The grotesque and the sublime

Another Monkeyfist recovery from April 2000.

I opened my mouth to indicate, for general observation, the repulsively cute position our (self-proclaimed) alpha cat Fred had assumed on the back of the sofa when I felt—through the sole of my bared foot—the cold, wet, squishy yuck that is a pile of cat vomit.

As I stood there with my eyes producing pleasures immediately squelched by the sensations slithering up my leg, I reflected that it is rare for me to directly perceive the conflicted essence of domestic bliss with such force…

…and that I was grateful for that fact.


Voting Matters!

As I recover from hand surgery, here’s another blast from the Monkeyfist Past. Alas, PA got rid of the big mechanicals.

My taste for irony sometimes finds a bit of unexpected sweetness in bitter experience or a dash of salt in singularly bland events. So it was today as I voted for the first time in Maryland in our pathetic midterm elections. I could discern no Greens on my ballot, so I voted mechanically for Democrats and those with female looking names. I don’t think my vote made any difference, much less a difference I even marginally care about. [Ed note: current me grew up and is very happy voting straight Democrat.]

It’s not clear that I even got that smidgin of personal satisfaction stemming from my childhood training in “civil virtue” — Yay, I’m a good citizen! I’m part of the process! The founders did not fight and die in vain! — On the other hand, while I don’t think I would have felt guilt at failing that taught duty, I probably would have felt odd at not feeling guilt. I guess I feel a gray satisfaction in acting in conformance with my old internalized standards, even if the motive forces have shifted. This is part of aging, I suspect; I will try to look forward to the next erosion of character.

One thing that used to perk me up for voting was playing with the voting machines. In Pennsylvania, we had voting machines as nature intended: big, hulking, industrial slabs of iron with big, heavy mechanical levers and an institutional green curtain wrapping around round like a hospital privacy screen. These things were big enough — as anyone who’s fairly adventurous or who’s seen Pecker knows — to have sex in. When you voted in one of these booths you knew you were in the rust belt and that US democracy was part and parcel of the Industrial Revolution.

In North Carolina I used little forms and felt pens: somewhat like the SAT, except with no ability to erase and no chance of a decent grade. We voters would fill out our ballots at little fold-out stands with mini-drapes — stands clearly meant to be folded up and stacked in the back of a station wagon or SUV. The ballots then got fed into a cooler-sized box which would slurp and flash a red LCD tally of slurps. I don’t know if scanning occured in these boxes, and I really didn’t care. Even more than the general character of North Carolina politics, this procedure made voting a bit hard to take seriously.

So now I live in Maryland, working in a Semantic Web research lab. As befits my post-industrial, information-age work, Maryland has touch-screen, computer-based voting machines. Though they, like North Carolina, have the little fold up stands; you’d think that the proximity to DC would inspire people to be a bit inspiring, what with all the monuments. The ‘puter-based machines did perk me up a little, as I still have a few habits left from my techno-toy influenced youth. The machines ran ugly Windows apps but seemed otherwise reasonable until the very last screen. It presented a scrolling window with an overview of my selection, a big blue button on the left for revisiting my choices, and a big green button smack dab underneath the down arrow on the scroll bar reading “CAST BALLOT”.

To add to the moment, there was a faint, pastel, small line of text along the top, which said something like “Be careful when scrolling down not to accidentally cast your ballot”.

Windows programming in embedded systems must be even harder than I thought if they couldn’t have switched the buttons or simply moved the button to the center of the screen where there was plenty of space, or put a confirmation screen between the review screen and the act of casting your ballot.

Small Economies

Two  Monkeyfist rescue posts in one week! Blame the combination of Noruz party prep and Yet Another Weird Fatigue Fugue. I should also say that I don’t know if I’ve ever actual read Cranford or if I’ve only read this bit that Zoe showed me. It’s also funny to reflect how “long distance” and “international calls” as extravagances has disappeared.

