Deskilling in Multiple Media: A Brief but Broader Look

•February 27, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I’d like to take a wider viewpoint than I usually do for this post.

A 2007 article by David Macaray in counterpunch expressed anxiety over a perceived corporate agenda devoted to deskilling workers. “The scariest workforce” to corporations, Macaray says, “would be a conspicuously talented one”, meaning that talented workers have enough leverage to be a threat to corporate stability. Deskilling, the systematic dumbing-down of jobs or like tasks, will, Macaray says, “erode what’s left of blue collar dignity and leave in its wake a sub-class of drones.”

With Macaray’s words in mind, I turned to a book I’ve been reading and thought about how it takes Western society to task for a systematic deskilling of its entire population. In Jeanette Winterson’s 2007 novel The Stone Gods, America and the West, figured as “The Central Power,” has reduced the self-sufficiency of its population to the point where it is totally reliant upon technology for everything. Beyond the average individual’s inability to produce his/her own food which is rampant today, people in Winterson’s novel have ceded pretty much all basic tasks of existence to machines. When the time comes to colonize a new Earth-like planet (in order to escape the fate of the world which humans have driven to the scrap-heap), “Humans have given all their power to a ‘they’” (65) expecting that “they” to provide everything for them. While on the whole I find Winterson’s view of the future a bit overly bleak (for one, it assumes that the proliferation of environmentally-friendly cities like Helsinki will amount to moot, which I can’t agree with), I can’t deny the reality of this concern—that humanity will eventually drive itself towards mass incapacity or obsolescence.

It’s a pretty common concern. The 2005 film Idiocracy, a low-brow comedy starring Luke Wilson a Maya Rudolph (just to illustrate its lack of budget), investigated what would happen if natural selection drove the human race to mass stupidity, via reproduction being inversely proportional to IQ for half a millennium. The result was mass hunger due to the powers-that-be believing it would be effective to water their crops with, basically, Gatorade.

Winterson’s novel places the blame on technologically-driven laziness and groupthink mass consumption. Idiocracy looks to the degradation of our genetic code. Macaray sees corporate selfishness as the problem. Whether or not humans are losing capacity in a way which renders our gains in capacity irrelevant is an interesting question, and one which I don’t think anyone has an answer that they can agree upon.


The Importance of Sovereignty – Butler’s “Dawn” (1987)

•February 20, 2010 • 1 Comment

And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

The above biblical passage outlines the fundamental idea behind much of the human relationship to nature, at least in western and westernized societies since Constantine. That humanity was placed on the earth to look over the world and make use of its resources is the basis for everything from hunting to environmental stewardship and everything in between. Octavia Butler’s Dawn (1987) extends this relationship to put humans in a compromising position, with results that are expectedly unnerving.

Butler’s protagonist, a willful woman named Lilith, is rescued/captured (the line between then is rather thin) by a society of well-meaning extraterrestrials in the wake of a Cold War nuclear holocaust which wiped out almost all human life on the planet. With the intent to have her lead a band of humans in the repopulation of the planet, these Oankali make decisions which they feel are for the best, in so doing denying her free will. The Oankali deny her writing utensils, perform medical procedures without informing her, and attempt to breed her with a man named Paul Titus, who, starved of all human contact since he was fourteen and tormented by the fact that the Oankali had used his cells to father seventy children against his will, nearly rapes her.

Lilith, ever (despite the Oankali’s observations about her) perceptive, quickly identifies that she and the other humans are being treated in a way that humans used to treat endangered species, taking over their lives, their reproduction, their overall sovereignty in order to ensure their survival. In this episode, we can see a piece of broad cultural criticism. Even people with good intentions can translate that into injustice.

Butler forces readers to occupy the place of an endangered species and see what it’s like to have your decisions made for you. The thought isn’t only valuable for placing humans into the position of animals. Just as important, it allows people from dominant cultures to experience something of what it’s like to live in a society exploited, where national sovereignty is breached, even if sometimes with good intentions.

