The Official World

The Official World

Book Pages: 288 Illustrations: 14 illustrations Published: April 2016

Author: Mark Seltzer

Cultural Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Theory, Sociology > Social Theory

In his virtuosic new book noted cultural critic Mark Seltzer shows how suspense, as art form and form of life, depicts and shapes the social systems that organize our modern world. Modernity's predicament, Seltzer writes, is a society so hungry for reality that it cannot stop describing itself, and that makes for a world that continuously establishes itself by staging its own conditions. Employing the social theories of Georg Simmel, Erving Goffman, Niklas Luhmann, and Peter Sloterdijk, Seltzer shows how suspense novels, films, and performance art by Patricia Highsmith, Tom McCarthy, Cormac McCarthy, J. G. Ballard, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and others outline how we currently live and reveal the stress-points and mood-systems of the modern epoch.  In its focus on social games, depictions of violent and explosive persons, along with its cast of artists, reporters, detectives, and others who observe and report and reenact, the suspense mode creates and recreates modern systems of action and autonomy, and defines the self-turned world's practices and aesthetics. By epitomizing a reflexive, self-legislating, and autonomous world, a suspense art with humans in the systems epoch provides the models and sets the rules for our modern, official world.


"[A] provocative account of the mechanisms that enable and shape 'the systems epoch' of the Anthropocene. . . .  A challenging and rewarding read. Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty." — A. Jenkins, Choice

"[T]hrow[s] an intriguing new light on why and how 'world literature' succeeds in generating plurality and disruption rather than falling back into a flattening familiarity." — Caroline Levine, Public Books

"[A] penetrating, clever, and ambitious book, and essential ... reading for anyone thinking capaciously about modernity and form. Read it for your scholarship, or in preparation for the next time a university official in a meeting feels the need to explain what ‘the reality is’ – you’ll know it’s the reality of the official world." — Natalia Cecire, Textual Practice

"I read Mark Seltzer’s The Official World with gratitude as well as admiration…. One favorite discussion concerns the position of theme parks as 'small worlds' modeling the official world.... Another is the relevance of the ambiguity, uncertainty, and paradox of modernist literature for the improvisatory state of mind needed in military strategy for cybernetic warfare." — Gregory L. Ulmer, Electronic Book Review

"Mark Seltzer’s career-long interest in the relations binding narrative form, collective psychology, and power relations achieves a sleek, elegant crescendo with The Official World…. Readers who have a working familiarity with Niklas Luhmann and Peter Sloterdijk will find The Official World’s commentaries deeply resonant. For those less versed in these writers, Seltzer’s study provides one of the best illustrations of the ways in which the above approaches can be utilized for literary and cultural studies. Although the work is not explicitly located within American studies, The Official World’s primary use of evidentiary materials from the United States makes it easily understood as such, even if the critical discussions staged therein are not often situated as central to the field’s self-perception, either within or beyond the host nation. A pleasure to read, The Official World deserves to be seen as a state-of-the-art study."
  — Stephen Shapiro, Journal of American Studies

"The Official World is many things: an original and compelling account of modernity; a primer on systems theory; a methodological intervention; and a profound commentary—humorous at times, at times startling and even frightening—on the way of the world. Whether it is admired most for its engagements with Luhmann and Goffman, its insights into the fiction and art of the official world, its exemplification of how literary criticism can be its own kind of social science, or all of the above, it should be required reading for anyone interested in modernity." — David Alworth, ALH Online Review

"Theoretically nuanced and enthralling in its ability to manoeuvre between popular culture, literary fiction, and those works that stand somewhere in between, Seltzer’s study of officialdom is one of the most intellectually dynamic books of 2016, and, for its wholly distinct prose, also one of the most pleasurable to read. . . .  This work is utterly captivating, and forces critics to reimagine practically every aspect of the modern that we may have taken for granted."  — Matthew Levay, Year's Work in English Studies

"Seltzer tracks and unfolds elements of the official world by way of brilliant readings of postwar writers (Patricia Highsmith, Tom McCarthy, J. G. Ballard, Kazuo Ishiguro, and others) and occasional forays into film and visual art that are always informed by the longer history of media and the technologies that underlie them." — Adam Frank, American Literature

"In this remarkable and wonderful book, Mark Seltzer creates a reading practice that makes novels and films crucial indices to understanding human agency in the contemporary world. In an almost effortless fashion, Seltzer ties his remarkable analyses of Patricia Highsmith and Tom McCarthy to contemporary theoretical disputes, making this an important book for courses on contemporary fiction, literary theory, histories of the novel, and film." — Frances Ferguson, author of Pornography, the Theory: What Utilitarianism Did to Action

"In The Official World Mark Seltzer extends his idiosyncratic and mesmerizing account of modernity realized, here, through a tour-de-force engagement with the fiction of Patricia Highsmith, among many others. Reading Seltzer can induce exhilaration and a kind of vertigo. But it never fails to lead you to a compelling (at times amusing and at times chilling) recognition of how our world operates, and how it keeps on operating. The most imaginative and astute critic working in the systems theory paradigm, Seltzer provides an account of the modern world that will make a major impact in literary studies and beyond." — Bill Brown, author of A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature


Availability: In stock
Price: $26.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Mark Seltzer is Evan Frankel Professor of Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of several books, including Bodies and Machines and Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Part I. The Daily Planet

1. Introduction to the Official World  3

2. Brecht's Rabbit: The Anthropotechnics of Suspense  25

Part II. Stationary Carousels and Chain Letters: The Ego-Technic Media of the Official World

3. "The Proper Study of Interaction"  47

4. Chain Letters  61

Part III. "Social Games": Playing Our Part in the Systems Epoch

5. Parlor Games  83

6. The Natural History of Artificial Life  109

Part IV. Suspended Worlds: Men in Self-Curved Space

7. The Wall of the World  127

8. Marching in Files  142

Part V. News from the Outside

9. The Turn Turn  163

10. A Postscript on the Official World  178

Acknowledgments  199

Notes  201

Bibliography  261

Index  275
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6100-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-6086-5
Publicity material