Back to reports

Bourgeois See, Bourgeois Do: The Uncanny Valley


Sally Olds
04 January 2021

The Bourgeois is Franco Moretti’s 2013 study of the bourgeois class, its sensibilities and its politics in modern European literature. The subtitle, “Between History and Literature” pretty much describes his method; he’s not interested in collapsing the two terms, history and literature, into one—literary history—but in using literature to get to history. His contention is that the best way to do this is not through content but through form.

On the surface, it’s an unlikely wager. If you want to know about Mancunian industry in the 19th century, wouldn’t you read, say, North and South for its depictions of bossworker conflict before you read it for its sentence structure? Moretti would disagree. Literary form, he argues, gives shape to history: it is “the fossil remains of what had once been a living and problematic present”.1 You write a sentence, or a paragraph, or a book and the form/s you write in freeze-frame the dynamics of a historical moment. This happens in spite of your skill or lack thereof in rendering it and regardless of whether or not you wrote your sentence/paragraph/book in service of this end—it happens in unconscious collaboration with your time and place. Crucially, form does not preserve history directly, a wormhole from Melbourne to Manchester 1834, but, if writing is an attempt to create form from messy reality, what form does do is offer a provisional resolution. So, says Moretti, you take the resolution and work backwards, scratching through to the contradictory, inchoate forces that occasioned it.

An example might help here. In The Bourgeois, as in his other works, Moretti combines “distant reading” (his term for the computational analysis of texts) with close reading, using data-sets of hundreds or thousands of books to aid in microscopic analysis. This affords him both precision and a bird’s-eye view. He can tell you with some accuracy that Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel in which a young Englishman is shipwrecked on a deserted island and survives there for 28 years, uses the past-gerund approximately 9.3 times per 10,000 words. This is a rare verb form that introduces an action that has already taken place, e.g.: “Having secured my boat…”, “Having fitted my mast…”. Furthermore, Moretti can tell you that Defoe’s favourite sentence structure is one in which the past-gerund combines with the past-tense action verb (what it sounds like: a verb that indicates action, in the past tense) and the infinitive verb (a verb with the word “to” in front of it) to create a tripartite structure that runs like so: “and having stowed [past gerund] my boat very safe, I went [action verb/past tense] on shore to look [infinitive] about me”.2

Robinson cannot stop doing chores and everything about Defoe’s grammar inflects the text with his busyness. The past gerund indicates a completed activity, which is only ever the basis for further action (“I went on shore”), which is then recruited by the infinitive “to look”, which suggests undefined future activity. For Moretti, this structure traces the temporal drive of capitalism—the forward march of progress through past, present, future, in that order, on repeat. In Moretti’s hands, Robinson Crusoe is less an adventure novel than an imprint in prose of a burgeoning Protestant work ethic: the “forever renewed” cycle of capitalist accumulation and production.3

While reading Moretti, I also read Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener’s memoir of working in Silicon Valley, published this time last year, January 2020. The book follows a then-25year old Anna as she quits her no-future publishing job in New York City for a book app startup, also in NYC. This is her first taste of start-up culture from the inside and although she is softly fired after a few months (“I had trouble strategizing at scale”, she remarks wryly), she then moves to San Francisco to work at an analytics startup in

Silicon Valley. The bulk of the memoir chronicles her time living and working in the Valley, first at the startup (which remains unnamed throughout), and then at GitHub (also unnamed but easy to guess). At the book’s close, she moves back to NYC. Outside the book’s frame is her transition from occasional contributor to literary magazines like n+1, where Uncanny Valley had its genesis in her popular essay of the same name—whose title was itself ripped from Masahiro Mori’s original 1970 essay on robotics—to debut author and contributing writer at The New Yorker. A neat arc: from writing to tech and back to writing again, failing upwards each time.

Both Moretti and Wiener’s books are about capitalism, data and labour, and both come from honorary Californians working across tech and literature. Aside from these surface similarities, they couldn’t be more different, not least of all in quality. One is a deft, incidentally gorgeous, incisive critical text and the other, Wiener’s, is—to be frank—a New York Times-baiting work of desperate-to-be-literary nonfiction: striving, overwrought and underwhelming. What’s interesting about Uncanny Valley is not what it tells you about Silicon Valley, most of which you probably already know (key words will do it: misogyny, racism, classism, surveillance, overwork, gentrification, libertarians), but the ways in which the book tells on itself through its formal execution. Reading Moretti and reading Uncanny Valley I realised that the latter is a perfect example of the former’s thesis: when attempting to understand a particular time and place through literature, content matters less than form. In Uncanny Valley what obtrudes and what rankles is form.

Let’s start with the obvious. The most egregious formal conceit in Uncanny Valley is Wiener’s use of lists. If you haven’t read the book, it’s hard to understand just how frequently this occurs, but I’ll tell you now that a quarter of the way through I began asterisk-ing every section in which pithy, closely-observed images are cast in a series of rhythmically-homogenous sentences and stopped after another thirty pages when I realised there was no end in sight.

On page 37:

Across the world, people were squeezing out the last of strangers’ toothpaste, picking up strangers’ soap in the shower, wiping their noses on strangers’ pillowcases.