A One Way Street – Russ’s The Female Man (1975)

•February 13, 2010 • 3 Comments

When I was first exposed to Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) several months ago in a general survey course of postmodern lit, the discussion was geared to get students to notice the metafictional moments in the text, where the speaker, presumably Russ, speaks about the novels reception. Derailed by that discussion was an idea I had about the novel’s chronological progression. When I went back and looked at the text again these past few days I managed to expand on it a bit. The result of this is what follows.

The Female Man tells the story of four women living in parallel, though significantly different worlds. Joanna comes from a world much resembling out own, situated at the budding of the feminist movement. Jeannine’s world is a version of our own where the Great Depression never happened and where there has been limited feminist development. Jael lives in a time of conflict in the relatively near future, where men and women are at war with one another. Janet’s distant future world of Whileaway has no men, allegedly carried off by a gender-specific plague.

The “allegedly” above is of vital importance and draws from a conversation near the end of the novel where Jael says “[…] that ‘plague’ you talk of is a lie[….] Your ancestors lied about it. It is I who gave you your plague, my dear” (211* see below). Without this quote, you cannot really say that the four women’s worlds are more than stages of conceptual development. Taking Jael at her word, however, I realized that you can take the four worlds as more like one world in different stages and I began to conceptualize the novel as presenting the reader with a consistent course of time. I’ve divided this path into four phases which I’ve labeled, respectively, Liberation, Independence, Conflict, and Utopia.

By this route, Russ’s idea of feminist development flows from the realization that a woman can be happy with a man, through the idea that a woman is permitted to not want a male companion, to a conflict eliminating men (or more likely masculinity) and terminating in a utopian world much where there is only one gender, presumably granting equality. In the novel, this development seems inevitable.

As I’ve developed this idea I came repeatedly to one thought: if Russ is actually endorsing this idea of progress (which is a valid objection), then there is nothing a sympathetic man can do but resign himself to his own obsolescence. Is that actually equality?

*Citation from The Female Man, Joanna Russ (Beacon, 1986) – Original printing 1975

Incomplete Vision – Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” (2002)

•February 6, 2010 • 2 Comments

Given enough time, somebody will always notice prejudicial disconnects when they arise (see: how “all men are created equal” didn’t actually apply to “all men”). Karen Joy Fowler’s 2002 short story, “What I Didn’t See,” outlines one of these cases from multiple perspectives. Fowler weaves together the plights of American women, African native peoples, and a group of gorillas into a story which puts gender, race, and species-based prejudices on a singular plane, presumably so that the reader can see how one of these issues are connected to the others and the folly of them all. However, “What I Didn’t See” curiously complicates the alignment of all these prejudices by conceiving of its main character as someone who doesn’t truly abide by this parallelistic (yes, I know it’s a made-up word; Shakespeare did it so why can’t I, hmm?) worldview.

Fowler’s protagonist, the unnamed wife of an arachnologist named Eddie, is subjected to patriarchy’s somewhat subtler side, a kind of father-knows-best patronizing attitude which prevents women from making their own choices. The woman is selected by a group of male scientists, which includes her husband (though it wasn’t his idea) for her sex and her plainness to kill a gorilla in an attempt to un-romanticize the hunting of great apes (because, of course, such hunting would no longer be masculine if a woman, and a plain one at that, could do it). These men, then, place species-based prejudice above the gender-based. As the story develops, Fowler’s protagonist comes to see the humanity of the gorillas, unable to take one’s life, so that at story’s end she sees concerns of gender on par with that of species.

Yet, only in retrospect could the main character come to have a complete vision of how her prejudice towards the native Africans, whom she then essentialized as cannibalistic, inconsequential semi-humans, related to the men’s gender-based conceptions she found so distasteful. The incompleteness of her vision wouldn’t be of significant interest, however, if the story didn’t give us other characters with similar incompleteness. Eddie, for example, recognizes the preconceived notions about the natives, but cannot escape the patronizing model which gives him the right to make the decisions (in this case to hunt the gorillas, whose humanity he also sees, in order to shield the natives from blame over the presumed abduction of one of the other females in the party).