As I was walking back to my office after having consumed a Veggie Dog with Homemade Coleslaw ($1.50 from Squeaky), I was holding a book that I had gotten because…well frankly, I had gotten it because it had been 20% off in a “special” sale.

Oh, I wanted to read the book, no doubt, but I got some pleasure out of that bit of illusory thriftiness–I mean, 20% off!!! Of course, at this bookstore, paperbacks arenormally 10% off, but no matter. It was that extra 10% that made me feel good.

I was feeling pretty good about the $1.50 veggie dog, too. And by one of those leaps by which my calorie soaked mind is wont to tease me on bright spring days, I thought of a passage from Cranford that seems to tickle everyone who reads it:

I have often noticed that almost every one has his own individual small economies – careful habits of saving fractions of pennies in some one peculiar direction – any disturbance of which annoys him more than spending shillings or pounds on some real extravagance. An old gentleman of my acquaintance, who took the intelligence of the failure of a Joint-Stock Bank, in which some of his money was invested, with stoical mildness, worried his family all through a long summer’s day because one of them had torn (instead of cutting) out the written leaves of his now useless bank-book; of course, the corresponding pages at the other end came out as well, and this little unnecessary waste of paper (his private economy) chafed him more than all the loss of his money…

I am not above owning that I have this human weakness myself. String is my foible. My pockets get full of little hanks of it, picked up and twisted together, ready for uses that never come. I am seriously annoyed if any one cuts the string of a parcel instead of patiently and faithfully undoing it fold by fold. How people can bring themselves to use india-rubber rings, which are a sort of deification of string, as lightly as they do, I cannot imagine. To me an india-rubber ring is a precious treasure. I have one which is not new – one that I picked up off the floor nearly six years ago. I have really tried to use it, but my heart failed me, and I could not commit the extravagance.

Small pieces of butter grieve others.

(That last line is so cool!)

The most bizarre small economy, which really was a great extravagance in disguise, was my father’s incessant buying and hording of Progresso Lentil Soup cans, the one-person serving. Granted, at the time, in the area of PA where we lived, they were moderately difficult to secure. And they were just the right size for one person, whereas the normal can was much too big. But in the cabinet above the stove we had row upon row of these soup cans, stacked two high and at least three deep. Anytime he saw them in the store, he’d buy them all up, bring them home, and stack them. He ate maybe one can every couple of months.

I’m sure some of the back row cans were several years old at the time. Of course, I might add, my father is a maniac.

One pleasure I take is in the breaking of other people’s small economies. Done gently and lovingly it can be quite exhiliarating. Long distance phone calls are always a likely candidate. Even I, who maintained (or degraded!) a long distance relationship through continual telephonic interaction, still wince at making or receiving such calls, though, truely, they have gotten so cheap as to be painless in real terms (which, I’m sure my mother will remind me, they were not when I was a-calling). But Zoe was even worse than me (as were her parents)…Why not call once or twice a week? Nowadays, it’s almost cheaper than writing letters.

My grandmother, too, is most amusing about phone calls. When I call her, as I do once in a great while, we talk for maybe forty minutes before she gets nervous and starts saying, “Well, I don’t want to break your nickel.” She never thinks to make me hang up and call me back. She never considers that $3-4 every 5 months won’t break me. In person, my grandmother can talk for hours, but there’s a little timer in her head that goes off as we approach the 45 minute mark…

Some depressing things

Another Monkeyfist rescue from April 2000.

In the past couple month or so (in chronological order) a former schoolmate’s boyfriend died in an avalanche, a current classmate was diagnosed with a severe tumor, and I had to euthanize a pet. The severity of the event is inverse to the closeness to my daily life, although that distancing isn’t really a comfort. It’s just feels odd.

