terça-feira, 2 de abril de 2013

From Astarte to Barbie and Beyond: The Serious History of Dolls by Frank MacConnell

On the distant planet Symbion, a genetic experiment fails. Frightening changes take place that cannot be stopped. The result? A world where insects grow to frightening proportions. A world where the inhabitants have taken on the awesome characteristics of insects. Where the good of the Shining Realm is locked in mortal combat with the evil of the Dark Domain. Telepathically bonded in combat, Sectaur Warriors join with their insect companions in the ultimate battle for survival. A battle that is now in your hands. 


Except for the last sentence, this passage might come from the back cover of a fifties or sixties science-fiction paperback. Today, however, when science fiction has almost received its academic laying-on of hands—a mixed mitzvah if there ever was one—the jacket copy would read more like this: “In Sectaur Warrior, the author continues his exploration of the shadowy interrealm where myth, genetic theory, and man’s profoundest religious concerns all collide; and all of it cast in a mold of high adventure reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern. This is speculative fiction at its best and most provocative.”

And, to be sure, there would also be the ritual two-sentence blurb from, say, Norman Spinrad and, with luck, Gregory Benford. I leave it to you to decide which version you prefer, although I know which one would make me (apologies to Mr. Spinrad and Mr. Ben­ford) buy the book.

I always listen to AM rock stations rather than FM rock stations because I have a woefully low tolerance for preten­sion and would rather hear Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” three more times than the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star” once.

At any rate, the more persuasive passage is not, of course, from a paperback. It is from a package containing Sectaur Warrior Zak (and his insect sidekick Bitaur), bought for my far-from-wicked stepson Eric, eight years old and my research assistant for this project. Besides Sectaur Warriors, my home is also populated by GoBots, Power Lords, Masters of the Universe, and Transformers (who are either “Heroic Autobots” or “Evil Decepticons”). Now that is what I call an alien invasion: these aliens attack you through your Mastercard or Visa.

Are they toys? Dolls? Mere counters in a fantasy game played mainly in the head? Or the polyurethane grandchildren of those tin soldiers who fueled the martial instincts of boys about to be warriors, boys about to die from the Crimea through the Argonne and the Battle of the Bulge and into Korea and Vietnam?

I am not a deconstructionist. The only real deconstructionists I know are French intellectuals and termites. So my answer to that multiple question is “all of the above.” And, more importantly, these aliens are the stuff of which fiction is made, the raw material that can be annealed into that most ancient and most indispensable of hu­man artifacts, storytelling. (I will amend this later.) Homo neanderthalensis may not have had a writing system or a concept of the pulley; but it is inconceivable that this dear departed cousin did not tell stories and fashion dolls or icons to reify the characters in his stories.

The Babylonians, we know, not only worshipped the graven images of their gods, but on festival days set especially tasty dishes before them and pretended to feed them: there may be a shorter line than one might think from Astarte to Chatty Cathy. The ka of the Egyptians, the immortal yet still somehow physical part of the self, is represented in paintings as a doll-like simulacrum of the deceased. And just as ka was the physical self in its immortal mode, it could be fed with real food or with the representation of food. The pharaohs and high priests would have understood, better than the New York Times Book Review, Philip K. Dick’s brilliant question, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” And, finally, the most popular fantasy game in the world, with elegantly simple and infinitely sug­gestive rules, involves toys of various powers and capabilities not unlike those of the many GoBots, Sectaur Warriors, or Transform­ers: its Persian name, shah-mat—our “checkmate”—means “the king is dead.” Game is story, story is game.

And let us not forget that H. G. Wells loved to play elaborate games with his hundreds of toy soldiers, that Stanislaw Lem is fasci­nated with mechanical toys, and that Harlan Ellison has collected enough Shogun Warriors, Masters of the Universe, and so on, to satisfy the Christmas rush in a small town in Iowa.

Our subject is aliens and narrative, or aliens in narrative, and I want to suggest that all narrative begins as child’s play and that the first and most indispensable tool of child's play, the first alien, is the doll/toy/simulacrum.

It is an alien in the true sense. As Wallace Stevens says in “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” it is “a tune beyond us, yet ourselves.” It is a projection of ourselves that is, strangely enough, not ourselves, a fun-house mirror image that reflects us, not more accurately, but more tellingly, than an undistorted image.

