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On Exactitude in Tao Lin: Technological Models of Reality

About the Author: Genna Godley

Genna Godley is an English Major and member of the Jimenez-Porter Writers House. She spends most of her free time reading medieval literature and hates cold water.

By Genna Godley | General Essays

Arguments regarding the potential for a representational model to approach or achieve reality date back to Plato and Aristotle, yet become increasingly relevant given literature’s preoccupation with assimilating and deciphering the impact of technological advancements and online communication. Written pre-Internet, thought experiments such as Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science” argue for a distinct difference between the model and the reality on which it is based, presenting the former as inevitably failing in comparison to the latter. Although his maps are physical representations of technology, the developing ability of social media to successfully mimic interpersonal communication provides the direct comparison needed to translate Borges’s ideas to modern Internet use. However, the same technological development that maintains the relevance of “On Exactitude in Science” calls into question its assertion of the virtual as inferior. Tao Lin’s presentation of technology in Shoplifting from American Apparel highlights communication in three spheres—carried out entirely online, moving from online to the real and from reality to virtual space This ultimately complicates Borges’s theory by depicting the potential of Internet technology to both approach exactitude and serve as a continuation of the real.

Despite its 1946 publication, “On Exactitude in Science” remains relevant during the Internet age as a result of its portrayal of maps as a form of technology, using scientific knowledge for practical means. The title of the piece itself operates as evidence for this, using the term “science” to place the map in the realm of human advancement developed to serve a specific purpose (Borges). Since the “Art of Cartography” is the science to which Borges’s title refers, the maps themselves can be concretely seen as pieces of technology. Borges describes “the map of a single Province [occupying] the entirety of a City,” using a size comparison to express the nature of technology as a model of reality. Since the maps are a physical representation of the land on which they are based, yet smaller and thus lacking exactitude, they fail to operate as anything other than a flawed representation of the Empire.

Borges uses juxtaposing language in reference to the maps to create a complicated understanding of the nature of technology and technological development. He initially describes “the Art of Cartography [achieving] such Perfection,” in reference to the large yet imperfect maps, using the word “perfection” to indicate the addition of detail to technology as positive, yet this is followed immediately by the term “Unconscionable Maps” (Borges). Instead of being pleased with the product of forward progression, the large maps are deemed more excessive and unreasonable the closer the model becomes to reality. Furthermore, soon after their development, the “Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied,” as a result of their failure to operate as another reality rather than a model (Borges). This implies the potential for continued expansion until satisfaction is achieved. Since Borges has already created a scenario in which attempts to create a perfect model result in excessive and inefficient technology, the work of the “Cartographers Guild” to add detail are presented as both inevitable and simultaneously pointless.

If technological perfection were to be achieved in “On Exactitude in Science,” it would theoretically take the form of a Map so complete that it functions as reality rather than a model. Borges presents, “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it,” yet the map with complete accuracy operates as the culmination of the author’s view that technological development aimed at mimicking reality will ultimately fail (Borges). Though map becomes inhabited by “Animals and Beggars,” it lies in “Tattered Ruins,” rather than achieving the same level of reality as the Empire itself. The map’s state of disintegration suggests its fragility compared to the world on which it is based, drawing on its creation by human means to establish its nature as cyclical and impermanent, distinctly separate from Borges’s unchanging reality. The failure of perfected technology is doubled--not only is it unsuccessful as real, but unsuccessful as a representation of reality as well “The following Generations” who “saw that the vast Map was useless,” serve as devices to highlight the ways in which the map’s size and detail are the elements that prevent it from fulfilling its function as a model (Borges). Thus, Borges aligns himself with a Platonian view of reality, in which “Representations...always have less value than the real itself” (de Souza e Silva and Sutko 27).

Despite the relevance to theories of technological development created through a view of Borges’s maps as technology, their confinement to physical space has the potential to limit the commentary of “On Exactitude of Science” in terms of Internet technology. Even pre-Internet, Baudrillard questions the continued relevance of Borges’s thought experiment in the media age in Simulacra and Simulation, writing, “Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (Baudrillard 1). However, depiction of Internet communication in Shoplifting from American Apparel questions Baudrillard’s dismissal of the relevance of “On Exactitude in Science” while simultaneously complicating the Platonian theory present in Borges’s piece.

