Pierre Menard with a Pipette: VAS and the Body of Text
Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland (2002) tells a simple story. Square considers having a vasectomy as his wife, Circle, has asked him to. When I tell others this, I usually have to pause at this point in my summary to allow the nervous titters to subside. In a sense, this laughter—whether at the mundane subject matter or at the mere mention of the penis outside of a strictly clinical or politicized context—is very much to the point. It is the fact that a vasectomy could ever be considered so commonplace, “that many people wouldn’t even consider it a story” (18), that makes VAS worth telling, with regard to the development of a shift in the sense of what constitutes a “normal” relationship to the body. The “story” is the vasectomy’s “commonness” itself (19) or, more precisely, the moment at which such technological manipulations of the body and familial descent became everyday. That moment is at once a collective entry into a new technological paradigm and a variation on a cultural theme, suggesting a cultural history neither linear nor circular, but rather like a spiral staircase. Even the novel’s experimental and encyclopedic form, while unconventional, is also a return to the founding concept of the novel in English as, precisely, novel. VAS performs the simultaneous conflict and complementarity between advances in the material construction of the body and recurring themes in the ideal construction of the body. In doing so, it emphasizes the body as the discursively contested and complex space of a perpetual dialogue between artistic humanist expression and rational functional design.
Square’s name originates in Edwin A. Abbott’s 1899 novel Flatland, in which a two-dimensional square describes his orderly world. He imagines a third dimension that would be as dimly conceivable to himself as his own two-dimensional world must be to one-dimensional lines. Living in an America here also referred to as Flatland, Square considers the implications of the epistemic shifts that make what was once virtually unthinkable about the body—be it DNA testing, abortion, or a simple vasectomy—a commonplace, and what this might mean ethically and politically. In doing so, VAS adds its voice to what David Harvey calls the postmodern “return to the body” (14), which establishes the body as the most hotly contested—because it is the most sacred, intimate, and seemingly discrete—of postmodern political spaces. After weighting his decision with a massive load of historical and political considerations that some might call melodramatic—even operatic—VAS ends with the not-quite-tragedy and not-quite-comedy of Square’s vasectomy. He does not die, but makes future births impossible, snipping the line of descent that could have extended indefinitely from this square on Square’s genealogical chart.
As his name’s reference to genealogical charts would imply, Square is both individual and representative of a type. The first appearance of his name exemplifies this dual position, appearing as it does as a handwritten signature that spans the page, but in the boxes of a generic official form, turning whoever’s name should appear there into a drop in a statistical sea (11). At the same time, Square’s passionate assertion of his individuality, despite the namelessness and featurelessness of his character, is an operatic gesture according to his own criteria (277). Correspondingly, in VAS, the arts serve as the domain of individualism, with its attendant prioritization of individual dignity, agency, and rights; and the sciences affirm collectivism, with its attendant prioritization of the needs of the many even at the expense of the few.
N. Katherine Hayles argues that disciplines as apparently different as those typically regarded as arts or sciences, still “base the theories they construct on similar presuppositions because these are the assumptions that guide the constitution of knowledge in a given episteme” (xi). In VAS, too, the cultural representation and technological manipulation of the body are inextricable, each shaping the other. One logical consequence of acknowledging a common ground for the diverse disciplines of the arts and sciences is that the empirical sciences imply an aesthetics, and are intimately shaped by culture. To express this blurring of categories of knowledge, VAS sets its climax, an opera called The Strange Voyage of Imagining Chatter, at the Peale Museum, America’s first museum of natural history. Not only does Square see human evolutionary history in this museum deceptively constructed as a “linear plot” (28) in which every epoch is represented anachronistically by a conventional nuclear family (39), he also reflects that the museum began as an art gallery. The site illustrates the emergence of knowledge at the intersection of art, science, and power.
Bearing in mind the epistemic common ground of the arts and sciences, the body in VAS is neither the agent of culture in a natural world, nor—as one might be inclined to assume—is it merely the last refuge of the natural in the midst of what Fredric Jameson has called a “postmodern sublime” hypercomplexity (37). It is the place where cultural work is naturalized, and where the natural is worked. While one might argue that the body has always been a discursive construct, VAS considers that by making the body the sum of its genetic coding, its representability in simple letter combinations approaches the dream of a pure sign, in which speaking something creates that thing. As Tomasula writes elsewhere, genetic manipulation “is becoming so common as to precipitate a shift in our conception of nature” (“Gene(sis)” 253). VAS suggests that the contemporary manipulation of genetic code is the logos of the twenty-first century, answering the Judeo-Christian God’s fiat lux with a fiat corpus.
