Winter 1997, Volume 14.1
Agency, Inscription, and Bodies of Depth: Rape and Technology in Twentieth-Century Literature
Sharon Stockton (Ph.D., U of Washington) is Assistant Professor of English at Dickinson College. Her essays have appeared in Contemporary Literature, Twentieth Century Literature, and Written Communication, among others. Currently she is working on a book that examines the interconnections between rape and technology in twentieth-century literature.
My airplane runs on its wheels, skates along, and then up again in flight! […] Continue the massacre…! Watch me! I seize the stick and glide smoothly down… See the furious coitus of war, gigantic vulva stirred by the friction of courage, shapeless vulva that spreads to offer itself to the terrific spasm of final victory…! I raise my sights to a hundred meters…! Ready…! Fire!
—Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, 1909
Marinetti's encouragement to war depends upon traditional as well as distinctly twentieth-century constructions of the subject. Clearly, subjectivity here is synonymous with masculinity, and agency is predicated on the projection of that subjectivity out of and by way of the body. The passive recipient of this harsh gift reciprocally validates the projecting agent through a spectacular transformation from formlessness to order. This is an old story: the object-woman is emptied of subjectivity in order that she might be brought to life—or to meaning, value, or order—through the violence of masculine inscription. As Jean-Joseph Goux expresses it, what woman is said to bring to creation in Western mythologies is "matter"—mater, raw material, open space; what man brings to creation—to the violent moment of his own identity formation—is form, the power to give order, meaning, and value to matter (213). The subject of violence "is always, by definition, masculine; 'man' is by definition the subject of culture and of any social act" (de Lauretis 43). Thus, as Higgins and Silver argue, violence against Woman is the context for Western identity formation, and rape is the metaphor of choice in figuring this establishment of agency.
What is distinctly twentieth century about Marinetti's revision of the old story is its attempt to conscript the machine into the services of the idealistically phallic subject, and what is covered over is the scent of vulnerability which hangs about that powerful seat astride the flying machine; technological mastery is a two-edged blade. When we look at other modernist writers—D. H. Lawrence, for example—we see that prosthesis turn on its master, metamorphosed into a corporate industrial body forever outside of human control. The Lawrentian protagonist finds himself curtailed, castrated—feminized. As in much fiction of the twentieth century generally, Lawrence's master narratives and manifestoes give way to micronarratives and renegade action, and the sovereign subject becomes the pirate rapist in a world where gender distinctions blur and shift and where agency is thus reduced to the unsteady reinscription of masculinity on a hard technological body which has inexplicably become feminine. In this way, Lawrence foresees the ironic project of masculine, "high," postmodern fiction, a genre structurally marked by the paradoxical conjunction of lost sovereignty and attempted rape (ironic rape, parodied rape, symbolic or metaphorical rape, failure to rape, cyber-rape, etc.). Nicholson Baker's heavily ironic The Fermata is a classic example. In this novel, rape is rescripted in a particularly postmodern fashion as renegade human action on the sterile and lifeless corporate body of late capitalism. Displaced by technology, the masculine protagonist also depends upon the technological nature of things to open—literally, playfully, monstrously—a space for himself on the otherwise slick and unmarkable surface of his world.
R. W. Flint and Earl Ingersoll have both pointed out that Lawrence's attitude toward the machine was not entirely negative. In spite of a little unease, for example, Lawrence admired Marinetti greatly, and in spite of the usual Lawrentian mouthpiece who heaps anathema on technology (e.g. Mellors in Lady Chatterley's Lover), he nonetheless celebrates the machine when its function is clearly phallic prosthesis. Ingersoll has pointed out, for example, how central the motor-car is in the crucial "Excurse" chapter of Women in Love (151). Here Ursula succumbsin a carto Birkin's dark and "electric" force, acknowledging him as a "son of God." This positive conjunction of man and machine is typical in Lawrence; also typical is the turn away from the traditional association of phallic power with (electric) light: in Lawrence's fiction, the mastery of the machine is accomplished in phallic/anal darkness and warmth. When man enters the (cold) light, on the other hand, he makes himself vulnerable to a machine that has metamorphosed into a nightmare of mechanic and feminized proliferation.1 In Women in Love, the masculine victim is Gerald Crich, son not of God but of an "industrial magnate," explicitly characterized by Lawrence as technological master of feminized nature. His is a world of light and visibility, and he tolerates no fecund shadows. As "Deus ex Machina," Gerald does not partake of Lawrence's dark imagery of primal masculine fertility but only of the white light of technological production, and because this is the case, he is vulnerable to the more powerful and more primal light of that "other" machine.