On page 39:

The cofounders had prioritized aesthetics and hired two graphic designers off the bat: men with signature hairstyles and large followings on a social network for people who referred to themselves as creatives.

On page 40:

They were weirder, wilder, funnier, harder to keep up with. They wore Australian work boots and flannel and durable, recycled polyester athletic vests, drank energy shots in the late afternoon and popped vitamin D in the mornings … They chewed powdered Swedish tobacco … They had gone to top-tier private colleges.

On page 49:

People courted the sublime on trail runs and day hikes, glamped in Marin and rented chalets in Tahoe. They dressed for work as if embarking on an alpine expedition: high-performance down jackets and foul-weather shells, backpacks with decorative carabiners … Founders went out to eat and confirmed that the food tasted exactly how other reviews promised it would; they posted redundant photographs of plated appetizers … They pursued authenticity.

Wiener can apply this form to anything—not just people and objects but to action too, as when she describes moderating content for GitHub:

We struggled to draw the lines. We tried to distinguish between a political act and a political view; between praise of violent people and praise of violence; between commentary and intention. We tried to decipher trolls’ tactical irony. We made mistakes.4

And to abstractions like “the platform”:

The platforms, designed to accommodate and harvest infinite data, inspired an infinite scroll. They encouraged a cultural impulse to fill all spare time with someone else’s thoughts. The internet was a collective howl, an outlet for everyone to prove that they mattered. The full spectrum of human emotion infused social platforms. Grief, joy, anxiety, mundanity flowed. People were saying nothing, and saying it all the time. Strangers swapped confidences with other strangers in return for unaccredited psychological advice. They shared stories of private infidelities and public incontinence; photos of their bedroom interiors; photos, faded and cherished, of long-dead family members; photos of their miscarriages. People were giving themselves away at every opportunity.5

There are at least two things going on here. First, as Jason Kehe writes Wiener’s prose is “ruled by appearances, by looking and seeing”. Uncanny Valley bears out with bloody-minded literalness the ubiquitous creative writing advice to “show not tell” and demonstrates its shortcomings, not just for the writing itself but as a tool for political or social critique. When Wiener is at a bar, she observes a few women waiting in the toilet queue:

They looked around my age, but polished—shinier. They looked like the sort of woman I had wanted, and failed, to become back in publishing; self-possessed, socially graceful, manicured. They were probably having a different kind of night.6

The observation leads to the inference—they looked a certain way, so “they were probably” x. That Wiener infers this from the women’s appearances is fine, normal, who doesn’t do this? It becomes a problem when appearance stands in for sustained or varied methods of inquiry, which it does for most of the book, or when applied to weightier matters. Wiener might have included a history of Silicon Valley, or dug into the long history of women in computing, or she might have used her observations to put forward an argument (instead, she makes a virtue of her ambivalence—more on this later). She doesn’t do any of these things, just watches and records. Then again, perhaps she uses this form on repeat precisely because it’s a weak method; it yields little insight each time so she has to do it a lot. Can sheer volume add up to utility? Unfortunately, she’s also contending with an incompatibility between aesthetic and political critique. If you want to buy a million dollar apartment in San Fran and you’ve saved up $999,000 in Monopoly money, you still won’t be close to landing the property.

Secondly, someone, some time during the production of this text, decided that this book would be the ur-text of its time and place, a generation-defining memoir (“Joan Didion at a startup” claims Rebecca Solnit on the front cover). To achieve this, Wiener has to be both timely and timeless. The reams of SF-tech-specific observation are obviously intended to capture 2010s SF tech in all its idiosyncrasy. That the objects described are stripped of brand names and proper nouns and instead couched in generic terms (“Australian work boots” instead of R.Ms) is an attempt to tip the scales back towards timelessness. One thing Wiener does well with these generic substitutions is convey the newly-generic nature of San Fran under tech’s gentrifying hold.

Probably it’s the aim of any self-styled literary writer to strike the timely/timeless balance, but this has repercussions for Wiener’s prose. I’ll return to this thought in a moment. First, a detour by way of the other most striking feature of Wiener’s writing, something most of her reviewers have noted, if not detailed: its baked-in ambivalence. At every step, she qualifies her excitement with vague discontents. When her analytics startup releases a new feature for app developers called Addiction, which quantifies users’ engagement with their product, she enjoys its slick execution but pauses on its bad-taste name and ethics: “The novelty of Addiction was exciting, but the premise made me uneasy.”7 On Reddit: “It wasn’t for me, but I read it anyway.”8 On seeing young women programmers at a conference: “I wished, vaguely, that I had stuck with the programming exercises the previous year.”9 As the memoir progresses, Wiener grows more disillusioned, more burnt out. On seeing a friend’s performance back in New York City: “I did not want to be an ingrate, but I had trouble seeing why writing support emails for a venture-funded startup should offer more economic stability than creative work or civic contributions.”10 But even from the start she’s uncertain: “I had trouble admitting to my social group that I was moving across the country solely to work at a startup.”11 Instead of a gradual coming-to-consciousness—reaching an ethical nadir and getting out—there’s a half-consciousness there the whole time, tugging her and her sentences in two.

