David Cronenberg on reality, technology, and the human condition at the International Festival of Authors

I sat in the back row of Harbourfront’s Fleck Theatre last Thursday night before the curtains rose, intently calibrating the audio recording app on my phone and cursing the limitations of the telescopic lens on my DSLR. It didn’t escape my notice that I was behaving exactly like Naomi Seberg, the tech-obsessed journalist who is the protagonist of David Cronenberg’s debut novel, Consumed.

I was at the International Festival of Authors (IFoA) event to listen to Cronenberg discuss the ontological concepts embedded within his novel. As the lights dimmed and Cronenberg took the stage, I was able to forget about my technology-related woes, but only until the subject was broached by the pair on stage. Technology — and its irrevocable place in the human condition — was the undoubtedly the theme of the night.

“I’ve always said that neurology is reality,” said Cronenberg. “The body is the first fact of existence.” But, he added, when the body is confronted with new media and its instruments — the internet specifically — a physiological shift takes place.

“Brain structure is not static,” said Cronenberg. “I think that the internet has become a part of our neurology…it’s changing our reality.”

Considering Cronenberg’s self-professed status as a “technology geek,” it makes sense that French intellectuals Celestine and Aristide Arosteguy, characters in Consumed, resolutely defend the reality that exists in the internet age. To the fictional Arosteguys, the “purest literature of the twenty-first century is the owner’s manual.”

“When I was a kid in the ‘50s, I used to read a lot of science fiction,” Cronenburg said. “Technology was often positioned as an inhuman thing, a dehumanizing thing. I never really bought that. I thought, no, technology is one hundred per cent human. It’s an extension of every part of ourselves…an expression of all of us.”

By the end of the talk, Cronenberg’s sympathy with the Arosteguys’ philosophy of consumption is apparent: it seems that the relentless peppering of brand jargon throughout his novel is not merely satirical, as I had first surmised.

“It’s very easy to criticize, to say ‘Everybody’s walking around on their iPhones, they’re not even looking at each other.’ But they are looking at each other. They’re looking at each other through their iPhones. So I’m thinking, ‘is that really bad?’ I mean it’s so easy to say, because it’s so different. But then I thought of St. Augustine, who was horrified the first time he saw somebody reading a book without moving their lips. The oral tradition at that time was everything… that shift from the oral to the visual was huge. So is this shift really that different?” he asked.

Cronenberg attended U of T in the ‘60s. It was the era of Marshall McLuhan, the “self-made media guru” whose work largely influenced Cronenberg. “McLuhan used to say that no American could comment on American media,” he said, “It’s the old ‘fish doesn’t know what water is’ thing, that if you’re immersed in something you can’t understand it objectively.”

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