Sunday, 29 January 2012

Refusal of Work

Leopoldo Lugones's short story 'Yzur' (from his 1906 collection Strange Forces) is a tale premised on the idea that monkey's have refused language so they will not be forced to work. The narrator of the story evolves a theory that this initial refusal has led to a degeneration in monkeys, and he aims to demonstrate this by returning one to speech. He buys the animal Yzur from the circus and proceeds to his experiment.

Using methods to treat deaf-mutes the narrator laboriously tries to encourage the development of speech through physical manipulation and a system of association of vowels with food treats. This initial process takes three years and no word is uttered.  What does happen is the monkey develops a contemplative sensibility, and the tendency to cry.

The narrator becomes more and more frustrated, deciding that Yzur can speak but is choosing not to. This is reinforced when the cook tells him the monkey has spoken a few words (although the cook can't remember all the words, only bed and pipe). The next day the narrator, convinced the monkey is ironically taunting him, beats the creature violently and the monkey only sheds tears in silence.

Yzur then falls terribly ill, and the narrator desperately tries to save him. This ilness seems to humanise Yzur, but still he does not speak. The lessons continue, beginning with 'I am your master' or 'you are my monkey', but the monkey is now in decline to death.

The narrator speculates that the refusal to speak is the result of an 'intellectual suicide' that is 'petrified in the animal', from that long distant refusal of labour. He thinks man had persecuted these creatures, enslaving them in the ancient past, until they decided 'to break all advanced connections with the enemy.' 'Thus, their act of mortal dignity: to take sanctuary, as an ultimate measure of salvation, in the darkness of their animality.'

Yzur finally enters his death throes, remaining faithful to the ancient vow that refused speech, but at the final moment of death he draws the narrator close and murmurs 'Water, master. Master, my master ...'

In Spanish the play is 'Amo', which means master or as a conjugated verb I love. Lugones, who passed from socialism to fascism in his politics, inhabits the usual tropes of racism (we might also recall the teaching scene from Robinson Crusoe). The monkey is a failure to develop, a degeneration through the refusal of work, but one who still has the same capacities as humans (or, for the narrator, degenerate humans). Also, the monkey seems to taunt or refuse the strange scientific drive of the narrator that, typically, results in violence. Gwen Kirkpatrick notes Lugones own time as an Inspector of Schools... The positivism and modernism of Lugones are typically cast in equivocal light in this story, with its final enigmatic concession.

What we also have is the trace of the refusal of labour and slavery, and the implied 'hominisation' that takes place at the intersection of speech, labour, servitude. Unsuprisingly one of Borges's favourite stories, Yzur is an enigmatic fable that deserves to belong an anthology of stories about labour...

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Adventures in the Land of the (Imaginary) Empirical Working-Class

Alberto Toscano has pointed out the danger of possibilities of condescension built into the splitting of the ‘Idea of the Proletariat’ (Kantian in Lyotard) from the empirical working-class for the ultra-left. The failure of the latter to ‘measure up’ to the former can license snobbery and dismissal, a problem that can be dated to Engels's Condition of the Working Class in England (following Stathis Kouvelakis). I wanted to write of a classical instance of this risk I found in HG Wells The War of the Worlds. Of course, Wells’s socialism was ‘scientific’ and had its own ‘peculiarities’, which could account for the element of ‘condescension’, nevertheless the example is worth analysing.

The scene takes place in Chapter Seven, after the Martian occupation of colonisation of the area around London. The narrator, despairingly trying to return to his wife, encounters a ‘man on Putney hill’ – a soldier he had met earlier who had managed to survive a Martian attack.

At first the narrator is impressed with the soldier’s lucid analysis of the state of the situation, as it seems the Martians have developed flying machines - “Aren’t you satisfied it is up with humanity? I am. We’re down; we’re beat.” The soldier goes on to sketch the likely future:

‘So soon as they’ve settled all our guns and ships, and smashed our railways, and done all the things they are doing over there, they will begin catching us systematic, picking the best and storing us in cages and things. That’s what they will start doing in a bit. Lord! They haven’t begun on us yet.’

Of course, the implicit allegory is not just with the Martians as colonisers, but also as a form of class rule – after all they vampirically drain the blood of humans for food (‘Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.’ Marx).

The soldier sketches a situation in which the upper- and middle-classes will form happy collaboration in this situation of subservience: ‘Well, the Martians will just be a godsend to these. Nice roomy cages, fattening food, careful breeding, no worry. After a week or so chasing about the fields and lands on empty stomachs, they'll come and be caught cheerful. They'll be quite glad after a bit.’

Instead, in the future resistance, ‘If you’ve got any drawing-room manners or a dislike to eating peas with a knife or dropping aitches, you'd better chuck ‘em away. They ain’t no further use.’ Hence, the working-class will lead the resistance to the Martians and to these 'happy collaborators' (ie the complacent middle class).

This is cast in eugenic terms as well, as the resistance will have to go literally underground: ‘We’re not going to pick up any rubbish that drifts in. Weaklings go out again.’ The ‘tame’, meanwhile, ‘in a few generations they'll be big, beautiful, rich-blooded, stupid – rubbish!’ (hence The Time-Machine). Eventually, one these ‘able-bodied, clean-minded men’ will gain control of one of the Martian machines and then ‘Fancy having one of them lovely things, with its Heat-Ray wide and free! Fancy having it in control! What would it matter if you smashed to smithereens at the end of the run, after a bust like that? … And swish, bang, rattle, swish! Just as they are fumbling over it, swish comes the Heat-Ray, and, behold! man has come back to his own."
Impressed as he is the narrator is soon disillusioned by the man’s actual behaviour. He is digging a pointless tunnel from the cellar of the house he is hiding in to the sewers, when he could just enter the sewers. Also, he has proceeded very slowly, and so the narrator ‘had my first inkling of the gulf between his dreams and his powers.’ In fact, the man is lazy – ‘Oh, one can’t always work’ – and taken-up with drinking champagne and Thames-side burgundy. The narrator ‘resolved to leave this strange undisciplined dreamer of great things to his drink and gluttony, and to go on into London.’

Addendum on Affirmationism: 'The Pure Tone Drips with Positivity'

Re-reading Adorno's The Jargon of Authenticity and came across this quote, which captures rather better than I did the dual sense of 'affirmation' that runs together existence with the good:

'Simply to be there becomes the merit of a thing. It is guaranteed in the protection of the double sense of the positive: as something existent, given, and as something worthy of being affirmed. Positive and negative are reified prior to living experience, as though they were valid prior to all living experience of them; as though it was not thought that first of all determined what is positive or negative; and as though the course of such determination were not itself the course of negation.' (21)

There is much I could, and probably should, unpack from this. One thread is that although I vectored affirmationism through Nietzsche, we could also do so through Heidegger and Heideggereanism. Adorno's (and Benjamin's) scepticism concerning the fundamentally abstract nature of the phenomenological 'concrete' resonates with its affirmation of the existent and its refusal or demarcation of negativity (obviously complicated in the case of Heidegger through his reference to 'Nichts', but still capable of critique as a reification of the negative). This would also have implications for reference to the 'concrete' that derive from phenomenology, especially in the delimitation of negation.