As a whole, VAS consistently aligns the designed book with the designed body, beginning with a cover whose outside resembles Caucasian skin and whose inside is Crayola’s official color of blood. The design of the book, itself a coded body, is central to this argument. VAS’s visual play is without doubt its most powerful element, and itself indexes the postmodern sublime as it explores the interrelationship of the discursively constituted body and “living” language and culture through its deployment of index tabs, kinship diagrams, musical scores, comic strips, gene sequences, trademarks, photographs, pages from other books, graphs, charts, tables, technical schematics, medical consent forms, common optical illusions, Scantron forms, screen captures from web pages, and a wide range of fonts. Often, the many layers of image and text obscure one another.
The most consistent design element in this novel of the designed body is a simple vertical line, which runs down the outer edge of most pages at an indentation of 1.5 inches, and which is often flanked on either side by one or two additional lines. The line serves many functions in VAS, not least of which is the visual impression it creates of its protagonist’s meditation on the linear continuity of ancestors and descendants, while making a visual pun on both lineages and linear plots. This line is prominent enough so as to appear akin to a continuous narrative thread, but it is actually often interrupted, scrambled (314), sutured (158, 253), or snipped (131). Its continuity, like that of a family line or a replicated gene sequence, is not without interruption, variation, or mutation, and its linearity might simply be a convenient fiction, in contrast to its actual entanglements. In short, in both its design and its content, VAS presents an illustration of the tension between the conventionally imagined “linear plot” of fictional, historical, genealogical, and evolutionary narratives, and alternate models akin to Shahrazad’s perpetual storytelling in 1001 Nights (75).
The line is key in that it transforms the novel into a coherent and metaphorically corporeal body as well as into a part of a greater hereditary body. It does so by insisting that one regard the novel as if it were a gene sequence, with all of the complexities, mutations, and inheritances one might expect in one’s own DNA. Much of VAS’s text is justified toward the lines at the edge of the page, and is ragged toward the book spine. The raggedness of these facing lines of text suggests that they interlock. In short, the novel’s facing pages form an interlocking visual double-helix, in which its code meets and combines to form a body, and indeed, an image of Sir Francis Crick pointing to a model of a double helix has been inserted into the text so that he points now to the recurring vertical line (124). The lines, then, are the literary equivalent of the modeling of the body as text through the arrangement of genetic base pairs of Guanine (G), Cytosine (C), Thymine (T) and Adenine (A), represented as letters, along a spine: a sugar-phosphate spine in DNA, and a perfect bound spine in VAS. Lest the reader overlook this formal equation between coded chromosome and coded book, the novel’s pagination, on pages where the line appears, mimics the notation used to indicate the beginning and end points of a gene sequence. The ellipses before page numbers, here, and their appearance on only right hand pages, underscore the sense of the text as a continuous chain of facing pages arranged as a double helix of genetic base pairs. This sense of closed pages interlocking in genetic recombination is represented elsewhere as simple sex, with the image of a naked man and woman on facing pages, and a diagram indicating that one should open and close the book rapidly (21-3). Likewise, the interlocking of pages reflects, formally, the interlocution of the multiple narrative voices appearing in dialogue on any given page.
Among the genetic/textual/cultural inheritances passed down to this book/body are past normative constructions of the body, expressed in the novel as telling quotations uttered by experts past and present, or “smart people,” who “figure it out” for everyone else (124, 146, 185). This inheritance of code comes complete with index tabs for the authoritativeness a need for such ease of reference would imply. These words of wisdom appear throughout VAS and are primarily expert, authoritative pronouncements on the nature and management of the defective or desirable subject, including statements by Abbott’s ironic narrator, Square. Tomasula’s narrator invites the reader to imagine these voices as immigration officials screening applicants at humanity’s “Ellis Island” as they police bodily norms (197-8). Every screening takes place within the parameters of the debate over the discursive construction of the human.
