Sheckley’s “The Accountant”

My discussion of Sheckley’s stories treats them as if they are highly unusual works of Literature.  That is, it is always my contention that Literature functions to produce ideology.  However, I treat these stories as if they function not to produce ideology, but to give us an illustrative tale that serves to call attention to how it is that ideology usually works.  Of course, I would expect that most people read these stories as Literature in the ordinary senses, as entertaining stories, about which they can’t really say exactly why they are entertaining.  I would suggest that we could read these stories in either way, and this is in fact another feature of ideology itself: it is both a merely matter-of-fact understanding of some particular practice,  in which we cannot quite say why we enjoy one practice rather than another, and on the other hand it is a practice that serves a specific function in the reproducing the social relations.  This is probably an obscure point, but we can make it clear by examine how it works in the story “The Accountant.”

The basic plot of “The Accountant” is simple.  Some ordinary parents, living in an apparently ordinary 1950s American suburb, are distressed to find that their young son has set his mind on becoming an accountant. They had hoped for him to become a wizard.  They try everything to convince him that wizardry is a better choice, but ultimately they fail, and he pursues his own path.  Written in the 1950s, we can read it easily as an humorous inversion of the problem many parents faced with their teenagers, who wanted to become rock musicians or movie stars instead of dentists or tax attorneys.  And it is that.  The shallow humor of the story occurs at that level.

But at the same time, the story demonstrates the impossible gulf between ideological positions.  The parents call up all the most powerful arguments at their disposal.  They even decide to call up the “Demon of Children” to terrify their son into returning to the pursuit of wizardry. They know that the appearance of this demon will be enormously traumatic, and are willing to use “the best psychoanalysts money can buy” to heal him of this trauma. But even this is ineffective: the boy simply calls up a spirit of accounting: “a tall, terribly thin old man…covered with worn pen points and ledger sheets, his eyes two empty zeros”, and the demon is defeated.  The point is that no argument from within one ideological position could be effective to someone within another.  This is something we all take as a given now: I cannot possibly offer any reason for you to abandon your ideology and embrace mine, because any reason in support of my ideology is meaningless or simply unconvincing from within yours.  

The story, however, takes us one step further.  Because in fact this commonplace is not at all true.  In fact, in the very act of arguing against my ideology you have already had to accept it.  The conjured accountant informs the boy’s parents that he will teach their son “the  Damnation of Souls, by means of ensnaring them in a cursed web of Figures, Forms, Torts, and Reprisals.”  At which point the boy’s father finally agrees: “I’m sure not going to stand in his way.”  In order for a supposedly resistant ideology to win out, it must adopt the same ultimate goals as the hegemonic position.  As when the proof that becoming a rock musician is a worthwhile goal is when one makes more money at it than a dentist would have made.  This point is typically missed by most philosophical discussion of ideology, but is quite essential to keep in mind if we hope to effect any real or meaningful change.

Ultimately, then, this story can be read as an ordinary amusing tale, its humor derived from the inversion of expectations.  It only “works,” however, because it also employs a sophisticated “knowledge” of how ideology must operate.  And this is, after all, how all our ideologies work. We take them to be simple truths, and resist examining why they seem so enjoyable and so natural.  Of course hard work is a good thing, everyone just knows that!  But we can do the work of making explicit the function of this belief in reproducing our mode of production.  And in reading a work of fiction, we can see, if we do the work of making explicit, the source of our enjoyment in a story we “just happen to like.”  The final point of this story, for me, is that it reveals that when we read stories just for the entertainment, we should keep in mind that they are only ever entertaining to us if they are effectively reproducing our most deeply held ideologies.

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  1. Ian

     /  March 6, 2021

    Thank you for taking the time to write this, Tom. Once again, I think this helps me make some progress in understanding ideology and also the way you read Sheckley’s stories. I’ve started wondering how some of your arguments about how ideology works relate to your own project here. Here’s what I’ve come up with: The ideology you are trying to produce is (this part is, of course, obvious) one in which rigorous and critical thought are highly valued and (here’s the part the significance of which I realized through your text on “The Accountant”) the “ultimate goal” (or, at least, one such goal) it shares with the dominant ideology is that of freedom, or agency. So the idea is to use the widely shared (?) structuring belief that increasing our freedom and ability to act is desirable to convince people to make an effort to think more clearly and critically about the world we live in and about their own dependent arising. Or, perhaps, one should even say: “enable people to *enjoy* making an effort to think clearly and critically etc.”.

