The Evolution of Virtual Identity in American Literature
Beatrice Melodia Festa



Reflections on identity have always wavered among various images of the self and its relationship to the social environment. More broadly, identity is the consequence of a social process, and its specific meaning can be understood in the interaction between self and other. In a society enmeshed with new technologies, this relationship is recurrently represented by the self in its contact with the machine, the technological medium. For this reason, the dualism identity-technology has taken on an increasingly pervasive importance. Needless to say, today the problematic issue of personhood is at the forefront of our technophilic1 culture. 

he ambiguous concept of the self and, more prominently, the “virtualization of identity”, represent an extremely topical concern of our present. With technological interaction, individuality is transformed into a real resource through which to reconfigure the new modern personality.

On this point, scholars have recently argued that technologies “can foster, constructive, flourishing thought, a diversified sense of self and other, a wider view of ourselves, and a new, deeper form of subjectivity” (Scharff 10-11). As such, identity, through its close relationship with communication systems, becomes an essentially artificial construct and its fragmentation has turned into one of the main dilemmas of our modern world.

Given this, the study examines identity and more specifically, “virtual identity”, in its interaction with communication technologies reframed within the context of American literature. Drawing from this premise, we will focus on a particular articulation of the self, one that is performed through technological interaction. In light of this, my aim is to recast the progression of technology and its impact on the evolution of virtual identity through the lens of American narratives. By using a literary/cultural approach, this issue will be addressed using a corpus of five novels, from the late 1800s up to the present, which will allow to trace a literary trajectory through the ongoing challenges to identity developed in interplay with the machine.

The choice to follow the historical advancements of telecommunications serves to demonstrate how alterations of subjectivity by means of the machine began to take place long before our modern approach. Through the lens of a historical and sociocultural framework this work will look at the evolution of the concept of “virtual identity”, examined through the advancement of telecommunications. The corpus of novels which will be analyzed have been chosen for their apt ability to illustrate the challenges to identity following the advancement of communication systems, from the telegraph through the telephone to the Internet. As such, my discussion ranges from the late years of the 19th century to the new millennium.

Each of the literary texts examined follows the improvement of communication technologies with the aim of outlining the evolution of an American identity jeopardized by its relationship with the technological medium. Analysis will consider the development of telecommunications, from the beginning of the 1900s, with the telegraph and the telephone, consequently looking at their evolution in the 1980s and then following their transformation up to the digital age.

The intentional lapse from the 1890s to the 1980s is purposefully chosen to highlight the development of the telegraph into modern systems, then replaced by the use of telephone which did not improve until the 1970s and was consequently followed by digitalization. Literary works, from novellas through historical narratives to postmodern dystopias, indicate how the evolution of virtual identity in American literature has been discussed by different genres.

The novels that will be analyzed are: Wired Love- A Romance of Dots and Dashes (1879) by Ella Cheever Thayer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) by Mark Twain, The Broom of the System (1987) by David Foster Wallace, Chronic City (2009) by Jonathan Lethem and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010).

All texts show the construction of a “virtual identity” which was first developed with telegraphy and then evolved into its modern version with the Internet. Drawing from the simple assertion that Anglo-American texts across the twentieth-century and onward have explored the inescapable progress of technology and that literature can fruitfully be considered as a transcription of the complex human dynamics with the machine (Goody 8), the work develops as follows. Aiming at discussing the current state of theory of the research, the first two chapters analyze the concepts of identity, examined on a sociological basis, and technology, considered in its broad meaning.

In this sense, Chapter 1 addresses the notion of identity first from a general perspective, illustrating its rather elusive meaning, consequently re-iterating the definition of the concept in the American field. This part will consider the notion of self first within the spectrum of American Transcendentalist philosophy and then shifting the attention to the challenges to its definition in the United States, questioned by different elements throughout history and still charged with extreme ambiguity.