However, the example supplied by the narrative here is not Down’s Syndrome, as is commonly screened for today, but “femaleness” (198), underscoring the instability of these parameters. First, we are shown America’s elided history of the withdrawal of freedom, by forced sterilization, of people “guilty” of alcoholism, epilepsy, childbirth out of wedlock, or of being an unruly child (122). Then, to problematize any self-congratulating assumption of a myth of progress this list might imply, the novel cites not only the ready—even banal, or pedestrian—availability to consumers of DNA testing, but research studies, all conducted after 1980, seeking out the genetic foundation of such qualities as laziness, criminality, and a predisposition to divorce. The appearance of authoritativeness is emphasized, for these studies, by their arrangement into several dozen footnotes, with a narrator’s aside nestled among them quipping that footnotes are “a ventriloquist act that speaks authority/truth” (90n14).
The strangeness and sheer number of many of these projects, both past and present, raises the question of what cultural assumptions Square labours under now. It is only with difficulty, for example, that Square realizes that what passes for freedom in America is merely a freedom of choice among trivial consumer objects: “only in America could people choose between hundreds of salad dressings” (53). The persistence of ideological practice and belief across generations, that changes primarily in phrasing but not in content, is likened visually to a children’s optical illusion, so that seeing the world becomes a kind of afterimage imprinted on the eye, allowing ideology to be mistaken for objective truth. The illusion in question requires readers to stare at a picture of the American flag, after which they will see it on the facing blank page (242-3). Indeed, one could argue that Square locates a vision of freedom in consumer choice between trivial and only marginally different options because other, more radical freedoms have been eradicated to the point of unimaginability, if ever they were. Shahrazad’s capacity for new visions in endless narrative variation has vanished, and we are left asking how “1001 salad dressings could speak ‘freedom’?” (154). In a word, Square is institutionalized, and is left unable to evaluate the relationship between this latest and most profound literal commodification of the human body and what he might understand as freedom. He lives Fredric Jameson’s complaint that there is no position “outside the massive Being of capital, from which to assault this last” (Jameson 48). As Square himself puts it in observing the unspoken assumptions that go into designing a diorama at the museum, there is no way to step “out of your diorama and [look] back at what you assume to be natural” (158).
At issue, here, is the classic Foucauldian question of who owns the discursive power to speak such contested abstractions as “freedom,” “nature,” “culture,” “art,” “identity,” and “human” into knowledge. Certainly, in this book in which the body is a living language, and even death is perhaps primarily an idea, language itself takes on lifelike qualities. Some ideas, concerning reproductive management and the “purification” of the human, survive. Others, such as alternate models of freedom that go beyond consumer choice or beyond, at the July 4th parade, echoes of fascism (112-3), die out. That is, they follow the logic of memetics, or the sense that “natural selection is a general process of which earthly biology is just one example” (Blackmore n.p.). Their life cycle is comparable to that other quasi-living code, the virus, and it is quite possible that their longevity has more to do with their simplicity and ease of transmission than with what might be called their intrinsic moral worth.
Memetic survival is perhaps irreconcilable with scientific progress. Thus, the narrative offers a page with a diagram from a text on the measurement of the face as a marker of racial difference (70) and juxtaposes it with a full colour photograph of a scientist taking a blood sample for the human genome project (74) by giving each the same title: “The Material.” In both cases, the former dating from 1858 and the latter from 2002, we are shown a tellingly non-white body transformed into a site for the mining and manipulation of data to be used in support of cultural arguments and constructions of truth. That one might do so with phrenology is plain. However, reasons to doubt the political neutrality of genomics are, perhaps, less obvious. VAS is generous with examples to suggest the political implications of genetic screening, suggesting its continuity with past acts of the cultural detection and exclusion of undesirables. The technology advances. The attitudes, not so much. Empirical facts might change, but “what [is] scaring” Square is that “people with facts as good as their intentions sometimes make bad decisions” (191). Despite first impressions, VAS is not a nostalgic, technophobic work, as its sophisticated design alone readily implies.
In fact, nostalgia is impossible, for Square. It is bad enough that history, in this novel, is riddled with atrocity. Far worse is the sense that state violence is called to mind with ease only in inverse proportion to the degree of culpability implied for the one remembering. Every Flatlander knows about the Nazis. To an extent, Inglourious Basterds is about the cliché the Nazi has become. But I imagine when American instructors mention the Tuskegee syphilis experiments (234), or the pregnant women duped into drinking “a ‘vitamin cocktail’ containing radioactive iron” (252), few are met with a chorus of groans from students impatient with having to hear this again.
