Novel Realities and Simulated Structures: The Posthuman Fusion of Forms and Simulacra in Richard Powers’s Plowing the Dark

Abstract: This article examines the articulations of representation and being in Richard Powers’s novel Plowing the Dark (2000) from a posthuman perspective. In its double-narrative structure, the novel introduces a dialectic relationship between Plato’s theory of the forms and Baudrillard’s notions of the simulacra as its rudiments for exploring the boundaries of reality. N. Katherine Hayles’s theory of the posthuman provides an apt mediating lens to examine the competing visions of Platonic and Baudrillardian reality as presented in the novel. Examined in this way, Plowing the Dark not only asks questions about the representation of reality but ultimately performs narratively the patterns of reflexivity and virtuality unique to the posthuman world. The article concludes by arguing that Richard Powers employs the form of the novel to manipulate the semi-stable parameters of various systems of reality while engaging with the paradigms of the posthuman to explore the relationship between the construction and mediation of the real.

Imitations produce pain or pleasure,” wrote Samuel Johnson in his preface to the works of William Shakespeare in 1765, “not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind” (ix).1 With an Aristotelian appreciation for the boundary between art and life, Johnson suggests that reality, mediated by art, can exist in the mind.2 In this well-ordered early modern worldview, imitations are derivatives of reality, and the boundary between the cognitive and the real is comprehensible, if not definite. Yet what would happen if Johnson’s aesthetic framework were to fail? What would happen if imitations were to begin producing realities? What would happen if we could not tell the difference between the two? These are some of the questions posed by Richard Powers’s Plowing the Dark (PtD), a novel that manipulates Platonic ideals and Baudrillardian perspectives as its rudiments for exploring the boundaries of reality. “The mind is the first virtual reality,” posits Lim, one of the novel’s myriad computer programmers: “He groped for the concept, by smoky torchlight. It gets to say what the world isn’t yet. Its first speculations bootstrap all the others . . .” (PtD 130).3 In Lim’s compliment to Johnson’s claim, “[i]t” refers to “[t]he mind,” which is not only the place for the reception of imitations but the site of production as well. Here, Powers situates Lim within Plato’s allegorical cave, wherein by “[groping] for the concept, by smoky torchlight” (PtD 130), Lim plays the role of the Platonic prisoner who has remained “fettered” in dusky illusion, believing that “the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts” on the dim walls of the cave (Plato 187; bk. VII, 514a, 515c). For Lim, as for Plato’s unenlightened prisoner, “virtual reality” (PtD 130) and reality appear to be the same thing. Yet Lim conjures an image of the mind as both metaphor and literal speaker of that what “the world isn’t yet” (130). In this moment, the mind—and likewise the illusion—produces something that seems very much like a new reality.

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