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In Bodies and Machines, Mark Seltzer "traces the relays between the natural and the technological that make up what might be called the American body-machine complex" in naturalist and realist fiction. For Seltzer, "Nothing typifies the American sense of identity more than the love of nature (nature's nation) except perhaps the love of technology (made in America)." This love of technology comes to fruition as the naturalist machine -- a machine that produces a counter-model for a persistent anxiety in naturalist fiction: the anxiety over modes of production and generation. Seltzer begins part one, "The Naturalist Machine," with these words:

In these pages I will be concerned with the cluster of anxieties, at once
sexual, economic, and aesthetic, that seems to be generated in the late
nineteenth century "naturalist" novel. More specifically, I will be considering an insistent anxiety about production and generation - generation of lives, powers, and representations - that marks this fiction.

These anxieties that Seltzer identifies must be deeply rooted in the American psyche indeed, for it is these same anxieties that trouble the postmodern writer at every turn. In other words, rather than the issues troubling the naturalist in the late nineteenth century lessening and resolving themselves by the mid-twentieth, they persisted and reappeared again and again, most notably in the work of our postmodernists. As an example, let us examine one of the novels from the quintessential postmodern novelist, Thomas Pynchon.

Before diving into the novel I have chosen for this experiment, V., let me turn once more to Seltzer. Analyzing The Octopus and Vandover and the Brute by Frank Norris, Seltzer asserts that Norris's novels provide a "virtual map of the crises of production in the late nineteenth century, and of the representations invented to manage the crisis." Throughout this analysis of Norris's texts, Seltzer lists several mechanisms that manage the crises and build a counter-model of production and generation that he terms the naturalist machine. Among these are the twinned representations of generative power (the mother and the machine) which "are suspended in relation to each other…as linked but competing principles of creation" and the insertion of man as middleman in reproduction which replaces "female generative power with an alternative practice, at once technological and male." In the naturalist novel, these mechanisms bind the anxiety over capitalism and the industrial revolution to the anxiety over production and generation. Now, in the postmodern novel, the factory may be gone, but the anxiety over production and generation lives on.

In chapter one of Pynchon's V., the narrator describes the following scene:

Mrs. Buffo, owner of the Sailor's Grave, whose first name was also
Beatrice, had a theory that just as small children call all females
mother, so sailors, in their way equally helpless, should call all
barmaids Beatrice. Further to implement this maternal policy, she had
had custom beer taps installed, made of foam rubber, in the shape of
very large breasts. From eight to nine on payday nights there occurred
something Mrs, Buffo called Suck Hour. She began it officially by
emerging from the back room clad in a dragon embroidered kimono
given her by an admirer in the seventh fleet, raising a gold
boatswain's pipe to her lips and blowing Chow Down. At this signal,
everyone would dive for and if they were lucky enough to reach one
be given suck by a beer tap.

Note here the twinned representation of generative power (the mother and the machine). As Seltzer explains, the naturalist text desires "to displace the threat posed by the 'women people'" by devising a counter-model of reproduction that "circumvents these threats and projects an autonomous (and male) technique of creation." Of course, my point here is that the postmodern text continues this process.

In this quote from V., Pynchon begins by developing a counter-model for representations of the female (reproductive) body. First, the barmaids are reduced to automaton reproductions of one other. All are Beatrice; all are interchangeable like the parts on an assembly line, just as all "mothers" are interchangeable to children. Second, the breast-shaped beer taps are technological substitutions for the flesh female body. The breast, a symbol of fertility, rather than being preserved for the sacred rite of giving life to an infant, transforms, in a farce, into a beer dispensing machine in a bar game. These counter-models of the female as carbon copy robot and of the female breast as beer tap convert the female body into a machine, thereby producing a model of production that is man made.

