Chapter 2: Machine

Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.
–Donna Haraway

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 At an early moment in Thomas Pynchon’s V., the reader is introduced to the members of the Whole Sick Crew, a loose coalition of alienated youth cavorting about 1955 Manhattan. As the narration emphasizes, each member of the Crew participates in an “exhausted impersonation” of bohemian artiness, a kind of Beat-lite, in which aesthetic and social rebellion fail to find either a stable position to revolt against or a sufficiently shocking “new.” Slab, for instance, is the Catatonic Expressionist painter who hopes that his work will be “the ultimate in non-communication”; Melvin plays an endless stream of dull liberal folk songs; and Raoul writes for television while “keeping carefully in mind, and complaining bitterly about, all the sponsor-fetishes of that industry” (56). Thoroughly bourgeois revolutionaries all, the Crew’s self-declared Sick-ness mostly manifests in excessive alcohol intake and painfully hip name-dropping, thus bearing in common with the much later Generation X slackerdom a premature sense of exhaustion, an absence of the critical potential once thought to be inherent in ironic alienation. The cause of both the alienation and the impotence from which this group suffers (and from which, by extension, an entire culture may be said to suffer) is most explicitly announced in the figure of Fergus Mixolydian, a fringe member of the Crew. Fergus, described as the self-proclaimed laziest person in New York, is more-or-less comatose throughout the novel; his projects, complex as they are, aim at nothing more than furthering his slothfulness. Fergus produces, for instance, through a careful and rigorous adherence to scientific procedure, a series of chemical reactions that inflate a balloon marked with a giant “Z,” which he ties to his bedpost as a marker of his lethargy. This bizarre admixture of the uselessly productive culminates in Fergus’s invention of “an ingenious sleep-switch, receiving its signal from two electrodes placed on the inner skin of his forearm. When Fergus dropped below a certain level of awareness, the skin resistance increased over a preset value to operate the switch. Fergus thus became an extension of the TV set” (56). Much like the other members of the Whole Sick Crew, who strive ambitiously for the appearance of alienation, Fergus’s labors are aimed at their own undoing. In this regard, Fergus’s literal interface with the television set is not that different from Raoul’s: each maintains a careful connection to the medium while feigning disdain; each becomes a willing functionary of the machine. Understood in this way, Fergus’s transformation into a human remote control merely exaggerates the Crew’s disaffected torpor.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The inclusion of the technology of television in this particular circuit is no accident, however. The alienation figured throughout V. in literally dozens of references to “decadence” and “inanimation” is specifically a response to the omnipresence of machines, and the troubled relationships between those machines and the humans with whom they interact. In Fergus’s case, the relationship between man and machine is a direct wiring-in, but this physical connection and the torpor it makes possible–signified by the “Z” thought-balloon, lifted directly from cartoons–are only a literal rendering of the general couch-potato syndrome into which so many intellectuals have imagined the United States sinking. While Fergus may, through his sleep-switch, become an extension of the TV set, the relationship of the average viewer to the set in the popular imaginary is not much different. Like Fergus, like Raoul, those who connect themselves to the television set become inescapably part of its workings. Thus, one of the dangers represented by the tube in the novel of obsolescence, made strikingly visible in Fergus’s sleep-switch, is this much-too-literal bringing together of human and machine, a coupling destined to confuse one category with the other.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Despite the reminders of numerous critics–Donna Haraway, Anne Balsamo, Judith Halberstam, and Ira Livingston, to name but a few–that we are all already cyborgs reliant upon pacemakers, contact lenses, Cochlear implants, and e-mail accounts for our day-to-day existence, the literal linkage of Fergus’s connection to the machine remains predominantly the stuff of fiction. Recently, however, scientists have begun exploring the neuromotor possibilities presented by such interfaces. In June 2000, for instance, the New York Times reported on a wiring together of the organic and the mechanical that resulted in what it termed an “artificial animal” (see Sorid). Dr. Sandro Mussa-Ivaldi, working with a team of scientists from the United States and Italy, succeeded in connecting part of the brain of a lamprey with a small robot, resulting in two-way communication between the organic and mechanical halves of this “animal.” “The aim of the research,” according to the Times, “is to untangle the mysteries of brain signals and to see how the brain’s circuits change and adapt to different stimuli.” The newspaper of record was unable to avoid commenting on the “eerie” nature of the experiment, however, despite its own assessment of the researchers’ ostensibly reasonable purposes. In seeking a justification for this test’s weirdness, the article turns to Steve Grand, CEO of Cyberlife Research, a company described as “trying to create forms of synthetic life.” Says Grand: “People are sometimes fearful that artificial life research will reduce us all to machines and explain away our souls. . . . On the contrary, I believe it will give us a new understanding and a new respect for ourselves, as the most sublime machines in the known universe.”

