Friday, January 23, 2009

A Technological Utopia: Wilderness

Once again, through the eye of Ecocriticism, we see the relationship in The Machine Stops and in Brave New World, between human and machine. In The Machine Stops, Vashti, her son Kuno, and fellow inhabitants of the technological underworld, give a new meaning to the term humanity. Here we have human beings, who despise, shun elements of humanity, preferring instead the mechanized world orchestrated by the machine. The scientific revolution has entrapped the very people who created it, trapping them literally underground in tiny little cells and in isolation from other humans. It has reduced communication and narrowed it to Skype—like technology, and mobility is limited to automated modes akin (in our world) to elevators and fast trains. The air they breathe is bottled (air conditioning). The technological imagination of E.M. Forster is 21st century and beyond!

The irony is that less is more; a room that contains but a reading table and an armchair in fact has everything—at the switch of a button. Bath, food, literature, and essentials necessary to keep this race going, and Vashti, who we see up close and personal, productive reduce life to a minimal. Everything else in inconsequential. But, wait a minute, isn't that the work of machines? to be productive? Instead the situation is reversed. The place is totally sanitized, and the humans have been drained of all humanity (which also applies to BNW); the machine is now revered, and worshipped. In the words of Kuno, they have forgotten that they created the machine and they are beginning to worship it. This world has given up the sense of space (Kuno's words). The machine blurs human relationships, renders all things artificial and mechanical. That no one is in control of their own lives doesn't seem to bother them, except perhaps for Kuno, poor thing.
In A Brave New World, the themes are no different: avant-garde developments in science and technology, genetic engineering, mutations, bio-technological advancements and how they take man away from nature.

From the onset, we learn that technology is used to control the affairs of this society from fertilization through growth to specific roles each ought to play in maintaining this utopia. Every detail is meticulously directed; there is conditioning, and a blunting of emotions. Symbolically, The Ford model is cast as a capitalist symbol juxtaposed alongside a collectivist world. Ford T model as a symbol of this brave new world represents a significant break from the past, which includes religion, family, love, freedom, and all emotional ties. The irony is that in this technically engineered world; one whose goal is to eliminate suffering and other touchy-feely emotions, there are unhappy, anxious, even uncertain inhabitants, who constantly banish this unpleasantness with the drug soma. Worst of all, life may be good, but it lacks a zing; excitement—it's mechanical, quite literally.

Moreover, there is this element of a caste system, even in this BNW. What's with having a stratified layering of people into intellectuals and laborers? Why in a state that can be engineered to be free of all things unpleasant? Also, in a society so driven by technology, why is there a lack of a robust debate on intellectual and scientific inquiry? This situation alone works against both technological utopias, rendering them static and eventually leading to their implosion. Just like The Machine Stops, BNW favors conformity and shuns external influences, all of which may cause them become dystopias, rather than the utopias they set out to create.

In Wilderness, we grapple with themes of space and the landscape. However, while both are considered unbridled, language is even more so, as Gerrard puts it language is, "wild in the sense that it 'rises unbidden' and eludes our intellectual capacities" (83). Contrast that wild capacity with the domesticated nature of the wilderness. What a paradox! Perhaps it borders well with the dystopias now seen in both BNW and The Machine Stops.It which case, Wilderness is a fitting rationale for this fascination with utopias.

With Huxley and Forster, they both project a culture into which people are lured into docility because of instant satisfaction. These elements undermine humanity in as much as totalitarianism. Conventions threaten to close off people's emotional access. There is a difference between the isolation sought by Kuno and that by Vashti.

Next time:
Jameson and The Semantic Dick (the novel) and Jameson

1 comment:

  1. You said, "in the words of Kuno, they have forgotten that they created the machine and they are beginning to worship it."

    Sounds eerily prescient - and yet echoes the distant past as well.

    12 The blacksmith takes a tool
    and works with it in the coals;
    he shapes an idol with hammers,
    he forges it with the might of his arm.
    He gets hungry and loses his strength;
    he drinks no water and grows faint.

    14 He cut down cedars,
    or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
    He let it grow among the trees of the forest,
    or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.
    15 It is man's fuel for burning;
    some of it he takes and warms himself,
    he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
    But he also fashions a god and worships it;
    he makes an idol and bows down to it.
    16 Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
    over it he prepares his meal,
    he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
    He also warms himself and says,
    "Ah! I am warm; I see the fire."
    17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
    he bows down to it and worships.
    He prays to it and says,
    "Save me; you are my god."
    18 They know nothing, they understand nothing;
    their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
    and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
    19 No one stops to think,
    no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
    "Half of it I used for fuel;
    I even baked bread over its coals,
    I roasted meat and I ate.
    Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
    Shall I bow down to a block of wood?"
    20 He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him;
    he cannot save himself, or say,
    "Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?"
    (Isaiah chapter 44)