The figurative castration and murder of the "industrial magnate" is accomplished at the hands of the Magna Mater, "the mother and substance of all life" (337). Gudrun Brangwen is associated throughout Women in Love with frozen white power, an image that refers simultaneously to the moon, thus eliciting the archetypally feminine, as well as to technology in its most negative aspect (Birkin's motor-car, framed positively, deifies man in darkness). In either case, Gudrun's brilliant inner light prevents her body from being the matter—the "vessel"—which can be filled with Gerald's potency, thus identifying him as subject: even in the midst of their violent sex, Gudrun is Gerald's "white flame," his "snow-flower" of such moon-like power that, although "he had subdued her," "her subjugation was to him an infinite chastity in her, a virginity which he could never break, and which dominated him as by a spell" (210). Thus although he rapes and throttles her, she wins and he dies; although "it was his will to subjugate Matter to his own ends," it is his fate to die in a "cradle of snow" below an icy moon, "a painful brilliant thing that was always there, unremitting, from which there was no escape" (464).
By the time Lawrence writes Lady Chatterley's Lover (11 years later—1928) this empathy for the technologically castrated man has all but disappeared; in Clifford Chatterley, Lawrence ridicules the "generation of ladylike prigs with half a ball each" which has been castrated by technological production—the war machinery, the prostheses, the collieries of which type Clifford is lord, and the "motor-cars and cinemas and aeroplanes [that] suck the last bit out of [men]" (217). Clifford Chatterley is, in fact, almost a cyborg; crippled and rendered impotent by the war, "his manhood…dead," he is not only dependent on but a part of his motorized wheelchair (290). Constance Chatterley is his wife and extension, and as such she articulates the ambivalent relationship of modernist man to technology: she is both phallic supplement, cold white representative of the corporate machine, and she is autonomous feminine body—sexually frigid (cold), brilliant and hard in her corporate resistance to masculine interjection. Lady Chatterley is not properly "frigid," of course; her "problem" is rather that her orgasms are self-controlled, a pathological condition which reduces man to "merely a tool" (8). Like the "evil electric lights" and "diabolical rattlings of [the] engines" of Tevershall pit, the woman's body ultimately dehumanizes man, alienating him from his own productions and his own potency.
Mellors's rape of Lady Chatterley is a renegade attack on that corporate industrial other.2 The violence within the narrative thus constructs the subject position of "natural" man, a figure who opens a new space on the cold and alienating—but ultimately permeable—surface of industry. Bereft of the machine-as-phallic-prosthesis, the modernist text produces the rapable machine—technology as aestheticized object-victim, validating its masculine "other" through its oddly conceived vulnerability. The permeable machine serves the same function as does the feminine body in Laura Tanner's argument; the rapable body is a "text on which his [man's] will is inscribed, a form that bears the mark of his subjectivity even as [the female/feminized victim] cannot divorce it from her own" (115). In Lawrence, the violent signature is as indelible as it is triumphant: Mellors's "will" and his "mark" are not only printed on Constance's body and mind but are embodied in the growing fetus. At the deep level of Lawrentian psychology, even her most inner self has been accessed; she is healed, redeemed, and alive—awakened to the life of the body. In this way the rapist both energizes the mother body and brings its proliferations under masculine control. With him Constance can "no longer force her own conclusion"; she can "do nothing" but "wait, wait, and moan in spirit as she felt him inside her withdrawing" (133). The desiring, lacking womb not only identifies him as sovereign individual but also allows him to "[fold] himself" in "darkness" against that "malevolent Thing outside." Rape thus defiantly inscribes masculine identity in the face of a seemingly autogenetic technology, but only under cover of darkness; the mindless and apocalyptic copulations of the machine grind on above him, in the light of day (or of the moon).
