Robert Sheckley’s “Shape”

I’ve long wished I could teach a class on ideology: what it is, how it works, how it could give us freedom and agency and how it so often fails to.  I envision this class as involving a collection of philosophical and sociological texts, examples from daily life and works of art, and each week a short story by Robert Sheckley.  These days, even die-hard fans of classic mid-century science fiction are often dismissive of Sheckley, who is probably best remembered as the author of the short story that gave rise to the game of “assassin” that use to be played on college campuses, and the author of some hack-written Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 paperbacks that fans of those shows despised.  But his short stories have always seemed to me to be wonderfully amusing meditations on conceptual problems of ideology. And since we are all ideological animals by nature, they are meditation on what it means to be human in twentieth-century America.  These storiest can give us the conceptual space to gain a reflective awareness of our most deeply held assumptions.

From time to time, I may write a short reflection on a Sheckley story here.  I hope that this will both help to clarify how ideology works and also suggest a kind of essay that might work for Imaginary Relations.  My own focus there will be primarily on the production of capitalist ideology in literature, film and television.  But it is also the case that some works of art, like Sheckley’s short stories, can serve as a discourse in which we gain distance from our ideological interpellation. That is to say, we can never “step outside” of ideology, never gain a god’s-eye view of ourselves. But we can participate in discourses that, because they open a space in an existing ideological practice, give us a sort of Archimedean point from which to shift ourselves out of our current interpellative position.  

Consider the story “Shape.”  Really, consider it.  It appears in several Sheckley anthologies in print and ebook form.  The cheapest is probably the ebook Is That What People Do?: Stories  published by Open Road Media.  

The story originally appeared on the pulp magazine Galaxy Science Fiction in 1953.  At first blush, it seems to be  typical cold-war-era pulp sci-fi, with alien invaders as thinly veiled communist forces seeking to conquer and oppress Americans but failing because of the natural superiority of the American way of life.  Sheckley uses all the standard machinery of 50s science fiction: shape shifting aliens called the Glom, intergalactic travel, transporter devices, even the typical sci-fi names like Ilg, Ger, and Pid.  The task of the shapeshifting aliens is simply to put a transporter device near a nuclear power source, and hordes of Glom will charge through and conquer Earth.  

It quickly becomes obvious that the story is not going to be full of space chases and laser-gun shoot outs.  Before the mission, the alien commander tells the ship’s pilot the real reason that conquering Earth is so essential: 

“there’s considerable unrest on Glom.  The miner caste is on strike, for instance.  They want a new digging shape. Say the old one is inefficient…That’s not all,” the Chief told him.  “We’ve uncovered a new Cult of Shapelessness.”  

We learn that the Glom are born without any specific shape, but must take on a shape necessary to their social function, until it comes to seem natural and enjoyable to them.  Unfortunately, the “lower castes,” those who do manual labor it seems, are less able to find their necessary shapes enjoyable.  The idea is that by focusing on conquering other worlds, the lower orders can be distracted from their complaints.  

So here we have the standard cold-war propaganda in sci-fi form, right?  We are told that the subversives want to be allowed to adopt whatever shape they desire, instead of being forced into the shape demand by social necessity.  Then we learn that twenty previous missions to Earth have disappeared, and nobody knows what went wrong.  Will the current attempt succeed in eliminating freedom from Earth? 

In the end, of course, they fail, and we are told that “This planet’s secret menace was—freedom!”  The crew of the invading ship each find a shape on earth that suits their deepest desire, and abandon their mission to become a tree, a dog, and a bird.  

So it seems that once again the evil forces of soviet communism are defeated by the power of American freedom! And Sheckley uses all the trappings of truly hacky pulp sci to make it easy enough to read the story this way: the characters are shallow and dull, the prose plodding and the even the final chase scene is simultaneously unconvincing and silly.  

However, a thoughtful reader would have to be left wondering: is it really a great success to make the change from being a superior species capable of shifting into any shape to being a dog?  Is this the outcome of “freedom”?  We are now “free” to spend our lives sniffing other dog’s butts and chasing squirrels through the woods?  And once we question that, the message of the story changes completely.  The problem that the Glom face is not a lack of “freedom,” but too much of it. That is, they are completely aware that their social formation could be run differently, that they are not “naturally” what they are but have to commit to their social role for the good of the whole.  They know that their “second nature” (to borrow a term from Burke) is not inborn, but socially produced.  And once they know this, it becomes a burden to keep their commitments.  Particularly when it is clear enough that others are getting most of the benefit.  

This, of course, is the problem faced by most theorists of ideology, and most political and ethical philosophy through the centuries: can people feel a social convention as meaningful if they do not mistake it for a necessity?  If everyone knew that capitalism is not genetically programmed into humans, but took centuries of brutal oppression to force most people to accept…well, would it be as easy to get them to go on playing the role the ruling class needs them to play?  The story suggests that in fact this kind of knowledge becomes unbearable, at least in any social system that only serves the interest of the minority.  

