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.

The Ideology of Reading “Bartleby”

Over on Imaginary Relations, I’ve posted an essay I wrote some time ago about the famous Melville story. I hope you’ll give it a look—it is a bit long, a bit too academic perhaps, but I think it is sufficiently outside the academic discourse on Literature to be worth consideration.

Over a period of about three years, I sent this to eight different academic journals. Most (with two exceptions) responded positively, but declined to publish it. They acknowledged that the “reading” was convincing, was original, and was worth publishing—just not in their journal! The standard Literature journals mostly suggested that because I discuss the purpose of teaching this story, it was better suited to an journal focused on pedagogy. Of course, the more pedagogical journals passed either because it is too “theoretical” or because it contains no “empirical data,” which is apparently now a requirement for publishing essays on the teaching of Literature.

This is part of the purpose of Imaginary Relations: to produce a knowledge that is excluded from the standard academic discourse. In this case, my concern is to consider the ideology the story produces, both in its original time of publication, but also in its use as a text in the English classroom. What kind of ideological project are we engaged in when we require students to read this text in the way that we do? It would seem this self-reflective consideration is just not an acceptable part of academic discourse in the humanities anymore.

If you have time, and if you’ve ever read, or been assigned to read, “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, I hope you’ll take a look. At the very least, I would hope that future readers of this story will be a bit more aware of what is clearly the central concern for Melville’s narrator: the enormous implications of an apparently small matter—the shift in our concept of what it means to “prefer” something!

And if you are like me, someone interested in the ideologies we produce, and so unable to get your work considered in the usual academic or popular journals, I hope you’ll consider submitting something to Imaginary Relations. I suspect there are more people out there frustrated by the limitations on thought enforced by the existing discourses.

Robert Sheckley’s “Beside Still Waters”

The New York Review Books edition of the stories of Robert Sheckley ends with “Beside Still Waters,” although it was one of his earliest published stories and the rest of the volume is arranged nearly chronologically.  Most likely this is because the 23rd Psalm, from which the title is taken, is usually read at funerals and so tends to connote endings.  If we want to read this story as a commentary on the nature of ideology, as I do, then we might instead consider how it works as a beginning to a career as a science fiction writer.  

It is, after all, and odd story to have been published in Amazing Stories; nothing amazing happens in it. In fact, not much happens at all.  The story describes a futuristic “prospector” who mines an asteroid, alone except for a worker robot which he gradually programs to have rudimentary conversations with him. In fact, for most of the story he no longer even seems to do any prospecting.  Having “made a little strike,” he simply lives out the rest of his life on the asteroid, having the same conversation with his robot over and over, because he “never gave much of a damn about anyone.”   Eventually, he gets old, his robot gets rusty, and his air pump breaks down, and he dies.  He seems mostly content with this solitary life, doing nothing but repairing his life support equipment, looking at the stars, and having the same conversation with his robot, which gives him only the answers he has programmed it to give.  

What does beginning a career as a pulp short story writer in this way say about the ideological function of the genre of science fiction? 

The story evokes two related themes that inform almost all twentieth-century science fiction: the unresolved oedipal complex and the fantasy of escaping sociality.  And these themes inform all science fiction because they inform all modern capitalist ideology as well.

Mark, our prospector, has a classic unresolved oedipal complex.  He cannot conceive of having a relationship with a woman, because he “never saw a good one yet.”  He programs his robot to have the same conversation with him for years: 

—What do you think of girls?

—Oh, I don’t know. You have to find the right one.

—I never saw a good one yet.

—Well, that’s not fair.  Perhaps you didn’t look long enough.  There’s a girl in the world for every man.

—You’re a romantic!

And isn’t this the goal of much of twentieth-century ideology?  To avoid resolution of the oedipal complex, caught endlessly between blaming women for not being good enough and having foolishly romantic ideas of love?  

Of course the resolution of the oedipal complex also involves entry into the social, acceptance of a symbolic system in which we need to negotiate with others.  Mark names his robot after “a father he had never known,” and programs it to speak to him as the perfect complement to his own personality.  Then, “in time, Mark forgot he had built the answers into Charles.”  The perfect strategy to avoid true sociality is to create an “other” that is really only a reflection of ourselves.  We can then pretend to true dialogism while actually avoiding it.  

The ideological function of the science fiction story is figured perfectly in the relationship between Mark and Charles.  These stories endlessly postpone the resolution of the oedipal complex, and shore up the illusion that escaping the demands of sociality will somehow, someday, yield satisfaction.  The content of such science fiction stories is generally the pursuit of a fantasy realm in which we will have magically powers over reality, like the Jedi knight or the blue people in Avatar, and live in perfect contentment.  The failure to finally bring this about is usually caused by the problem of women: their manipulations and infidelities and deviousness, or just the need to compete for them, collapses many a science fiction paradise.  And of course any retreat from sociality fails to produce enjoyment, which is why we need to be repeatedly convinced that it will.  In the end, the robot’s recital of Psalm 23 simply reminds us that the fantasy of escape into a realm of imaginary plenitude, in which all our appetites are satisfied without effort on our part, is part of the fundamental ideological project central to Western civilization: Judeo-Christian religion.  

To begin a career of writing pulp science fiction stories with this odd story is simply to proclaim that his project will always be to interrogate the ideological form he is participating in.  And “Beside Still Waters” reminds us that  if we were ever to achieve our structuring fantasy, the dream of escape from sociality and the demands of bodily necessity (which, of course, we cannot), then we would still need ideology: we would need to tell ourselves the same stories over and over just to make such a paradise bearable.