Bodies and Machines

March 24, 2007 at 7:40 am 4 comments

I want to let Mark Seltzer’s Bodies and Machines (New York: Routledge, 1992) mostly speak for itself. Apt treatment, perhaps, for a disciple of Michel Foucault.

Of Frank NorrisThe Octopus:

“Put simply, what unites these stories is the desire to project an alternative to biological reproduction, to displace the threat posed by the ‘women people’ (the reduction of men to ‘mere animalcules’ in the process of procreation) and to devise a counter-mode of reproduction (the naturalist machine)'” (32).

“The sheer perversity of the Vanamee-Angele story provides an almost diagrammatic instance of what might be called the double discourse of the novel, a double writing by which (re)production is displaced or disavowed and rewritten in another register” (32).

“The contrast between mining and farming provides a final instance of the novel’s rewriting of production. The extraction of gold from the very entrails of the mother-earth is ultimately a species of obstetrics that can dispense with the women-people, and indeed with the body and its dreadful substance, altogether. Seen this way, gold-mining extracts value from what Marx called the ‘the womb of capital itself.’ And The Octopus, making capital of its instabilities and exigencies, provides a virtual map of the crises of production in the late nineteenth century, and of the representations invented to manage these crises” (35).

“What the naturalist aesthetic requires, then, is a principle of generation that incorporates rather than opposes the machine: in short, a mechanics that forms part of its very textuality. The discovery and operation of such a machine is the subject of Norris‘s Vandover and the Brute, a novel written before The Octopus, but not published until 1914, and a novel centrally about processes of generation, and more particularly, degeneration” (36).

“Finally, and above all, the brute itself embodies not merely a counter-principle of generation, but a counter-aesthetic as well: an aesthetic of caricature, monstrosity, and deformity, an aesthetic of genesis as degeneration–that is, the aesthetic of the naturalist novel. Stated as simply as possible, the brute is the generative principle of naturalism” (38).

“From one point of view, Vandover and the Brute maps a process of degradation; from another, a process of generation. What links these apparently opposed processes is the agency of the brute” (38).

“These evolutionary accounts of generation help to clarify what I have called the double discourse of the brute in the naturalist novel, the manner in which apparently conflicting processes of generation and degradation operate within a more comprehensive technology of regulation. More generally, these accounts point to the late nineteenth-century double discourse by which the ‘contradictory’ registers of the body and the machine are ‘floated’ in relation to each other and coordinated within what looks like a general economy of power. I have elsewhere attempted to outline how such a ‘system of flotation’ adn conversion functions in late nineteenth-century social and novelistic discourses and practices, and the manner in which a circuit of exchang is established between, on the basis of and by way of, conflicting and differentiated practices. What is gradually elaborated is a more or less efficient, more or less effective system of transformations and relays between ‘opposed’ and contradictory registers–between public and private spaces; between social norms and private values; between work and world on one side, and home and family on the other; between, more generally, ‘the economic’ and ‘the sexual.’ A flexible mechanism of adjustment is established, intrinsically promoting a coordination of conflicting practices, while strategically preserving the differences between these practices. Conflicts are, in principle, conscripted into a ‘circular functionality’ between, for instance, ‘the two registers of the production of goods and the production of producers (and consumers).’ Or, in terms of the naturalist logistics I have been considering, between the sieve-like registers of the machine and the body. These new, or rather, newly inflected, strategies of regulation advertise the differences between public and private, and between economic and sexual domains, even as they reinforce and extend lines of communication between them. But if each appears as the alternative to and sanctuary from the other, as the privileged site from which the other may be criticized and abjured, what these deployments of difference effectively obscure are precisely the links and relays progressively set in place ‘between’ these opposed domains'” (40).

