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“It’s Not Yours To Do With What You Like!” A Critical Reading of George Saunders’ Jon

“It’s Not Yours To Do With What You Like!” A Critical Reading Of George Saunders’ Jon

Technology will in the near and in the farther future increasingly turn from problems of intensity, substance, and energy, to problems of structure, organization, information, and control.

 – John von Neumann (1949)

 

The American short-story writer, George Saunders, has been riding a crest of critical and popular acclaim for two decades now.[1] And deservedly so. His skill at capturing the contemporary zeitgeist in a form that reflects that spirit provides us with an insider’s view of our contemporary world. Jon is one of Saunders’ most trenchant evocations of the character of our age.2 It alludes to the form of disorder peculiar to modernity. By revealing the cause of this disorder, Saunders offers insight into how this disorder may be resisted. All of this might lead one to conclude that Jon fits squarely into that venerable and hoary genre known as “intellectual literature.” If it does, the fit is loose, because the “reality” Jon limns is profoundly unreflective and Saunders’ commentary on it is appropriately indirect and unforced.

Through the lens of the short story’s eponymous protagonist, Saunders supplies us with a picture of a closed universe whose end is the production of equally closed, or self-satisfied, beings. The airless quality that hangs over the narrative is exemplified in its setting, a compound called the “Facility” in which the plot almost entirely unfolds. Its autonomy is highlighted further by the fact that the Facility’s precise location in time and space is never specified. Situated somewhere in the American Midwest in what appears to be the near(ish) future, Jon’s world is utterly featureless. It is abstracted from time, place, and any detail that might designate it as “this” world and not another. While the generic quality of the Facility is itself a commentary on its character, it serves as well to have this utopic “no-place” mirror the reality of our times.

Indeed, it would take a special obtuseness not to read Jon as commentary on our consumer culture. The variances between our contemporary consumer culture and the one depicted in Jon are differences without a distinction. The same principles inform both. The same ends are operative in both. The only difference is that Jon and his friends live in a social order that realizes this shared ideal more effectively than we do today.

This ideal is the fantasy that animates the technological project. It is the dream of perfect or total domination, whereby through human intellection and ingenuity the world loses its status as an object and is rendered wholly compliant to the controlling will.3 The image of perfection technology chases is a world that functions in the manner we want, and does so efficiently. What makes us distinctly modern is precisely the expectation that the world, both human and nonhuman, can be subjected to effective, rational control. The modern spirit is coterminous with the spirit of technology. And this spirit is totalizing. Nothing is seen as immune to being operationalized.4 From supply chains to chain saws, everything is treated as a system whose functionality is to be maximized.

In business circles, the spirit of technology reveals itself most unequivocally in the phenomenon known as “total quality management,” or TQM.5 TQM is an extension of Taylorist principles of scientific management as applied to economic production. These principles pertain not only to the efficient production of quality goods and services, but to their distribution and consumption, as well. Under TQM, the entire production-consumption chain is regarded as a system whose efficient functioning is to be maximized.

Today, this maximizing is effected in large part through the acquiring and processing of data generated within a given system. One preferred means of obtaining such data is the solicitation of consumer feedback. By filling out on-line satisfaction reports and their surrogates, consumers provide business enterprises with the kinds of information that help them become more efficient, less wasteful enterprises. These enterprises wish to produce what the consumer wants to consume, no more and no less. While producing undesired goods and services is clearly wasteful, so is the over- and underproduction of consumables deemed desirable. The information collected from consumer feedback is employed to mitigate waste, or to “rationalize” the production-consumption dyad. The better able businesses are at rationalizing their affairs, the happier we are as consumers and the more profitable these enterprises become.

In Jon, the consumer model that drives our society is re-imagined at the next level of efficiency. Rather than rely on the vagaries of consumer compliance to do the job, we see in Jon the professionalization of consumer product assessment. At bottom, the Facility is a product assessment machine, an organized system that does what we already are doing, only more effectively. While it may be the mother of all Big Data generators, as an information procurer the Facility provides a function endemic to any and all technologically-driven cultures: It seeks to minimize inefficiencies within an established management system. So, in broad terms, the society Saunders depicts in Jon is just like ours. It aims to make satisfied consumers out of human beings. It wants to produce a world that works, a tensionless world with few or no unwanted surprises or frustrations. Read this way, Jon represents less a dark alternative to our own way of life than a purer expression of it.