No vision, then, in “What I Didn’t See” is complete. Not even the protagonist, after many years which open her eyes to her racial prejudice, articulates the final view. Precisely what that means, I can only guess, but to me it seems to speak to the difficulty of eliminating ones essentialized notions and preconceptions, as there are so many bases from which they come.

A Pack of Wolves – Butler’s “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” (1987)

•January 30, 2010 • Leave a Comment

In Western society (if it can rightly be called one society) there is a tug-of-war in the layman’s perception of biology; the urge to see humans as somehow different from animals is juxtaposed with the need to look at human beings as members of the animal kingdom. That one could argue the basis of this lies in religion is of no consequence at this juncture. Octavia Butler’s “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” (1987) addresses these competing interests through the medium of a biological handicap. Butler’s short story describes the young woman, Lynn, who in the community formed by a hereditary disease of extreme self-mutilation comes to discover that she is genetically predisposed to be an “alpha” in the community with the power to save lives (and she also finds out just how entrapping that is).

The fictional malady, Duryea-Gode Disease (whose symptoms resemble an extreme form of dermatillomania or dramatic side-effects of PCP use), creates what amounts to its own ethnic group, imploding in on itself and discriminated against—despite being marked for an early death, DGD victims are frequently excellent scientific and creative geniuses, identified as a “special gift” by the general public as a “way of denying [them] credit for [their] work” (*278 see below). The disease is extremely difficult to control in sufferers, except by means of pheromones passed down matrilineally, giving certain DGD sufferers the ability to influence the others to control their destructive outbursts. Notably, this power can only be possessed by females, producing alpha females or “queen bees”(283).

Lynn’s boyfriend, Alan,  vocally takes issue with the power system; he finds himself permanently below her in the hierarchy. Butler has, I think, made two fundamental moves in designing this system of power which permit her story to speak to a larger system of domination rather than the classic feminist milieu of women’s subjugation at the hands of men.

First, Butler designs her system as both animalistic and female dominated. I repeat the use of “alpha” because the power system in the story greatly resembles a pack of wolves; when an alpha is away the wolves tear each other, and in this case themselves, apart. By marking the system as ruled by women and at the same time inhuman, Butler creates something a man would easily object with, as Alan does in the story. When Lynn turns the tables on Alan, asking him what he would do if only men had the pheromone dictating power, it permits the objecting man to see his own role in domination.

Second, Butler figures the system as one denying its leaders any choice in their role. We can see this in how Lynn doesn’t want to run a retreat for DGD victims but her special ability denies her the right to refuse. The reader can see in this entrapment how a system of domination leaves those in power with no right to see themselves as equal to those below them—how those at the top of the pyramid with sympathy for those below them cannot effect change until they get rid of the dominating system which privileges them. For Lynn, this seems to be impossible.

*All citations from Daughters of the Earth (Wesleyan, 2006)

The Utility of Invented Names – Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)

•January 26, 2010 • Leave a Comment

“When we die[….] We give back whatever name we happen to have at the time.” (68* see below)

In Marge Piercy’s 1976 novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, a possibly (though by no means certainly) schizophrenic Chicana woman, Connie,  is able to transport her mind to the year 2137. There she sees a possible future for mankind, a “communal, nonsexist, environmentally pure” (back cover) utopia.

Frequently in utopian—or dystopian—pieces, names and the practices of naming individuals are highly significant. Consider how, in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred’s name reinforces her institutionalized subordination to the Commander, or how, in Butler’s Erewhon, Mr. Nosnibor’s name (Robinson backward) clues you in to the story’s semi-veiled satire of English life. Likewise, in Piercy’s novel, names and the practice of naming is used to reinforce and remind the reader of the utopia’s values.

In the Mattapoisett utopia, Connie experiences a culture where names are largely esoteric; because they are chosen by the bearer of the name, they reflect nothing beyond the personality of the individual. Gone from the society are surnames and with them the primacy of the father (the patrilineal aspect) and the nuclear family. Additionally, the massive variance of the individual names—everything from animal names (Bee, Jackrabbit) to historical figures (Sojourner, Sacco-Vanzetti) and beyond—means that names cannot give valuable clues about the background characteristics of an individual.