“From this perspective, the utility and spreading of the thermodynamic model of force in the later nineteenth century becomes more intelligible. The scientifically sanctioned and flexibly generalizable model provided at once a system of transformation and exchange (a principle of conversion) and, in the relays, shifts, and contradictions that facilitate these exchanges, a system of crisis-management (a deployment of difference). The discourse of thermodynamics provided a working model of a new mechanics and biomechanics of power. Moreover, I have been indicating that the transformational system that manages, and capitalizes on, these differences and conflicts between the sexual and the economic, between the body and the machine, is that field of practices that Michel Foucault has called the ‘biopolitical.’ Taking as its field of analysis a politics of the body and of the social body, such an analytic identifies a network of practices located ‘between the empty gesture of the voluntary and the inscrutable efficiency of the involuntary,’ and reexamines ‘the endless cleavage between politics and psychology, by focusing on the constitution of the subject as the subject of power. What such an examination of the biopolitical dimension reveals is the subject’s disposition at the point of intersection of sexual and political practices and techniques; and what such a production of producers involves is not an ineradicable antinomy between ‘system’ and ‘subject,’ between political economy and individual psychology, between anonymous technologies of power and gender-differentiated sexual ‘identities,’ but rather a set of exchanges operating between and by way of these antinomies, ‘choices,’ and differences. The point, finally, is not to collapse these differences, but to examine their mobility and also their tactical mobilization” (41).

“One of the social practices that underwrites such an administration of power in duration is the nineteenth-century novel, and more particularly the realist novel. The subject of the realist novel, stated very generally, is the integral genesis and evolution of character in society. The realist novel, through techniques of narrative surveillance, organic continuity, and deterministic progress secures the intelligibility and supervision of individuals in an evolutionary and genetic narration. The linear continuities of the novel make for a ‘progress’ that proceeds as an unfolding and generation of character and action that are always, at least ideally, consistent with their determining antecedents. The naturalist novel involves a mutation in these techniques that consists also in a systematic and totalizing intensification of their effects. This mutation, again stated very generally, makes for functional shifts in emphasis–thematic and narrative shifts, for instance, from inheritance to heredity, from progress (as evolution) to recapitulation (as devolution), from histories of marriage and adultery to case histories of bodies, sexualities, and populations. Yet these differences themselves emphasize a significant continuity: if the realist novel resembles a time machine, the naturalist novel diagrammatically foregrounds, and maps in high relief, the evolutionary dynamics of this machinery” (43).

“In all, the naturalist novel manages late nineteenth-century ‘crises’ of production by the invention of a flexible and totalizing machine of power. Suspending contradictory practices in relation to each other, and intrinsically promoting a coordination and adjustment of these practices, the naturalist machine operates through a double discourse by which the apparently opposed registers of the body and the machine are coordinated within a single technology of regulation” (44).

“Hence neither the identificationof the feminine with the natural nor the identification of the feminine with the cultural but, instead, their uncertain mixture–the miscegenation of the natural and the cultural–is what incites, at once, panic and interest. Another way of saying this is that what is scandalous about the figure of the prostitute, in the realist novel, is that she embodies, with a violent explicitness, the mixed logic of physical capital: utterly artifactual and utterly physical at once, capital with a human face” (66).

“The connections between the everyday regressions of consumer society and these more dramatic versions of regression (that is, the connections between kitsch and the call of the wild) include also the regressions to romantic property, freedom of contract, and the romances of the market” (74).

“But it is, above all, the figure of the mother, or rather, the emphatic juxtaposition of the body of the mother and the social machine, that most powerfully condenses the relays we have been tracing: the relays between vision and embodiment and between social and natural ways of making persons” (96).

“It is this identification of writing and social physics as two versions of the same thing (each as une langue inconnue of the other) that in effect terminates the realist project: or, better, produces the terminator-version of the realist project sometimes called naturalism” (108).

“If turn-of-the-century American culture is alternatively described as naturalist, as machine culture, and as the culture of consumption, what binds together these apparently alternative descriptions is the notion that bodies and persons are things that can be made” (152).

