Synthetic Human Object

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 What Fergus Mixolydian achieves, then, in his connection of self to television set–and that the wider culture considers this assemblage an achievement can be inferred from his receipt, later in the novel, of a grant from the Ford Foundation–is the creation of a synthetic human object (see Pynchon, V. 355). The television, as the mechanical heart of this object, obtains via its connection to Fergus some facsimile of consciousness, waking and sleeping. Similarly, the televisual rocket, with Gottfried wired in, lives and breathes, sees and hears, up to the moment of its impact. Like the lamprey-robot, these two assemblages take on, in their interconnections of living tissue and mechanical components, the characteristics of artificial life. This is the other side of the writer’s anxieties about the machine; as the chapter epigraph from Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” suggests, the problem for the humanist who confronts the cyborg is not simply that we have become “frighteningly inert” in the interface, but that machines themselves are now “disturbingly lively” (152). Thus the nervous ambiguities of Fergus’s sleep switch: Is he operating the television set, or is the television set operating him?

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The animate robot is largely the stuff of science fiction and techno-prophecy. Nonfiction writers such as Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec predict a future populated by conscious machines; novelists such as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Rudy Rucker narrate similar futures.[28] In Pynchon and DeLillo, we find mere inklings of this future, including early examples such as Vaucanson’s mechanical duck, which appears in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, and more recent instances like the first stirrings of net-consciousness at the end of DeLillo’s Underworld. The significance of these almost living machines should not be underestimated, however; as one thinker in Pynchon’s V. suggests, during a period of decadence, as people become “less human, we foist off the humanity we have lost on inanimate objects and abstract theories” (405). Once our objects and theories become more animate than we are, these novels seem to suggest, human beings will be at their mercy.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Such is the suggestion of the Whole Sick Crew’s Slab, Catatonic Expressionist painter of innumerable cheese Danishes. In revolt against his own work, Slab creates in one of his paintings “the universal symbol I have decided will replace the Cross in western civilization,” the partridge in the pear tree. “The beauty,” claims Slab, “is that it works like a machine yet is animate. The partridge eats pears off the tree and his droppings in turn nourish the tree which grows higher and higher, every day lifting the Partridge up and at the same time assuring him of a continuous supply of good.” This partridge-pear-shit-tree assemblage makes use of animate parts, but in the best Wienerian sense, deanimates them by transforming them into parts of a perpetual-motion machine. The bird, content to be caught in this arrangement and provided with an unending supply of pears, is in fact being carried to its doom by the growing tree; at the top of the painting, Slab points out, is “a gargoyle with sharp fangs,” the largest fang of which “lay on an imaginary line projected parallel to the axis of the tree and drawn through the head of the bird” (V. 282). The ontology Slab envisions as a replacement for Christianity is thus self-destroying; life, become part of the machine, is destroyed by the machine.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In the case of Mason & Dixon, however, the bird in question–Vaucanson’s duck–is not a living element of a machinic assemblage but a machine in its own right. Historically, Vaucanson’s automaton-bird was designed as a shit-producing machine; the duck would take food offered to it and, swallowing, pass the food through a digestive system that culminated in excretion. Vaucanson expressly envisioned the duck as taking part in a contemporaneous debate about the nature of human digestion carried on between surgeons and anatomists who imagined digestion as a process of grinding and those who saw it as a more properly chemical process.[29] Such automatons, as Catherine Liu suggests in Copying Machines, thus serve not merely as mechanical curiosities but as representations of the presumed characteristics of the human. “The refusal to compare men and machine has recourse to absolute difference,” Liu argues, “while the bringing together of man and machine takes place as a rhetorical gesture of comparison. Man can be like a machine and a machine can be like a man. In this kind of comparison, a relationship of analogical rather than absolute difference is established between what man (or human) is from what he is not” (79). Despite Vaucanson’s sleight of hand–the material excreted by his duck was not, in fact, the remains of the food it “ate,” but rather preprepared “droppings”–the duck-automaton thus draws inevitable comparisons to the human not only in its processes of digestion but in its entire ontology as well; the human is, in this rendering, like a machine to make shit with.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The “mechanickal Duck” represented in Mason & Dixon, however, is not this shit machine but a second, fictional duck imagined to replicate a different human bodily function:

