women who wear small silver hoop earrings and select fat-free ranch, and therefore, Big Data tells us, we will also enjoy this bottle of rosé. Our desires, our actions, our futures are predictable--and predicted.

How can fiction respond to this deterministic and often dehumanizing vision of the self? What elements of craft offer up ways for the fiction writer to represent our new reality? Drawing from new media studies and modern letters, this paper argues that the second person narrative perspective is uniquely suited to depict the surveilled individual of our era.

Often dismissed as a gimmick by literary critics and teachers of fiction alike, the second person perspective is a notoriously difficult mode of writing to sustain over a narrative arc. James Phelan notes that the second person address “exerts pressure on the reader,” who is funneled into the character and directed by the narrator. We readers, the narratees, are not the ‘you,’ and yet we are also the you. It is a forced intimacy, and a fraught one.

The second-person form commands the reader, either directly through the imperative mood (“First, try to be something, anything, else,” from in Moore’s “How to Be a Writer”), or through the certainty that the text knows who you-reader-as-character are, what you want, and what you have done or will do. “You derive a certain pleasure from a just-published book,” declares the narrator of Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. In this way, the paternalism of the second-person narrative mimics the self-declared omniscience of the internet. Think of the curated newsfeed that reveals and occludes according to an algorithm purporting to give you what you want. Think of Amazon recommending Lonesome Dove and macadamia nuts, “inspired by your search history.” Imagine confronting all your Google searches in a single document.

Of course, underlying any textual narrative is the tension between the determinism of the pre-formed text and freedom of the extratexual reader. However, the unique estrangement we readers often feel from the second-person text mirrors the uncanniness of seeing ourselves reflected in Chung’s “drama” of Big Data. We are more than what we’re told we are, but what?

I will end with a short reading from my novel-in-progress, The American Incognitum, which is an exploration of surveillance and obsession just before and after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. The narrator of the novel, Jenny, works for the Department of Homeland Security, in the Division of Aftermath, anticipating potential terrorist attacks and calculating their effects.  She uses her government clearance to spy on an old boyfriend and his new wife (also a Jenny), who come to Boston for the marathon.