Algorithmic data profiling is not merely an important topic in contemporary fiction, it is an increasingly dominant form of storytelling and characterization in our society. These stories are being told inside boardrooms, banks, presidential briefings, police stations, advertising agencies, and technology companies. And so, to the extent that data has taken up storytelling, literature must take up data. After all, profiling coincides with character development; surveillance reflects point of view; and data points track as plot points in tales of the political economy.
In Profiles and Plotlines, Katherine Johnston engages this energetic reformation of contemporary literature to account for a society and economy of frenetic counting. Fiction and poetry are capable of addressing precisely that for which algorithms cannot or do not account: the effects of profile culture; the ideologies and supposed truth-power of data; the gendered and racialized dynamics of watching and being watched; and the politics of who counts and what gets counted. Johnston analyzes prescient work by contemporary authors such as Jennifer Egan, Claudia Rankine, Mohsin Hamid, and William Gibson to probe how the claims of data surveillance serve to make lives seem legible, intelligible, and sometimes even expendable.
“This magnificent book mobilizes contemporary fiction and poetry to confront the unequal effects of surveillance-based profiling. Literature tracks growing apprehension about the datafication of everyday life, but, as Katherine Johnston shows, literature can also provide insight into the rhetorical and partial nature of all data profiling.”—Torin Monahan, author, Crisis Vision: Race and the Cultural Production of Surveillance
“Profiles and Plotlines is a tour de force. Surveillance—corporate, state, or domestic—is one of the key issues of our time. Katherine Johnston deftly guides readers through a wealth of material as she explains how literature encounters incarnates data. A triumph.”—Toby Miller, author, A COVID Charter, A Better World
“Johnston’s sharp analyses of contemporary American literature distinguishes the prevalence of a datafied and quantified culture. Her unique blending of literary studies, cultural studies, and media studies highlights the ways in which the reciprocal relationship between algorithms and stories has recreated how we understand character profiling in our information society.”—Joelle Mann, author, Mixed Media in Contemporary American Literature: Voices Gone Viral