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Vaucanson’s vainglorious Intent had been to repeat for Sex and Reproduction, the Miracles he’d already achiev’d for Digestion and Excretion. Who knows? that final superaddition of erotick Machinery may somehow have nudg’d the Duck across some Threshold of self-Intricacy, setting off this Explosion of Change, from Inertia toward Independence, and Power. Isn’t it like an old Tale? Has an Automatick Duck, like the Sleeping Beauty, been brought to life by the kiss of . . . l’Amour? (373)

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Desire, in this second duck, allows the automaton to transcend its mechanical state, achieving independence, power–and, indeed, life. The duck’s quest for the “erotick,” which takes as its object France’s foremost chef (who specializes, of course, in duck) thus reinscribes desire as central to humanness. The introduction of desire into the machine, in fact, effects such a profound metamorphosis that, following the chef first to the New World and then along Mason and Dixon’s surveying expedition, the duck is finally able to control her motions such that she makes the leap from the “mechanickal” to the “Metaphysickal,” transcending human existence altogether.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 If the mechanical duck represents a conception of the human as shit-producing machine, and the metaphysical duck, a conception of the human as transcendent desiring machine, what then of V.‘s humanoid automata? These two machines, SHROUD (synthetic human, radiation output determined) and SHOCK (synthetic human object, casualty kinematics), represent a specifically post-Hiroshima model of the human:

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 In the eighteenth century it was often convenient to regard man as a clockwork automaton. In the nineteenth century, with Newtonian physics pretty well assimilated and a lot of work in thermodynamics going on, man was looked on more as a heat-engine, about 40 per cent efficient. Now in the twentieth century, with nuclear and subatomic physics a going thing, man had become something which absorbs X-rays, gamma rays, and neutrons. (V. 284)

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In SHROUD and SHOCK, then, Pynchon devises a representation of the human as a machine for bombardment, an agencyless, purposeless object subjected to random bouts of radiation and car crashes. These synthetic human objects thus render visible the nature of V.’s and Benny’s desires to achieve a “simple clockwork” of self; the two, along with many of the novel’s other characters, long to return to an earlier, less chaotic model of the universe, with neither the uncertainties of Einsteinian physics nor the potential for heat death implied in Newtonian physics. Instead, the mechanical model of a clock is one that, even if agencyless, can be kept running eternally–provided there is a “Hand to Turn the Time.”

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Benny, who encounters SHROUD and SHOCK in the course of his night-watchman’s job at Anthroresearch Associates (a subsidiary of Yoyodyne), bears in his own passivity an innate recognition of the position the two automata occupy, feeling “a certain kinship with SHOCK, which was the first inanimate schlemihl he’d ever encountered. But in there too was a certain wariness because the manikin was still only a ‘human object’; plus, a feeling of disdain as if SHOCK had decided to sell out to the humans; so that now what had been its inanimate own were taking revenge” (V. 285). But for SHOCK to have earned the animosity of its formerly “inanimate own,” to have become the enemy of technology, the manikin must somehow have begun a metamorphosis similar to that of the “mechanickal Duck.” On the one hand, it remains a “human object”; on the other, an “inanimate schlemihl.” Neither description sounds terribly far from what the reader knows of Benny, and thus the question surfaces: what, exactly, is the difference?

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 While the humanist tradition, grounded in Cartesian dualism, rigorously maintains that difference, pointing alternately to language, reason, desire, or some other ostensibly unique aspect of human existence, Norbert Wiener, in The Human Use of Human Beings, dismisses the distinction altogether: “the problem as to whether the machine is alive or not is, for our purposes, semantic and we are at liberty to answer it one way or the other as best suits our convenience” (32). The difference between human and machine, and thus the significance of the label “human,” has become negligible within the realm of cybernetics, a notion that provides little reassurance to anxious humanists, who find ominous cybernetics’ equal application of its principles of control to both men and machines. The nature of contemporary cybernetic machines, however, makes categorization difficult. Even the television set, as Pynchon demonstrates in Vineland, has achieved such a level of animation that its inanimate, mechanical state no longer goes without saying. The machine is in fact an intimate player in family life, such that Debbi, Hector’s ex-wife, names their set,

