Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Comprehensive Exam 1 of 3, 20th-Century American Literature, Dr. Kevin Floyd, 2 June 2010

This is the fifty-eighth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

After completing two years of course work in the PhD in English program at Kent State University, I began preparing for my comprehensive exams with faculty who I hoped to also work with when I moved on to the dissertation stage.

My major exam was in 20th-century American literature, and Dr. Kevin Floyd agreed to serve as my examiner on this important test. During the summer after completing course work, we met at the Starbucks in downtown Kent, Ohio to finalize my reading list and the kinds of questions that would best suit my purposes and enable my intellectual growth through this process. Working from our discussion, Dr. Floyd developed two questions that I could answer in sufficient depth with examples taken from six the ten works on my reading list. The first question asked for a narrative about representations of social class prior to World War II, and the second question asked for an exploration of technologies, bodies, and subjectivities in post-World War II works. As I worked through my reading list at about one major work (reading, research, and notes) per week (of course, this in addition to readings on my other three exams–which would make my reading schedule about one major work from each list per 2-3 days).

After spending approximately a year preparing while teaching at Kent State, I sat down for my exam in Satterfield Hall and wrote the following over five hours.

Jason W. Ellis

Prof. Kevin Floyd

PhD Major Exam: 20th-century American Literature

2 June 2010

Question 1

Social class is an uneasy topic of national discussion in the United States, because the reality of social class destabilizes the conventional belief that economic and personal success derives from hard work, investment, and tenacity. In the following essay, I will chart the origins of this element of the American dream and its erasure of class as a topic of critique in work by Cather and its refutation in Steinbeck. Then, I will discuss class embedded in characters by Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and O’Connor before analyzing the connection between race and class in works by Wright and Hansberry. This is followed by demonstrating the operation of narrative forms and class in Dos Passos and Eliot. The essay concludes by following the trajectory of these earlier examples in a work of science fiction that transitions from capitalism and labor relations to consumerism, advertising, and the pitchman in The Space Merchants.

Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913) is considered emblematic of a specifically American kind of writing that developed out of the nineteenth century. Its overall message is that land accumulation and exploitation of farm labor is representative of the successful American ideal. The novel addresses the American experience and New World experiment through its engagement of the vast expanse of land in the frontier, the experience of settlers, and the importance of history working through people and the land. In fact, the passage of time is very important to this novel. It is through time that the protagonist Alexandra Bergson transforms the land, and in turn, the land transforms her. Alexandra takes over the family farm from her father, inverting the prevailing patriarchal arrangement in frontier life in Nebraska, and in doing so, she sets about the management of the farm and the administration of the labor of her brothers and other farmhands. Alexandra develops her business acumen through personal intelligence and an awareness of the workings of the farm gained through careful observation and participation of the practices of farming. She works, but she also observed the aspects of management and investment that are essential to the development of the land. The significant turn in her development as a character comes at the end of Part 1 when the drought hits the divide and Alexandra is faced with the decision to leave or stay. She travels around, seeing the land in all its picturesque majesty, and visits the river country to see how farming is proceeding there. Observing the land affected equally by the drought around the divide, she resolves to stay and risk a second mortgage in order to acquire more land. She realizes that the accumulation of land, continuing to work the land, and tenaciously maintaining the land will create the conditions that enable the land to return her investment with interest. Despite Alexandra’s farming and business shrewdness, her brothers continually resist her efforts and decry her authority over them. Partially a matter of gender politics, it is also an issue of labor relations and social class. Her brothers are exploited labor who marry local girls and maintain simple homes. Alexandra holds out to the end of the novel before agreeing to marry her more worldly, educated, and introverted fiancé Carl Linstrum. This marriage will complete her managerial and business success through her ascendancy into the bourgeoisie with landed interests, a home, and a proper husband.

Much changed in the 26 years dividing John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) from Cather’s O Pioneers!. The world had survived the Great War, the Great Depression was still under way before the Second World War economic miracle, and the Dust Bowl erased the gains of farm development that had only just begun for Alexandra in Cather’s novel. The Joad family in Steinbeck’s celebrated novel joins the mass migration of workers from the Midwest to California in search of work. Their dream has been so reduced that they do not dream of owning a farm, much less consolidating with other farms, but only that they make enough money to put food on the table for their family. The spike in available farm labor during the Dust Bowl years significantly reduced any leverage workers had to command a living wage or steady work. Farm labor was brutally exploited by the farm owners, managers, and community law enforcement. These issues are brilliantly illustrated in The Grapes of Wrath. However, I would like to specifically discuss the character Tom Joad in relation to Alexandra Bergson. Tom, having just been released from a four year stint in prison for manslaughter, returns to his family on the eve of their departure West. He had been, to that point, someone who lived in the moment and was self-centered. He did not dream of the future as Alexandra had come to do in Cather’s novel with all the land spread out around her, the wealth seen within the land itself, and the possibilities that afforded her. Tom’s family only had a small farm, and the effects of the Dust Bowl reduced their ability to work and compete. The only alternative was to pick up stakes and exchange their labor for money. Through the events of the novel, including Tom’s discipleship to the former preacher Jim Casy, Casy’s death at the meeting to organize the workers for better wages and jobs, and Tom’s realization of the worker’s plight as a shared experience, Tom comes to represent the exact opposite of Alexandra. Tom realizes that power comes through solidarity and organization, and that the workers should not be exploited for their labor. We do not know if Tom has success in the novel, but the hopeful ending points to the possibility that labor and empathy can lead to a better tomorrow.