Unlike Baudrillard’s assessment of the hyperreal as lacking basis in reality, the simulated online conversations in Shoplifting from American Apparel can be compared to the main character Sam’s face-to-face interactions on which they are modeled, implying the development of social media technology to the point of successfully mirroring everyday life. This renders Baudrillard’s criticism of Borges’s view of representations anachronistic, because a 1:1 relationship between representation and real is present. David Ciccoricco writes, “Borges has an intimate and indelible relationship to the emergent field of digital art and culture,” indicating his continued impact brought about as a result of the continued perfection of technology that has allowed a return to direct comparisons between the real and the model (74). This is particularly evident through the constructs of Tao Lin’s novel, in which technological communication can be viewed as the Borgesian map, increasingly attempting to model the reality of Sam’s interpersonal relationships.

However, if models are inherently inferior, as Borges suggests, Sam’s online conversations should appear as unsuccessful models of Sam’s real world interactions rather than a distinctly separate and equally important reality. Shoplifting from American Apparel seems to take a different stance almost immediately through Sam’s Gmail chat with Luis, juxtaposing casual remarks with serious and intimate details about each other’s lives to highlight the capability of social media to facilitate closeness. Luis says, “We are so weird…we met online a year ago,” placing their relationship firmly in the realm of the Internet, but this doesn’t limit the breadth and intimacy of their conversation (Lin 17). Luis asks, “Do you sometimes look up from the computer and look around the room and know you are alone, I mean really know it, then feel scared,” acknowledging the separation inherent in online relationships, but Lin complicates this view through Sam’s quick response, “Yes…I really do that” (17). Luis’s momentary fear of aloneness is juxtaposed with a moment of connection and understanding between them, implying that the desire to avoid isolation is a human concern rather than one present as a result of the failure of technology.

More important than the content of Sam’s Gmail chats is the form in which they are presented. Instead of separating them physically from the rest of the text or keeping the Gmail font, timestamps, and formatting, Lin renders Sam’s conversations as he would any other dialogue, acknowledging their online medium only occasionally. In his review of the novella, Jason Labbe writes, “Though the longhand seems to lack a degree of verisimilitude, it does seamlessly integrate this form of dialogue (not yet commonly seen in fiction) into the exposition” (“Book Review: ‘Shoplifting from American Apparel’ By Tao Lin”). This further complicates the distinction between Map and Empire in “On Exactitude in Science.” Borges was able to explore the failure of one in comparison to the other through difference rather than similarity, a possibility removed from Shoplifting from American Apparel as a result of the incorporated internet dialogue. Sam’s chat with Luis begins, “‘God I felt fucked lying on the bed,’ he said to Luis a few hours later on Gmail chat,” revealing, through his placement of “Gmail chat” at the end of the sentence, Lin’s belief that the medium of communication is secondary to the communication itself (Lin 13). The signifiers throughout this conversation take the form of “Sam said,” or “Luis said,” and make no further mention of the online platform, further de-emphasizing its importance and adding to the portrayal of the Gmail chat as a legitimate method of communication (15).

Shoplifting from American Apparel departs from the philosophical tradition utilized by Borges and Baudrillard, which “[considers] the virtual a simulation of the real” (de Souza e Silva). Instead, it favors an Aristotilian view, “[conceptualizing] representation as potentially linked to or moving toward actualization...[viewing] the virtual as potential and part of the real” (Sutko 26). Lin’s work fully captures representation becoming reality through its depiction of Sam’s relationship with Audrey, successfully moving from online communication to a realized face-to-face interaction. After seeing her in person for the first time, Sam “[thinks] it might be a person named Audrey who he had talked to on the internet,” and remarks they “said they would hang out or something” (Lin 84). The use of online communication to discuss physical interaction embodies the potential of representation to become reality, which is taken a step further through Lin’s depiction of their moment of intimacy later in the novella. Sam, “stood behind her and massaged her head,” and “leaned over and kissed her mouth,” highlighting the physical contact between them to emphasize the reality of the scene (Lin 99). Though Audrey’s admission, “I don’t check my email,” could be seen as devaluing the Internet in their moment of face-to-face connection, it is more likely used to solidify Lin’s understanding of the online being able to manifest in the real (101). When the impossibility of Sam and Audrey’s intimacy and physical contact without their initial Internet communication is acknowledged, the absence of technology represents the completed transition from model to reality.