Emile Benveniste, Gallically gnomic or gnomically Gallic, ob­serves that “language ... is the possibility of subjectivity” and that the proper definition of the first-person pronoun “I” is “the indi­vidual who utters the present instance of discourse containing the linguistic instance I.”

Never mind that this garble sounds like a Sorbonne lecture as written by Woody Allen. Benveniste’s formula is still immensely suggestive. I would paraphrase it thus: “I” is both the most existen­tial and most alien of utterances, the very possibility of narrative, of a “tune beyond us, yet ourselves.” “Je est un autre” writes Rimbaud, sublimely mangling his native tongue: “I is somebody else.” It is the very principle of storytelling, the distancing of the self from the self, of the story of your life as you tell it to yourself from the story of your life as it happened to you, of causality from experience. And as such its echo, its siamese twin in play, is the doll that is and is not us.

What does this have to do with Power Lords or Masters of the Universe?

I am not, mind you, interested in or convinced by the arguments of child psychologists about the “educative value” of toys, that is, make it out of wood and don’t paint it because it stimulates the kid’s imagination. Only in Departments of Education and in remote reaches of Marin County can people believe that, in our culture, wood is a more “natural” substance than plastic. I am with Chester­ton, who observed that there is more natural spontaneity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape nuts on principle. I am interested in toys, in other words, not as relics of the childhood world, but as building blocks of the grown-up world.

Let me invoke two very intelligent women for elucidation. Jacquetta Hawkes, in her magisterial book Prehistory, remarks that everything we call “art” is intimately connected to the evolution of tool using. The human impulse to make representations of people and animals, according to Hawkes, seems to have developed at about the same time as the emergence of secondary tools, that is, stone fragments whose purpose it is to chip other stone fragments into axes, adzes, hammers, or spear points. This subtle refinement of what must have been the original chipping technique may, in its way, be a stage of development as crucial as the Neolithic Revolution itself. For, if you can make a tool that makes a tool, why not build a better axe by making a tool that makes a tool that makes a tool, and so on to infinity? Self-consciousness becomes possible; and so does play in the most serious sense of the word (play being, of course, one of the few words that can never be used frivolously).

Art and technology are not combatants but rather mirror sib­lings, like Helen and Klytemnestra, hatched from the same egg. The Magdalenian cave drawings—are they art or ritual or metaphysical technology?—overtrump Ruskin and Hegel in their idea of the growth of culture.

There is another intelligent lady: my daughter Kathy. When Kathy was ten, she had a rather shabby alien, a stuffed dog named Murray, and a friend, little Sally, who was a terrible child but who, since she was the daughter of good friends, was to be treated nicely. One day, as Kathy and Murray and I were sitting in my car, I asked Kathy if she really liked Sally. Kathy’s answer was predictable: “Oh, yes. Daddy, I love Sally.” So far, so good. But then, hefting hapless Murray onto her lap and staring seriously into his button eyes, she said, “Murray doesn’t like Sally, you know. Murray hates Sally.

Yes, he does.” “Good for old Murray!” I thought. Not yet having read Roland Barthes on the omnipresence of the “I” in all fictive utter­ance and having stupidly forgotten Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre,” I did not realize that I was witnessing the birth of fiction and the reason for fiction. Kathy, the human, was expressing through Murray, the alien, that Sally, the other human, was a brat. If we could not invent simulacra to act out our unacted desires, speak our unspeakable wishes, how could we—a species burdened with the killing burden of consciousness—survive?

Freud, in The Interpretation of Dreams, describes the business of dreaming, the Traumwerk, as if he were describing the composition of a nineteenth-century novel. Fiction, in other words, is daydream­ing. And I think Freud’s epochal insight can be expanded to argue that all fantasy activity is not just the raw stuff of story, but is story.

Four years after The Interpretation of Dreams, in The Psycho­pathology of Everyday Life—a kind of streamlined version of his earlier book—Freud writes of the unreliability of childhood memo­ries. “The ‘childhood reminiscences’ of individuals altogether ad­vance to the signification of ‘concealing memories’ [that is, edited memories], and thereby form a noteworthy analogy to the childhood reminiscences as laid down in the legends and myths of nations.”