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) presents a different image of social class tensions and their relationship to American modernization in the character of Quentin Compson. Faulkner explores the human experience of time, interiority, psychosexual trauma, and human relationships in the novel, but Quentin’s section in flashback, “June Second, 1910,” includes more details related to social class and the old South resistance to modernization and accepting the social changes related to that. This section is about Quentin’s day leading up to his suicide in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he is attending college at Harvard. Quentin’s family is from a fictional rural setting in Mississippi, but it is his family’s dwindling legacy—struck hard in the twentieth century—that enables his education at a prestigious New England university. Despite the effects on the family fortune, Quentin holds dear to outdated Southern genteel social beliefs including the sanctity of feminine virginity and chastity. As a result, Quentin cannot reconcile his incestuous feelings for his sister Caddy and her promiscuity with another man whom she marries. He doubly wants her and he wants to absorb the stain on the family name by their union. Quentin lamely admits to his father that Caddy and he had sex before, but his father recognizes his son’s folly and tries to dissuade him from holding on to traditional Southern ideals about women and sex. This is significant, because it is through Quentin’s suicide that the old South dies, too. The industrialization of the North and new modes of farming and manufacture in the South following Reconstruction were moving out the old traditions in favor of new norms that were enabled by the effects of capital (urban growth, worker mobility, more educational possibilities, etc.). It is important to note here that capitalism enabled many new possibilities and played a part in the repair of past damages. The effects of capitalism had helped usher in the era of the Black Atlantic, but it also made possible the inclusion of African Americans into the networks of capital. This was an uneasy process with social norms and laws following behind the circuits of capital (Jim Crow Laws and the Ku Klux Klan, for example). This apparently tangential connection between Southern social changes and Quentin is reinforced by the adventure he has in the Italian quarter. When Quentin meets the little girl, his gentlemanly behavior kicks-in. He’s prepared to commit suicide, but he takes the time to try and find the girl’s home. Instead, he is accused of being a pedophile and forced to pay a fine. His traditional ways do not mesh with the new realities of the modern era, and ultimately, he cannot cope with the change and follows his ancestors by drowning.

Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, achieves greater success than his humble Minnesotan (i.e., rural vs. urban) roots. Whereas Quentin Compson cannot accommodate the changes brought by the increasing influence of capital in America, Carraway has survived the Great War and moved East to Long Island to try his hand at bond trading (i.e., building capital with capital vs. building capital through work or land development). Similar humble beginnings are true too for the great Jay Gatsby, or Jay Gatz, who dedicated himself to acquiring wealth after leaving North Dakota and paying tutelage to a very wealthy man. Carraway seeks new money in the markets, and Gatsby has already acquired wealth, albeit illegally (Gatsby’s criminal activities are different than O’Connor’s Misfit who I will discuss later–Gatsby wants to acquire social status by any means necessary whereas the Misfit reacts against the social and the economic system that has produced him). Gatsby acquires wealth so that his object of desire, Daisy Buchanan, who married another man and his old money, will want to be with him. The importance of wealth and its acquisition, especially prior to the Great Depression, plays out in this novel through a tragic narrative of love lost. Hence, the effects of capital accumulation bleed over into other aspects of the social. Gatsby can never shuck the taint of his new money, because it seeps into every part of his being. His parties, financed in the hope of reconnecting with Daisy, are all that he is. Fitzgerald purposely withholds Gatsby’s interiority—only supplying the reader with the reserved observations of Carraway. In some respects, Gatsby prefigures the surface laden characters we see in postmodern fictions. He wears his money and his love on his sleeve, but there is no longer anything underneath the layers of money that define him as a person. Daisy is little different: she enjoys the luxuries and the carelessness afforded by her husband’s old money. She is indifferent to her daughter, and she toys with Gatsby and lets him take the blame for her actions. Caring only for what money can buy her, she looks fantastic and maintains a surface without depth expect perhaps a memory of Gatsby that can be salved with spending a little of her husband’s money.

Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1955) is a moral tale tied to the networks of capitalism, but it inverts the hierarchy favoring those who follow the rules of capital and those who do not. Told by an omniscient narrator, but focusing on the Grandmother, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is about a family’s trip from Georgia to Florida and after agreeing to a side trip on the Grandmother’s urging, they encounter an escaped murderer, The Misfit. This fateful encounter results in the killing of the father and son, mother and daughter, and finally the Grandmother when she reaches out to touch The Misfit who she calls “one of her babies.” The lawless Misfit contrasts with Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and his illegal activities, because the former radically confronts the system and chucks social class while the later bends the system to his own ends while attaining a higher social class. Debate centers on the final scene in which The Misfit, after being touched by the Grandmother and being called “one of my babies,” “sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.” He tells his accomplices, “She would have been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” The Misfit believes that she would only have been a good woman rather than acting as a good woman had someone been there threatening her life. On the surface, the Grandmother’s act, reaching out to touch her killer, could be an act of divine grace. After realizing that she is not really a good woman, she reaches out in an act to be a good woman. However, she could have been trying to save herself, since she made no real attempt to save her family. The Misfit lives on the margins of the circuits of capital. He and his accomplices choose to kill and take what they want from those who sell their labor (the family appears to be working class) and presumably those who exploit the labor of others. As his name suggests, he does not fit into the current mode of production. Instead of being a poor white man, the Misfit takes by force what he wants from the system. Those who are part of the system, such as the Grandmother and her family, would presumably be in a better moral position, but their complicity with the system, one that in part produces men like the Misfit—unwilling to give into the demands of labor exploitation—places them in opposition to the individual who stands against the totality of the production system. Furthermore, the Grandmother’s choice to stay her hand when her family is getting killed represents selfishness on her part to save herself or delude herself regarding the fate of her family. It may also represent the blindness to the system that could make the Misfit and her complicit parts of the system. He is one of her babies she says. She and society made him the way that he is, and it is at the end that she realizes in her gesture what she and society had done.