In addition to successful communication carried out entirely online and social media interactions that manifest in physical reality, Lin depicts the transition between Sheila, another of Sam’s romantic partners, and Sam’s conversation from face-to-face to email and Gmail chat with relatively little shift in tone or voice. In person, their conversation runs, “‘I feel really happy right now,’ said Sheila, looking ahead…‘You didn’t feel happy before?’ he said. ‘I mean I just feel really good right now,’ said Sheila” (Lin 21). Their discussion is succinct and short, and Lin’s choice of mono or disyllabic words creates a matter-of-fact tone even in reference to personal questions about happiness. This style and tone remains uninterrupted in both the email and Gmail chat sections, evidenced by Sheila’s emailed statement, “I hope that you had a good night. Maybe we can hang out tomorrow” (24). Short and concise diction and repetition of the word “good,” used also in the face-to-face dialogue, creates coherence between their real and virtual conversation, and indicates Lin’s view of communication technology as able to model the real with exactitude.

Unlike Luis and Sam’s chat, Lin’s writing acknowledges the different forms Sam uses to communicate with Sheila, creating a similar scenario to Borges’s development of the map with email taking the place of the “Unconscionable Maps” and Gmail chat representing the “Map of the Empire” (Borges). Via email, Sheila writes, “The Adam guy was eating a cupcake or something and he ate it really sloppy and walked around looking proud. I wanted to lecture him. I hope that you had a good night” (Lin 24). Though the content remains similar to their in-person conversation, it is presented through half a page of column text rather than dialogue, and Sam “[doesn’t] seem to respond to a lot of [Sheila’s] emails,” indicating a difference between email communication and face-to-face or Gmail chat (24). The block text and Sam’s poor communication highlight email as a model of Sheila’s previous speech, and the length of her message juxtaposed with Sam’s short responses align it with Borges’s description of the large maps as excessive and inefficient.

In this case, however, Gmail chat, paralleling the Map of the Empire, achieves reality. After progressing beyond the unsatisfying email to more highly developed technology, Sam is able to carry a conversation from the real into a virtual space. Thus, Lin depicts online communication functioning as both simulation of face-to-face interaction and a social reality of its own. Lin writes, “said Sheila on Gmail chat,” acknowledging the medium as virtual, but returns to the dialogue form of their previous conversation, using the signifiers “said Sheila” and “said Sam” as seen above during Sam’s conversation with Luis (25). Not only does the medium mimic real life, it affords the characters a deeper connection as well. In person, Sam and Sheila “talked about the salad’s size and organic ingredients,” but online, Sheila confesses, “‘I feel so fucked,’” to which Sam responds, “ ‘What if your friend kept telling you they felt fucked, and it was because you didn’t like them as much as they liked you,’” (Lin 23, 25). The deeper level of intimacy through technology implies its capability of not only facilitating as a transition from virtual to real, but also as a continuation of the real, in which characters in Shoplifting from American Apparel are able to express emotions more successfully than in person.

Despite Baudrillard’s argument against the relevance of Borges’s view of the model as representation of reality, the ability of modern technology to directly simulate conversation brings new applicability to “On Exactitude in Science.” With social media communication functioning as the Map of the Empire, Borges’s piece can be extrapolated to indicate the inferiority of virtual dialogue. Though Shoplifting from American Apparel provides fodder for Borgesian analysis, Lin’s presentation of three distinct communication possibilities, moving from online only, online to real, and real to online, complicates the idea that as a model approaches reality, it becomes useless and ultimately fails. Instead, the novella depicts technological advancement as beneficial through characters that embrace Gmail chat as another form of dialogue, just as real and necessary as their face-to-face conversations. 

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994 Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

Borges, Jorge Luis. "On Exactitude in Science." Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Viking, 1998. N. pag. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

Ciccoricco, David. "Borges, Technology, and the Same Infinite Substance as the
Night." Cy-Borges: Memories of the Posthuman in the Work of Jorge Luis Borges. Ed. Stefan Herbrechter and Ivan Callus. Associated University Press. 2009. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

de Souza e Silva, Adriana, and Daniel M. Sutko. "Theorizing Locative Technologies
Through Philosophies Of The Virtual." Communication Theory (10503293) 21.1 (2011): 23- 42. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

Labbe, Jason. “Book Review: ‘Shoplifting from American Apparel’ By Tao Lin.” Center for Literary Publishing. 2009. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

Lin, Tao. Shoplifting from American Apparel. New York: Melville House Publishing, 2009. Print.