This, for some reason, has put me in mind of Sei Shonagon, and her various lists. In this vein, I composed this list of depressing things (I have a list of sad things too):

  1. Snow that lingers and refreezes repeatedly
  2. Mexican food that inexplicably fails to appeal
  3. The sound of water lapping
  4. People saying hopelessly stupid things
  5. A sunset that would be spectacular if not for the flickering light and buzzing of a street lamp
  6. Undeserved success
  7. Undeserved failure
  8. Reading a book that one has cherished for many years and not liking it
  9. Winning a fight that leaves a love one hurting
  10. Being unable to find a natural ending to a list

Masters and Tools: Thoughts Inspired by Audre Lourde

I’m revisiting Lourde’s Sister Outsider so dug up this bit I wrote back in 2002.

Time collapses between the lips of strangers
my days collapse into a hollow tube
soon implodes against now like an iron wall
—Audre Lourde, “Never to dream of spiders”

Thanks to Black History Month!

It’s strange, though perhaps somewhat predictable, that I’ve read little of Audre Lourde’s poetry. I was introduced to her book of essays, Sister Outsider, in a graduate seminar on Feminist Ethics/Theory and used chapters from it in my own undergraduate teaching. I did get hold of Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, which is absolutely wonderful. I knew I wanted to write about “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” again (especially given Appiah’s use of the term), but I was a little surprised by how strongly I’m reacting to it. Damn, but Lourde is really good, and I’ve now set myself the goal of reading through her corpus. Black History Month strikes again.

(While doing a little web research for this article, I found a page that has three of her poems. I especially like “Never to Dream of Spiders”. Now I’m miffed that I didn’t look up her stuff earlier.)

Very much in a good spirit for Black History Month, Lourde writes:

In academic feminist circles, the answer to [why woman of Color are excluded as participants or subjects of conferences] is often, “We did not know who to ask.” But that is the same evasion of responsibility, the same cop-out, that keeps Black woman’s art out of women’s exhibitions, Black women’s work out of most feminist publications … and Black women’s text off your reading lists.” (Sister/Outsider, p. 113)

While (I hope) things have gotten better, it’s a worthy reminder that White people need to put forth a serious effort to get educated. Many ignorances not only are not excuses, but are the very locus of culpability.

On Reading Lourde Philosophically and Academically

As a philosopher — by inclination and too much training — I tend to read stuff with a eye to what philosophical value I can extract. That’s not to say that I don’t deploy other eyes differently. (Indeed, I could as well write, “As a novelist — by inclination and not enough training — I tend to read stuff (e.g., philosophical works) with a narrative eye.”) Furthermore, that too-much-training reveals that I am, in large part, an academic. That makes reading and writing about Lourde’s essays tricky, since although her work is cherished in several academic circles, and she herself moved through the Academy, she was very conscious of not being of the Academy in a number of ways. The essay I’m writing about now — “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” — is, at one level, a powerful screed against her own academic sisters (for whom she is outsider by their own blindness and her own bravery). In context (and in subsequent appropriations of the phrase) the “master’s tools” seem naturally to stand for the mechanisms of academia (ranging from conference organizing to “reason itself”) and the “master’s house” being the power institutions (including and especially the Academy) of this oppressing society.

This essay is sometimes invoked as a move in the academic game — typically as an endorsement of some degree of postmodernism to be wielded or refuted (or, more generally, to push for a transcendence of the old frameworks). More in the spirit of Lourde’s original intention, it is invoked to produce the kind of reflection that produces appropriate humilities.

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. (Sister/Outsider, p. 112)

(The teacher who introduced me to Lourde had trouble surviving academically in my department, in part, I believe, because she failed to be an “acceptable academic” woman. She’s still enormously privileged, of course, but the structure of exclusion and (relative) destruction remain surprisingly similar up and down the class scale.)

