Section 1: Introduction to Self-Awareness

Throughout this semester we have studied several different concepts, and at the end of the year we started discussing this idea of self-awareness. We discussed in depth this sort of Meta idea about self-awareness and the limit that confines our own self-awareness. We discussed this specifically as a result of the short story that we read, “Understand” by Ted Chiang. I was very intrigued by this concept of self-awareness and when it came time to begin work on our final projects I wanted to delve more specifically into this idea. I began to comb over books and other works that we had read throughout the semester to find other examples of characters or plot points that dealt with or were related to self-awareness. It was during this examination that I came across the term “meta-fiction.” Meta-fiction can be defined as the term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. (Birgit Neumann & Ansgar Nünning) _Rereading this definition the word “self-consciously” stood out to me and I began to think that if a book had an ability to be self-conscious, then, in a way, the book or work itself was self-aware – it was aware, in a sense, of the fact that it was indeed a book. This concept seems somewhat far-fetched, given that works of literature do not _actually have a consciousness or sense of self, but the more I thought about it the more I was absorbed in this concept of authors choosing to give their books a sense of self-awareness and how and why this happened. Although self-awareness is not considered a formal concept when discussing literature it is a prominent aspect of both print and digital artifacts. In this blog post I will discuss how self-awareness is used in print media through the novel The Familiar by Mark Danielewski as well as in digital media through the work Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) by William Gibson. In addition to detailing how each respective author implements techniques to give their works a sense of self-awareness I will also be exploring the reasons for making works self-aware and why these authors choose to pull the readers out of the fictional worlds that they have created. Based on what I have gathered from these two specific works that we have researched in class, it is my belief that Danielewski and Gibson choose to give their works a sense of self-awareness in order to force their readers to connect the content and themes of the story to their own life and to the real world. Furthermore, because I think this concept of self-awareness is so prominent I would like to argue that the self-awareness of books be explored as a formal concept rather than simply as a far-fetched idea.


Section 2: Self-Awareness in Mark Danielewski’s The Familiar

It was in my notes on The Familiar where I came across the term meta-fiction and truly began to explore the notion of books essentially having a sense of self. Although we are all individuals with different experiences in some capacity we have done a lot of reading. That being said, it is very rare that we read a work that draws attention the type of artifact that it is, a poem does not let us know that it is a poem, a book does not tell us that it is a book. However when reading The Familiar, the reader quickly realizes that this is not a standard or in any way typical novel. For starters, the book is not set up in a standard way physically. There are many sections within the book that Danielewski differentiates through different visual elements including the font and the layout of words on a page. Furthermore something unusual about the novel, but not anything unheard of, is the fact that it is broken up into different storylines. This would be relatively insignificant in the argument that Danielewski gives the book a sense of self-awareness except for one specific section of the book. Throughout the novel there are several parenthetical statements that appear between shapes that look to be parentheses made from dots. These statements often added clarity to a situation so it seemed like it could have been Danielewski directly addressing the reader or potentially some sort of figure representative of a narrator that we as readers had not been directly introduced to yet.* However, on page 563 of The Familiar the reader enters a section of the novel unlike any of the previous sections and is introduced to a new sort of “character,” the narcons. The section dealing with the narcons is different from the other sections for several different reasons. Firstly, there are differences in the physical way that the pages are set up. The pages in the narcon section are framed by blank pages with a think black vertical line that are placed before and after the content of the section. Other differences include the lack of page numbers in this section and all the various sections and paragraphs are bracketed off in the same way that the narcons interjections are formatted throughout the novel. Perhaps the most interesting aspects however are the various blacked-out words and phrases that show up from time to time and take up the majority of what would be page 570. These different visual aspects of this section of the novel contribute to the establishment of a sense of self-awareness within the novel. By using these blank pages with bars and by not numbering the pages within this section Danielewski is making a separation between this section and the rest of the book. Although Danielewski uses other visual elements including font choices and the physical set up of the page to differentiate between other sections throughout the novel this seems to physically take the reader out of the section. Not only is this done visually, but the content of this section of the novel also strongly gives this novel a sense of self-awareness. In the narcon section, Danielewski describes how essentially there are several different narcons that are in control of the various characters in the book. The fact that the narcons are in control of the characters takes the readers out of the story that they have previously been completely immersed in. By pulling the readers out of the story one becomes aware of the fact that they are reading a book (not that they were under some illusion that they were doing something else but that they begin to think of the story in the context of it being something that someone has written and is fictional.) Another aspect of this section that takes the reader out of the story is the part where many of the words on the page have been blacked-out or censored. This is something interesting that Danielewski does because if he as an author truly wanted to withhold information from the readers he would simply have left it out of the book. However in this section of The Familiar, he shows that there is information that the readers could potentially access but something is being withheld from them. Finally, on what would be page 575 the narcons directly address the reader “You, for example, are a one-persona subset in an unnamed superset.” This direct address of the readers fully pulls away from the story and breaks the fourth wall of the book, which demonstrates the idea of meta-fiction and ultimately gives the novel a sense of self-awareness.


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These pictures show some examples of the bracketed and censored sections within the narcon section of The Familiar.


