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The Unrestrained Writer

Updated: Oct 10, 2019

Samuel Eric Marx

Who decides what genre a piece of written work falls into? What is the classification process like and what literary factors (if any) are taken into account? Kurt Vonnegut, and a slew of other irresponsibly misclassified writers, would tell you that one thing is for sure—it’s not the writer's call. In 1952, Vonnegut watched first hand as his debut novel Player Piano was slapped with the label he would go on to butt heads with for the duration of his life—science fiction. Science fiction? Player Piano? It’s hard to understand really. The story lacks any traditional sci-fi tropes; no space travel, no time travel, no alien invasion. There’s not even any death! Sure there’s a giant robot, but all it does is punch holes into a metal card to determine people’s aptitude and career path. There’s a war, but it’s no War of the Worlds. H.G. Wells would not be impressed. Of course, Vonnegut was well aware of why his work was stuck with the sci-fi genre; money. Sci-fi was selling in the 1950s, and books need to sell. Seeing profit, not his own intentions, become the defining factor in classifying his literature must have tickled Vonnegut a bit though. If the powers that be had actually understood Player Piano, they would have realized that everything Vonnegut predicted was coming to fruition, and they were the bad guys. Piano’s true brilliance is that it fits into any number of genres, and none, all at the same time. Though it was released in 1952 into the movement of post-modernism, its content and themes more comfortably fit into the realms of naturalism and realism, from which the American writer drew much inspiration. The imaginary city of Ilium, New York is, no doubt, a bleak world in which Vonnegut’s characters—be they prestigious Managers and Engineers or the lowly Reeks and Wrecks, confined to slums of The Homestead—are trapped by the restraints of social order and the dominant power systems in place. It’s naturalist determinism at its finest when we learn that protagonist Paul Proteus fate is entirely predetermined by a universe which cares little that he even exists. As a realist piece of literature, the novel strives to challenge the changing and all-powerful system of the times by depicting the existential crisis of the working, middle-class. It dramatizes (though not by much) the negative effects of the technology boom and considers the results of a potential political revolution. Nothing too sciency so far.

First, the existential crisis of the working class. In his essay, Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses, French philosopher Louis Althusser suggests that one of the essential functions of a society is the acceptance of the working class man that he is, in fact, a ‘subject’ and that he will essentially subject himself to the ideals of the Ideological State Apparatuses:

“The vast majority of (good) subjects work all right ‘all by themselves’, i.e. by ideology…They ‘recognize’ the existing state of affairs, that ‘it really is true that it is so and not otherwise”. - Louis Althusser

At the beginning of the novel, our hero (anti-hero? Who can keep up with these labels!), Paul, embodies everything that the highest-ranking officials want in their loyal subjects. However, we get an early glimpse at his confused mind in the presence of his old friend Ed Finnerty, a rebellious former Engineer. The reader bears witness to Paul obediently governing himself as the narrator claims that “Paul indulged himself in the wistful sensation of feeling that he, Paul, might be content, if only—and let the thought stop there, as though he knew vaguely what lay beyond. He didn’t”. This is a startling instance of Paul submitting to what American literary critic Frederic Jameson describes as the struggle between the individual and its capitalistic society which, “maims our existence as individual subjects and paralyzes our thinking about time and change just as surely as it alienates us from our speech itself”. Vonnegut is setting the stage for Paul’s search for identity and letting the reader know early on that mankind needs to question the world we live in. Though unintentional at the time of writing, we can look back at Vonnegut’s words though Jameson’s lens and see first hand the negative implications of classification. Can our literary works not be ‘individual subjects’, safe from association with something that sold well last time? Can we not discuss them without ‘paralyzing’ them with constricting genres and subgenres. We can and we must.

There’s no question that Vonnegut sets the seed of rebellion in Paul well before we meet him in the novel. Vonnegut tells us on the very first page that Paul is the most important man in all of Ilium. With a fine job, a fine wife and a more than fine social status, Paul should be as happy and content as any man could be. But he’s not. Shortly after introducing his protagonist, Vonnegut writes, “[Paul] didn’t feel important or brilliant at the moment, nor had he for some time”. Paul is the essence of the working class man who feels a distinct lack of identity and believes he is unable to make his own way. Upon arrival of the socially destructive Ed Finnerty, Paul laments, “It was an appalling thought, to be so well-integrated into the machinery of society and history as to be able to move in only one plane, and along one line.” The interesting point here is that Vonnegut’s makes Paul aware that the thought is appalling. Vonnegut himself was appalled at the idea that his work was strictly one thing serving one audience. He always tried to distance himself from being solely a sci-fi writer in hopes of reaching out to and appealing to a wider audience. To keep a novel on one plane of existence is, in itself, an appalling act of creative limitation.

