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
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
Beatrice, had a theory that just as small children call
mother, so sailors, in their way equally helpless, should
barmaids Beatrice. Further to implement this maternal policy,
had custom beer taps installed, made of foam rubber, in
the shape of
very large breasts. From eight to nine on payday nights
something Mrs, Buffo called Suck Hour. She began it officially
emerging from the back room clad in a dragon embroidered
given her by an admirer in the seventh fleet, raising a
boatswain's pipe to her lips and blowing Chow Down. At this
everyone would dive for and if they were lucky enough to
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
Maybe her name would be Violet. Any problem with her, you
look it up in the maintenance manual. Module concept: finger's
weight, heart's temperature, mouth's size of tolerance?
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
optic nerves of purest copper wire and leading to a brain
wrought as a diode matrix could ever be. Solenoid relays
would be her
ganglia, servo-actuators move her flawless nylon limbs,
fluid be sent by a platinum heart-pump through butyrate
a marvelous vagina of polyethylene
to a single
silver cable which fed pleasure-voltages direct to the correct
of the digital machine in her skull. And whenever she smiled
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 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
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
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
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
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
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."
" 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
jarretiere. You are the same, not real but an object of
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.
ambiguity points to the mystery of all revealing, i.e.,
Thus the coming to presence of technology harbors in itself
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
texts, and this is the sense that beyond all thematics or
work seems somehow to tap the networks of the reproductive
and thereby to afford us some glimpse into a postmodern
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.