*          *         *

As if to underscore its contiguity with the contemporary world, Jon unfolds as a formulaic love story. The “boy meets girl, boy loses girl only to reunite” trope is replayed here. It is the lo-fi sci-fi context within which the love affair between Jon and Carolyn emerges that lends the story its pathos. But the setting of the romance is not simply an add-on that gives the romance its color. While the love story is central to the overall narrative, it cannot be properly appreciated outside of the context in which it unfolds.

The reason why it cannot is because the world inhabited by Jon and his co-workers is deeply unerotic. Jon and Carolyn’s love story takes root within an environment inimical to love. The poignancy of the story emerges from the tension between what their love for each other demands of them and what their culture encourages them to cultivate in terms of loyalties and attachments. The power of erotic yearning stands in stark and uncompromising contrast to a world in which everything is treated as an object of actual or potential control.

Saunders wastes no time highlighting the de-eroticizing impact of a technological milieu. In the short story’s opening sentence, Jon recounts an instructional video he and his friends were encouraged to watch, entitled: “It’s Yours to Do With What You Like!” In it, he says, “teens like ourselfs speak on the healthy benefits of getting off by oneself and doing what one feels like in terms of self-touching . . .” Jon makes a point of stressing that while the video acknowledges love may be a “mystery,” it teaches that the “mechanics of love” need not be. Relegating the mystery of love to the dustbin of inquiry, love qua masturbation is treated as an operation whose optimal functioning requires technical training.

The initial identification of the putative “mechanics of love” with masturbation is not accidental. Metaphorically speaking, the entire social order to which Jon contributes is an onanist’s playground. After all, its central organizing principle is the satisfaction of personal desire, with the Facility being a means to such satisfaction. Everything in Jon’s world conspires to create perfectly functioning delivery systems whose ultimate objective is personal gratification, sexual or otherwise. Eros is its enemy.

The paradisiacal quality of de-eroticized life in the Facility is equally evident. Jon and his fellow “assessors” live in an updated version of the Garden of Eden. They inhabit a consumer paradise where they get to keep the cool stuff they rate, and become icons of popular taste in the process. The assessors are product testing rock stars and, like intramundane gods, they are buffered from slings and arrows of mere mortal existence. There is Aurabon, the drug of choice, to help erase any present and future psychological distress their conditioned existences fail to keep at bay. And the hauntings of events past are replaced with a Memory Loop that resolves by artificial means any tensions that may compromise their present-day happiness.

The “idyllic” life of the assessors comes at the cost of its utter artificiality, however. Their physical environment, for one, is wholly constructed: Nothing natural intrudes, save the bits of unreconstructed reality visible through the Facility’s lone observation window. Likewise, their social existence is lived out entirely within the froth of a marketing culture, where ad campaigns constitute the sum total of the assessors’ imaginative landscape.

Now, a story about paradise is boring because perfection is boring. Boring places are places with nothing to do. They are places devoid of the possibility of action because true action springs from dissatisfaction with the given, and paradise of necessity is a place where one is at home with the world as it is. It is precisely desire for what is not, or for what one does not have, that moves us to act.6 The self-satisfied creatures of the Facility are desireless in their contentment. They function but are incapable of acting.