But it doesn’t stop there.  Sheckley also points out that once we are put in this situation we tend to see only one way out: following our supposedly “deepest” desires.  We fail to see that those supposedly natural desires were in fact installed by the very system of oppression that most troubles us.  The “detector,” trained to search the new planet, deeply yearns to be a hunter and turns himself into a dog.  The ship’s pilot longs to fly, and becomes a bird.  They give up the freedom of consciousness choice for the ersatz freedom of fulfilling their desires.  In the end, we see that what we mistake for freedom is the worst kind of oppression, and the only kind of freedom we could have is unappealing so long as we live in a violently oppressive society.

So “Shape” becomes a story about interpellation.  It demonstrates the process of moving from the indeterminate state of the individual to the completely determined role of the subject: all it takes is following one’s “true desire.”    

The pleasure of a Sheckley story is in his ability to take a discourse meant to reproduce the worst kind of banal cold-war capitalist propaganda, and use it to call attention to the errors in our most fundamental assumptions about our ideology.  The pleasure of reading a pulp science fiction story is transformed into the pleasure of thinking critically about ideology.  And that, for me, is the most powerful lesson about how ideology works: we can, in fact, gain this Archimedean point, but only by wresting it from within an existing social practice.  

More Shallow Thoughts

Today’s thoughts are less philosophical, and more about the practical nature of ideology.

Recently, I’ve been reading J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy. The overall message of this book seems to be that poverty isn’t a matter of an unfair economic system, but of personal choice. More specifically, the suggestion is that if we all just made the personal choice to work harder, we could all wind up with Ivy League degrees and professional jobs with mid-six-figure incomes. Anyone who’s poor is just making bad choices, unable to see that America could easily be a country were everyone is a lawyer and nobody needs to do jobs like drive trucks or work in warehouses for longer than it takes to pay their way through college.

It should be clear from what I’ve written here in the past that I am not a fan of this particular fantasy, whether it is promoted (oddly) by the anti-intellectual right or the neoliberal “left”. My position is that not everyone has the kind of natural intelligence required to do college, at least if college were still what it used to be and still demanded that at least some critical thinking and real learning take place. In today’s college, of course, “education” is a matter of paying for the degree, with classes requiring nothing more than mindless busy work and rote memorization, and the skills to cheat on multiple choice tests taken on your laptop in your dorm room. So sure, probably everyone has the native intelligence to get that kind of college degree. But unlike a law degree from Yale (where Vance went), such degrees don’t generally lead to very good jobs. Colleges graduate millions of illiterate, and “mathematically illiterate”, young men and women, confident that they will get those six-figure jobs with their paid-for diploma, but they soon discover that without the ability to read above a fifth-grade level they can’t last long even if they are lucky enough to land a job. The jobs that require college degrees will still go to those who graduated from the elite schools, most of time, largely due to the expectation that these graduates are more likely to have basic reading and math skills.

So why perpetuate this expensive ruse, pushing everyone to go into debt to get useless degrees even if they don’t have the native intelligence to do “college-level” work? Why can’t we accept that those without this particular native ability may still be deserving of a decent living? Why shouldn’t warehouse workers and roofers make as much money for their exhausting and often unpleasant jobs as “white-collar” workers make for their much easier and more comfortable occupations?

After all, there will never be enough of these (relatively) easy and comfortable jobs for everyone, and somebody will always have to deliver your packages or process the meat you buy in the grocery store—jobs for which a college degree, even in a bullshit major like “business”, will never be of any use.

In the introduction to Vance’s book, he mention his job working at a floor tile warehouse during the summer before he entered Yale Law. He needed to save up some money, and a friend of the family got him this summer job, which was no doubt hard work. He attempts to prove that poverty is a matter of bad choices with the example of “Bob,” who worked at the warehouse with him that summer. “Bob” was nineteen, with a pregnant girlfriend, and both he and his girlfriend were given jobs. Bob made thirteen dollars an hour, which would have netted him a take-home income of about 22,000 dollars. Vance tells us that a “decent apartment costs about five hundred dollars a month” in Middletown, Ohio, so about 6,000 a year. Vance is baffled by this young man’s reluctance to work at this job, especially since it had “excellent health insurance”. He describes behavior we’ve all seen if we ever worked at any kind of job that requires manual labor: Bob frequently missed work, came late, and took multiple “breaks” of over half an hour on days when he did show up. When his pregnant girlfriend got fired for not showing up to work, Bob took this as an opportunity to lash out at his manager, and got himself fired.