As code, then, and as knowledge, genetic sequences are likely absolute in their organized schematization only to the extent that the novel’s wave of pronouncements on such topics as phrenology and eugenics once were. In Flatland, the genome project aspires to what Henri Lefebvre calls the illusion of transparency, in mapping the space of the body as a totally knowable and deindividualized capitalist abstraction. The abstraction of the body plays out a fantasy of total knowledge and command of the natural that typically aspires to reduce history to “nostalgia,” and transforms nature to a mere sense of “regret” (Lefebvre 49-51). It is precisely this transparency that troubles Square, his close scrutiny of the obvious fogging the glass that mediates it with his breath. He interrupts nostalgia, and hesitates in the face of regret.
As a visual display of the orderliness and the supposedly transparent objectivity of genetic sequencing, VAS includes twenty-five pages of genetic code, which amounts to twenty-five pages of C’s, A’s, G’s, and T’s (202-26) in dot matrix type as a presentation of—it interrupts itself to mention—“the facts,” in perhaps their purest signification (225). The phrase is ironic in its mutation of these very facts, and in its comparable legibility. Its legibility, in turn, echoes the subtle genetic shift that brought the larynx, and hence language, into being, making both these facts and Tomasula’s creative intervention possible. On the one hand, this gene is presented as “common knowledge” as the sequence is available online to the public; on the other hand, the freedom of this information is illusory. After all, there are very few human readers with the competence to understand, or voice an opinion on, what any of it might mean (229). For example, that the gene sequence represents gene SHGC-110205 on chromosome 12 will likely mean very little to most of Tomasula’s readers. The gene sequence stands in stark contrast to the naïve simplicity of children’s science experiments appearing sporadically in the novel—including immediately after this sequence—under the heading, in black crayon, “Science Rocks!” (50, 83, 228, 242, 322). This contrast makes the experiments seem quaint at best and, at worst, disingenuous in their claim to convey vital relevant knowledge.
VAS produces its own science exercise that turns genetic manipulation into a children’s game. Of course, given the complexity of actual genetic manipulation, it isn’t exactly a game the whole family can play, so much as one that plays the whole family. The textualization of the body and corporealization of the text makes comparing the transmission of genes to a sort of language game a logical analogy. As storytelling, genetic manipulation turns the evolutionary babble of mutations into an orderly “linear plot” (86) and, in doing so, addresses “what is so unbearable about Darwin’s discovery: not [humanity’s emergence] out of a natural evolution, but the very character of this evolution—chaotic [and] nonteleological” (Žižek 164). VAS uses the example of a language game in which one must transform the word “APE” into the word “MAN” by changing one letter at a time, with the requirement that each intervening step must also form a viable word (85-7). The game reappears along the bottom of the pages of the climactic opera’s overture, but like the world beyond Flatland it, too, has become three-dimensional. Here, we are shown the steps of the game written on a piece of paper, which then must be folded and refolded to show not only the transformation of “APE” to “MAN” but, simultaneously, the transformation of “MAN” to “APE.” Every change in the lettering of words is preceded by an image of that word’s insertion in a chemical schematic, with the letter about to be changed linked to the methyl group commonly found in organic compounds, CH3. Hence, the process here, as with virtually every other orderly process in VAS, is unmoored from the interpretive framework which made it seem grounded, rendering it literally ambivalent and, in every sense of the word, mutable.
One of VAS’s fundamental concerns is that the technological management of evolution, played out in the game of transforming MAN to APE, means that what is “the fittest” for survival might be decided by epistemic constructions of knowledge through power, making evolution a matter not of the survival of the fittest, exactly, so much as of the fittest for human consumption in a given time, and place, and regime. Of course, the deletion of random mutations, and mutations deemed undesirable by a given cultural context, risks not only eroding human diversity, but of enacting a kind of preventative, prophylactic genocide by sterilization and abortion in the name of a negative eugenics cast as a public service. In a sense, then, the human genome project enables eugenics—and, more broadly, the gradual deletion of physical difference in parallel with the apparent erosion of human diversity through cultural imperialism—by functioning as an archive of genetic materials rather like a backup file, or a variation on the Borgesian “Library of Babel.” Given that it likens the depletion of the total gene pool to the depletion of cultural and linguistic diversity on earth, the visual dynamism of the novel, in its articulate design, is in itself a rejoinder to arguments in favour of the potentially fascistic “perfecting” and streamlining of the body.