To get a story worth telling going, something must happen to break the seal of the perfectly functional world of the assessors. The existing condition of low entropy needs disrupting. Disorder must enter into the picture, and its entry requires energy. In Jon, this energy takes sexual form, only this time the energy results in the carnal union of two of Jon’s friends, Josh and Ruth. The sexual escapade is launched with Josh squeezing through a space separating the girls’ from the boys’ living quarters. In describing Josh’s movement as “snakelike,” Saunders associates Josh’s advance with the symbolism of the serpent and its Old Testament linkages to evil and chaos. Josh, it may be said, is a vector that infects the compound with a force antithetical to its ordering principle. He is the means by which Baudrillardian “Evil” obtrudes into the whitewashed world of the Facility.7

Not unexpectedly, what results from the act of sexual union is a real baby, Baby Amber. A real act springing from true passion results in the chaos that is a newborn child. Baby Amber is evil personified insofar as, like any newborn, she is the embodiment of unpredictability. Nothing is more antithetical to the spirit of perfect functionality than a capricious and prodigious shit machine.8

As action begets action, Jon follows Josh’s lead by slipping one night into his paramour’s tent. Jon describes his tryst with Carolyn in the following manner:

And though I had many times seen LI 34321 for Honey Grahams,

where the stream of milk and the stream of honey enjoin to make

that river of sweet-tasting goodness, I did not know that, upon

making love, one person may become like the milk and the other

like the honey, and soon they cannot even remember who started

out the milk and who the honey, they just become one fluid, like

this honey/milk combo.

This passage is at once both touching and disturbing, at least from the reader’s perspective. For Jon, the limited range of his powers of self-expression is not problematic. His articulation of the experience of lovemaking in the idiom of a cereal advertisement is the only kind of imagery he has got to work with and, given the material, Jon’s powers of expression are more than adequate.

If there is something disturbing about this passage it is how Saunders uses language to underscore the general point that there is no strict separation between our inner thoughts and feelings, on the one hand, and the world with which we interact, on the other. In short, our inner or private world is shown never to be entirely our own. Our ability to articulate thoughts and feelings – and to some extent even to have them – is shaped both by the nature of the social order we inhabit, and by the character of our relations with this order. It would be odd indeed, for instance, if living in a world given over to branding did not tend to elicit the production of truncated thoughts and caricatured feelings. And perhaps more important, and unsettling, it should not be assumed that restrictions of this sort are recognized as such by language users. A significatory cave is not perceived as limiting if the cave constitutes one’s cosmos.

The reference to “milk and honey” in Jon’s post-coital soliloquy is an instance in which Saunders appears to play with signification to deepen our appreciation of the underlying tension between eros and technology. It is in Book of Exodus that Israel is referred to as “a land flowing with milk and honey,” a phrase intended to signify its overflowing abundance.9 Here it appears Saunders is aligning love/sexual union with abundance, or with what Paul Feyerabend has called “the richness of being.”10 If so, then a world without love amounts to an impoverished reality, a faint imprint of its native fullness.

Shutting the door on love is often a precondition for the gaining of worldly fame and fortune. Treating persons and possessions as manipulable stuff has its benefits. And we see that Jon’s previously loveless life was distinguished by a good measure of power and prestige. It is only later in the story, when confronted with the prospect of following Carolyn out of the Facility, that Jon is made aware of the full cost of love. He realizes, rightly, that he likely will end up just a regular guy living a nondescript life, a thought that frightens him.

As with Josh and Ruth, Jon and Carolyn’s sexual union results in pregnancy, which in turn leads their marriage and what Jon describes as “the best day of our lifes thus far for sure.” But as in real life, the good comes with the bad, and tragedy soon strikes with the death of Baby Amber. Everyone connected with her is affected deeply by Amber’s death, and Jon is no exception. “This sucks, this is totally fucked up!,” he blurts in response.

This decidedly less than eloquent lament is nonetheless an expression of real emotional pain, and consequently it cannot stand. Grief is an unproductive emotion. In a culture hell-bent on solving problems, despair is seen as an inefficiency demanding corrective attention. So Jon’s grief is pharmaceutically exorcized as a means of restoring his capacity to function in the manner he was assigned. As the label suggests, Aurabon works to restore the good mood required of productive activity, and the drug functions well as a function-enhancer. No sooner is Jon “hooked in” than he remarks on his improved capacity to perform assessments, resulting in his winning a regional prize in assessing excellence.