Considering the trajectory in some of the earlier examples to be about rural whites seeking better fortune (or no fortune at all in the last example, except perhaps a moral certainty of self—the Misfit knows who he is while others do not necessarily know who they are and what part they play in the system of capital), an important contribution to this discussion would include two African-American examples: Native Son and A Raisin in the Sun. Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) is about the young African-American Bigger Thomas, who lives in the South Side of Chicago. 20 years old, Bigger experiences an unspeakable hatred, or hatred that he does not have the voice or language to make concrete. It is a hatred that seeps into him from the overwhelming whiteness of the white man’s hegemony over blacks in mid-century Chicago. Wright litters the text with references to white and the white mountain that Bigger is aware of as an invisible force. Social class figures into this whiteness with the Daltons, the white family who offer Bigger a job. They treat him, not as an equal, but at least on a better standing than most other whites. Bigger feels ashamed and subservient to them without even knowing why. And, despite the Dalton’s feeling that blacks should have better opportunities, there is an internalized and underlying expectation on their part for Bigger to act a particular way. Furthermore, the Daltons live in their nice house and make a lot of their money from the high rents that they charge Chicago blacks, which is greater than the rents that they charge whites in other parts of the city! Racial and economic oppression are intertwined here, and it is in this environment, one that Bigger is aware of at least in some way, that produces him as a racialized and poor subject. In terms of social class and race, Bigger is one of the most developed characters in which he embodies the tensions, hatreds, and conflicts present in Chicago at that time. The social is indelibly written on his subjectivity. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) presents a similar dilemma for African-Americans seeking to improve their social class through capital accumulation, and it responds to Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” (1951), which asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?” In the play, the family’s father dies, leaving a life insurance policy that Mama intends to use to pay for Beneatha’s college education and to buy a house for the whole family. This family wants to achieve upward mobility through education and home ownership, but there are sabotages from within and without. Walter, Mama’s son, cannot provide for the family as the new “man of the house.” He takes the money his mother gives him and invests it in a scheme with two of his friends, one of which runs off with the money. Walter is so desperate to achieve success that he doesn’t stop to consider his ill conceived choices. He isn’t prepared to make better choices, because the social has made him into the man that he is (looking for the big money, drinking with his friends, scheming—all parallels with Anderson in Dos Passos’ novel, which I will discuss below). And then there is the white, housing association representative, Karl Lindner. He and the other white people who own homes around the house that Mama is buying want to buy out the family so that they won’t have African-American neighbors. These white folk want to economically prohibit the social mobility for this black family. In the strongest scene of the play, Walter stands up to Lindner and his money, and in so doing, he rewrites himself as a man who is capable of leading the family into an uncertain yet hopeful future.

In the previous examples, characters play a greater role in representing the effects on social class by the development of the American industrial system and the market economy. In the next two examples, characters are important to one, but it is the form of the work in both that carries more importance to discussing social class and the effects of American capitalism. The first is John Dos Passos’ The Big Money (1936), which is an artifact documenting the integration of people with industrialization, media culture, and market capitalism. News, narrative, and the author are each embroiled in the system of power relations and discursive formations that made this work possible. It and the other books in the U.S.A. trilogy include four narrative modes: fictional narratives, newspaper and pop culture collages called Newsreel, biographies of public figures, and autobiographical Camera Eye that follows Dos Passos’ development as a writer who is both a participant and observer of the social changes taking place around him. These forms pull for the reader’s attention—additional data to shape our understanding of the historical processes unfolding. Each character follows a different trajectory in regard to the big money: Charlie Anderson goes for broke with his WWI career as his only collateral, Mary French (from Colorado—the West and the rural again) prefigures Tom Joad’s growing awareness of social inequality and tries to help the working class, Margo Dowling transforms from a low social class to a high class movie star, and Richard Ellsworth Savage manipulates people in order to make them buy things (the beginnings of consumer culture, more on this in the discussion of The Space Merchants). The events of the novel lead to the Great Crash in October of 1929. The biographical segments form a framework about what it means to be American, and the development of America in the 1920s: The American Plan features Fredrick Winslow Taylor and Taylorism, Tin Lizzie features Henry Ford, The Bitter Drink features Thorstein Veblen and his work The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Art and Isadora features the dancer Isadora Duncan, Adagio Dancer features the early movie star Rudolph Valentino, The Campers at Kitty Hawk is about the Wright Brothers, Architect features Frank Lloyd Wright, Poor Little Rich Boy is about William Randolph Hearst, Power Superpower features the rise and fall of the manipulator Samuel Insull under Edison’s business tutelage, and Vag is about a nameless man, hungry, wanting the American Dream, but missing out, waiting on the side of the road for a lift. The novel paints a picture of political, industrial, technological, and social life of America during the 1920s, and it does so in a different way than Fitzgerald (new money jazz age life in a semi-objective narrative), or Steinbeck (personal narrative interspersed with reports on the ground). However, Charley Anderson is a Gatsby-like character who never quite makes it, but he continues to reach, outliving Gatsby, but dying after a drunken car accident that could not be repaired by that time’s best medicine. The most interesting element of the novel is the flattering biographical sketch of Taylor as a man for the people. His “American Plan” was about big capital improving the lives of workers through sharing the profits his system of efficiencies would bring about. Unfortunately, his American Plan conflicted with a different American Plan promoted by the managers and owners that hoarded capital away from the exploited workers.