For Lawrence, then, the force implicit in industrialized production has become irreparably severed from the masculine subject; the violence of sovereign personality is only marginally redeemed through renegade action on that corporate body. In this Lawrence forecasts the ironic gesture of high postmodernism: the subject is presumed to be excluded from the technological forces which constitute him; in the name of play, the subject perseveres nonetheless in the violent reassertion of (masculinized) agency. One might think here of cyberpunk's cowboys and sundogs; Barth's computer generated goat-boy; Pynchon's rockets and coitions which so neatly conspire. Here I shall take up Nicholson Baker's The Fermata, a novel which provides a clear snapshot of the way postmodern "literary" rape figuratively (and, of course, ironically) carves a space for three-dimensional agency on the flat surfaces of technology. The Fermata is a fantastical novel about a male "temp" who has the ability to stop time on command, using these "fold times" as opportunities to gaze into and act upon the secret and private spaces of the female body. Not explicitly about technology per se, the novel is also about nothing else; it could only have been written in a scopophilic era of fast-forward, pause, and play buttons—when voyeurism entails the illusion of control.3
In many ways Arnold Strine exemplifies the postmodern subject to perfection. By profession a "temp"—a temporary, generic, and replaceable office worker of late capitalism—Arnold can most easily be defined as a small and unlikable pocket of alienation in a depthless world rushing at vertiginous speed. As with all of Baker's character's, Arnold savors this floating position in the sea of a proliferating commodity world; when he begins to feel mired in permanence or enduring human connection, he switches jobs. His marketable skill is transcription, transforming the anonymous spoken word into the anonymous written document. Thus an organic cog in the machine—a bit of flesh lodged between tape recorder and computer—it is this small and exchangeable part which nonetheless holds the power to stop the information machine and burrow into its softening interior. As with Lawrence, however, such renegade action is not directed against the actual forces of corporate technology but rather against the aestheticized female body. Arnold is aware of his options—the banks he could rob, the havoc he could cause on mainframes—but uses his power only to undress, gaze at, touch, and otherwise sexually intervene in the lives of different women.
Structurally, The Fermata is framed by the narrator's "relationship" with Joyce, his current supervisor. In the narrative "now" of the text, then, Arnold fondles his frozen boss (having already pulled her dress up over her waist, her nylons down around her ankles), sneaks into her apartment and into her consciousness, lets her in on his secret, and tells us the story of his life. In this self defense, which takes up the bulk of the text, the narrator's goal is to convince the reader that he is and has been nothing but "harmless." It becomes increasingly clear, however, that his scopophilic project entails actual power over the women he—in effect—rapes. He tells his audience in the beginning of his "autobiography" that watching the frozen bodies in the fermata is not enough in itself. The voyeuristic gaze draws ever closer to the frozen (or dead) female body, parting its coverings in order to stare ever more deeply into its orifices. He feels compelled to act on the observed body, so that he not only watches a woman bathe and masturbate, for example, but also ejaculates in her face, starting time again briefly so that she feels that something is amiss. We are assured in such scenes that all is well, all is harmless: actual penile penetration has not occurred. Invisibility validates, and Baker's narrator has used the invisible prosthesis of time control, ultimately a phallic power in that it opens a space on the female body for masculine signature.
The feminine object is thus not only stripped of subjectivity but of organic life itself. It is precisely this necrophilic aura that begins to make Arnold feel bereft of identity, and so he begins to insinuate himself more and more often into unknown women's consciousnesses. In one of his periods in the fold, for example, he follows a woman from the library to her bus, then inserts a vibrating butterfly into her vulva, "gradually increas[ing] its flutter level—over a series of six or seven time-perversions" until she has an orgasm, taking care to make eye contact with her at this point. He hands her the vibrator in an envelope when they reach her stop. The voyeur thus becomes the rapist in postmodern retreat, engaging in what would under normal circumstances be fantasy but with the aid of "technology" becomes here actual power over the (feminine) world.
A huge part of the novel is given over to the pornography that Arnold writes and slips obtrusively to women in fold time. In fact, Arnold writes (his pornography and his autobiography) in the fold as often as he plays with women's bodies; writing, like the raping games—like the fantastical fold technology itself—offers Arnold the illusion of a passive depth in which his identity might become clear. Significantly, he then buries his stories—at one point literally—where a woman will find them, thus again replicating the three-dimensional depth of the foldout. He watches her read the buried treasure (or listen to it, in the case of taped pornography), and then follows her in order to determine the effect he has had, hoping, of course, to have aroused sexual interest. The evidence of his success—the trace of his presence—is sexual response, evidencing his potency, his penetrative power, his depthful restructuring of a slick technological world from which—as in Lawrence—deep human connection has been excluded. Unlike his temping jobs, then, Arnold's "work" is the invasion and transformation of the frozen body of woman through discourse; the open space—and empty vessel—that she is in his games enables him to think of himself not only as a subject with effect but as writing subject, the master of discourse who through the techne of scripture can liberate the feminine body into health. As with Mellors, Arnold's figurative rape not only validates masculine subjectivity but redeems the feminine techno-body by writing on it, planting something in it, giving it "life": "the world is inert and statuesque until I touch it and make it live" (13).