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 a 19-inch French Provincial floor model, as corespondent [in their divorce], arguing that the Tube was a member of the household, enjoying its own space, fed out of the house budget with all the electricity it needed, addressed and indeed chatted with at length by other family members, certainly as able to steal affection as any cheap floozy Hector might have met on the job. (Vineland 348)

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 In a fit of jealousy, Debbi demolishes the television set with a frozen pot roast, which ends the liability of the television in their divorce.[30] However, Hector brings action of his own, having Debbi arrested under charges of “Tubal homicide.” Both actions are immediately dismissed, but their presence before the court raises, as Hector notes, “deep philosophical issues. Is the Tube human? Semi-human? Well, uh, how human’s that, so forth. Are TV sets brought alive by broadcast signals, like the clay bodies of men and women animated by the spirit of God’s love?” (ibid. 348). Hector’s confusion reveals the real danger of the animate machine, whether television set, “mechanickal Duck,” or synthetic human object–not that the machine in question actually might achieve life, but that human beings might think it has. The danger presented by the televisual machine is finally not ontological but epistemological, the confusing on a philosophical level of the categories of human and machine, categories upon whose distinction the novel has rested since the eighteenth century.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Benny, in considering these “deep philosophical issues,” makes precisely this category mistake, one that Wiener might consider “semantic” but that for Pynchon strikes at the foundation of what it is to be human. Benny finds himself, on his rounds as night watchman, talking to SHROUD:

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 “What’s it like,” he said.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Better than you have it.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 “Wha.”

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Wha yourself.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Me and SHOCK are what you and everybody will be someday. . . .

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 “What do you mean, we’ll be like you and SHOCK someday? You mean dead?”

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Am I dead? If I am then that’s what I mean.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 “If you aren’t then what are you?”

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Nearly what you are. None of you have very far to go. (V. 286)

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 In trying to interpret SHROUD’s enigmatic comparison, Benny attributes life to the machine, or at least the possibility of life, which death implies. The text of course suggests that SHROUD is hinting at technological inanimateness, that human life and machine being will merge in a kind of automaton. SHROUD’s reversal of the comparison, however–first, you’re almost what I am; second, I’m almost what you are–in fact suggests a mutual movement that finally undermines the coherence of the categories altogether.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 And if a dividing line remains, it’s become by novel’s end a preciously fine one. Here, for instance, is the description of SHOCK, the humanlike machine:

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 its flesh was molded of foam vinyl, its skin vinyl plastisol, its hair a wig, its eyes cosmetic-plastic, its teeth (for which, in fact, Eigenvalue had acted as subcontractor) the same kind of dentures worn today by 19 per cent of the American population, most of them respectable. Inside were a blood reservoir in the thorax, a blood pump in the midsection and a nickel-cadmium battery power supply in the abdomen. The control panel, at the side of the chest, had toggles and rheostat controls for venous and arterial bleeding, pulse rate, and even respiration rate, when a sucking chest wound was involved. In the latter case plastic lungs provided the necessary suction and bubbling. They were controlled by an air pump in the abdomen, with the motor’s cooling vent located in the crotch. An injury of the sexual organs could still be simulated by an attachable moulage, but then this blocked the cooling vent. SHOCK could not therefore have a sucking chest wound and mutilated sexual organs simultaneously. A new retrofit, however, eliminated this difficulty, which was felt to be a basic design deficiency. (V. 285″“86)

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Compare this with Herbert Stencil’s present-day projection of V., the machine-like human:

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 skin radiant with the bloom of some new plastic; both eyes glass but now containing photoelectric cells, connected by silver electrodes to optic nerves of purest copper wire and leading to a brain exquisitely wrought as a diode matrix could ever be. Solenoid relays would be her ganglia, servo-actuators move her flawless nylon limbs, hydraulic fluid be sent by a platinum heart-pump through butyrate veins and arteries. Perhaps–Stencil on occasion could have as vile a mind as any of the Crew–even a complex system of pressure transducers located in a marvelous vagina of polyethylene; the variable arms of their Wheatstone bridges all leading to a single silver cable which fed pleasure-voltages direct to the correct register of the digital machine in her skull. And whenever she smiled or grinned in ecstasy there would gleam her crowning feature: Eigenvalue’s precious dentures. (V. 411″“12)