After this preliminary historical and theoretical overview of the nature of identity in the United States, the chapter will focus on two essential traits used to define modern identity linked to the use of the media: virtuality and performance. As such, identity will be examined first in its relationship to the virtual, and consequently in its performative aspect. My concern at this point lies in considering the virtual as an additional parameter to define identity and thinking in terms of performance when examining the concept in relation to technology. Beginning by outlining theories on virtuality by Manuel Castells and Tiziana Terranova (among other scholars), I will use their considerations to provide a definition to discuss the question of identity in its relationship to the virtual dimension. By illustrating the theoretical implications of virtuality in the modern age and the concept of virtual space in modern thought remarking Deleuze’s opposition between real and artificial, analysis will focus on the threats the virtual world has posed destabilizing a traditional notion of self.

These considerations will be taken as the starting point to show how the definition of modern identity is strictly dependent upon virtuality. Given my argument, I aim to explore how the virtual not only plays a fundamental role in the conception of modern identity, but, from the Industrial Revolution onwards, can also be considered as an additional dimension for the definition of the self. It is in this light that I turn to the question of performance. Besides an overview of the studies on performativity, I will examine the question of performance through the lens of technology to show how, as social interaction within communication systems becomes brief and ephemeral, individuals engage in a recurrent performance of identity.

As I will show, in its redefinition through the electronic space, identity is also defined through a performative condition. In this way, I will furthermore argue that communication systems — in different ways — produce an individual performance of the self constantly alternating between presence and absence, realism and artifact. This dualism will be at the core of the literary analysis showing how a “traditional” notion of self has been completely reframed by the virtual which, together with the question of performance, becomes the new principle to define identity in relation to technology.

Following a similar structure, Chapter 2 focalizes on the role of technology in America to reiterate its conceptual and cultural evolution showing how technological transformations have required a profound re-discussion of ontological categories that until then had been little or marginally challenged. As Thomas Hughes so eloquently insisted, America developed through a genesis of progress, an age of unprecedented technological enthusiasm, that began around the 1870s and persists even today (3). Furthermore, America’s national identity can be classified as part of a cultural need to be imbued with machines and achievements, transforming the wilderness into a compendium of technical advancements (Hughens 1).

The chapter proceeds to consider the cultural impact of technology on American society. This study leads us to examine the incursion of the machine and its conflicted reception in literature, drawing from an earlier sense of techno-enthusiasm to a general pessimism. This part then concludes with and overview of late 19th-century fiction and its persistent development of a technologically based aesthetic, thoroughly illustrated by the elusive transformation of the human body, reconfigured and re-elaborated by means of the machine. Gradually approaching the analysis on virtual identity, this chapter shows how the porous boundary between technology and the human body in 19th-century narratives determines a re-formulation of the concept of personhood.

A statement to this effect opens the discussion developed in Chapter 3, which considers the telegraph as the first means of experimentation of a virtual identity. Considered for its functions an equivalent of modern communications, this system proposed a re-consideration of individuality and, as Goody has claimed, a disruption of “the conventional notion of individual” (187). On the basis of this premise, the analysis proceeds, introducing the little-known genre of “Telegraphic Literature”, which — although modest in number — has contributed to the representation of the challenges to selfhood through a form of disembodied corporeality which allowed users to mask, play and encrypt, a new idea of self.

We then move on in the literary analysis by looking at complications of identity in Ella Cheever Thayer’s Wired Love. Thayer’s narrative offers an example of encrypted identities, recounting the virtually-mediated experience between two operators who mysteriously intercept each other over the wire engaging in a virtual exchange that can be compared to modern online dating. The potential of the telegraph in the novel serves to exemplify the immateriality of the self, offering an example of modern technology through those false and multiple identities that characterize our way of communicating in the digital age. In a similar way, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs’ Court illustrates the problematic concern of personal identity through the employment of telegraphic communication. In a technological performance of the self, Twain considers communication machines as the elements that serve to develop a concept of identity.

Through the story that of a modern Yankee transported through time to 6th-century England, Twain constructs a humorous example of how communication technologies such as the telegraph and the telephone, make it easy to be mistaken for another or have your identity usurped, and then to perform a new one modelled through machine interaction.

Following the historical progression of communication technologies in their innovative shift from the 1950s to the 1990s, Chapter 4 proceeds to reframe the impact of electronic means as they gradually evolved toward digitalization. Drawing from the new image of American society in the late 1970s, when identity shifted from a general materialism to a progressive artificiality, this section outlines the new postmodern society, that of “Simulacra” and simulation (Baudrillard 1997), and the consequent control of the machine, distorting perceptions of human subjectivity. As such, in the postmodern age the self becomes multiple and fragmentary.

