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The Culture of Information
ENGL 25 Winter 2004, Alan Liu
Notes for Class 26

This page contains materials intended to facilitate class discussion (excerpts from readings, outlines of issues, links to resources, etc.). The materials are not necessarily the same as the instructor's teaching notes and are not designed to represent a full exposition or argument. This page is subject to revision as the instructor finalizes preparation. (Last revised 3/10/04 )

Preliminary Class Business

  • Reading Exam on Wednesday, March 17th, 12-12:50

  • Interested students can sign up with instructor for Literature & Culture of Information (LCI) specialization mailing list. Info meeting for LCI to be announced. (Info on LCI specialization:

  • English Dept. undergrad research assistant positions available: 140 total hours of work in March and/or April for one or more students (assessing and researching student learning resources for the Department site). To apply: send Alan Liu an email describing: your major and year, your intellectual interests, any relevant skills (Web authoring a plus, not a necessity).

M.D. Coverley (Marjorie Luesebrink), Califia

Califia : a full-length work of "electronic literature" that helps tie up the major themes of the course.

  • Luesebrink's previous work

  • Califia's technical roots in Hypercard and Toolbook. The work lies at the cusp between the early technical generations of electronic literature and new technical possibilities. Luesebrink's current work in Director (preview of The Book of Going Forth by Day)

     Continuities between Califia and themes in our course:

  • Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49, William Gibson's Neuromancer, and Califia. The search for the hidden gold of Califia as a kind of search for Tristero or Straylight Run.

  • Themes of information, media, business, and memory.

  • Theme of identity: Augusta, Kaye, and Calvin as a kind of hybrid identity akin to those visualized in Kostya Mitenev's UNDINA (example) and Victoria Vesna's Bodies© INCorporated (examples)—but given historical depth (history of the early peoples of California: Chumash, Spanish, Chinese, Anglo)

Califia, California, and the Age of Information

CalifiaCalifia, we may say first of all, is about California. It is about what California means, what California itself is "about."

What is California about?

The most contemporary (but also incomplete) answer that the novel gives to this question is that California is a fusion of New Age mysticism and networked information.

  • Califia page Kaye: "hidden links that elude the mind but enlighten the fancy"

  • Califia page Kaye: "restore the connections, find the harmony beneath the fragments of song"

  • Califia page Augusta: "I am beginning to see the way Kaye links everything together"

  • Califia page Calvin: "I am arranging and linking the contributions of Augusta and Kaye"

  • Califia page Kaye: "The message in the embroidery can be recovered only in the fragments"

In sum, Califia is a mythic exploration of California as Silicon Valley. It is about networking and new media as the latest "gold rush" of the golden state.

Cf., Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron's critique of "The Californian Ideology" (1996:

"At the end of the twentieth century, the long predicted convergence of the media, computing and telecommunications into hypermedia is finally happening. . . . At this crucial juncture, a loose alliance of writers, hackers, capitalists and artists from the West Coast of the USA have succeeded in defining a heterogeneous orthodoxy for the coming information age: the Californian Ideology."

Yet precisely because this is the most contemporary of the answers the novel gives about what California is "about," it is also the most superficial. Califia also tells us that to understand our contemporary gold rush we need to dig under the surface into deeper historical layers. The "silicon rush" that all the Seekers and Builders of present-day California are after was not the first such "rush" upon which the new world of California was built.

Marjorie Luesebrink, from "Historical Background of Califia" (2001):

Embedding the modern story in real ground was important; the search for historical certainty is best done by "mapping" in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense. As Philip J. Ethington writes, Los Angeles suffers from "unknowability": "Influential writers on postmodernity such as Fredric Jameson have named specific sites within Los Angeles as evidence of a new condition, in which history itself is effaced by the 'depthlessness' that characterizes a core condition of the 'world space of multinational capital'–the ultimate source of ongoing exploitation and alienation. Recent scholarship has singled out Los Angeles as either unique among cities, or especially representative of new conditions of urban life and globalism." ("Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge.")