Many of my tools are academic tools, and the danger is that they are not conducive to the survival of non-acceptable people. They might well help me to survive, but at best at the price of collaboration. Master’s tools are usually for mastering (that is, the maintenance of masters) or, at least, involve mastering. At the very least, they are apt for maintaining the master’s house

Masters, Tools, and Houses: An Academicesque Analysis

A first response to “The master’s tools will not tear down the master’s house” is to ask why tearing down the master’s house is a good idea. Master’s houses tend to be very nice — large and luxurious.

And, indeed, that is part of the problem. Not the large and luxurious per se, but the fact that a house built around the needs and wants of a master tends to require servants and slaves. One thing people can do with masters’ tools is displace and replace the masters. This, of course, doesn’t solve the fundamental problem. Indeed, if, as proper, one sides with whomever is oppressed, then the switching of roles isn’t going to be a valuable thing. “Yay, we’ve vanquished the oppressive Taliban by installing the oppressive Northern Alliance” is not, contrary to what some “leftists” believe, a heartening cheer. (Which is, of course, why we tend to hear the abridged version.)

So master’s tools may be liberatory (of some people), but by making the master’s house strong, better, more suited to a dominance/subordination situation. To make masters into slaves and slaves into masters is to betray the goals of justice and liberty.

Angela Davis highlights a persistent (and dangerous) misuse of Master’s tools:

The U.S. colonial state’s racist, sexist, and homophobic brutality in dealing with Native Americans once again shows the futility of relying upon the juridical or legislative processes of the state to resolve these problems.

How then can one expect the state to solve the problem of violence against women, when it constantly recapitulates its own history of colonialism, racism, and war? How can we ask the state to intervene when, in fact, its armed forces have always practiced rape and battery against “enemy” women? In fact, sexual and intimate violence against women has been a central military tactic of war and domination.

Yet the approach of the neoliberal state is to incorporate women into these agencies of violence—to integrate the armed forces and the police.

How do we deal with the police killing of Amadou Diallo, whose wallet was putatively misapprehended as a gun—or Tanya Haggerty in Chicago, whose cell phone was the potential weapon that allowed police to justify her killing? By hiring more women as police officers? Does the argument that women are victimized by violence render them inefficient agents of violence? Does giving women greater access to official violence help to minimize informal violence? Even if this were the case, would we want to embrace this as a solution? Are women essentially immune from the forms of adaptation to violence that are so foundational to police and military culture?

It’s interesting to reflect on the similarity of this argument to a claim of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, to wit, violence is self defeating:

One of them is to rise up against their oppressors with physical violence and corroding hatred. But oh this isn’t the way. For the danger and the weakness of this method is its futility. Violence creates many more social problems than it solves. And I’ve said, in so many instances, that as the Negro, in particular, and colored peoples all over the world struggle for freedom, if they succumb to the temptation of using violence in their struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. Violence isn’t the way.

Does Davis mean that legislation is useless? Is voting or legal battles against unjust laws futile? I don’t think so. Ridding ourselves of evil laws seems to be a very good thing, worth struggling for. But over-reliance on law and the coercive power of the state (especially against individual people, real people; regulation of corporations is a different matter) is troublesome, especially when one tries to fit in with the extant apparatus, which, itself, is likely highly tainted. Hate crime laws seem tending in this direction, and the ease with which they are perverted is telling. Affirmative action shares a bit of this too, though it seems to have been more generally effective (perhaps because it is primarily civil rather than criminal).

So not all tools that belong to the master are, or, perhaps, need be “of” the master, at least not entirely. Many tools may be mastery not by intrinsic design, but by long use and habituation. Of course, the realities of habit and tradition are often more powerful than intent, hope, or design: part of being a masterful oppressor is being able to co-opt whatever comes to hand.

So I take Lourde’s dictum as a call to deep skepticism and constant (but not crippling) reflection. I should not be so in love with my tools that I forget the proper ends, and while the ends do not justify every means, it’s only in respect to furthering justice that the tools gain proper value. It’s all too easy to become attached to power, privileges, and even the certainties of the status quo; to value them in themselves; to treasure what we have instead of what we might gain. Even many slaves can imagine worse situations; indeed, they often see worse situations dangling before them.