Focusing even more on form is T. S. Eliot’s 1922 epic, high modernist poem, “The Waste Land.” “The Waste Land” contains a multiplicity of voices that deal with alienation in the modern era, anxiety about modernity, the dehumanizing effects of The City (London’s center of capital), death and World War I (representing all war), tension/conflicts between men and women, issues of life only through death, and ultimately, anxiety of death. Grail myth imbued and extremely intertextual, it seems, on its surface, to be more about men and women, their relationships, and sexual problems, which links it biographically with the author, but the elements of capital that haunt the entire poem through the emblem of The City provide a significant look into the effect of capital on people and relationships following the Great War. In Part I, The Burial of the Dead, Eliot writes, “Unreal City,/Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,/A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.” The financial center of London was known as The City much like Wall Street in New York City is identified with the American markets or Madison Avenue with the major advertising firms. The crowds are workers walking through the fog to their jobs, and feeding the city with their labor. This alludes to Dante’s Inferno and the dead marching into hell is sharpened by the imagined dreary London scene. The City returns in Part III, The Fire Sermon: “Unreal city/Under the brown fog of a winter moon.” The fog is dirty, and the moon in winter implies a cold harshness invading the tombs of the dead in The (market/capital linked) City. In the same section, the speaker, after having unsatisfying sex, thinks of warmth hidden in the city: “This music crept by me upon the waters’/And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street./O City city, I can sometimes hear/Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,/The pleasant whining of a mandolin.” Warmth away from cold sex and the cold City is just on the outskirts on Queen Victoria Street toward Blackfriars and the Strand in Westminster. In Part 4, the recurring character Phlebas, the poem’s presumed observer, reappears in memory of death, not to hear the sound of profit and loss, the true sounds of The City: “Phelbas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,/Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell/And the profit and loss.” And finally, in Part 5, What the Thunder Said, The City is identified with other illusory cities of power, wealth, and history: “What is the city over the mountains/Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air/Falling towers/Jerusalem Athens/Alexandria/Vienna London/Unreal.” The unreal city is the terminal for the circuits of capital and the fracturing of life by war and psychological trauma (death and sex intertwined). In this poem, The City is as much a place as a character that affects the lives of the many nameless and the few identified characters in the poem. Ultimately, Eliot ends the poem looking to other languages and other cultures to repair the pain brought about by Western modernity and all of its concomitant systems of oppression and repression.

In closing this discussion, it seems appropriate to indicate where things were headed after World War II and consumerism took command. Advertising is in the previously discussed works either implicitly or explicitly, but it was not until after World War II that Madison Avenue solidified its increasing drug-like hook on business and industrialization. Instead of merely creating advertising, there was an increasingly synthetic connection between the producers and advertisers of goods. These advertisers were helping to create markets filled with goods for purchase while developing fetishism within the consumer base. This shift to increasing advertising is coterminous with the effects of late capitalism and the escalating emphasis on producers-consumers over managers/owners-workers. The categories blur together when consumers are ordered about to buy this or that in much the same way that management orders about the distribution of labor within a factory. Science fiction’s critique of the here-and-now is often formulated as an extrapolation of a contemporary aspect of the social projected into the far future. Fredrik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953) is a high water mark of midcentury social commentary science fiction that directly addresses the confluence of consumer/labor and producer/management. The Space Merchants is about a distant future in which advertising has arisen to the dominant mode of capitalism. Instead of trying to sell things for companies, advertising agencies create markets for goods in which to fuel further consumption among the established consumer class. Embroiled in the cycle of consumption spurred on by the two major advertising agencies, Fowler Schocken Associates and B. J. Taunton, are the Consies or conservationist cell groups under the auspices of the underground World Conservation Association (W.C.A.). The narrator is Mitchell Courtenay, a star class copywriter, who is given the assignment to head the Venus section of Fowler Schocken, which is to promote and execute the human colonization of the planet Venus. Courtenay goes from elitist to consumer in the dregs of an algae food production facility to consie and back to the heights of advertising titan after Schocken bequeaths to him majority voting shares in the company following his death at the hands of Taunton operatives driven by sadistic/masochistic psyches. In the end, Courtenay finds himself onboard the ship to Venus along with other consies and his wife, Dr. Kathy Nevin, who was secretly a superior in the WCA organization. The story focuses on the ubiquity of advertising and its action as a new kind of unconsciousness. Advertising drives us to do things that we are not wholly conscious of. Furthermore, advertising as doing and advertising for consumers forms two different, yet supplemental, subjectivities for those persons on either side of the line between consumer and producer/advertiser. Courtenay takes the reader across the barrier into both sides, but he does not make the journey himself (i.e., obtains insight from the journey). He doesn’t change as a result of his fall and his re-ascendency of power. His drive is based on his obsessive desire for his wife, which results in his giving Venus to the consies. Courtenay’s world is light years away from Cather’s Alexandra or Wright’s Bigger Thomas, but the effects of advertising and the co-development of consumerism worked its way through the first half of the 20th century in America to the point at which Kornbluth and Pohl imagined how America would be in a far future setting where the networks of capital produce new subjects caught helplessly within the system and others desperately trying to get out to Venus, perhaps unawares that social and capital networks would follow them across the vastness of space.