Section Three: Self-Awareness in William Gibson’s Agrippa

Having a piece of print media that is aware of itself and reveals itself to its readers as an artifact is something that is strange to us but this is still not the only place where this occurs, digital artifacts also can achieve a sense of self-awareness. The artistic book Agrippa has several different aspects that culminate in this strange work of literature. One piece of it in particular that lends itself to a realization of self is a poem that is part of the book. The reason the poem lends the work to self-awareness is because of the form it takes within the book. If readers were looking through the book they would be going through the pages and reading it normally as if it were a typical book however the poem is not just printed in the book on one of the pages but rather, it exists digitally on a floppy disk that is embedded into the book. At this point of the novel the readers must take the disk out of the book and put it into the computer to view the contents of the disk. The disk contains the poem but it is not simply a digital copy of this poem. The disk plays like a video with the poem scrolling slowly through so the readers can follow along, afterward the poem disappears and the disk is essentially wiped clean. This encryption-like effect on the diskette made it nearly impossible to retrieve the content in any capacity. At this point, computer experts working on investigating the disk have come to the realization that there was not actually an encryption of the disk but rather that it was the simulation of an encryption. Furthermore, at the point in time computer experts and hackers alike have been able to leak the poem and it now exists on the Internet in a form where it cannot be permanently deleted. This transformation from a physical text to a digital text existing on a diskette provides Agrippa with a sense of self-awareness. If readers were meant to be fully immersed in the text they were experiencing the form would not change; to move on to the next section of the book the reader would not be forced to step away from the book and use their computer to access this section. In traditional fictional literature, the authors do not want to interrupt the readers’ immersion in anyway, the goal is ultimately to keep the readers’ attention through various means including cliffhangers and other forms of suspense. However this is clearly not the case with Agrippa. Because the readers get this disjointed experience in which the physical form of the work changes, they are forced back into their own life and their own reality and thus are reminded of the fact that they are, in fact, reading a created work. Gibson uses the change in the physical form of Agrippa to pull his readers out in a similar way to what Danielewski does in The Familiar through the use of the narcons. Another aspect of Agrippa’s digital form is the way in which the poem disappears and the diskette essentially “eats itself” this is also, in a sense, giving the poem this concept of self-awareness because it is drawing attention to and emphasizing its limitation and even going on to giving it a sort of morality. This sense that the poem can only exist for a prescribed amount of time is directly reflective of and related to the content and themes within the poem. The poem deals with loss and memory, by existing in this digital form the poem is showing its readers that everything is mortal and that everything will eventually be a memory, including the poem itself. Thus, overall the various physical forms that work together in this book of the dead give it a sense of self-awareness.


This is a video simulation of the contents of the diskette within Agrippa.


Section Four: Why Self-Awareness?

At this point I have spent the majority of this blog post explaining to you two different examples of texts that are very aware of the fact that they are texts, but the next question that this begs is why do the authors of these texts do this? Why would an author of a work of fiction rebel against the traditional notions of fiction where readers fully immerse themselves in a story? I believe that these writers choose to give their books self-awareness for a very specific reason; I do not think that it is to be trendy or edgy or even to break boundaries from an artistic perspective, rather I think that this self-awareness is directly related to the readers. When reading a work of literature that is self-aware it reminds us exactly what it is, it is a work of literature. So often literature, especially fiction, is an entire other world for the readers, no matter how connected to the story the readers are, how much they connect to the characters, or how much they value and understand the themes that the author is portraying, the book eventually ends. No matter what form it takes, whether it be print or digital, it ends. It is not something that is connected to the readers’ lives, it still physically exists and it can be revisited but the fictional story that the author wrote remains just that, a story that is a separate entity from the readers’ lives. I think that self-awareness is a key to breaking down this barrier and that authors use it to do so. By writing a book that is self-aware and through that, reminding the readers that it is a book, the readers are forced back into their own lives while still in the context of the book. This draws a stronger relationship between the themes of the book and the readers’ own reality, whether that is in their personal life or in their society and the world around them. By writing a poem that consummates on this idea of mortality and the preservation of experiences through memory, and giving this poem self-awareness through a temporary physical form, Gibson is giving the readers exactly what he talks about in his poem. He gives the readers an excellent example of something that will only be a memory, this all but forces the reader to hold onto and ponder these themes. It makes the readers tie back this theme to their own lives, it makes the theme more real, it gives it realist context. This is the same in The Familiar. It is much harder to see clear decided themes in The Familiar given the various storylines and the fact that this is simply volume one out of what will eventually be 27 complete volumes, but Danielewski does not leave us scrounging for themes in this first volume. The novel deals greatly with the relationship between people and code and the control that code has. Readers do not really question the characters’ control over their own lives, emotions, and actions until we enter the section on the narcons. By pulling out of the story and showing that there is something else controlling these characters, something reminiscent of a code or a program, Danielewski inexplicably lends the reader to question their own control (not that I think Danielewski is suggesting that we each have our own personal narcon controlling our lives.) But, by giving his novel a sense of self-awareness he again shows how the themes of this novel are directly related to the readers’ lives and the world around them in general. I also think that this remains true for all works of literature and art in general that have this concept of self-awareness and make the reader or viewer step out from this other world they’ve been taken into and relate what they are experiencing back to their own realities. In conclusion, I believe that self-awareness is an aspect of both print and digital novels that gives the artifacts a sense of self and is done to engage more directly with the readers. I also can go on to say that this aspect of self-awareness could be defined and analyzed as a formal concept because of the objects’ relationship to itself as well as its relationship to the readers.


Sources Used:

A Study of Self-Awareness, Self-Efficacy and Sojourner Adjustment Over time by Bradley R. Brenner

Rhetorical Analysis by Lindsay Short

Metanarration and Metafiction by Birgit Neumann and Ansgar Nunning