Amber’s death has a very different and long-term effect on Carolyn. Because her pregnancy prevents her from taking Aurabon, the emotional impact of Baby Amber’s death lingers. Carolyn stays real. And because she does, the discrepancy between her all-too-human response to a loved one’s death and that of her chemically altered cohorts becomes untenable. “Wake up and smell the coffee,” she admonishes, “you feel bad because a baby dies, how about honoring that by continuing to feel bad, which is only natural, because a goddam baby died, you guys!” And then, one night soon afterward, when Carolyn’s in utero child kicks, the full import of her rejecting her post-human environs makes itself known. “Don’t worry, angel,” she announces, “Mommy is going to get you Out.”

Now, “Out” is an interesting word, because Carolyn’s baby at that moment was “in” her. And, of course, being born into the world also means going ‘out’ into the world. But Carolyn does not have in mind that kind of exiting. She means out as in leaving the Facility. The outstanding issue at this point is whether Jon will accompany her. Because Jon loves Carolyn, he knows his fate is tied to hers in one way or another. Jon is not all about Jon anymore. He senses as much, but he is not enamored with the prospect of going Out if for no other reason than he likes being In. Paradise might be boring, but for Jon it is an especially fun kind of boring. In contrast, the thought of taking on a loser job, like working in a lumberyard, is considered by him a fate worse than death.

But there is another problem with life on the outside that is cause for consternation. Jon describes the dilemma with a charm all his own:

Of what will we speak of? I do not want to only speak of my love

in grunts. If I wish to compare my love to a love I have previous

knowledge of, I do not want to stand there in the wind casting

about for my metaphor! … if I want to say Carolyn, LI 34451,

check it out, that is how I feel about you — well, then, I want to

say it!

Jon is sincerely worried about the impact leaving the Facility will have on his powers of self-expression. The well being of his inner, emotive life is as much a concern to him as that of his external, material circumstances. Jon prides himself in his ability to convey his love for Carolyn in the imagery of a Re/Max ad. His powers of articulation are dependent on his retaining the cultural references from which he draws insight. Losing these references means losing his voice, which explains why Jon believes that should he leave the Facility, he will be reduced to communicating in grunts. Of course, the irony is that Jon already is speaking in grunts. He fails to realize that only by leaving the Facility and “casting about for metaphors,” does he stand a chance of being better able to express his love for Carolyn.

Jon’s ongoing ambivalence toward life on the outside is contrasted sharply with Carolyn’s resolve to leave the Facility, upon which she promptly acts. Her absence from Jon’s life in the compound only serves to impress upon him the depth of his love for her. This longing to reunite supplies him with the determination to make the move. Yet Jon remains to the end uncertain about what he sees of the outside world, as viewed from the Facility’s observation window. The people he surveys milling about strike him as anything but an uplifting bunch. The drab and “bummed-out-looking guys in the plainest non-designer clothes ever” are an ornery lot whose default mode of communication appears to be caterwauling. Much like the proles in George Orwell’s1984, Saunders portrays real people not as ideal types but as flawed and incomplete beings.11

Reservations aside, Jon’s first exposure to the outside world is occasioned when a Facility coordinator opens a door, allowing him to peer out. He describes the experience in the following manner: “Looking out, I saw no walls and no rug and no ceiling, only lawn and flowers, and above that a wide black sky with stars, which all of that made me a bit dizzy, there being no glass between me and it.” It is important to remember that, at this moment, Jon is not yet out of the Facility. He is merely peering out from within the confines of his domicile. In a way, the real world at this point remains for Jon a mere picture of reality, as framed by the opening in the Facility wall. Still, the impact of this windowless image of reality is jarring and disorienting, a testament to the richness of being that has been forsaken within the Facility.

Jon then is gently pushed out, not unexpectedly given his trepidation over the outside world. He continues: “And I don’t know, it is one thing to look out a window, but when you are Out, actually Out, that is something very powerful, and how embarrassing was that, because I could not help it, I went down flat on my gut, checking out those flowers . . . ” It needs be stressed that for Jon the distinguishing characteristic of the outside world is not limited to a particular feature of it, whether it be the night sky, or flowers, or the grass beneath his feet. It is the being of reality itself that captures his attention.