While the body has been marked by economic processes for centuries—and Square notes that historically “women [have] lived within their edited, critiqued and rewritten bodies” with “routine élan” (323)—the depth, degree, and explicitness with which it is a commodified object seems to be something new, while attitudes about it, perhaps, are not. To “be your body, and not just have your body” is a concept that has been eclipsed in a cultural evolution comparable to the surpassing of Neanderthals by Cro-Magnons (180). However, even this paradigm shift is not absolute, but perhaps better expressed in terms of shifts in epistemic fortunes. After all, Square feels like he is living through a paradigm shift, but he also remarks that the episteme of “having” your body “must have [emerged] a long time ago” (366). The novel is by turns thorough in its catalogue of previously unthinkable body modifications, and clear that a de-individualizing cultural attitude to the body as just another branch of resource management has deepened along with it. When type O+ blood is a bargain basement commodity (268), the heady plenitude of consumer choice in the body market clashes with the tyranny of its invisible hand. Perhaps more than ever, lifespan is class-determined, and the “mere” freedom of consumer choice is a literal matter of life and death.
The intersection of the body as a rewriteable creative composition and a deeply commodified product of design is made plain in Square’s story about the performance of an autopsy, represented as a music recital, that is itself rendered in text subjected to Tomasula’s own surgical excisions. Here, book and body become one as the story performs its content through the design of the page, with its own transplants of text and images from other cultural documents, and its own position as a site for the confluence of multiple discourses. After all, the autopsy story is preceded by several pages showing diagrams of the donning of surgical gloves (160-1), of surgical instruments (163), and of a roughly square-shaped medical incision on an otherwise blank page (162). What follows, simply, is both Square’s fictional composition within VAS and the narrator’s surgery upon it. Every square-shaped excision is at the apex of an angled red line, situating it at the intersection of cultural and scientific discourses that are, themselves, represented as sites for the meeting of these discourses. At one end of the angle is a musical notation laid out in a manner evocative of an anatomical diagram, while at the other is a U.S. Patent symbol—the difference of which from a copyrighted cultural work is challenged (246)—for biogenetic patents such as synthetic uterine tissue and transgenic mice (176). Like musical composition, the polyvocal, meditative, non-linear novel and the gene represent processes. Their representation exposes the inadequacy of their static counterparts, the conventional linear narrative and the anatomy text, while rendering the boundary between art and design virtually indistinguishable.
To be sure, the novel is in ways continuous with Abott’s Flatland in that it presents a world in which an outside is only dimly imaginable. The irony that Abbott’s story is told in a two-dimensional medium and read by an all-knowing reader in a third dimension extends to VAS in the form of Tomasula’s manipulations of Square’s story, of which this surgical exercise is an explicit illustration. Square’s awareness of the existence of this outside, if not its contours, is expressed in his observation that the opera audience is “part of the opera” that closes the novel, but that to realize it is to invalidate the observation (355). At the same time, he understands, as one who both lives and writes his narrative, the story of his body and of his existence having its own narrative thrust and shape, that he can “never leave his book” (365). This moment of realization is fundamental to an understanding of VAS as a cohesive whole, and subtle in its typographical expression of that cohesiveness:
Square walked into the clinic, Square wrote, realizing that like Alice, Christopher Columbus, Dorothy, Galileo and all the rest, he was writing an ending by living it even if, like them, like everyone, he could never leave his book. (365)
This passage indicates the sense in which the narrator’s voice and Square’s own voice, and stories which are perhaps penned by him, the narrator, or both, form a whole in that, collectively, they comprise his story. We see this, in part, through the attribution of the novel’s last index tab—and, through it, the passage—to Square himself. Square, like his DNA, is both material and message. As both, Square necessarily experiences himself simultaneously as an individual and as one who, as he reiterates Tomasula’s epigraph, cannot “be sure [he isn’t] just acting like any other organ of [his] century” (196), which is to say an unconscious part of a collective producing its culture. He is like Kilgore Trout’s yeast cells in Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, unknowingly making champagne with their lives (208-9). More cynically, he is like Lancer the dog in the same novel, whose whole life seems to be “devoted to unloading his excrement at the proper time and place,” leaving him, perhaps also like Square, dimly aware “that some kind of terrible mistake ha[s] been made” (198). Writing and living combine, here, both for Tomasula and his character, both of whom work within the body of the book as designed by Stephen Farrell, as well as for Square’s self-construction and his self-representation through writing, as suggested by Square’s inclusion of both fictional and historical figures in his catalogue. The completion of his story, then, is both VAS and the story he writes as a character in VAS, just as one’s body is textual, and has, as a by-product of that text, the capacity to produce text through such evolutionary happenstances as a larynx. The co-extension of these realms is signified by the presence, in the above quotation, of the phrase “he was” presented in a subtle typography whose italics are less pronounced than the italics of Square’s writing, making that moment of being simultaneously an expression of his writing and of his being alive, or his material and message.
