May the shade of Ashton Clark hover over your right shoulder and guard your left

Back in the day, I wrote for an online magazine/group blog called Monkeyfist. It’s long defunct, but I still like some of the things I wrote there, so I’m rescuing them. This was from February 2001.

February being Black History Month, I plan to spend a fair bit of time reading Samuel R. Delany. It’s likely that if you’ve spotted any of Delany’s books on the shelf they’ve been the Wesleyan Press releases of the Nevèrÿon series, plus Dhalgren and Triton (although, I’ve been seeing The Einstein Intersection around), which are mostly from his mid-1970s to 1980s period (except The Einstein Intersection). And these are indeed wonderful books (and I hope to write about them later this month). But there is lots of very cool stuff going on in his 1960s novels. Nova, in particular, is shot through with stimulating ideas, complex interplay between plot, characterization, emotional confrontations, and intellectual themes, and just plain wacky stuff. The prose isn’t as stylistically rich as the later works (which is no shame all things considered) but that’s in many ways an advantage for the beginning Delany reader.

Alas, Nova is out of print, but if you check out the reader reviews at Amazon, you’ll find a lot of focus on his “cyberpunk” ideas, in particular the use of neural plugs to connect with, control, and receive sensory input from machinery (e.g., “Man-machine interfaces abound in Delany’s books, a decade or more before William Gibson ever wrote or thought of Neuromancer”; “It also explores some territory that is now considered cyber-punk, ie man-machine interfaces and strange designer drugs”; “I’ve read it many times and am very fortunate to own a copy. It contains one of the first descriptions of complex man-computer-machine interfaces…”).

However, to make a great deal of Delany’s anticipation of certain cyberbunk themes runs the risk of missing just how different they are. After all, cyperpunk per se is as much about literary style and social organization as it is about “cyberspace” and jacking in. Gibsonian cyberpunk focuses on our machine-mediated interactions with an information-based mega-corp structured economy with a standard MOO/MUDesque, though primarily visual, representation. This is not at all what Delany is getting at in Nova. The following quotation both makes this point clear and is one of my favorites.

“May the shade of Ashton Clark hover over your right shoulder and guard your left.”

“Thanks.” After another while he asked, “Katin, why do people always say Ashton Clark whenever you’re going to change jobs? They told us back at Cooper that the guy who invented plugs was named Socket or something.”

“Souquet,” Katin said. “Still, he must have considered it an unfortunate coincidence. Ashton Clark was a twenty-third-century philospher cum psychologist whose work enabled Vladimeer Souquet to develop his neural plugs. I guess the answer has to do with work. Work as mankind knew it up until Clark and Souquet was a very different thing from today, Mouse. A man might go to an office and run a computer that would correlate great masses of figures that came from sales reports on how well, let’s say, buttons — or something equally archaic — were selling over certain areas of the country. This man’s job was vital to the button industry: they had to have this information to decide how many buttons to make next year. But though this man held an essential job in the button industry, was hired, paid, or fired by the button industry, week in and week out he might not see a button. He was given a certain amount of money for running his computer; with that money his wife bought food and clothes for him and his family. But there was no direct connection between where he worked and how he ate and lived the rest of his time. He wasn’t paid with buttons. As farming, hunting, and fishing became occupations of a small­er and smaller per cent of the population, this separation between man’s work and the way he lived — what he ate, what he wore, where he slept — became greater and greater for more people. Ashton Clark pointed out how psychologi­cally damaging this was to humanity. The entire sense of self-control and self-responsibility that man acquired during the Neolithic Revolution when he first learned to plant grain and domesticate animals and live in one spot of his own choosing was seriously threatened. The threat had been com­ing since the Industrial Revolution and many people had pointed it out, before Ashton Clark. But Ashton Clark went one step further. If the situation of a technological society was such that there could be no direct relation between a man’s work and his modus vivendi, other than money, at least he must feel that he is directly changing things by his work, shaping things, making things that weren’t there before, moving things from one place to another. He must exert energy in his work and see these changes occur with his own eyes. Otherwise he would feel his life was futile (pages 194 to 196 in my Bantam edition).

We are embodied, physical beings whose cognitive structures — and affective structures — are profoundly affected by the exercise of sensory-motor system. One worry that developmental folks express more often these days is that computer use (of the standard monitor, keyboard, pointing device setup) may interfere with child development by impoverishing the child’s sensory-motor explorations. Moving chess pieces on a physical board is kinesthetically very different from “moving” virtual chess pieces on a virtual chess board by clicking and dragging. Even more striking, the relation between our kinesthetic awareness of the chess piece in our hand and our visual tracking of it is enormously complex and getting it wrong or just different can have far reaching effects on our psychology.