The world exerts an irresistible force upon Jon: He cannot help but be drawn toward it. The seductive power of reality is so overwhelming, it turns out, that Jon expresses shame for having been laid prostrate, a fitting emblem of his reorientation toward the being of the world. Not inert information waiting to be scanned by a probing and dispassionate eye, Jon’s fascination with the flowers is in response to the call of the world itself. The world, in short, is experienced by him as erotically charged, as an order of love. Jon’s attraction to Carolyn can be seen as an analogue of his attraction to the world at large. He experiences for the first time what it means to participate in this order, to play an active role in its unfolding, in contrast to the distancing, technological orientation, which takes the world to be a resource best fitted for controlling.

The “kickass outside yard,” however, is not the culmination of Jon’s existential enlightenment. It reaches its pinnacle with his sighting of Carolyn, who initially he fails to recognize on account of her plainness. But that soon changes: “… to tell the truth, even with the DermaFilled neckhole and nada makeup and huge baby belly, still she looked so pretty, it was like someone had put a light inside her and switched it on.” Paralleling another scene from1984, where Winston waxes poetic about an objectively less-than-beautiful woman, Jon is entranced by the inner beauty of the woman he loves.12

*          *         *

Jon’s love for Carolyn is not sufficient to quell entirely his reservations about life on the outside. Intellectually, his doubts persist to the very end: “In terms of what we think of, I do not know. When I think of what we will think of, I draw this like total blank and get scared, so scared my Peripheral Area flares up green, like when I have drank too much soda, but tell the truth I am curious, I think I am ready to try.” What has changed, however, is Jon’s sense that life beyond the confines of the Facility possesses a gravity not found within its walls. This weight is a consequence of his participating in an order of being marked by open-endedness, in direct opposition to the closed and hyper-managed confines of the Facility. The world is not Jon’s to do with what he likes: It acts on him as much as he acts on it. Jon’s reorientation, his periagoge,13 is revealed in this  passage through his conflating “I” with “we.” He now knows his fate as a person is not wholly self-determined, but tied to that of another person. Similarly, Jon knows their future lives together will be open to the contingencies of a world not entirely of human making. It is precisely not knowing what the future holds for them that supplies him with the courage to give life on the outside a try. It is the fortuitousness of real existence that lends life its meaning, as precarious as this meaning may be.

As stated at the outset, Jon presents us with a distilled image of modernity. This image brings into relief and satirizes our consumer-obsessed lives. As a result, Jon reads us as much as we read it. Or at least it should. For in assessing the assessors’ lives, we are assessing our own, which resemble Jon’s life more than many of us have the courage to admit. We inhabit our own version of the Facility. We know more about the Twitterverse than the universe, more about the antics of a trending pop star, or how much a top-grossing film pulled in on the weekend, than about the world under our noses. And in an age of text messaging, to what extent are our ‘communication skills’ all that distinguishable from those of Jon’s? Do we not grunt in our own uniquely re-animalized way? The parallels continue regarding the role pharmaceuticals play in our lives today. The medicalization of basic human emotions and conditions (i.e., grief, or shyness) is a well-entrenched and documented practice, that gives over our psychic well being to systems of control no different in kind than those used to effect any other kind of efficiency. We have our Aurabons, and they go by a long and growing list of names such as Xanax, Cymbalta, and Prozac. And in the love and sex department, is not finding a mate or a hook-up becoming indistinguishable from shopping for one? The growing popularity of online dating sites attests to the powerful sweep of the tick-the-boxes, consumerist mentality throughout the contemporary social order.

So the bad news is that, in these and innumerable other ways, our lives are becoming as creepily surreal as the lives of the assessors depicted in Jon. We are in the midst of exchanging the richness of being for simulations of reality whose only redeeming feature is their functionality. The collective desire to build a world that works is more powerful an idea and ideal than any alternative to it. Yet love, or eros, remains the only countervailing force to the push to operationalize.