It is true that, like Flatland, VAS suggests that the reader’s existence is in itself one way of imaging the world beyond Square’s world. However, VAS also notes that three-dimensional readers may not appreciate their own condition as material and message in Flatland. To this end, Square addresses readers in his own handwriting—which is to say through the most apt trace of his own physical body, which is perhaps little more of a cultural construction than their own—asking that they cut the vasectomy consent form from the book, fill it in, and “[m]ake it as real a presence in your hands as are the countless other bricks that make up your invisible city” (318). He sees us, and when he reaches out to us in our godlike dimension, it is only to pull us into his flat one. Square might be textual, but his brick of a book is as physical as the physically embodied reader might, it seems, be textual. He undermines, quite deliberately, one’s secure feeling of living outside Square’s Flatland, and of being somehow impervious to being written from without by discursive power in the form of, say, experts and “smart people.”
The opera that closes this novel culminates in a third act, called “Beauty is as Truth Does,” in the form of a theatrical performance of the surgical exchange of heads between two rhesus monkeys. It is an experiment that challenges one’s ability to shape it tidily into just another discursive brick of the invisible city. Maybe that’s what art ultimately is, in Flatland: what Lefebvre calls a residue of the “incommunicable” (28-9). This residue is whatever remains impervious to abstraction’s tendency to cast all things as transparent, or to Flatlanders’ tendency to end every statement with the implied “obviously” that pervades VAS.
The procedure is overtly a combination of arts and sciences discourses, since it is literally set in an “operating theater” (356), a pun the narrative flags as serendipitous (300). If one considers the novel, as object, a kind of Flatland, then a comic book, with its combination of text and image, would indeed be the shape of an opera in a two-dimensional realm. The use of comic book conventions to relate The Strange Voyage of Imagining Chatter, including the representation of the opera’s title page as a comic book cover (329), is consistent with VAS’s critique of cultural qualitative value judgments by yoking together expressions of high (but exclusionary) and low (but wholly commodified) art. It looks ahead to Square’s vasectomy, in the novel’s closing lines, when the doctor complains that he would rather listen to Wagner than David Cassidy’s “I Think I Love You” over the in-house radio (365). Perhaps choosing the vasectomy is like leaving one’s body to science, in that it might very well help maintain a fiction of freedom, as if we haven’t seen ample evidence that Flatland takes what it wants anyway, deaf to the protests of its material.
The head transplant is conveyed through the representation, on a single page, of grimacing decapitated monkey heads in the midst of a schematic diagram of electronic plugs, organic vessels, gauges, and screw heads, all of which are laid out on two overlapping sheets of bloodstained, fleshy, sutured parchment (359). The consequence of performing such an operation, whether as a scientific pursuit or as a theatrical performance or, somehow, both, is admittedly unclear. Certainly, it appears at a point in the novel at which it is difficult to maintain the dualist assumption that this operation is the obvious and unproblematic equivalent of a transplant of identity. It also raises the question of whether apes are ever regarded as individuals, making the opera a tragedy, or are merely “pedestrian” “material,” making it comedy. The opera ends by acknowledging the enigma of performing what seems a meaningless and cruel exchange between sames in its concluding rhyme: “implications for higher primates still withstanding / awaiting evolution in primate / understanding…” (361, ellipses Tomasula’s). Whether this final line is to be read as an indication of a Lefebvrean “incommunicable” limit of human knowledge, or of the human incapacity to understand other primates as anything other than materials for human uses such as this, remains an open question. Regarding the former sense, Slavoj Žižek remarks that “technological self-manipulation appears to be ‘deprived of meaning’ only if it is measured by (or, rather, from within the horizon of) the traditional notion of what a meaningful universe is. Who knows what this ‘posthuman’ universe will reveal itself to be ‘in itself’?” (195). It may be a universe of cubes and spheres. We are left with no idea whether Square’s final choice really is in any way free. There is no framework (yet) by which to measure it.