A personal example: I have inner ear problems and have had so since I was fairly young, as far as we can tell. One problem I have is that in large, brightly lit, echoing, visually busy environments (parties, dances, Wal-Mart’s) I have trouble determining what’s foreground movement, backgrond movement, and my movment. Essentially, I don’t get enough feedback from my inner ear and the compensatory mechanisms in my visual and auditory systems get overwhelmed at a certain level of stimulus. What I experience is disjointedness, sometimes slight nausea, a lot of anxiety, and so on. If I remove myself from the environment, I feel better.

I didn’t discover the underlying condition until about five years ago. When I was younger, I quite naturally interpreted these feelings as feelings about the social situation. Thus, it seemed to me that I had a problem with, for example, parties, groups, people, and having fun. There are, in fact, many different things someone with my condition can do to compensate, including just saying, “Oh well, I need to cultivate different pursuits and make sure my friends and family understand why I tend to avoid the larger gatherings.” It’s a lot easier to convince folks that you’re not a grump and frump if you can explain why you look and act ill-at-ease.

Two points to derive from this example: 1) quite subtle disarrangments of our bodily systems can have significant and distressing effects and 2) lack of understanding of our own bodies and how they work in the world can greatly increase those effects.

We are social beings, too, of a fairly specific kind. Much of our sociality is connected with our bodies. I think this is what Delany’s Ashton Clark is getting at. It’s interesting that the solution wasn’t to go pre-industrial, though that may be a partial solution, but to reconfigure work so that it met our deeper needs.

“Had he lived another hundred years either way, probably nobody would have heard of Ashton Clark today. But tech­nology had reached the point where it could do something about what Ashton Clark was saying. Souquet invented his plugs and sockets, and neural-response circuits, and the whole basic technology by which a machine could be controlled by direct nervous impulse, the same impulses that cause your hand or foot to move. And there was a revolution in the concept of work. All major industrial work began to be broken down into jobs that could be machined ‘directly’ by man. There had been factories run by a single man before, an uninvolved character who turned a switch on in the morning, slept half the day, checked a few dials at lunchtime, then turned things off before he left in the evening. Now a man went to a factory, plugged himself in, and he could push the raw materials into the factory with his left foot, shape thousands on thousands of precise parts with one hand, assemble them with the other, and shove out a line of finished products with his right foot, having inspected them all with his own eyes. And he was a much more satisfied worker. Because of its nature, most work could be converted into plug-in jobs and done much more efficiently than it had been before. In the rare cases where production was slightly less efficient, Clark pointed out the psychological benefits to the society. Ashton Clark, it has been said, was the philosopher who returned humanity to the working man. Under this system, much of the endemic mental illness caused by feelings of alienation left society. The transformation turned war from a rarity to an impossibility, and — after the initial upset — stabilized the economic web of worlds for the last eight hundred years. Ashton Clark became the workers’ prophet. That’s why even today, when a person is going to change jobs, you send Ashton Clark, or his spirit along with him.”

It’s interesting that this explanation doesn’t come until near the book’s end, and that the main plot line involves a feud between two great houses and the potential economical turmoil of the galaxy. While I think the Ashton Clark doctrines are right on target about some of the problems with industrial and current semi-post-industrial societies, it’s important to note that Delany is not just a didactic utopian ranter (however elegant). This passage is embedded in a conversation that immediately explores some of the problems with the Clark/Souquet system both theoretical, “historical”, and from the characters own perspective, several of which we’ve observed in an incident long before we’ve get this discussion. And the events in the novel as a whole belie a too rosy interpretation of neural plug salvation.

(Katin, the over-educated expounder above, is trying, throughout the book to write a novel in the largely post-literate society. There are many passages where he expounds his theories of novels — since they are a lost form he must both reconstruct how they worked and try to transfigure them to fit his milieu. This commentary and meta-commentary on the form is woven deftly throughout the book at many, many different layers. It’s characteristic of Delany’s books I’ve read to take something so familiar and twist it into a completely alien artifact and then build it back into familiarity. The Nevèrÿon books are full of that.)

In the end, I find Nova to be a far more sophisticated social novel than, say, Neuromancer. In Neuromancer the social analysis, projection, and reflection are in the service of the toys, both technological and literary. In that way, Neuromancer is more like Tofflerian/futurist style writings than an attempt to explore who we are and might want to be.

It’s sad that the catch phrase we all know is “May the force be with you” rather than (some variant of) “Ashton Clark go with you”. I remember reading some Star Wars fan recounting “philosophical discussions” he had with his father over the nature of “the Force” and good and evil which I found sadly amusing, as the entire Star Wars story and universe is deeply impoverished in this regard.

It would be nice if some tiny fraction of the money that will go to making a computer facsimile of a lame character with an odd accent for Star Wars Episode II went instead toward getting Nova back in print. Unfortunately the voracious demands of spectacle-laden alienation from the physical and social worlds will, as usual, trump the modest needs of people striving to be real.

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