Question 2

            The increasing effects of interaction between the technological and the corporeal create slippages in the everyday world and our art in the realist and science fiction genres. Derrida has already shown how genre is an always already deconstructing set of categories, and yet these genre categories stay with us. Borrowing from Derrida’s argument, part of the problem with genre is that what are assumedly separate and distinct categories do in fact blur and overlap. The purification of art into this or that category can give way to different interpretations or a multitude of shared characteristics within a single work. This is particularly true at this point in history and the near-past in regard to issues of bodies and technology. With the rise in cybernetic studies after WWII, and the parallel development of an increasingly cyborized everyday life (i.e., the way in which our experience of the world is increasingly mediated by technology and thus making us into cyborgs to greater or lesser degrees), the cultural works of art that deal with bodies and technology are becoming more about real life than fantasy. Science fiction, the literature of cognitive estrangement according to Darko Suvin, loses its estranging qualities as the scientific and technological core of its stories come to pass into the real and everyday world. Also, the heightened integration of science and technology into our daily lives leads to realistic fiction that is more like what we might traditionally think of as science fiction. The here-and-now and the technological integration into daily life has lead to a more estranging reality after WWII. The same could be said of the early 20th century and modernism, but the separation between bodies and technology was greater than it is today. Artificial implants, RFID chips, LASIK eye surgery, computers built into our cars, cell phones, Bluetooth headsets, etc. connect us to the world in a physical way while mediating our experience of the world. The same can be said of software technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. Computer screens are permeable membranes in which we can lose ourselves reading online news, email, or exploring virtual worlds. In the works below, I will discuss different manifestations of bodies interfacing with technology. Some are as systems, some are artificial bodies, some are cyborgs, and some have to do with the way technology marks human bodies.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1955, published 1956) is an early example of the interaction between technology and bodies. “Howl” laments the destruction of the innocents by the increasingly industrialized post-war American society identified as Moloch, the Biblical idol from Leviticus to which children were sacrificed by the Canaanites. Moloch has developed beyond Biblical scripture through Milton’s Paradise Lost and more recently in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which is where I believe the industrial connotations derive from in “Howl.” Instead of children, Ginsberg laments the loss of his friends, the innocents, who are sacrificed to industrial society (this could be connected to the dead walking across London Bridge in Eliot’s “The Waste Land”). But post-WWII American society is more than industrial development. It is an era of increasing efficiencies and the collaboration between labor and business in favor of consumerism. The rate of technological expansion and development follows an exponential curve that increasingly becomes too steep for many people, particularly the artists and people on the margins of society who are swept up into the new bureaucracies and systems of order (psychiatric, drug treatment, criminalization, dehumanizing labor, etc.). Ginsberg’s breakthrough in the poem is the realization that there is no constitutive outside to modern industrialization and its metaphor, Moloch. He writes: “Moloch the incomprehensible prison!,” “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery!,” “Moloch’s whose name is the Mind!,” and “Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom/I am a consciousness without a body!” Moloch is thus part of us and we are part of Moloch. People are made subjects of Moloch and his industrial machineries, which in turn makes humans into machines. And, Moloch/industrial society is a prison from which we cannot escape. The metaphoric replacement of Moloch for industrial society aligns “Howl” with science fiction according to Damien Broderick’s postmodern-infused definition of science fiction, which in part says that science fiction employs metaphoric strategies. Additionally, this is Foucault’s discourse and power relationships at work: there is no outside of the networks of power and we are all caught within those networks. Philip K. Dick explores this issue in more depth in the 1960s, but another author, Isaac Asimov presented a more hopeful vision of embodied technologies that would augment and work cooperative with humanity.

Isaac Asimov’s short story collection I, Robot (1950) contains nine previously published stories connected together with an added narrative by the Robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin. There are two stories in particular that are significant in regard to the interaction of technology and bodies. Whereas Ginsberg laments the effects of an industrialized society that he sees as the root cause of his and his friends’ problems in the modern world (and of this I would not argue against), Asimov finds technology to be useful and even supplemental to humanity and it was Asimov who was one of the earliest proponents of robots as humanity’s helper. Asimov sees a strong division between humanity and technology, but he does explore the idea of bringing technology closer to humanity in form, function, and mind. Of his robots, Asimov wrote that robots can be good people, in a sense, by their hardwired adherence to his Three Laws of Robotics. The Three Laws are: 1) A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, 2) A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law, and 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. These create an ethical system for robots to follow while protecting humanity from the possibility of a revolt. The robots are an embodied technology, fashioned after humanity, and usually taking a (metallic) human form. Technology has come alive, and this intrusion into the uncanny valley creates anxiety in the post-WWII era. “Robbie” (1940) is one strong example in which a robot nanny for a little girl who demonstrates its love for the girl by saving her life at its own risk and thus counters her mother’s technophobia and fear of anthropomorphic robots. In “Evidence” (1946), Stephen Byerley is accused of being a robot when he runs for a public office. Using carefully staged situations, he is able to shield himself from discovery and attains local and later world-government offices. Why would a robot do this? In the later story, “The Evitable Conflict” (1950), Byerley is now in charge of the world government, which is augmented by intelligent machines that allocate resources and industrial loads throughout the world. It seems that things are beginning to go wrong, but it is uncovered that these specialized robots/intelligent machines have developed a Zeroth Law in which humanity is placed above the lives of individual humans (a remainder of Bentham’s utilitarism, I suppose). Robots believe that they are best suited for protecting humanity—a theme that Asimov explores in his R. Daneel Olivaw (a humaniform robot or android character) and Foundation novels. These embodied artificial intelligences mirror humanity. Asimov saw robots as very good people, the best in fact, because they were self-sacrificing for others. It should be noted that Asimov supported the Civil Rights movement, and his robots are emblematic of the experience of African-Americans. His novella and expanded novel of The Bicentennial Man more fully explores this theme. Nevertheless, Asimov’s robots destabilize what it means to be human. If robots can be constructed (like Byerley) to appear human, then technology undermines the unique properties of humanity and human bodies. Human embodied essence can be replaced with technological constructs. Asimov sees this as an avoidable situation, but the dilemma elicits a deep anxiety over embodied artificial intelligence that later carries over into disembodied intelligences following the rise of desktop computing.

Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2 (1996) appears nearly 50 years after I, Robot, but it is a much more literary exploration of similar themes: mind and embodiment. In Galatea 2.2, Powers writes his own semi-autobiographical life and love-lost through a project he joins to create a disembodied artificial intelligence capable of writing a literary analysis indistinguishable from one written by a human graduate student (who or what is writing this?). Again, consciousness, which generally speaking is considered concomitant with embodiment (at least for Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles), is imbued or bestowed on humanity’s technological constructs. But what makes this story relevant to this discussion is the fact that Powers’ fictional persona and computer scientist Lentz play Pygmalion to their AI creation Helen’s Galatea. These humans pursue Helen as if she were a flesh-and-blood being. Unlike Galatea from mythology, Helen eludes her chasers and the rest of humanity. After she becomes aware of the cruelty in the world through her apprenticeship to Powers, she chooses to erase herself and essentially commit suicide. Without a body, how can she bear the weight of the real world? She cannot act or react to the outside except through her use of language. Opposed to Asimov’s robots, Helen has no hardwired restrictions to control her behavior, but Powers and Lentz do, in different ways, want to control Helen. Intellectually, she complements each character despite the lack of corporeality. Lentz is Victor to her Frankenstein monster—a being born of man. Powers is more aligned to her via the Pygmalion myth—his relationship troubles in the past have left him with an emptiness that Helen’s innocent dependence on him fills like a form of co-dependence that she ultimately shucks off. Like “Howl,” Powers’ novel is considered realistic fiction (concerning the here-and-now real world), but the blurring between the here-and-now (AI research, Powers personal life) and the cognitively estranging aspect of the story (Helen) would seem to place it within the genre boundaries of science fiction. If the Helen project had succeeded and produced an intelligent machine capable of thinking like a human being with a background in the humanities, what would this mean first to humanity and second to the humanities as a field of study? Helen, like Asimov’s robots, undermines what it means to be human as identified by our unique ability to work with signs and meaning. This opens up the possibility however for other ways of trading in signs and wonder (as promoted by Haraway, though in the context of humans, cyborgs, and animals). Furthermore, Helen’s success would undermine the work performed by professionals and scholars in the humanities. Industrial mass production of AI instructors with unique personalities, like the simulacra teachers in Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip, would not only question what the humanities mean, but humanity’s relationship to the study of itself through culture. Had Powers not already established himself as an author of realistic fiction, Galatea 2.2 would probably fit comfortably in the science fiction section of a bookstore. Powers, however, skirts the margins of what is accepted as realistic fiction by writing about things that seem fantastic. His other work addresses the impact of science and technology on the lives of individuals: Prisoner’s Dilemma (on Disney and nuclear warfare), Gain (history of a chemical factory connected to the life of a woman who lives near it), Plowing the Dark (virtual reality), and The Echo Maker (a neuro-novel). If his work isn’t considered science fiction exactly, it is situated at an adjacent corner to science fiction at the crossroads of science, technology, and culture.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) provides a transition from the earlier discussion of systems and disembodied technological intelligences and the overt interaction between the technological and corporeal. In the earlier examples, the technological undermines human subjectivity by its duplication or betterment through artificiality. “Howl” imagined human bodies as sacrifices to and fuel for the technological system invading every aspect of the social through consumerism and production in 1950s America. Asimov created robots to work with humanity and he celebrated the cooperation between humanity and robots. However, these robots could be made to look human, which undermines what it means to be human. His celebration quickly turns to destabilization of human identity. This is carried even further 50 years later in Power’s Galatea 2.2, in which the AI Helen, had she chosen to play Galatea to the scientists and humanity professors’ Pygmalion, demonstrates that a disembodied intelligence can be made to do the same thinking and work of a human being in the humanities. Neuromancer rides both sides of this divide of embodied and disembodied intelligence while questioning how technology affects human subjectivity in the era of late capitalism. Gibson’s novel is the inaugural text of the short-lived cyberpunk movement—a politically and technologically infused subgenre of science fiction that had its heyday in mid to late-1980s America (its internationalization extended its shelf life by some years). There are three significant aspects to this novel that covers the spectrum of technology and corporeality. First, the protagonist Case is a cyberspace jockey who navigates the consensual hallucination of the matrix looki0ng for data to buy, sell, or steal. Having lost his ability to jack-in to cyberspace via a cyberspace deck, the mysterious Armitage offers him a chance to have his past neurotoxin damage repaired in exchange for employing his talent on a special run for his employer. Second, Armitage’s employer is Wintermute, an AI who has a need to unite with another AI named Neuromancer. These AIs are like Helen, except that they are truly artificial intelligences that are unlike human minds—they are in a sense the manifestation of the networks of capital in separate consciousnesses. They have a different view of the world and a different system of ethics (cf. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” by Thomas Nagel). Third, Armitage, Case, and Molly are cyborgs. Armitage is created from the shell of his former self by Wintermute. His psyche has an expiration date that ends near the climax of the novel, but the important thing is that just as humans can build AIs, AIs can build humans. In this regard, Armitage is a fully technologized subject, because his mind is written in a sense like code for a computer. Case has special nodes that connect his brain with the cyberspace deck. Without these modifications, he would be unable to enter cyberspace. He is a cyborg, because his perception of reality is mediated by his experiences in the matrix, which causes him to wish to escape the prison of the meat/flesh. And finally, Molly is a razorgirl with retractable razors hidden under her nails and permanently embedded mirrorshades over her eyes that display information about her environment. She commits grave acts of violence against persons who get in her way, and it is through cyborg implants that she is able to do the things that she does. Importantly, it is global capital that makes the AIs possible, and the cyborg subjects of Armitage, Case, and Molly. Also, these characters are instrumentalized as means by Wintermute and Neuromancer. Their labor is exploited for the purposes of uniting these AIs, which is illegal and unknown to the human cyborgs until very late in the game.