In the end, as in Lawrence, the machine turns on its master, becoming the property of a female successor. Arnold remains confident that his powers will return to him, but this is dubious: the transference seems decisive. In short, his "technique" is sucked out of him with a penis pump, transferred to a dildo, and given to Joyce (Arnold's former boss and current lover). The migrant techno-laborer of late capitalism—the "temp"—thus achieves his final status as "Object-Woman," his body and consciousness both rendered vulnerable to the rape of the machine, to the gaze of some unnamed and unknown corporate other (Jardine 75).4 Just before he loses his powers, in fact, Arnold finds himself (enjoying being) a part of a scientific project to determine the effect of masturbation and/or writing on carpal tunnel syndrome. Arnold is placed inside the "vaginal" core of a superconducting magnet, his penis is painted with reference points, and he is shot through with x-rays while his masturbation is observed by powerful women in white coats. The emotional drive of the scene is derived from the sense of control Arnold maintains, unaware of his ludicrously extreme vulnerability. He has moved full circle from voyeur to exhibitionist, and it is his body which is treated as object, shot through with the invisible bullets of twentieth century technology.
In her well known "Cyborg Manifesto," Donna Haraway suggests that, in spite of the "informatics of domination," "there are also great riches for feminists in explicitly embracing the possibilities inherent in the breakdown of clean distinctions between organism and machine" (174). For Haraway, the cyborg body defies identity predicated on domination; the "infidel heteroglossia" of "cyborg writing" enables a new and unstable vision of boundaries, autonomy, and individuation. The proposition is compelling. Yet it doesn't ring true for me. Kristeva argues that, unlike men, "women have nothing to laugh about when the symbolic order collapses." It seems to me that, indeed, there is little that is deeply humorous or enabling for women in the solvent presence of the machine in twentieth-century discourse. A new desperation inhabits representation, a scramble to become cyborg, to enhance the self with technological supplementation, and this hysterical desire plays itself out—once more—on the matter/matrix/virgin plain that is still perceived as feminine. The postmodern subject continues to be (or—just as aptly—continues to fail to be) established through gender violence—even if generally disguised, ironized, and/or apologized for. In fact, one might go so far as to assert with Higgins and Silver that even in contemporary figuration, "rape and rapability are central" to the construction of gender identity and that "rape exists as a context" for subjectivity (3).
1 In "The Thermodynamics of Gender: Lawrence, Science and Sexism," Michael Wutz places the Lawrentian hot (male) and cold (female) bodies within the context of thermodynamics.
2 Notwithstanding the possibility that Mellors "uses his power caringly," the first instance of intercourse between him and Constance Chatterley is, in fact, rape. I cannot agree with Wall that Mellors's "caring" and his association with myth legitimate and rewrite the incident as an "initiation"although this is clearly what Lawrence himself would claim (145). Wall is not alone in her apologia for the rape scene in Lady Chatterley's Lover; Swift argues that, when not looked at "superficially," the novel is about "the democracy of touch" (165), and many other critics have claimed that the sacredness of the event excuses its violence against women, including Black, Spilka, Schorer, and nearly every contributor (all of whom are male) to Jeffrey Meyers' The Legacy of D. H. Lawrence. All of these apologies for Lawrence overlook not only the violence explicit in Lawrence's representations of sexual relationships but in the Western construction of gender and identity generally.
3 See Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" for the ground-breaking work on scopophilia, "structures of looking," and the power of the controlling gaze.
4 In Migrancy, Culture, Identity, Iain Chambers writes extensively about the migrant nature of the worker in late capitalism.
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Ingersoll, Earl G. Representations of Science and Technology in British Literature Since 1880. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.
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____. Women in Love. New York: Penguin, 1976.
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Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16 (1975): 618.
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Spilka, Mark. "On Lawrence's Hostility to Wilful Women: The Chatterley Solution." Lawrence and Women. Ed. Anne Smith. London: Vision, 1978.
Swift, Jennifer. "The Body and Transcendence of Two Wastelands: Lady Chatterley's Lover and The Waste Land." Paunch 6364 (1990): 14171.
Tanner, Laura E. Intimate Violence: Reading Rape and Torture in Twentieth-Century Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.
Wutz, Michael. "The Thermodynamics of Gender: Lawrence, Science and Sexism." Mosaic 28 (1995): 83108.