Califia, with its careful mapping of places, excavation of the sediments of forgotten layers and observation of remembered outcroppings, records of the topographical and topological features, is a defense against such erasure. The "depthlessness" that has been noted by some historians and cultural theorists is one aspect of Southern California. But the impression of shallowness is also the result of looking with a traditional orientation for hierarchies of meaning in a place that is constantly shifting, creating a new surface. There is something underneath, but the history of Los Angeles tends to reveal itself through a multiplicity of approaches. And, as Augusta observes (The Journey West), "the past is always with us."

Imagine, therefore, that what we see on the surface of California in Califia is just the top if a deep set of geological layers. The story of Califia—narrated in different ways by the three main characters (Augusta, Kaye, Calvin)—is a pilgrimage plot in which horizontal motion Califia page, as in any pilgrimage, stands in for a vertical quest. In olden pilgrimages, the quest was for transcendence on high. In Califia, the quest is to mine deep below the surface of California for the real treasure: historical meaning and the identities they bequeath.

What are the layers of meaning that the characters mine as they follow their pilgrimage across southern California in search of treasure—the ultimate treasure being their identities?

Layer 1: Califia is about the history of building of California (especially LA)

It is appropriate to use the word "pilgrimage" in regard to the Califia because, put one way the novel is about the vision-quest, the dream-quest that built California and Los Angeles—or "Paradise":

  • California, according to the novel, arose as an act of imagination Califia page

  • California was the dream of the Seekers Califia page, Players Califia page, and Builders Califia page Califia page Califia page

  • California is the land of gold, water, energy, media—and, most recently—silicon, all empires built half on reality and half on dream (i.e., the crazy mix of illusion and desire and addiction that was the Spanish and American grab for land, the gold rush, the oil rush, the water wars, the newspaper and Hollywood empires, etc.)

Compare such other works about the building of California as:

  • Upton Sinclair's Oil! (1927)
  • John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
  • Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974)

    Or compare Sergio Leone's film about the building of the West: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Layer 2: Califia is about the history of media, and history as media

Given the fact that so much of California is made out of the stuff of dream and imagination, one of the empires upon which the state was built is especially important to Califia: media. Ultimately, the novel is less interested in gold than it is in the media that tell us about the rush for gold (and for "Paradise" in general). It is media that is the real treasure trove that the novel seeks. We might even say that in the novel it is a history of media that enacts the history of California:

Ancestral Environment of Signs
  landmarks Califia page Califia page

Oral Culture
  oral culture Califia page Califia page

Numeracy and Early Literacy
  accounts and deeds, etc. Califia page
  genealogical lists Califia page and charts Califia page

Manuscript Culture
  manuscripts, letters, journals, etc. Califia page

Print Culture
  newspaper clippings, legal documents, etc.

Audiovisual Culture
  music (e.g., Grateful Dead)

Digital Culture
  digital media (e.g., GIS maps)
Calvin's "docudramas"

Marjorie Luesebrink, from "Historical Background of Califia" (2001):

For the Docudramas I have relied upon actual documents, sometimes slightly altered or recreated. Here, of course, I needed to draw some fine lines that would conform to the intent of copyright law and protect my publisher. As it happens, I am a fifth-generation Californian; my predecessors lived at the margins of the historical events in Califia. They also saved a great deal of the paperwork from the past - everything from letters to worthless stock certificates to photos of the 1913 hot air balloon show. Where it was feasible, I "doctored" my own family documents and photographs to create the generations of the Summerlands, Beveridges, and Lugos. When I ran out of family photos, I adopted from my friends (readers may be interested to know that Ruben Lugo, for example, is really Kate Hayles' son, Jonathan). I also borrowed liberally from old family stories, my own and others', as sources for plot elements, character types.

Continued in Next Lecture