When Profane takes Da Conho's lettuce out to the garbage, Rachel almost hits him with her MG. In this scene, we again find the "twinned representation of generative power - the machine and the mother - …suspended in relation to each other." Profane reflects, "[H]ere was another inanimate object that had nearly killed him. He was not sure whether he meant Rachel or her car." Profane continues to conflate Rachel and her MG during their long chats:

Profane kept running into her in what was left of summer at least once
a day. They talked in the car always, he trying to find the key to her own ignition behind the hooded eyes, she sitting back of the right-hand steering wheel and talking, talking, nothing but MG-words, inanimate words he couldn't really talk back at.

Metonymically, Rachel is her car-a machine. Profane searches for a key to start her-to control her. Cars are often associated with the male realm of knowledge. Rachel as car would be something Profane would have more of a chance to understand.

After they argue, Profane muses:

Someday, please God, there would be an all-electronic woman.
Maybe her name would be Violet. Any problem with her, you could
look it up in the maintenance manual. Module concept: finger's
weight, heart's temperature, mouth's size of tolerance? Remove and
replace was all.

Profane fantasizes that this all-electronic woman will be an easy-to-use machine. She would come with a maintenance manual that even a schlemiel who has difficulty with inanimate objects could understand. If anything gave him trouble, he could simply remove it and replace it with a part from the local hardware store. Low maintenance.

This construction of a (female) machine with a maintenance manual is the construction of a masculine "biomechanics of power"-to use Seltzer's phrase. The anxiety technology generates may be powerful, but the anxiety over a disruptive female presence is even more disturbing. This tactic of control replaces the female body with something that falls more within the male realm of understanding-technology.

Stencil even daydreams of V. as machine:

[S]kin radiant with the bloom of some new plastic; both eyes glass but
now containing photoelectric cells, connected by silver electrodes to
optic nerves of purest copper wire and leading to a brain exquisitely
wrought as a diode matrix could ever be. Solenoid relays would be her
ganglia, servo-actuators move her flawless nylon limbs, hydraulic
fluid be sent by a platinum heart-pump through butyrate veins and
arteries…a marvelous vagina of polyethylene…leading to a single
silver cable which fed pleasure-voltages direct to the correct register
of the digital machine in her skull. And whenever she smiled or
grinned in ecstasy there would gleam her crowning feature:
Eigenvalue's precious dentures.

If V. were a machine, not only could Stencil understand her but he could also control her just as Profane desires to control a mechanical Rachel. Note also how Stencil replaces each of her parts with ones that are man made. Like Frankenstein, he usurps the female power of reproduction and grants it to males, including himself.

In chapter fourteen, Pynchon again conflates the mother and the machine:

The Melanie in the mirror watched sure fingers move to the center of
her back, search, find a small key, which he began to wind.
"I got you in time," he breathed. "You would have stopped, had
I not…"
…She woke up, not screaming, but moaning as if sexually

Melanie is a toy doll which must be wound to keep moving. She depends on the German to save her with his "sure fingers" by winding the key in her back-a place she cannot reach herself. The male holds the generative power. If he does not wind her, she will cease to exist.

Beer tap breasts, Rachel as MG or mere accessory, V. as robot or cyborg, Melanie as toy doll-all of these images transform the reproductive, generative female body into a machine that is knowable, controllable.

Seltzer notes the insertion of man as middleman in reproduction. Likewise, we find this model in postmodern Pynchon. When Esther visits Dr. Schoenmaker for a nose job, he, not Esther, becomes generator:

Next day she was back at the office. The two casts were there on his
desk, side by side. "I'm twins," she giggled. Schoenmaker reached out
and snapped the plaster nose from one of the masks.

"Now," he smiled; producing like a magician a lump of modeling clay
with which he replaced the broken off nose. "What sort of nose did
you have in mind?"

The doctor has reproduced Esther in plaster. "I'm twins," she says; actually, if she includes herself, she is triplets. She need only describe the nose she wants and the doctor will birth it. He is a god who creates objects from clay. Later, the narrator tells us, "Esther was thrilled. It was like waiting to be born, and talking it over with God, calm and businesslike, exactly how you wanted to enter the world." Pynchon elides the plastic surgeon and God with a simile: they are both creators. Like the mid-wife pushed aside by the obstetrician in our medical history, Esther is pushed aside-no longer the master of the reproductive process.

