The Personal is Unpolitical: Paper and Purpose in The Circle

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The passage I chose to focus on occurs at the bottom of Page 187 and continues into the top of 188.  Mae’s boss Dan just finished holding a meeting with her about her recent lack of participation in The Circle’s weekend on-campus activities and her failure to post regularly enough on the company’s social network.  He has had her escorted into a second room so she can discuss her behavior in more detail with HR representatives Josiah and Denise.  The three have been going over Mae’s weekend activites in detail, and when she mentions that she was examining local wildlife on a kayak with a foldable paper guide, Josiah sighs loudly and offers the following diatribe:

Josiah rolled his eyes. “No, I mean, this is a tangent, but my problem with paper is that all communication dies with it.  it holds no possibility of continuity.  You look at your paper brochure, and that’s where it ends.  It ends with you.  Like you’re the only one who matters.  But think if you’d been documenting.  If you’d been using a tool that would help confirm the identity of whatever birds you saw, then anyone can benefit – naturalists, students, historians, the Coast Guard.  Everyone can know, then, what birds were on the bay on that day.  It’s just maddening, thinking of how much knowledge is lost every day through this kind of shortsightedness.  And I don’t want to call it selfish, but -“

“No.  It was.  I know it was,” Mae said.

In one brief sweep, Eggers has summarized the core of the Circle’s philosophy towards the state of technology and their role in shaping the world with it. Josiah, using the neutraly-toned language of pleasant corporatese, has basically told Mae that her attachment to personal things as innocent as her paper fieldbook is not just wrong, but thoroughly outdated and even dangerous to the goals of the Circle. Paper is an antiquated material that belongs to the era before Zinging and TruYou, the era where people had things – the kind that are collected in Bailey’s library for the elderly to come and look at. Paper is dangerous because it is personal, an idea the Circle is trying to stamp out everywhere it can. The mantra engraved on the cabinets in the clinic says it best: “TO HEAL WE MUST KNOW. TO KNOW WE MUST SHARE.”

Though he cleverly finds a way around outright saying he finds paper selfish (I don’t want to call it selfish, but…), Josiah clearly views the personal and private nature of print material as antithetical to the Circle’s focus on all things community-oriented, a term that is used somewhat problematically throughout the novel. For despite the word community being used ad nauseum in reference to the techno-utopia the Circle sees itself as, it’s not a community in any historic sense of the word: family certainly isn’t a part of it (Tim tells Mae that “to spend time with your parents is very, very cool”, but isn’t part of “the community aspect of the job”), nor is the wider world that exists outside of the Circle’s bubble-community, where every possible ammenity is provided. Nor does the idea of community relate to old-world political ideas like socialism. All interactivity between employees is for the purpose of serving the Circle and its pursuit of global domination through glorious, unfiltered capitalism. There’s no space for the personal here when you’re supposed to be serving something more.

Josiah goes on. “Think if you’d been documenting.” Personal possessions are further threatening to the Circle in that they don’t contribute to its quest to analytically organize the world. I am reminded here in his reference to cataloging the kind of birds resting on the bay to the way Heidgger saw the Rhine in The Question Concerning Technology. As a side-effect of the enframing process at the essence of technology, nothing in the world can be viewed outside the human perspective of what means it can serve as a potential tool toward onward progress. “The Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.” (321) Heidegger later summarizes his thesis on the danger of technology by claiming “the threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and appartus of technology. The rule of enframing threatens man with the possiblity that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.” (333) What he is saying here is that the obsession technology naturally creates as a result of its essence with analyzing and cataloging has the possibility of completely sepearting us from being able to appreciate nature as it is and only view it in the context of technological advancement – a point that Josiah surely would not disagree with. “Think of how much knowledge is lost every day through this kind of shortsightedness.” Indeed, as Foucault would argue, knowledge is power

We know that Mae is not enthralled with The Circle’s obsession with digital sharing. We’ve learned that from her attachment to her family, her failure to post her every action on social networks, and her infatuation with Circle outsider Kalden. And yet, in the face of Josiah’s crushing blow to one of the oldest forms of media technology there is – paper – Mae ultimately has to step down. “It was [selfish]. I know it was.” At this point, it doesn’t matter if she stays with or leaves the company. She’s still under the watch of the community and under the gaze of the panopticon, in “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” (Foucault, 201) Though Josiah is being as pleasant as he can be while reprimanding Mae, his smile hides the 21st centuries most public secret about the word personal means in an increasingly global world.

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2 Responses to The Personal is Unpolitical: Paper and Purpose in The Circle

  1. exelsisxax says:

    I think the most horrifying thing about the circle is that anything outside the data that they collect is seen as non-existent. Mae visited her parents, but Tim doesn’t care that she did. The only thing that matters, that even bears considering, are things that you have insanely recorded every second of with 7 different camera angles. Nothing you DO actually matters, only what you record for the Circle. At one point in the book, one of the wise men actually claims how meaningless it is to climb mount kenya without recording it all, and then presents such a video, saying how amazing it is to share that experience with those that can’t do it themselves. He compares climbing a huge mountain to WATCHING A VIDEO of someone doing so. Mae kayaking is nothing to the circle but a reason to join more inane clubs. All of these actual experiences are simply irrelevant to these people.

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    • I think it’s too easy to say that data not collected by the circle is totally nonexistent. We can see by this scene that The Circle can pretty much determine just as much information about you by what you don’t post as much as what you post. The difference here is, if they have the tangible data, they are able to control and manipulate it. Anything they do not have access to is seen as a threat.

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