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Regardless of the contradiction inherent in Grand’s assessment (humans are more than machines–we’re the best machines), his sense of the anxiety produced by a technology that encroaches upon life is strikingly accurate. As is Mussa-Ivaldi’s own response to concerns about the creepy nature of his work: “It has echoes of a literary kind,” he acknowledges (Sorid). Indeed, as the Western cultural obsession with technology has grown over the last two centuries, so has a parallel cultural terror; machines of all varieties, of all levels of complexity, have long troubled the literary imagination. Television of course introduces another dimension to this novelistic technophobia; when the machine to which humans seem to be so drawn is a representing machine, one that performs the narrative function of fiction while ostensibly encouraging passivity in its audience, the threat of dehumanization inherent in the machine becomes a direct threat to the existence of a reading public.[1] Thus the importance of Fergus’s self-invention as remote control: this literal manifestation of the television watcher’s lassitude underscores a perceived decadence in U.S. culture, a decay directly responsible for the novel’s–and not incidentally, the novelist’s–marginalization.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Representations of technology in the novel of obsolescence are thus unavoidably imbricated with concerns about the contemporary state of the act of reading. Moreover, the danger implied in the technologized decline of reading is imagined to be a specifically political danger. A reading public, as critics including Neil Postman and Sven Birkerts argue, is an active, involved, invested public, a true democratic citizenry taking serious part in public discourse.[2] As the textual forms of such public life come to be replaced by televisuality, the give-and-take of discourse yields to the one-way stream of representation, inducing passivity in a once-active public sphere. And as such representing machines further expand their influence over the work of communication, mediating all forms of political knowledge, the individual is led to identify not with the ideas expressed or with the people expressing them, but with the machines themselves. This technologized political life, in undermining the act of reading, creates a precondition necessary for fascism not only by naturalizing a mechanical control over public discourse, but also by alienating the individual from his own humanity, leaving him manipulable, impotent.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 My use of the masculine, both in pronoun form and in the metaphor of impotence, in conjunction with this amorphous notion of “humanity” is no accident. While there is an unquestionable link between masculinity and the development of technology, in these representations the humanity that is alienated through its dealings with technology is inescapably masculinist, bound up in centuries-old tropes of the liberal subject as both rugged individualist and committed citizen. Through the decadence it ostensibly produces in that liberal subject, technology becomes one among many social forces that threaten the subject with feminization; anxieties about mechanical alienation thus participate in the same line of historical discourses as the frontier myth and the “genteel tradition” that disrupted it.[3] Representations of technology in the novel of obsolescence, then, indicate at once anxieties about the current state of reading and anxieties about the current state of masculinity. To borrow Timothy Melley’s useful phrase from Empire of Conspiracy, the “agency panic” induced by such “influencing machines” as television is inevitably gendered, as the agency imagined to be draining away is always masculine, and the vacuum that it leaves behind is likewise imagined to be feminine (see Melley, esp. 32-37). In this manner, the question of an alienated “humanity” serves as a foil for concerns about a decentered, fragmented masculinity.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In this chapter, I approach these questions of the interrelationship of the anxiety of obsolescence and cultural technophobia in the novels of Thomas Pynchon, with particular attention to the implications these representations bear for our understanding of gender and sexuality. These novels, most particularly V., Gravity’s Rainbow, and Vineland, are engaged in the progressive business of reanimating a too-passive reading public by means of a thoroughgoing critique of the political couch-potatodom into which the United States has gradually declined. This activism comes at the expense of the feminine, however, which is too easily conflated with the technologies that threaten human agency.

  • [1] The entire line of contemporary cultural studies is aimed at overturning this belief in the passivity of participants in popular culture, Here is a representative notion from John Fiske’s Television Culture: “Pleasure for the subordinate is produced by the assertion of one’s social identity in resistance to, in independence of, or in negotiation with, the structure of domination. There is no pleasure in being a ‘cultural dope'” (19).
  • [2] On the relationship between reading and democracy, see Davidson, Introduction; and Cathy N. Davidson, ed., Reading in America.
  • [3] On the frontier myth, see Turner; Santayana.
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