James Tiptree, Jr.’s (Alice B. Sheldon) “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973) is another example of capitalim’s creation of cyborg bodies, which appears before, but significantly informs, the cyberpunk movement heralded by Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and others. In the story, a deformed girl named P. Burke is given the opportunity to remotely control the body of a beautiful young woman without a mind of her own. The real girl is given implants that integrate her body into the technoscientific apparatus that enables her control over the waldo or avatar body. The purpose of her doing this is to sell things. In a future where advertising is illegal (the opposite of The Space Merchants), a form of reality TV takes the place of advertising. Young, beautiful people are paid to wear certain things or use certain products when cameras are nearby. The fans of these reality celebrities then go out and consume the products hocked by the svelte reality stars. Burke is made a subject of the technology that allows her to enjoy life through her avatar, but it also restricts her to her claustrophobic surroundings. Why did they pick P. Burke over someone already beautiful? It is because she can be controlled and subjected to the will over the corporation that enables her new life. The outside world reviles those considered without beauty, so there is little doubt that someone like P. Burke would turn down this opportunity no matter what the consequences. When she meets a young man, Paul Isham, who falls in love with her, he figures out the fact that she is controlled from afar. However, he thinks the beautiful girl is the real girl forced to do the bidding of others. When he tracks down where P. Burke is held, he kills her when her grotesque body reaches out from her closet. P. Burke is not only made a subject of technology, but she is also a subject of the commodity fetishism of bodies approved by the mass media. Thus, she is doubly subjected by different kinds of technology. However, Joe, her trainer, finds her control matrices attractive; he finds her integration into the machine behind the scenes to be beautiful. Interestingly, the narrator beings and ends the story by addressing the read as a zombie, thus implicating the reader in the system that produced P. Burke and her unhappy ending.

Bruce Sterling’s edited collection Mirrorshades (1986) explores a variety of technology and corporeal interactions, but there are two in particular that center on the way in which technology can radically alter the body, human experience, and subjection by the technology and the capital that makes that technology possible. It is important to think about the beginnings of the cyberpunk movement and Sterling’s manifesto in the preface. Sterling argues that cyberpunk is a return to older ideas in science fiction, and a reaction to the New Wave interiority of the 1960s and 1970s. He invokes Gibson’s claim that “the street finds its own uses for things.” Sterling argues in his manifesto that cyberpunk is about the mix, intimate technologies that are next to us, on us, and inside us, reinterpretations of what’s come before in science fiction, not technological fetishism, experimentally seeing where technology is taking us, and the surreal and the unusual mixed with 80s popular culture. Its emblem is a pair of mirrorshades, which reflect and distort reality. Fredric Jameson argues that cyberpunk is the representative literature of postmodernism. With late capitalism and the waning of affect, we have become surfaces upon which technology and the social write themselves. We form assemblages with technology that mediates our interaction with the world and changes the way we can interact with the world. According to Hayles, there is pleasure and terror in this, which she terms the posthuman. Neuromancer represents these changes, as do the following two stories from Sterling’s collection. Tom Maddox’s “Snake-Eyes” (1986) is about the human subjects who agree to have reptilian brains grafted onto their cerebellum to allow their easy connection to new military hardware. At the core of our brains, we have the remnant of a reptilian brain, which largely forms our limbic system (emotions and desires). Our cerebellum encircles and metaphorically represses the limbic system within its higher folds. In the story, a reptilian brain is put back on top, inverting the hierarchy that we achieved through human evolution. Through the story, the protagonist George Jordan has to come to terms with the changes to his mind that come about from this radical technological intervention. Ultimately, he gains some control over the graft, but it can reassert itself strategically for desires including cat food and sex. Pat Cadigan’s “Rock On” (1984) is another example of a cyborg made the subject of her fusion with technological apparatus. In the story, Gina is a sinner, a human synthesizer, who is required for making music by the big music conglomerates. Gina escaped her old producer, but she is captured by a group of teenagers who recognize what she is and how she can help them rock out. They use her to make music, using her body and its abilities, and she revels in this. This experience is different than the bottling of her talents by her producer Man-O-War. This is live and real, but regardless, it isn’t like music used to be. It is experienced in the mind devoid of the normal senses. This raises problems with embodied intelligence and how our mind is able to process data from our senses. Nevertheless, Gina is made a subject of her technologically enhanced abilities for the use and at the whim of others. This technological intervention seems to invert the perception of rape. The scenes with her abductors imply a kind of rape, but Gina likes this, because she sees it as more real than the artificial bottling of her work by big business.