    This is different from, say, enjoying thinking based on the belief that it makes me superior to a (real or imagined) mass of people who are less good at it than I am. In an interesting talk he never gave at a high school, Paul Graham suggests this is how many (or maybe even most) people get into thinking about anything:

    “The great mathematician G. H. Hardy said he didn’t like math in high school either. He only took it up because he was better at it than the other students. Only later did he realize math was interesting — only later did he start to ask questions instead of merely answering them correctly. […] Don’t disregard unseemly motivations. One of the most powerful is the desire to be better than other people at something. Hardy said that’s what got him started, and I think the only unusual thing about him is that he admitted it.” (

    Graham may be right about the prevalence of this phenomenon, but, to me, this does seem to be a problem. Not because of moral outrage at “unseemly motivations”, or (to borrow a phrase from one of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller novels) “doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons”. The problem I see is that some “right things” will not be done at all; it appears to me to be unlikely that this kind of approach will lead people to seriously investigate, for instance, the reasons for the terrible working and living conditions of so many of the people who produce our clothes, our food, or our fancy gadgets or the people who are involved in delivering our Amazon packages and so on. Such questions are not the kind we think we can get a lot of prestige (or money) for asking. However, aside from these moral concerns, we might also criticize this ideology of thinking in order to feel superior from the agency point of view by arguing that it is unlikely to lead to actual critical and emancipatory thought about our own lives, even though that is exactly the kind of thought that is necessary if we want to increase our freedom. (Of course, this also requires abandoning the idea that “freedom” just means “doing whatever I want, whenever I want to”.) Another issue is that, by its very nature, the superiority approach is unlikely to work for more than a small minority to “get them started”. But I may have started rambling a bit.

    I’m not sure, though, whether I understand your point in the following sentence: “It only “works,” however, because it also employs a sophisticated “knowledge” of how ideology must operate.” Here’s my best guess: I take you to be saying that the humorous “inversion of expectations” is not sufficient to explain the enjoyment that can be derived from reading the story “as an ordinary amusing tale”. Instead, even if we don’t think about ideology explicitly the way you do here, the story only seems like a “good story” to us, because, at some level, we realize that it does something “right”. We find it convincing because we “know”, however vaguely, perhaps from experience, that this is how ideology really works. At the end, we can smile smugly at the father in the story because we can see through his sudden change of heart and we feel that the story is “well-written”. Is this the kind of thing you’re talking about or am I on the wrong track here?

  2. Thanks Ian,
    It does seem to me true that beginning from the wrong motivation is unlikely to lead to any right actions or thought. We hear this all the time, for instance, in the addiction industry: if they start out trying to stay clean to keep out of jail, they’ll wind up staying clean for a better reason. But it never works. Or in education: if they start out studying to get good grades to avoid punishment, they’ll eventually begin to learn for the pure love of learning. But that never seems to happen. You’ve made an important point here, that wrong motivations never seem to me capable of motivating certain kinds of right actions. Which leaves me wondering, what ever will work to motivate the right kinds of action? What would motivate us to undertake those kinds of learning and action? I’m reading Aquinas on “Human Acts” right now…maybe I’ll pick up some insight there.

    As for the question of how a story “works,” yes, that is kind of what I had in mind. We often don’t really know why we like a particular work of literature—and so we offer all kinds of reasons about how formally perfect it is or about the timeless truths it conveys—none of which are ever enough to convince someone who just doesn’t like it that they ought to start liking it. In reality, we like a story because it calls up and then resolves some ideological problem that we are struggling with (perhaps at some not quite explicit level). This story “works”, I think, for this reason—it raises and then humorously resolves the problem of the impossible gap between generational ideological positions.

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