Such fear is, in the end, a important tool of the masters; one that makes tools of most of us.

Against sedentary habits and silent harms

Another Monkeyfist rescue post! I found the book this December when I was hewing out boxes from Zoe’s dad’s attic. This was from June 2000.

Some reflections: Thanks to my activity trackers and physical situation, I’m a lot less sedentary (yay!)! The Egan quote remains amazing. The Ivory trilogy is well worth your time. The evidence of the harms of sedentary lifestyles has become more and more voluminous. OTOH, stretching and flexibility beyond a certain point isn’t considered as critical. The evidence is that stretching e.g., before running doesn’t reduce injuries, for example. Indeed, for runners, stiffness of various bits can make them more energy efficient, e.g., you store more energy in a stiff leg than a loose one which means that you need to expend less to maintain your stride.

“He said you don’t get enough exercise. He also said that you don’t live in your body enough.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Where the hell do I live, if I don’t live in my body?”

Doris Egan, The Gate of Ivory

I’m a sedentary fellow, no doubt about it. Aside from my obsessive reading, I was a TV zombie as a kid. I wasn’t only sedentary, of course. I loved roaming the woods along the creek near my house. As I grew older, I had the odd flirtation with dance, an on-again off-again steady relationship with T’ai Ch’i, and a passionately settled long-term affair with rambling about. Though I was a soft little wimp (which had more to do with my parents, peers, and personality than with my intrinsic physique), there were times, over the years, where my body surprised me with strength, skill, and flexibility.

People who work with their bodies—dancers, athletes, manual laborers, and so on—acquire knowledge with a content and a form generally inaccessible to many, if not most, people in industrialized countries. But “body literacy” is an important skill…as important to our well-being and overall integrity as reading is thought to be to our citizenship.

Schools teach body literacy even more poorly than they do anything else. Aside from the absurdity of most “physical education” programs, most of the school day is devoted to ossifying pursuits in uncomfortable and anti-ergonmatic situations. Movement is discouraged, stretching frowned upon, and comfort almost completely eliminated.

(My high school resembled nothing so much as a prison, increasingly so as various gates and barriers were installed over the years. I visited it a few years back and was revolted to see that my memories were of a much milder oppressiveness than that of the new reality. No, there weren’t any metal detectors, but you could film a scene set in a minimal security prison with ease there.)

(Is this what we want for children? How are they to learn to touch and interact? To simply be with each other as friends and classmates? How can teachers stand as mentors, friends, advisors, and models if they are, almost literally, guards. This is in a nationally respected, bleached white, rich, suburban school!)

As I said, I’m a sedentary fellow, made more so by my arthritis and occupations. However, my physical therapist finally convinced me to use a kitchen timer and get up every twenty minutes to stretch and get some movement. (Also, to sit up straight!) I’ll even do this in class now, and damn the funny looks.


This book, Stretching at your computer or desk, provides a slew of stretches and exercises tailored to the office, and other sedentary habitats. You can sneak them in at the copier, do a stretch while a document opens, or make crashing the computer a relaxing, rather than stressful, experience. The book is nicely illustrated, and one can get large posters of the postures to hang in the office or in the classroom.

If we taught our children to stretch sensibly and move wisely frequently, yet unobtrustively, they wouldn’t need kitchen timers. They would learn to feel when a muscle needed relaxing or a joint wanted articulation. And they would take care of it instead of ignoring discomfort as a matter of course.

We just don’t live in our bodies enough. Many of us are more or less imprisioned in them, and we respond the way we respond to dirty dishes piling up—ignore ’em until we need a clean cup or get evicted by the health department. I suspect that living well with others requires that we live well with, and in, ourselves. If we are trained to ignore discomfort, indeed, to shun comfort, in ourselves, how can we learn to care for the discomfort of others?

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.