It’s possible that Wiener views this endless hedging as a way to cop to her privilege or explore the complexity of her position, but stalling in contradiction is not the same thing as nuance, I realised while reading this book, not the same as “staying with the trouble”, to quote yet another techy Californian straddling the worlds of science and art. Moretti, for his part, is proof that you can write and read from a place of complicity and do it beautifully, using the tools of surveillance and data-collection to produce forceful, subtle critiques of the very economic regime that produced these tools in the first place. (“Come on,” Anna’s ex-colleague tells her over a drink, “We worked at a surveillance company.”)

But in Uncanny Valley, ambivalence becomes a conservative gesture—conservative here in the sense of preserving things as they are, ensuring that nothing much changes. Her hyper-observational prose and her hedging are both symptoms of this. The way she introduces and dispatches the possibility of a union for tech workers and a socialist reckoning for Silicon Valley in three pages is another, as is the obligatory 2016-electioncrisis-of-conscience morality play of the final chapter. But, pace Moretti, I want to show you how this conservatism manifests in form. Uncanny Valley, the book, is written in the past tense, while “Uncanny Valley” the essay is in the present. Compare this, from the essay:

The annual-review cycle is nigh, and I’m on the fence about whether or not to bring up the running list of casual hostilities toward women that add unsolicited spice to the workplace.12

To this, from the book:

As my annual review rolled around, I found myself on the fence about whether or not to bring up the running list of casual hostilities toward women that added unsolicited texture to the workplace.13

Leaving aside the word choices—from the high-drama of “nigh” to the bureaucratic drudgery of “rolled around”—the tense shift gives Wiener’s prose a faux-literary weightiness, written as if for a distant future (the weirdness of the past tense will be softened by the passage of time) in which she takes her place as a “generation-defining voice”, or enters university syllabi, or is lost on the dusty shelves of a second-hand book store, a curio from a dead era. This is another facet of her timely-timeless aim. In using the past tense, Wiener has one eye fixed on the future by interpolating the book as an important artefact of a past-to-come.

The other effect is probably unintended. Where the present tense would put the reader in the decision-making seat with the narrator, the past tense gives the events a sense of inevitability: “I’m on the fence” from the essay vs. “I found myself on the fence” from the book. This sits uneasily with the immediacy of Wiener’s narration. You are held close to Wiener’s point of view, in lockstep with her observations, but all of this presentness is mediated by the past tense, which gives you the impression of hindsight, the clarity time brings, without any attendant deepening of thought. The relentless, slippery, open present of Wiener’s experience, held within the calcifying inevitability of the past: what better way to foreclose the possibility of things being otherwise, to knit ambivalence into the form, or—no—to pay lip-service to this ambivalence in content while the form exempts her from personal responsibility and all but ensures political stasis?

At the end of Wiener’s five years in Silicon Valley, she writes her book. The book is published and printed, enters circulation—becomes a commodity—and performs on a macro level what it does on the level of form: offers absolution to its author. It’s not only that she writes her confessions and, through the process of confessing, is absolved of her sins, but that in the process of commodification, her experiences and choices are objectified, made impersonal. As literary nonfiction, even the process of commodification is forgiven and forgotten. Through form, and through slick product design and marketing, the reader is positioned to think Uncanny Valley better than mere confession, better than the latest longread, better than the pulp sold at airports, better than its source material. If you changed the form, what would remain of the content? Through form, Wiener can hide that there’s little of value here—just an appearance of value, which, as Marx tells us, is precisely how commodities work.

Wiener herself muses on the insubstantiality that underpins her life in San Fran. When she reads celebrated contemporary literature, she finds only “gestural text, the equivalent of a rumpled linen bedsheet or a bunch of dahlias placed just so” on Instagram, and thinks: “Oh … This author is addicted to the internet, too.”14 The problem for Wiener is that, online, depth and context collapses: “Everything was simultaneously happening in real time and preserved for posterity, in perpetuity.”15 This is exactly what the book’s form, particularly its sentences, reveals: beneath the anxious hyper-specificity, the no-time and no-place inculcated by capitalism. In fifty years, there will be enough books of this ilk to make a data-set for distant readers of the future and Wiener’s will be just one among many on the list.

  1. Franco Moretti, The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature (Verso: 2014), 14. 

  2. Moretti, The Bourgeois, 51-58. 

  3. Max Weber quoted in Moretti, The Bourgeois, 56. 

  4. Anna Wiener, Uncanny Valley: A Memoir (4th Estate: 2020), 210. 

  5. Wiener, Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, 187. 

  6. Wiener, Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, 62. 

  7. Wiener, Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, 141. 

  8. Wiener, Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, 172. 

  9. Wiener, Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, 177. 

  10. Wiener, Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, 195. 

  11. Wiener, Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, 34. 

  12. Anna Wiener, “Uncanny Valley” in n+1, Spring 2016, no. 25. Accessed from

  13. Wiener, Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, 138. 

  14. Wiener, Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, 189. 

  15. Wiener, Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, 187.