I’ve been there. I’ve worked at jobs where managers spent all their time trying to placate and encourage such reluctant workers, offering them raises and the best shifts, while those of us who actually did all the work every day were treated poorly, never getting raises, working all the holidays and overtime without extra pay. This is how I paid my way through college. Decades later, I still have the bad back and bad knees to show for it.

But what I couldn’t understand at the time, and what Vance still can’t grasp, is the difference between doing such a job for a year while you’re looking forward to graduate school or law school, and doing such a job with the prospect of living right at the poverty line for the rest of your life. I survived such jobs because I knew I only had to do it for one more year, or I only had to do it until September. Many of the guys I was working with would be doing these jobs until they got too old to physically handle them anymore. And then what?

I’m sure 22,000 a year sounds just fine to a lawyer with a Yale degree. Why shouldn’t they be able to live off that? But if you do the calculations, figure how much it costs to buy food and clothes, to keep a car on the road, and these days to keep your cellphone connected, at the end of the month you’re not left with much to show for your back-breaking labor, shifting fifty-pound cartons of floor tile all day.

I don’t work such jobs anymore, because I am not physically able to. But I know many men my age who do. And they describe the same frustration with younger workers, who call in sick twice a week, leave early, or just wander away for a half hour or so out of every two hours, leaving the old guy to do all the work himself. So I assume things haven’t changed much since I was working my way through school.

My position is that the problem here is not a matter of poor personal choices, but of a failure of ideology. Workers like this have nothing to give their lives meaning. Long hours of grueling physical labor to keep food on the table and a roof over your head and nothing more, ever, for the rest of your life, starts to seem, well, not worth doing. And Vance does a great job of describing what happens to such people when they get a bit more money: they wind up even more unhappy, spending their money on things they don’t need and can’t really afford, drinking and using drugs, and trapped by the confused belief that all their unhappiness must be caused by their current relationship they spend their time fighting with their families and looking for that next sexual partner who will finally make them happy.

What’s missing is ideology. Not in the bourgeois sense of better personal choices about managing one’s financing. And not in the pop-Buddhist sense we see every day in newspaper opinion columns (especially since the beginning of the pandemic) of becoming blissfully indifferent to everything and learning to enjoy sitting and doing nothing. What I’m talking about is actual social practices that people can become engaged in, can participate in, to give their lives meaning beyond their alienated labor and their instagram feeds.

Vance mentions religion, and the declining participation in churches among those in the rust belt. He points to research that suggest those who attend church “commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money” and do better in school, and that church is causal in this, “it’s not just that those people who happen to live successful lives also go to church” (92). Despite this, and the conviction that “church offer[s] something desperately needed by people like” himself, almost nobody from his blue-collar hometown ever went to church. They all have deeply held “religious” beliefs, about a God who is somehow on their side, but these beliefs seem to allow for violence and even murder with no repercussions. In fact, Vance describes his family as having disdain for anyone who even attempts to behave civilly or kindly to anyone outside their own family; they see such people as affecting a superior attitude, and despise them.

This is what I mean by a failure of ideology. We all think our deeply held, private beliefs are good enough, and disdain participation in social practices. Without such social practices, though, it is difficult to find purpose in life, and almost impossible to organize any significant social change. We can’t even conceive of unionizing any more, and civil rights movements have been relegated to protests with no clear goals, usually only those protests that are promoted and so encouraged by media owned by those who don’t want any real change. In short, we have given up on all ideological practices that might give our life meaning, and give us agency, opting instead to be controlled an placated by the billionaires who own our social media accounts.

Of course, Vance leaves out what for me has always been a problem with organized religion: money. Churches here in Connecticut make it clear that what they want is not to save your soul but to access your bank account. Whoever gives the most money runs the church, and your ability to participate is dependent on your income. I’ve seen this over the last few years at churches of three different denominations in my town (we have close to a dozen churches, with every major Christian religion and few obscure ones represented). In a town of over thirty thousand, about fifteen hundred attend church regularly, and they pay well for the privilege of controlling the church they attend. Most people here say they believe in God but never see the inside of a church except at a funeral. Buddhist groups are even worse about this, often the most expensive kind of “religion” around, and offering nothing for your payment but bromides and condescension. And it’s not just religion that is gone. Social clubs and softball leagues are a thing of the past, as all of our human interaction has been taken over by our phones. My grandparents, who were not college-educated, participated in countless social organizations, from Kiwanis to bowling leagues and pinochle clubs. They worked “blue-collar” jobs, bought a house, and retired comfortably in their sixties. Their social activities kept them busy all their lives, even after retirement, but they also gave them some reason to go on with their work.

My point is that if guys like Bob had a hope of eventually getting real economic security, but also of something beyond lifting floor tiles to give his life meaning, he might be more motivated to do such a job.