“The commuting between these rival logics–between the logic of the market culture and possessive individualism, on the one side, and the logic of desire and discipline in the culture of consumption” (219).

“The first is a brief fantasy that appears in Henry Ford‘s autobiographical My Life and Work (1923). The production of the Model T required 7882 distinct work operations, but, Ford noted, only 12% of these tasks–only 949 operations–required ‘strong, able-bodied, and practically physically perfect men.’ Of the remainder–and this is clearly what he sees as the major achievement of his method of production–‘we found that 670 could be filled by legless men, 2,637 by one-legged men, two by armless men, 715 by one-armed men and ten by blind men.’ If from one point of view, such a fantasy projects a violent dismemberment of the natural body and an emptying out of human agency, from another it projects a transcendence of the natural body and the extension of human agency through the forms of technology that represent it. This is precisely the double logic of prosthesis and it is also the double logic of a sheer culturalism that posits that the individual is something that can be made” (157).

“The replacement of the natural body by the artificial body of the organization entails a transformation in production that is also a politics of reproduction. That is, the technologies for the making of men devised in naturalist discourse provide an anti-natural and anti-biological alternative to biological production and reproduction: the mother and the machine are, in the naturalist text, linked but rival principles of creation. These technologies of reproduction make up what I have described as ‘the naturalist machine’ . . . One form this competition between principles of production takes appears in the redefining of the category of production itself. Such a redefinition, in the naturalist discourse of force, displays in part a compensatory male response to a threatening female productivity: a compensation already implicit in such a counterposing of ‘male’ and ‘female’ power or principles. It displays also the ‘culturalist’ desire to devise an anti-natural and anti-biological countermode of making, a desire to ‘manage’ production and reproduction’ (157).

“It should by now be clear, however, that naturalist discourse registers such a transformation in production in terms of what I have called the double logic of prosthesis: in terms, at once, of panic and exhilaration. The discourse of naturalism is situated at the crux of this transformation: at the excruciated moment of confrontation between bodies and machines” (160).

“Put simply, to the extent that the anti-biological and anti-natural biases of naturalism involve, as we have seen, the transcendence of ‘the natural’ and ‘the female’ both, they involve the transcendence of a female/nature, identified with liquid interiors and flows. Such a channeling of natural floods into orderly movements thus forms part of the technologies for the making of men we have been tracing here” (164).

“It makes explicit here also the paradoxical economy of London‘s call of the wild, what I have been describing as the unnaturalness of Nature in naturalism. That is, if “the Wild,” and its White Logic, are ‘the antithesis of life’ (the enemy of motion), this is to indicate the unnatural or ‘beyond the natural’ (WF 172) character of life (motion) itself. Such a turning away from the natural makes for what might be described as the compulsory unnaturalness or compulsory perversity of naturalist discourse. This perversity is revealed, on the one side, in the unnatural disciplines of the machine process and, on the other, in the unnatural disciplines of naturalist sexuality” (167).

“The mechanical process of producing men is thus a process of systematic management–the formation of the disciplinary individual. And the system of disciplinary individualism involves not merely the individualization and specialization of work and workers (the ‘division of labor’ and ‘special knowledge’ that London takes up, for example, at the opening of The Sea Wolf). It involves also the Taylorization of bodies and interiors: what London calls the ‘achieve[ment of] an internal as well as external economy’ (CW 25). It involves, most fundamentally, the identification of the life process and the machine process, the ‘coordination’ of the body and the machine” (168).

“Not merely does the toil of trace and trail transform ‘sullen brutes’ into ideal workers–‘straining, eager, ambitious creatures’ (CW 33). ‘So he worked hard, learned discipline, and was obedient’ [WF 196].) Bodily processes are identified with efficient machine processes, internal and external economies all in order and precisely coordinated. For London, as for Seton, what this means, finally, is the bringing of individuals up to efficient standards through mastery of the laws of ‘time and space, the forces of Nature.’ London’s accounts of the wild often resemble time/motion studies, and ‘the sounding of the call’ appears as a ‘time-card’ . . . drawn on the limitless future’ (CW 73). This is the unnatural Nature that Veblen neatly condenses in his notion of “the instinct of workmanship'” (168).