Bridging the gap between the private and the cultural level of storytelling, in one of its earliest phases of transmutation, we find the doll. We are moving toward the exegesis of the Evil Decepticons and their colleagues. But, since I believe that literary commentary is like cross-country travel and courtship, in that half the fun is getting there, let me approach the world of my table-top aliens by an indirect route.

My wife, who is not a research assistant but in fact a collaborator on this essay, remembers Barbie. So do I, but deep and silly psychic mechanisms best described by Freud and best understood by Gloria Steinem and Vivian Sobchack force me, in my less liberated moods, to repress the memory.

Think about Barbie as an alien, a Philip K. Dick alien, to be sure: that is, something so like us as to be a tune beyond us, yet ourselves. Barbie is a charming, foxy teenager with a boyfriend, Ken, a best friend, Midge, a little sister, a black girlfriend, and the black girlfriend’s black boyfriend, and, as the years have rolled on, an endlessly proliferating accumulation of ski clothes, surfing gear, evening gowns, and even cardboard chalets and beach houses. things to shore up the identity, the radiant “thereness” of the central and at-all-cost-to-be-venerated goddess. And so would Jay Gatsby, able to win the gaze of the golden girl in the high castle only by his vulgar, absurd, and holy accumulation of  of ski clothes, surfing gear, evening gowns, and even cardboard chalets and beach houses.

The Babylonians would have understood, and not found laughable, this headlong buildup of shirts. “I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts,” exclaims Daisy, crying as he tosses them on his bed, showing her what he has done for her. And the person who finds that great scene funny is disenfranchised from reading the novel. Remember that the pharaohs went into eternity with their favorite toys: what else would you take with you on such an awful journey?




How easy it is to attack Barbie as a fallacious role model for women or as a celebration of capitalism at its most poisonous. Both positions are simple-minded enough to have been held by people whose political sophistication is bounded by Rolling Stone on the right and Marx for Beginners on the left. How easy, and how very tedious.

How interesting it is, on the other hand, to realize that Barbie— poor, plastic, neglected, and now collecting dust in a continent-full of attics or basements—may have been as much a woman warrior in the emerging feminist cause as Maxine Hong Kingston. She was, for the decade of her birth, independent, self-reliant, and able to use, rather than be used by, her feminine identity.

Queen of the prom? Certain­ly. But also efficient mistress of the capitalist system and nobody’s fool. And that means something. Like chess or Dungeons and Dra­gons or the Transformers, the universe called “Barbie” is the algo­rithm of a war game; it is only that Barbie, Ken, and the rest of the crew are warriors in those social and sexual battles better described by John Updike and John Cheever than by Philip K. Dick and Philip José Farmer.


Nevertheless, remember that one of Philip K. Dick’s stories, “The Days of Perky Pat,” imagines a postnuclear, impoverished Earth, where the survivors gamble their meager provisions on fan­tasy games played with Barbie-style dolls, reenacting the comfort­able, middle-class existence detonated irrevocably beyond their reach. It would be fine to read this story simply as a satire on the foolishness of the bourgeoisie, obsessed with the trivialities of mid­dle-class life even on the brink of the abyss.

But oversimplifying Dick is about as wise—maybe less so—as oversimplifying Kafka or Borges. “Perky Pat” may represent capitalism gone rancid. But she also represents the continued possibility of invention, of storytelling, of making something out of nothing, which is after all Dick’s genera­tive obsession as a writer.


Stanislaw Lem writes that “the peculiarities of Dick’s world arise especially from the fact that in them it is waking reality that undergoes profound dissociation and duplication.” Or, elsewhere: “The end effect is always the same: distinguishing between waking reality and visions proves to be impossible.” Readers of Lem’s stun­ning novel Solaris or of his collection The Cyberiad will of course recognize that in discussing Dick’s purposeful confusion of reality with imitation, Lem is also discussing his own work.  Lem reads Dick with his own interpretive swerve, as of course we all do.  But I interpret Lem’s interpretation of Dick to mean this: from his earliest stories to the genius of  The Man in the High Castle, to the mad sublimity of Ubik and Valis and The Divine Invasion, Dick has been concerned with the relationship between simulacrum and reality, which is to say that a perfect imitation of a thing is that thing, be it an 1844 Colt revolver, a 1910 American advertising poster, or a human being. Who writes The Man in the High Castle. At one level, the I Ching, the most rigorous and most random, most tychistic of oracles. Causality is what we impose upon, or flatter into, our lives. And to say that is to say that Dick, more than Nabokov and maybe even more than Joyce, is brooded over, intimately and terribly, by the core shadow of Story itself. He is, in short, our indispensable theorist of dolls.