The good news, Saunders proffers, is that erotic love can never be entirely suppressed, no matter how hostile an environment might be to the spirit of love. In this regard, he appears sympathetic with a Latin poet’s observation regarding the futility of efforts to eradicate nature.14 What was the erotic attraction between Jon and Carolyn if not a manifestation of the revenge of the repressed, one that informed them that their pre-packaged existences in the Facility were hollow and phony? Their love for each other – their natural yearning for completion – led them to understand that there is more to life than the self, its security, and its satisfactions. They came to understand that real life is, by its nature, open-ended, and for that reason fraught with uncertainties as well.

All totalitarian regimes, real or imagined, past or present, have as their primary objective the erasure of desire in all its forms for the very reason that desirous beings are existentially unsettled. The leaders of these regimes realize that the key to total domination is the creation of self-satisfied beings. Yearning for something that transcends the given is anathema to the stability of the totalitarian state. Their most pressing concern, therefore, is finding an effective means of erasing the gap between what is and what could be, between the real and the ideal.

If the human condition is marked by desire and unrest, then efforts to quell desire are post-humanist by definition. Today, this post-human, transformational push takes the form of the technological drive to eliminate the contingencies and challenges that prevent our real lives from mirroring the lives of our dreams. This drive is systemic in scope. It is the defining feature of a civilization that, because it wants what technology wants, is willing to sacrifice “the human” on the altar of productivity and efficiency.

We are seriously misguided if we assume the post-human objective of perfect functionality is harmless because it remains an unachievable ideal. Many are likely to dismiss concerns about our present path on the grounds that there will always be Jons and Carolyns among us who “keep it real.” But love is never simply triumphant. Consider, in this regard, the world Jon and Carolyn enter into at story’s end. Perhaps the ultimate irony of Jon is that Out is not really out, in which case neither is In actually in. The Out/In duality proves to be false metaphysics, in the final analysis. It is false because the product testing that goes on in the Facility is targeted for application beyond its walls. The ‘outside’ world is organized around the knowledge gathered from within the Facility. So, in a sense, Jon and Carolyn never fully exit the Facility. The outside world is as much a construct as the inside, although arguably a less totalistic one.

It follows, then, that the love Jon has for Carolyn cannot “save” him in any simple sense of the term because that love forever will have to contest with a social environment that challenges it. The only thing that has changed is how they perceive and relate to this order. Jon and Carolyn now see it in perspective. The reality they thought was all encompassing and cool has been revealed to be small and unrewarding. In short, what for them constitutes “the real” has changed, a reorientation that has the potential to change everything.

To conclude, Jon holds a mirror to our society by revealing the depth of our complicity in a consumer society that wants what technology more generally wants, the production of self-satisfied post-humans. Saunders appears to remain optimistic that our intractable human nature is a bulwark against the drive to self-satisfaction. Love might not conquer all, but it remains unconquerable. While this may be true, it is equally true that as our enfoldment within the technological regime deepens, as we more fully enter the post-human era, it will become increasingly difficult to put our (human) lives into proper perspective. As a vantage point beyond the technological vantage point fades from view, so will the means of resisting the forces limiting our vision. This self-reinforcing logic should give us pause. For while love might give us the ability and courage to resist the closing of the horizon, the conditions for the exercising of love, upon which this resistance depends, are becoming progressively unfavorable.

 

Notes

1. George Saunders’ short-stories have been winning national and international literary awards since the mid-1990s, including the MacArthur Fellowship in 2006. His latest collection of stories, Tenth of December: Stories, has been on numerous best-seller lists since its publication in 2013.

2. Jon was first published in the January 27, 2003 edition of The New Yorker, and has been subsequently republished in the collection, In Persuasion Nation (Riverhead, 2007). All the quotations that appear in this essay are taken from the online version of The New Yorker  printing. I wish to thank Ron Srigley for drawing my attention to Jon and to its possibilities with regard to my own academic interests.

3. Technology reviles the “object,” or that which is thrown against (from ob “against” + iacere “to throw”) us. Through the development of modern scientific understanding, the object-world is progressively demystified, and consequently increasingly brought within the ambit of human control.