“The ‘naturalization’ of the disciplinesof machine culture is, I have argued, inseparable from the redrawing of the uncertain line between the human and the animal, between ‘mankind’ and ‘brute creation.’ Along the same lines, London’s stories of men in furs make utterly explicit what I have been describing as the transcendence of the natural body in the naturalist project of making men” (170).

“It might be suggested that if photography is the realist from of representation par excellence, taxidermy is the form of representation proper to naturalism” (170).

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Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, animals/men, Bodies and Machines, body, books, Call of the Wild, Critical Theory, Foucault, Frank Norris, Frederick Taylor, Henry Ford, Jack London, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Mark Seltzer, Marx, Model T, Sea Wolf, The Octopus, Thorstein Veblen, Vandover and the Brute.

New Kronos Quartet, Gorecki String Quartet IWMA and the European Left

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. cerebraljetsam  |  March 24, 2007 at 4:38 pm

    Taxidermy, eh? Weird. I thought naturalism for him is about the ability to MAKE bodies much like machines (one oy the early quotes). Isn’t taxidermy the unmaking of a body? And hasn’t that been the oldest form of weird displays of bodies–if you wanna count all the classic examples of “heads on spikes” as punishment things as crude forms of taxidermy–well, they are not preserved as well, but that may be part fo that form of taxidermy. How about crucifixion to display a dead body as representation? Or how about lynching, which would be even closer in the US historical context he describes? Strange.
    Have you seen Body Worlds, by the way. I think it’s back at the Museum of Science and Industry here.

  • 2. skunkcabbage  |  March 24, 2007 at 6:56 pm

    It’s complicated. Taxidermy exemplifies one of the “relays” between men in furs (like in London) and the still life of a body that is no longer a body, but put to use as a kind of desiring technology–a kind of machine that looks natural but whose preservation is Unnatural and controlled. This anti-Nature that is also coded as anti-female/mother is indicative of a masculine/hysterical form of (re)productive control that in Norris gets coded as machine or the onanistic force of an endlessly mastrubating god.

    The taxidermied animal is both more and less than it was in life. More in so far as it is an exhibit and everything that goes with that, less because, obviously it’s dead. It’s perverse, monstrous, and exhilarating. This is the state of humanity in naturalist novels.

    That’s my shot at what Seltzer means by taxidermy. I like the bit about “the terminator version of realism sometimes called naturalism.” I wonder if that would fit on a business card?

    Terminator Version of Realism Sometimes Called Naturalism

    Anyway, you’re absolutely right that taxidermy is a kind of unmaking of a body–it starts to slide toward a kind of machine–and Seltzer wants to situate naturalism in a series of “relays” between body and machine. Head on spikes function similarly (although for some reason I can’t help associating them with modernism–I guess I blame Conrad).

    I had not thought about lynching, but wow, yes, absolutely. There is A LOT of work to be done there, and with African-American naturalisms in general.

    I’ve not seen body Body Worlds. If I’m back in may maybe it will still be around? I’m hoping to come out of my (new) cave every now and then this summer.

    Good thoughts! Thanks for wading through the Seltzer with me.

  • 3. skunkcabbage  |  March 24, 2007 at 7:30 pm

    I should maybe also add that the double logic of the taxidermied animal is similar to that of the prosthesis–both more and less than what is missing.

    If you click on prosthesis, whoever put up the Wikipedia post has a picture of an Iraq vet. A nice political move on the writer’s part.

  • 4. skunkcabbage  |  March 24, 2007 at 7:34 pm

    The relays (hey frenchie!) of course form a circuit of control, regulation, and surveillance.


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