And now we have come, at last, to the Transformers, the GoBots, Power Lords, Masters of the Universe, and whatever else may come along over the next few years. They are all toys, or dolls, who are aliens at a double remove. For they are, prima facie, aliens because they are dolls. But they are also dolls of aliens, of honest-to- God extraterrestrials: projections of ourselves, or of our childrens’ selves if we are shy, into figures of wonder and terror who are, nonetheless, demonstrably of our world and of our dreams. I have already used the metaphor of the alien as a fun-house mirror reflec­tion of ourselves; but it is extraordinary to realize that all the aliens we invent or produce are, from Wells’ Martians to Larry Niven’s Puppeteers and the Sectaur Warriors, deflections and declensions of us, the tedious Carl Sagan notwithstanding. Even Ggriptogg, the most brutal and pitiless of the bad Power Lords, even that four­armed monster has a copyright stamped under his left foot: just as Caliban in The Tempest becomes an efficient monster only after Prospero teaches him how to speak English.

It is always a battle between ultimate good and ultimate evil with these toys and with their accompanying mythologies. That, as far as I can see, differentiates them from maybe 10 percent of the world’s stories. Let me take my favorite mytheme, that of the Transformers, to stand for the lot.

Eons ago, alien robots from the planet Cybertron crash-landed on Earth. Awakened from suspended animation after thousands of years of sleep, they are now engaged in a battle that will determine the fate of our planet. The evil Decepticons, led by the powerful Megatron—whose slogan is “Peace through Tyranny”—seek to re­turn to Cybertron after draining all of the Earth’s energy. They are resisted, thwarted in their dark quest by the Heroic Autobots, led by the wise Optimus Prime, whose somewhat question-begging motto (he is, after all, a robot) is “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.”

They are called “Transformers” because, in order to de­ceive or in order not to alarm the unsuspecting earthlings, they can transform themselves from their warrior form into automobiles, airplanes, cassette decks, insects, dinosaurs, and dune buggies. As of the last catalog I bought, there were forty-three Heroic Autobots and twenty-nine Evil Decepticons on the market. By now, there may be more. Each box ranks its occupant in terms of strength, intelligence, speed, endurance, rank, courage, firepower, and skill on a scale of one to ten, proof that the mind-set of the Educational Testing Service at Princeton may be a universal principle and that the Homer who described the warriors before Troy could have been the E.T.S.’s first chairman of the board.

But I do not mean to make light of these toys. Quite the con­trary. I find it rich and heartening that these highly technological toys are also toys about technology. They are alien invaders or alien friends who remind us—or our children, all of whom we hope will grow up to be Larry Nivens or Ursula K. LeGuins—that the truest and most immediately available aliens in our world are the machines with which we surround ourselves and out of which we build our culture. A Corvette Stingray or a transistor radio can, in the right circumstances, be a good guy, just as a laser pistol or a demolition truck can be a bad guy. The alternate universes of these toy worlds, played out on table tops or on that most magical of places, a child’s counterpane at night with one, clandestine light on in the room, are alternate universes indeed and deserve to be treated as such.

We have heard, by now, so many versions of the pun between “alien” and “alienation” that one more cannot possibly hurt. Let us note, then, that “alienated labor” is Marx’s phrase for the separation of man from the fruits of his technology and that an “alienist,” in the nineteenth century, would be called a psychoanalyst in ours. The toys of which I am speaking heal or help to thaw the ice, the schism between those two great imaginations of alienation, as do any story­telling tools, since all stories are about the aliens we carry in our heads and our hearts and since all stories are desperate, playful stabs at healing the wounds that make us human. And my toys help us, too, to understand the games we play later about aliens, with the more cumbersome counters of typewriters, word processors, and—save us—the mature human mind.

In: Aliens The Anthropology of Science Fiction. Edited by George G. Shlusser and Eric. S. Rabkin. Illinois, 1987, pp. 199-207.

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