Monday, February 2, 2009

Kipple & Bits

Much of utopia or dystopia is a kind of tour around the author's fantastical creation (Sorry, I slipped: this is not fantasy; this is science.  Why, we might ask, has that word, "fantasy," fallen much like the word "liberal"—now we imagine it must denote some radical, less refined version of "progressive;" even magical realism can't suffer a fantasy anymore; all that's left for it are swords and soft porn).  Gilman certainly offers that kind of journey through Herland: "To the right, you'll notice our manicured cherry trees, to the left, our mosquito eradication tent, and straight ahead..."

Fredric Jameson picks up on this spectacle of movement in Thomas Moore: "travel narrative marks Utopia as irredeemably other" (23). A new land is entered.  New sights are seen.  New people met.  Differences noted. 

There are elements of the travel narrative in Philip K. Dick's Dr. Bloodmoney.   In fact, much of the book is devoted to making California place names strange(er) again: "Berkeley had become a sieve" (87); "South of San Francisco it's just farmland now" (133); "That meant there were two functioning radios in West Marin, compared to none at all in Bolinas" (175).  The capital letters of these sentences make them exotic.  The names unsettle us.  To write "Clemson had become a great deposit of eyeglasses and mutated squirrels" is to project an otherness not by odd deposits or squirrels alone.  It is the reference to location that makes the middle let go.

But Bloodmoney lacks the common conventions of the travel narrative, most importantly the unified POV, the Dante for Virgil's tour, to collect and unify observations of an other land.  The traveling here is done through leaps of limited points of perspective.  Each of the locations named above—Berkeley, San Francisco, West Marin, Boinas—each is spoken for by a separate character.  From one paragraph to the next we might change points of view in what Jameson describes as "a whole constellation of peculiar characters."  He finds, in this constellation, grounds for his elaborate "Character Systems," separating the novel from other "non-realistic narratives," which use the multiple perspectives as a mere trope (351).  He does not seem to mind the discrepancy in tropes with travel narratives.   

Before being accused of misreading Jameson, I should note that he speaks only of travel narrative in Utopia, and specifically in Moore's.  He reserves the dys- for elsewhere.  Still, I think it might serve us to put these two ideas of Jameson together and ask who or what, if anything, is the Dante of this journey.

At best we have Stuart.  He establishes our initial POV reference, and he physically travels most in the novel (discounting, in a way, Dangerfield).  I'm by no means arguing that Stuart is the central subject in the novel; if anything, Jameson's Character Systems prove the complexity of locating a subject, much less a central subject, in the novel.  But Stuart's characterization might be centering a kind of practice.  He is, after all and always, a traveling salesman.

This is Armageddon.  This is not utopian abolishments of capital, which Jameson claims "offer little more than a breathing space, a momentary relief from the overwhelming presence of late capitalism" (279).  Capital has been abolished only to rise up anew, baser.  It is silver and real cigarettes and calendars of real nude girls that mean something (at least, economically speaking).

Moreover, it is capital, not mutation or radioactivity, that holds promise of the  greatest transformations in the novel.  Andrew Gill transforms from a melancholic VW bus driver to the John D. Rockefeller of his era by abandoning his family for a load of tobacco.  Hardy and Stuart concoct ways to get even richer than peddling mutant animal traps has made them (Stuart: "Maybe I could become a plant breeder" (158)).  Eldon Blaine can buy medicine for his daughter only by hoarding eyeglasses.  June Raub "in the old days...had not amounted to anything and the Emergency had given her her chance, as it had many people, to show what she was really made of" (108).  Yes, the great event, the rupture of the bombs dropping, certainly initiated these transformations, but at their base we find the transformation of capital.

This is why I find it strange that Jameson concludes that Stanley (along with Bonny) is largely a background character in a narrative "transcending them in significance" (361). Yes, Stuart is overcome, passed by, transcended, but only because of his nagging failure that he hasn't kept up.  More than anyone, it is he who has been unchanged by the change in capital: "I'm no better off now than I was before the goddam Emergency" (149).  Or through the eyes of another: "this man has somehow managed to preserve his viewpoint...nothing can or will stop him....He is, Gill realized, simply a good salesman" (201).  This is the novel's central conflict: mutation vs. non-mutation.

The conflict doesn't break so clearly as Jameson might suggest along human/non-human/hybrid-human lines.  As Dick himself has stated about the novel in the essay "Man, Android and Machine," "We hold now no pure categories of living versus the non-living; this is going to be our paradigm."  Stuart refuses to let those categories blur.  His mutation becomes his unwillingness to mutate.  The same can be said of the always-affairing Bonny: she too, for much of the novel, refuses to hear an utterance of her daughter's hidden friend.  It is fitting, then, that the book closes with her viewpoint, at peace again when the flows of capital resume in the city streets.

All has come from kipple, "Dick's personal version of entropy," the muck that builds up where street meets sidewalk, the box of bric-a-brac shoved under a bed, the artifacts of a "late twentieth-century object-world [which] tends to disintegrate under its own momentum" (Jameson 346).  The kipple builds and builds.  We stack it up around us, thinking it a fort, an individuating tower to protect us from invasion, until, like Hoppy, the boxes come tumbling down upon us.

And we are reborn.

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