The writer's ultimate goal with Player Piano is to ask mankind to re-examine its relationship with production and technology. Whether he was directing his eye to the publishing and book marketing industries specifically remains to be seen, but Vonnegut did witness a time of rapid development and immense over-production in the mid-twentieth century. He feared that society was moving too quickly towards a world of complete automation—where humans would be forced to compete with machines for necessity. Kroner, a manager in Ilium’s Eastern Division, is a symbol for the dominant class. In a speech lauding the accomplishments of a deceased and lifetime engineer, Ernie Bassett, Kroner states that Ernie was at the “head of the procession of civilization, opening new, undreamed-of doors to better things, for better living, for more people, at less cost.” Vonnegut directly challenges this notion when the young engineer Dr. Edmund L. Harrison, disgusted with the managers' mistreatment of Paul, remarks, “Anybody that competes with a slave becomes a slave”. Again this is an example of the novel challenging the dominant power systems as Harrison has basically said he will refuse to work anymore and refuse to be a slave. In his closing remarks about Ernie, Vonnegut, through Kroner, makes it absolutely clear that the dominant class expects complete sacrifice from its subjects. Kroner brims with pride as he recalls how “[Ernie] gave himself unstintingly engineeringwise, managershipwise, personalitywise, Americanwise, and—heartwise.” It’s that word—‘personalitywise’—that should scare us. If writers and creators give in to labels, genres and classifications are they not giving away their personality? If we submit to fitting our multi-shaped, highly capable minds into just a few tiny, square holes, are we not submitting to the same slavery Vonnegut discusses? Slavery of the soul?

Again, Vonnegut answers our question years before we asked it. If we read Kroner’s word unstintingly as without restraint, we see again that man is being praised for giving in and allowing himself to be enslaved. Ernie gave himself without restraint. The writer gave himself without restraint. Vonnegut includes this piece in order to call to attention the unconscious way in which society around him was submitting to the doldrums of daily working life. Althusser would suggest that Ernie Basset, and the rest of the lifetime workers in Player Piano, are victims of the reproduction of labour-power. Labor, Althusser states, is reproduced by means and wages which provide workers with “the wherewithal to pay for housing, food and clothing, in short to enable the wage earner to present himself again at the factory gate the next day”. This wage capital is “not defined by the historical needs of the working class ‘recognized’ by the capitalist class, but by the historical needs imposed by the proletarian class struggle”. The wages are set at a minimum amount which allows the worker to live, feel rewarded, stay relatively healthy and quickly get back to work. This one hits home for anyone in a creative field. Our ideas and dreams don’t always pay the bills and keep the lights on. That’s the harsh reality. More often than not, it’s the high demand, low quality work that keeps creative individuals afloat. That’s just the reality of creative output sometimes. The labels exist for a reason—the average reader likes what they like, and they want more of it. I like sci-fi, give me more sci-fi.

All of this leads the reader to what Vonnegut considers to be the only hope for humanity—a revolution of the people against the machines (or in our case, the genres). However, it is important to understand that Vonnegut uses Paul as a medium for a ‘one foot in, one foot out’ approach to upheaval, which the writer does not believe is enough. At Paul’s trial, the Judge asks Paul if his goal in joining the Ghost Shirt Society, an underground rebellion group, and attempting to subvert the power of the machines was to, “destroy machines in order that people might take a more personal part in production?”. Paul responds with a watered-down version of what the Ghost Shirt Society—and thus, Vonnegut—is suggesting is necessary, “The first step would be to get Americans to agree that limitations be placed on the scope of machines.” Vonnegut allowed Paul to fall short of the group's purpose to show his readers that this is the wrong approach. Vonnegut, like Ed Finnerty, understands that a more violent and deliberate plan of action needs to be enacted if the people are to succeed in their uprising against the machines and the powers in control of production. Much of Player Piano is a response to swift automation of society and a call to arms to slow it down, which German philosopher Walter Benjamin suggests is a twist on Karl Marx’s views on insurrection,

“Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake”. - Walter Benjamin

Vonnegut is doing nothing short of imploring his readers to activate the emergency brake.

Of course, Vonnegut’s stance in Piano was firmly against the automation of technological and human life, but it’s not difficult to read it, in retrospect, also as a plea against singularity, creative limitation, restrictive labeling, outdated classification, and ultimately meaningless genres. This can be boiled down even to the primary separation of literature—fiction versus non-fiction. If fictions role is to present the struggles of human nature, coated with a widely relatable sheen, and non-fiction attempts to neatly organize the complex thoughts, actions, emotions and moments of our lives, aren’t the two really striving for the same ultimate goal? Are they both not meant to be read, experienced, enjoyed and taken from? In the end, is that not the purpose of literature—for each reader to have his or her own experience with the work, devoid of any premeditated assumptions created by classification and genre? To reach this end, though, we must allow for, and the powers that be must allow for, the totally unrestrained writer.

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