In some ways, this time of isolation seems less strange than it would have half a century ago, because we have been preparing for it all our lives. Perhaps we can use this time to put down our phones and start thinking about what kinds of social practices we’d like to engage in once we’ve all been vaccinated. According to some experts, we’ll have at best three years before the next pandemic shuts us down for another year or so. What kind of ideological practices can prepare us for this?

Shallower Thoughts

There are many common assumptions in academic philosophy that have always baffled me. For instance, the claim that knowledge is “true, justified belief.” This is a fairly recent position, and one that nobody actually seems to have held at all until some philosophers began to question its validity. However, it is now a position that must be mentioned in every discussion of epistemology. I cannot see why, since it is so obviously, to someone who is not a philosopher, quite stupid. The sentence “knowledge is true, justified belief” is a tautology that explains nothing. Isn’t the goal of epistemology exactly to determine what would count as truth, and what would count as a justification of a belief? If we knew the answers to these questions, we would not even be asking what knowledge is. I’ve been puzzled by this for many years—that is, puzzled by why professional philosophers think this sentence is even in the form of an answer to the question epistemology asks. No philosopher has ever been able to answer this for me, except with a sort of condescending smirk and a despairing shake of the head at my hopeless stupidity, or the written equivalent of those gestures.

The one that has been puzzling me more lately is one I’ve written about, indirectly, in Indispensable Goods: the belief that we are being naive at best, arrogant at worst, to assume that our thoughts about the world can ever be even close to correct. This has, since Kant at least, become the universal assumption of almost all philosophers, and has “trickled down” to the general public in various distorted forms (such as the belief that “quantum theory proves” that we create reality with our consciousness). I’ve seen various assertions of this lately, as I’ve been spending my time in isolation over the last months reading a lot about ethics and epistemology.

The assumption seems to be that if we claim we have anything like a correct concept of the world, we are assuming a kind of “freedom” from determination that our limited human minds cannot possibly possess. Instead, the task of epistemology (and so of ethics) is to overcome our obviously distorted image of reality, at least to the extent of recognizing how hopelessly distorted it really is (since we never can correct it). We must realize that our minds are much too determined by language and our private desires to ever achieve anything like objectivity.

What puzzles me is this: it seems to me that the assumption I’ve just described in fact itself requires enormous arrogance and quite a bit of naïveté. To accept it, we have to believe that in fact our minds are completely undetermined, radically free of influence from reality. That is, this belief assumes that our minds are not immanent to the world we inhabit, but of a different kind. It assumes a kind of dualism that people making this claim seem to believe they are actually avoiding.

Let me explain. If in fact our mind is, as I assert, determined by the world around us, then most of the time we would have to be right about reality in a general way. If our mind is immanent to the world, not radically dualist, we would have to assume that it is connected to, produced by, that world just as much as (if in different ways than) things like asteroids and trees and slime molds. To assume we can think things that are “determined” only by our language and desires, and that our languages and desires are free of connection to something we might call “reality as it is,” would seem to me to grant human minds a place in the universe that is quite special and unique, and which we have little real reason to grant them.

On a post-it note stuck to the window sill above my computer I have a quote from Merleau-Ponty that reads “Se demander si le monde est réel, ce n’est pas entendre ce que l’on dit”. I would say that to the same applies to the suggestion that our perceptions are hopelessly distorted by language or desires. Imagine someone skiing down a slope who perceives a tree in front of him. In almost every situation, he will be correct about this—there will be something there, and it will in fact be a tree. We can imagine unusual circumstance in which for some reason a person sees the entire slope in front of him but does not see the tree, or even more unlikely circumstances in which he hallucinates a tree that is not in fact there. However, this error in perception will be quickly corrected by collision or the lack of an expected collision. We cannot, I assume, imagine a situation where someone suffers a concussion from hitting a hallucinated tree, much less a situation where someone skis right through a tree because he fails to notice it. We rarely have mistaken perceptions about the world, and those we have are usually quickly corrected. In fact, there are many things in the world we cannot perceive, but we still come to know of their existence exactly because we can perceive their effects (things like radon gas, for instance).

What we are often wrong about is what I call mind-dependent kinds of things: our theoretical explanations of and predictions concerning observable phenomena. I suppose part of the cause of this error is just that we tend to confuse hypothetical constructs like gravity with real phenomena like things falling to the ground.

But a bigger part, it seems to me, is just the desperate need to believe we are unique and special in the universe, and not dependently arisen just like everything else. A dependently arisen mind can certainly gain a correct idea about the various things in the world it is part of.

I think of this as the ultimate contemporary koan. One cannot begin to make progress toward awakening until it is clear that to believe we can create an illusory image and superimpose it on reality is to believe that we have a mind completely unconstructed by and dualistically separate from the rest of reality. So what would the koan question be? I imagine something like this: Why can’t you cut down the entire forest with a herring?