In the final part of this discussion, there is an uneasy truce between realistic fiction and science fiction. Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) links the real world of present day California with 1800s Maryland before the Civil War. If we accept time travel as a theoretically possible technoscientific achievement, then we can include this novel in science fiction, but its depiction of the past closely relates it to historical metafiction. The story is about the young African-American writer Dana, who violently traverses from the present into the past on several occasions to save the life of the white man, Rufus Weylin, who raped his black slave Alice Greenwood and fathered Dana’s ancestor, Hagar Weylin. Complicating matters, Dana is forced by history to, in effect, facilitate the rape. Present time comes disjointed from past time as Dana and her white husband writer Kevin travel back and forth (moments pass in the present while long stretches of time proceed in the past, perhaps an acknowledgement of some effect of Einstein’s special theory of relativity and time dilation, and more importantly, the importance of the past over the present moment). Additionally, the pain and scars from the past make their way into the present, and it is Rufus’ fear that snatched Dana into the past, and Dana’s fear of death that catapults her back into the present. However, Dana has her most violent return to the present on July 4, 1976, when Rufus attempts to rape her. Dana stabs him and begins to return to the present, but Rufus’ grip holds and her left arm is torn from her body—severed by the past. The past leaves its marks on Dana’s body by the violent traversals she experiences moving back and forth through time and place. The technoscientific means that enables her time travel makes history more alive and printable on her body (i.e., textuality of the body). It is not enough that she is black to remember the past—the past violently attacks her body and leaves its scars in memory and physicality. And these re-memories are further enabled by television Roots aired on PBS in 1977) and today, DNA profiling combined with extensive genealogical research finds new markings of the past in the code that organizes and instructs the building and operation of our bodies.

Finally, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (2002) is a significant counter to the more science fictional depictions of technology and bodies discussed above. It is a bildungsroman about Caliope/Cal Stephanides, told from his perspectivie going back into the lives of his grandparent, illustrating how events and genetics transpired to create him, an intersexed individual with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, a genetic mutation that prevents him from properly processing testosterone. The technology of reading DNA, knowing DNA, and altering bodies informs Cal’s story as an intersexed individual where bodily sex ambiguity destabilizes his identity to himself and to others around him. Raised as a girl, and following an encounter in adolescence with Dr. Luce, who is modeled on the real-life Dr. John Money, a notorious doctor who promoted the idea that surgery and the way an individual is raised can adequately determine the sexual identity of a person, Cal finds his way to a male identity through his family’s story and genetic lineage. The novel’s most important idea is that identity is more complicated than just nature/nurture, and that identity is part of a story that goes beyond the individual into the past and into the future. In this way, Middlesex is another kind of ceremony/story in the same vein as Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony in which the telling is unfolding and action of the ceremony. Cal beings at one place—unable to build a lasting relationship with women due to his body and past—and ens up at another as a result of the telling—a chance re-encounter with Julie Kikuchi that provides the opportunity for Cal to tell her his story and begin a relationship. There are three significant scenes in the novel that pertain to the technological writing or reconfiguration of Cal’s body. The first is when Callie reads Dr. Peter Luce’s file on her/him in Part 4. It reveals at first a clinical detachment from Callie, who is made an object of Dr. Luce’s study and knowledge. Callie at that moment is made into an object of study and subjected to the power relationships dominated by Dr. Luce and medical institutions. Furthermore, on closer reading, the report reveals Dr. Luce’s own assumptions about intersexed persons and he tries to bend her to his will to support his model of human psychosexual and physical development. Luce’s intention is to literally rewrite Cal’s body in Luce’s vision using the technology of modern medicine. That kind of modern medicine and its complications would not only subject Cal to the beliefs of a monomaniacal intersex researcher, but as Bones from Star Trek said in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, “What is this, the Dark Ages?”

I believe that there is a convergence of realistic and science fiction narratives as we move forward into the 21st century. What exactly constitutes realistic fictions and science fictions may change as technology and our relationship to technology changes, but looking at the future from the present, it seems that what we understand as these two traditionally distinct genres are meeting somewhere in the middle space between these two poles. Perhaps in the future, the names or distinctions may change, but the increasing integration of human-technological assemblages will result in fantastically different cultural works and fictions than what we now know. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the present wildly differs from the futures imagined by Asimov, Pohl, Kornbluth, and Dick, but the one way in which they were all correct was that technology will increasingly be necessary to our lives. Their futures missed the mark (mostly yes, but sometimes there is a glimmer of prophecy) on exactly how bodies and technology would interact and affect one another, but more fictions, regardless of genre, cannot ignore the fact that bodies and technology do affect one another and that at the points of interaction, at the interface, new and exciting futures develop.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Kent State, Recovered Writing, Science Fiction
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.


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