Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Alienation, isolation, production

Moon and Nova seem particularly difficult but fruitful to compare, as each appears especially like an overdetermined document of its moment of production when contrasted with the other—the rollicking, zany world of 1968 seeming to speak a language different from the spare, bleak world of 2009. In order to go about the business of posting, then, I’m going to have to take the somewhat tenuous step of interpreting the absence of what interested me in Nova from Moon as significant (though it’s likelier just a contingent result of the film’s premise): I’d like to compare Delany’s tandem articulation of communal artistic and mechanical production to Moon’s frontier, which seems to be without use for art and humanity alike.

Though it begins to appear this way by comparison, the future of art presented in Nova is hardly undimmed sunny 1960s optimism; not only does Katin’s perpetually delayed ambition to write a novel often seem personally pathetic, but it could easily be dismissed as a senseless and retrogressive anachronism. Still, by the end of our novel his thoughts on the parameters of his seem to me to come into line with the world’s harmony between man and machine that, by Moon’s standards, is almost impossibly hopeful. Katin does, at times, articulate a recognizably contemporary (and perhaps modernist) sense of a novel’s purpose, however cynically: “‘[Novels’] popularity lay in that they belied the loneliness of the people who read them, people essentially hypnotized by the machinations of their own consciousness.’” He tries again to articulate his ambition immediately afterward, by which point he seems to have already moved on to the postmodern “systems novel” (of which his excessive research would seem to be a recognizable symptom), contrasting it with Mouse’s own marvelous, but to a modern reader quite mysterious, form of artistic production: “‘I could sit and watch you play for hours. But they’re only momentary joys, Mouse. It’s only when all one knows of life is abstracted and used as an underlining statement of significant patterning that you have what is both beautiful and permanent.” (178-179) We might make sense of the differing theories by reference to the 1960’s own peculiar amalgams between incipient postmodern paranoia and nostalgic romantic or modernist affection for the heroic, suffering, male and martyred artist, but it might be more effective—if more tenuous—to relate one of Katin’s final decisions regarding his project to the novel’s own world. Just after explaining Ashton Clark’s gift to humanity—an authentic relation between man and machine, reversing Marx’s alienation of the industrial laborer by giving him a proximate knowledge and control over both the means and end of his labor—Katin discovers his true subject: his own time, and his own companion. Against the reigning wisdom that “[t]here seems to be a certain lack of cultural solidity today,” Katin will render Mouse an exemplar of the novel’s turbulent creole society. (217-220) In reaching this conclusion, Katin not only fulfills every previous plan for his novel—from the notion that it must concern relationships (178) to the idea that it should represent “[e]ach individual as a junction in that net” of larger cultural and economic forces (174)—he also achieves the kind of harmony between his form of life and his artistic labor that would have otherwise seemed impossible for a novelist after the death of his form (and can today seem impossible, without an Ashton Clark to save us).

Anyway—Moon is difficult to read closely along these lines, which is precisely my point. Sam’s seems to be a life without art, just as it is quite literally a life without purpose and function. His mine is the perfect example of the “factories run by a single man . . . an uninvolved character who turned a switch on in the morning, slept half the day, checked a few dials at lunchtime, then turned off before he left in the evening” that Ashton Clark seems to have been secularly sanctified for rendering obsolete (219). It is fitting, then, that his self-alienation is total: Sam is a man uninvolved even in his own character, because he has none; even his wife (his only passion) is a fiction. It may be odd to say that Sam’s trouble seems to be as much as his alienation from the machines around him as his humanity—and from artistic as much as mechanical production—but the hints of Marxism in Delany’s narrative may provide some ground.


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