Connie’s given name, Consuelo, is (like I would guess the majority of human names) one which identifies for others her ethnicity and her gender. When we see that, in Piercy’s utopia, race/ethnicity and gender are not things which are predetermined, then it should logically follow that the names the utopian society use do not reflect these characteristics. Where designed racial mixing has made, for the residents, a culture where race/ethnicity (and the names that once went with them) can no longer be seen as any kind of marker of culture, likewise the obsolescence of the concept of gender is reflected one’s ability to take any name on pleases, regardless of that name’s formerly inherent gender. To cite an example, when Connie visits for a fête, she is introduced to a 16 year-old female gymnast who has taken the name: Tecumseh, as in the famous male Shawnee chief and William Tecumseh Sherman (166).

Finally, in Piercy’s utopia, names are transient things, to be changed at whatever time one deems suitable. Notably, teens tend to change their names with the greatest frequency, “trying out fancy new labels each week until no one can”(69) remember their current name. This revelation guides us to the true definition of what names have become: names are like clothes and jewelry for the internal self, another form of self-expression.

* All citations are taken from: Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (New York: Ballantine, 1976).

“Wives” (1979) – (Arificial) Lesbians in Space!

•January 16, 2010 • 3 Comments

‘I’m not what I used to be, she thought. I’m something else now, a “wife,” created by man in the image of something I have never seen, something called “woman.” ‘ (194* see below)

In all likelihood, the first concept you come across in an introduction to Gender Studies is the distinction made between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ (in short, where sex is biological, gender is socially constructed). Lisa Tuttle’s 1979 short story “Wives” is probably the best example of such a distinction I have seen in a piece of fiction to date. Set on a planet occupied by Earthmen and used as base of operations for soldiers on the path to further conquest, “Wives” tells the story of Susie, an alien “woman” who, rather than remain the unwilling wife of a human soldier, articulates her desire to rebel and is executed by her frightened peers.

I say “woman” because, strictly speaking, Susie is not biologically female. Her species has only one gender (Susie is capable of reproducing with other wives), making that species, by the loose definition of the word, hermaphroditic. However, to ensure their survival, Susie’s people, the wives, submit to being gendered female by the invading Earthmen. The wives have three breasts and four arms, but are forced to wear a close-fitting garment called a “skintight” which binds their surplus set of arms to sides and their breasts “to achieve the proper, double-breasted effect” (191).

This kind of overt, physical “femaling” is paired with the institution by the Earthmen of androcentric gender roles–the wives are good for three things: cooking, cleaning, and presumably sex. Where the Earthmen subjugated Susie’s species by violence, they maintain order through an artificially created heteropatriarchy, gendering the ambiguous wives as women to be necessarily dominated by that system.

That Susie appears to be a lesbian is due entirely to this heteropatriarchy. According to the new, gendered system instituted by the Earthmen, sexual relationships between the newly-minted women could be described as homosexual. Because heteropatriarchy privileges heterosexuality as well as manhood, the invaders eliminated their wives’ ability to reproduce (the skintights keep the wives from being capable of carrying a child to term).

Susie, though she is flayed for her view, expresses Tuttle’s antidote to heteropatriarchy. “I can’t fight them alone, I know that,” she says, “But if you’ll all join with me, we have a chance” (196). Heteropatriarchy, Tuttle suggests, can be overcome if the group represented by the wives and most oppressed by heteropatriarchy, female homosexuals, can come together and oppose the system. In “Wives,” however, Susie’s call to action falls on deaf… alien hearing apparati.

One last though: My Women’s Lit. professor commented the other day that, growing up, she gravitated towards SF written by women because it was established that women wrote the best stories. She attributed this to the male tendency to write establishment-oriented, monotonous space-westerns. I wonder, though, if it wasn’t something comparable to the experience of black quarterbacks in American football: a female SF author had to be twice as good as a male author in order to get published.

*All citations come from Daughters of the Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (Wesleyan, 2006).