4. Jean Baudrillard is one of the contemporary world’s most eloquent and incisive critics of the totalizing spirit of technology, which seeks to make an operation, or a technical performance, out of every conceivable human endeavor. Key texts on this theme include his The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena  (Verso, 2009), and The Intelligence of Evil: Or, the Lucidity Pact (Bloomsbury Academic, 2005).

5. Total Quality Management can be defined as a business approach that focuses on performance feedback and its progressive refinement as a chief means of improving the quality of products and services. The effective gathering and assessment of data is central to TQM, thus fulfilling John von Neumann’s prophecy (as stated in this essay’s epigraph) that in the future the main technological challenge will pertain to concerns over “organization, information, and control.”

6. Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel’s philosophy of history forcefully underscores the inherent connection between desire, action, and negation. See his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit (Cornell, 1980), especially Chapter 1, “In Place of an Introduction.”

7. Baudrillard defines Evil ontologically, not moralistically. Evil is a permanent feature of reality that works at cross-purposes to the forces of integration and operationalization. Evil sees to it that nothing is fated to achieve a state of perfect functionality. Evil, therefore, is the implacable counter-force to the technological drive to create what Baudrillard calls “Integral Reality,” a world of pure positivity.

8. The “shit machine” reference is made in response to Czech novelist’s Milan Kundera’s understanding of the symbolism of shit, which he addresses in his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Harper, 2009). “The objection to shit,” one of Kundera’s characters points out, “is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don’t lock yourself in the bathroom) or we are created in an unacceptable manner” (83). Technology, accordingly, can been seen as an enterprise grounded in the denial of shit. Its goal is to recreate reality as a shit-free zone, a whitewashed world stripped of everything that might be consider repugnant or otherwise negative. The result is the triumph of kitsch, or the Disneyfication of reality.

9. Exodus 3:8. The passage reads, in part: “So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey….”

10. See Paul Feyerabend’s The Conquest of Abundance:  A Tale of Abstraction versus  the Richness of Being, Bert Terpstra, ed. (University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 1999).

11. This is one of many specific parallels between the two texts. More important, however, is the overall character of their respective critiques of modernity. Both 1984 and Jon address the modern impulse to erase the tension between what is and what might be, or between the real and the ideal. For both Orwell and Saunders, the greatest danger facing humanity today is the sense of self-satisfaction that accompanies the view that our present way of life constitutes “the good life,” and that nothing remains to be done but elaborate the principles already in place and extend the powers already established.

12. The scene in question involves a hardscrabble, middle-aged woman hanging her laundry, whom Winston sees as beautiful despite her “monstrous dimensions.” See George Orwell’s 1984 (Penguin Books: London, 1954), 228.

13. Periagoge is the expression Plato employs in the Republic to describe the turning around, or opening, of the soul toward the fullness of reality. The parallel between Plato’s “cave,” in which this turning around transpires, and the Facility, from which Jon finds release, can hardly be overstated.

14. Attributed to Horace, the passage reads: “You may drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she will always come back” (Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret).

15. The phrase “what technology wants” is Kevin Kelley’s, and refers to his understanding of technology as a cosmic force to which we humans would be well advised to hitch our fate. The greatest threat to ‘human’ well being is our penchant to meddle with the grand unfolding of the “technium,” Kelly’s label for the technological order. Accordingly, getting out of technology’s way is the path to our salvation as a species. It appears that wanting what technology wants involves in part signing up to the newly-formed Quantified Self movement, of which Kelly, conveniently, is a co-founder. The movement has as its objective the use of self-tracking technologies to create data sets of personal habits and routines that can be employed to improve daily functioning: The operationalization ethic meets the self. Post-humanism has fewer more tireless promoters than Kevin Kelly. See his What Technology Wants (Viking, 2010).

Gil GermainGil Germain

Gil Germain

Gil Germain is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Prince Edward Island. He is author of Spirits in the Material World: The Challenge of Technology (Lexington Books, 2009).

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