The broad discussion on postmodern narratives and their preoccupation with understanding a new culture rooted in a disquieting conception of the individual, leads to the examination of the work of David Foster Wallace and, in particular, his debut novel, The Broom of the System. Offering an exhaustive example of identity challenges via communication technologies in the 1980s, the novel (as does most of Wallace’s writing), skillfully illustrates the failures of subjectivity in the post-human and post-modernist reality.

This time, complications of self-identity unravel through the psychologically-fragmented personality of Lenore Bedsman, a telephone operator, following her attempt to define her(self) as she is endangered by the pervasiveness of technological systems. As analysis will show, the difficulty in defining identity comes from the struggle to relocate personality within the modern, complex articulation between self and other. Wallace’s interest in the narrative is thus based upon these binary oppositions illustrating the dichotomy between personal definition, the self, and its social relocation, the other, being technology.

Finally, chapter 5 concludes this study by discussing digital technologies in their modern development within cyberculture. Introducing the new society of multi-screens and our present addiction to the digital, this part opens by considering the widely-debated concept of virtual self, re-elaborated by our constant interaction with the network and its multiple platforms. As Sherry Turkle has observed, the Web becomes a “laboratory for the construction of personal identity” (1997), where users suspend physical presence for the sake of a virtual one. People are thus present on multiple platforms constructing a personality that is, per se, extremely fragmented. Users become, as Giroux claims, victims of a narcissism out of control (180). The system, this time the digital one, creates a need for self-performativity through our addiction to the screen which allows us to create an identity masked and then reproduced in new idealized versions of ourselves.

Implying a general loss of privacy and control, this mechanism, which is also the subject of cyber-fiction, recurrently depicts the self-performatory aspect of media and the system’s over-surveillance. The two post- postmodern novels conclude this analysis illustrating the problematization of subjectivity and the impossibility of establishing an authentic sense of identity reframed within the technophobic digital scenario. Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City offers an example of our complicity with the technological system, through a convoluted narrative trajectory which confuses the reader, enmeshed in a world of simulation where it is difficult to distinguish reality from artificiality.

As analysis will prove, dealing with the notion of “platformativity” (Dinnen 2018), the text outlines the vulnerability of selfhood though Lethem’s complicated distortion of reality (the setting is that of a dystopian urban scenario). The notion of complicity, as the metaphor of a society which is entangled within a mediated personal experience is what informs the narrative. In a similar way, Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad further extends the scope of this investigation. Her characters struggle to formulate a new concept of identity. The novel’s protagonists, worried and yet addicted to the screens of techno-culture, engage in selective self-presentations, each trying to develop an artificial, and thus narcissistic image of his self.

What both narratives show is need to construct a virtual identity split between realism and artifact and the difficulty of understanding the liminal boundary between these spaces. Analysis then concludes with a synthetic section that draws together the main points that have been laid out in preceding chapters.

Is it possible to conclude that the concept of virtual identity originated from early means of communication? This is the question this study sets to investigate, demonstrating how American literature, transitioning from the Industrial period to the New Media age, has been able to trace the evolution of virtual identity, demonstrating how the projection of the self onto the virtual space originated from the telegraph evolving towards the computer age. From early forms of communication, identity has taken shape from technologies, becoming distorted, fragmentary and changeable, progressively masking itself into the artificial space.

Given my argument on the development of “virtual identity”, I see that the binomial identity-technology goes way beyond its philosophical and sociological definitions. In this sense, American literature has represented the human-machine interaction through its ongoing challenges to individualism, establishing a new concept of the American self reconfigured in virtue of electronic interactions and developed by constant interconnections with technological means. Suggesting that novelists illustrate the evolution of virtual identity, from the telegraph to computers, I wish to enrich understanding of a wired, technological, and “encrypted” self, through the lens of American literature. With this statement in mind, there is hope that this work will extend interest in the fascinating, elusive and ever-changing dynamics, of identity and technology in American literature.

1 The term is generally used to refer to an overall enthusiasm for advanced technologies such as computers, cellphones and so on.

©Beatrice Melodia Festa, The Evolution of Virtual Identity in American Literature , Ombrecorte 2022