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 The differences are few: SHOCK is primarily mechanical while V. is electronic; V. is controlled by a “digital machine” in her head rather than SHOCK’s control panel. The primary distinction, however, seems to boil down to wiring; otherwise, machines and humans, thanks to plastics, hydraulics, and the dentures of the inestimable Eigenvalue, seem to be moving toward the same, altogether alarming state of synthetic human object.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 But one cannot help commenting on the abject misogyny contained in Herbert’s imaginings of V. at seventy-six. While these imaginings are clearly those of a character, not necessarily of the author, they nonetheless demand consideration; as Stencil’s historical project parallels Pynchon’s, so his mediating consciousness reflects upon the author’s own. Andreas Huyssen, writing about Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, could just as well have been writing about V. when he claims that the machine vamp appeals to

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 the male fantasy of the machine-woman who, in the film, embodies two age old patriarchal images of women which, again, are hooked up with two homologous views of technology. In the machine-woman, technology and woman appear as creations and/or cult objects of the male imagination. The myth of the dualistic nature of woman as either asexual virgin-mother or prostitute-vamp is projected onto technology which appears as either neutral and obedient or as inherently threatening and out-of-control. (73)

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 V. has all along been both virgin and vamp; by the novel’s end, she has, in Stencil’s rendering, become the ideal combination of computer, Barbie doll, and inflatable sex toy. She has been created, via Stencil’s forcible dislocations, as the ideal nonhuman sexual object whose entire being is centered around pleasure, but who requires the insertion of that ever-missing phallus for the circuit to be complete. This is of course the future wished for by Benny Profane, who is chronically perplexed by the difficulties of dealing with real women: “Someday, please God, there would be an all-electronic woman. Maybe her name would be Violet.” Benny’s hope for a woman with no resistance–or at least none that can’t be “measured in ohms” (V. 385)–is carried out in Stencil’s imagination. And, of course, Stencil’s imagination is carried out within Pynchon’s imaginative prose.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 And thus the reader is drawn back to the writerly consciousness that creates the terms in which the machine is represented, and the interests that are served by the continued “border war” between human and machine. Coupled with the femaleness of the “mechanickal Duck” and the ostensible femaleness of Hector and Debbi’s television set (compared, as it is, to a “cheap floozy”), V.’s graphic sexuality indicates that the machine-human conflict serves as a kind of foil for anxieties about the dangers of the feminine. In the interface with the machine, it seems, is not merely a loss of some neutral “humanity” but a masculine loss of potency. Like Fergus wired to the television set, masculinity drains away into a passive stupor; in the television itself, the feminine principle gains sway. Thus Fergus, in his promotion of the television set to a form of synthetic human object, highlights the manner in which writerly anxieties about the passivity that the medium induces are heightened by the potential this abdication of human responsibility leaves for a new kind of machinic consciousness, a consciousness not under the sway of humanism’s hierarchies.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 This danger, in the view of the novelist of obsolescence, becomes all the greater when we remember the importance Descartes ascribes to language as the locus of the human. If, having renounced “humanity,” humans foist it off on machines, and particularly televisual machines, these novels argue, then human beings leave themselves open to manipulation and control by those machines. And when those machines communicate not with words but with images, thus evading the linguistic center of the human, the possibilities presented by the humanist novel for resistance to the machine diminish all the more.

  • [28] See Kurzweil, Spiritual; Moravec; Gibson; Sterling; Rucker, Software, Wetware, and Freeware.
  • [29] On Vaucanson, the duck, and the digestive debates, see Liu 83″“85.
  • [30] This scene of course literalizes the popular anxieties analyzed by Lynn Spigel, in which the television set was imbued with the qualities of the “other woman” (see Spigel 119).
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    Source: https://www.anxietyofobsolescence.com/chapter-2/synthetic-human-object/