The naturalists and, as I am arguing, the postmodernists, resisting the male relegation to "mere animalcules" rewrite the mother not only as a machine but also as a mere conduit of force in the reproductive process. This "capitalizing on force as a counter to female generativity," Seltzer argues, eases any "negation of male power." As Dr. Shoenmaker explains, female bodies form a tunnel or a "long unbroken chain…going all the way back to Eve" through which reproductive force travels. Using this logic, women are no more than conduits in production. This displacement of female agency opens up a space for control that is male.

Fausto writes a theory of reproduction close to Schoenmaker's:

Mothers close ranks, and perpetuate a fictional mystery about
motherhood. It's only a way of compensating for the inability to live with the truth. Truth being that they do not understand what is going on inside them; that it is a mechanical and alien growth which at some point acquires a soul. They are possessed. Or, the same forces which dictate the bomb's trajectory, the death of stars, the wind and the waterspout have focused somewhere inside the pelvic frontiers without their consent, to generate one more mighty accident.

Fausto, like the doctor, undermines feminine agency in reproduction. Women are reduced to passive conduits of force-the same force that dictates a bomb's trajectory. Notable in this passage is the additional transformation of the reproductive system into a "mechanical" one. Women are relegated to being conduits of force as they are also transformed into machines.

Later in the novel, the fetishization of Melanie converts her too into a passive conduit. In the middle of chapter fourteen, she and lady V. have a conversation. Lady V. begins:

"You are not real."
"I…" Hands resting on her dead thighs.
"Do you know what a fetish is? Something of a woman which gives pleasure but is not a woman. A shoe, a locket…une jarretiere. You are the same, not real but an object of pleasure."

As Su Feng, Melanie moves "doll-like in the confines of [her] costume." The stage frames her like a basket of fruit in a still life painting. She is an object-unable to act, unable to exercise control. Hollowed out, she exists now merely as a tunnel through which force, desire, pleasure may pass. Her "dead thighs" symbolize a lifeless, objective status. Lady V. confirms that status when she tells Melanie, "You are not real."

Lady V. says this to Melanie but she is also talking to herself:

"Do you lie passive then, like an object? Of course you do. It is what
you are. Une fetiche." She pronounced the silent e's, as if she were

Melanie's absence from the dialogue, her silence, intensifies her passivity. As Pynchon reminds us, "A cavity is a cavity, after all."

Among others, mechanisms such as the twinned representation of generative power and the insertion of middleman in the reproductive process form not only a naturalist machine but also a postmodern one. Both produce a counter-model to women-centered modes of production and generation. The very existence of an aesthetic machine designed to build a counter-model reveals the anxiety the producer and generator-the female-engenders on the eve of the twentieth century and beyond. That anxiety does not resolve itself; rather it intensifies as women gained more freedom and opportunity.

What is interesting at this point is why, in their anxiety, these writers turn to technology, usually anxiety producing in its own right, for comfort. Of course, we have already noted that technology is controllable and knowable by man. But is there some other force at work here?

Perhaps Heidegger's conclusion in "The Question Concerning Technology" provides an answer. As he analyzes the essence of technology, he explains technology's intrigue:

The essence of technology is in a lofty sense ambiguous. Such
ambiguity points to the mystery of all revealing, i.e., of truth.

Thus the coming to presence of technology harbors in itself what we
least suspect, the possible arising of the saving power.

Similarly, Fredric Jameson explains in Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism:

Something else does tend to emerge in the most energetic postmodern
texts, and this is the sense that beyond all thematics or content the
work seems somehow to tap the networks of the reproductive process
and thereby to afford us some glimpse into a postmodern or a
technological sublime.

The search for the truth, the search for a saving power, the search for the sublime-these are no small concerns. Perhaps a pursuit this profound is exactly what is required to hold the energy and imagination of so many.

May 2003

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