In terms of the latter sense, we see that “primate understanding” is in alarmingly short supply, since the novel provides ample evidence of callous, if banally “pedestrian,” violence performed on unwitting human bodies for the public good (70, 74, 252, 291, 296, 298, 300, and more). Comparably, the opera’s overture includes a catalogue of the different ways in which monkeys have been used in art and science, usually with great suffering or indignity (335-9). We are left to ask whether human rights will ever be applied equitably to humans. We are also left to ask whether, someday, apes will also be regarded as human. Centuries from today, will the ape’s humanity and entitlement to rights be just another “pedestrian” fact of life? It may be unthinkable to us now. Then again, it is perhaps equally unthinkable that for Immanuel Kant, father of Western philosophy, an African man’s intelligence was once just as unthinkable: his blackness “from head to foot [was itself] a clear proof that what he said was stupid” (Kant 113).
The head transplant and accompanying display of reversible evolution in the form of the representation of the MAN-APE game as non-linear speaks to an important paradox upon which VAS insists. Namely, the novel chronicles a seemingly unbridgeable disconnect between the persistence of linear thinking despite the development of non-linear technologies that, for example, allow the body to free itself from the apparently plodding linear plot of hereditary genetic transmission at the mercy of random mutation. If the explosion of sophistication in biotechnology is one that reshapes the body, it might be useful to regard it as a “matter of vocabulary,” as the narrator describes the discrepancy between the steady decline in the diversity of human languages and the “3000 million letters of the / DNA lexicon that is a human,” the same letters of which are “used to compose a tree” (62). As Square indicates of the creative process, we find amidst a page of scattered letters, in this book of scattered voices and images, the sentence “bits and / fragments / come together / like nucleotides / some split apart and die / others hold / linking up / into double helixes” (58). In a sense, as Square reflects (365), the biomedical sciences have surpassed the arts in the diversity of expression available to it while at the same time reducing the body to the material of its work. One might produce a host of ways in which the body might be rewritten. Nevertheless, this moment is not the emergence of a new dimension in Flatland, for we see that what is written is wholly, narrowly conventional.
Like the accumulation of quoted, appropriated, and repeated material in VAS, so too is the body a repetition in genetic text of one’s ancestors, as if one’s body were in fact an iteration of a highly allusive genre. Hence, VAS’s narrator can remark that while a thousand typing monkeys will one day produce Don Quixote, an infinite number of combinations of genetic text, perhaps aided by a thousand splicing geneticists, might one day produce a monkey, or even Don Quixote in the flesh (67). Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein meets Jorge Luis Borges’ Pierre Menard.
Canadian designer Bruce Mau, referring hyperbolically to a kind of perceived contemporary technological omnipotence in this vast technological vocabulary asks, famously, “Now that we can do anything, what will we do?” VAS would seem to reply that, in the absence of a corresponding revolution in primate understanding, this “we,” or whoever speaks (for) it, will proceed with a narrowly conceived program of eugenics in fact, that points to other historical examples such as Nazism as a strategy of disavowal. Now that we can do anything—as one might have said at the dawn of writing, at the dawn of electricity, at the dawn of print culture, and so on—VAS suggests, we’ll still do just what we’ve always done.
Abbott, Edwin A. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. 1884. New York: Penguin, 1998. Print.
Blackmore, Susan. “Dangerous Memes; or, What the Pandorans let loose.” Dr. Susan Blackmore. N.p. Dec. 2007. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.
Harvey, David. Spaces of Hope. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000. Print.
Hayles, N. Katherine. Chaos Bound. London: Cornell University Press, 1990. Print.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Print.
Kant, Immanuel. Of the Beautiful and Sublime. 1764. Trans. John T. Goldthwait. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991. Print.
Mau, Bruce. Massive Change. London: Phaidon, 2004. Print.
Tomasula, Steve. “Gene(sis).” Data Made Flesh: Embodying Information. Eds. Robert Mitchell and Phillip Thurtle. London: Routledge, 2004. 249-57. Print.
---. VAS: An Opera in Flatland. Art and Design by Stephen Farrell. Barrytown New York: Barrytown Ltd. / Station Hill, 2002. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast of Champions. New York: Dell, 1973. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. Print.