I figured it was high time to finish my reading of Ernst Jünger’s The Glass Bees (which was cut short in the original attempt here by a tangent that has receded considerably, dare I say thankfully) so that I can flesh out the Wikipedia article I started and further examine why I think this book is of particular interest to me as of late.
Jünger’s The Glass Bees has an extremely condensed and seemingly simple plot. In fact, the whole book follows Captain Richard, a former cavalryman and unemployed high-tech worker, who is down on his economic luck and desperately in search of a job. The majority of the narrative action is centered around his interview for a job (the details of which are never made clear to him) with the robotics mogul Zapparoni, who Bruce Sterling aptly describes in his introduction as “a hybrid of Bill Gates and Walt Disney” (ix).
One of the things that immediately struck me about the novel’s “hero” is that while caught up in the nostalgia of his cavalier past (more on the key role of nostalgia in the narrative shortly), his desolate financial situation makes him both vulnerable and real—the first five words of the novel are “When we were hard up”—as Sterling notes, “Captain Richard is a rare example of a science fiction hero who knows what it means when people line up for soup” (ix). The very textured quality of uncertain times within a recognizable depression-era future ruled by eccentric personalities, personal police forces, private property, and immensely powerful corporations marks a deep resonance with our current moment. When talking to his friend/job broker Twinnings about his options for employment he characterizes the situation beautifully:
The rest were jobs with a risk attached. They provided a comfortable life, sufficient means, but troubled sleep. Twinnings mentioned a few of these —they resembled police jobs. Who nowadays did not have his own police force? Times were unsafe. Life and property had to be protected, real estate and transportation closely guarded, blackmail and crime counteracted. Presumption increased in proportion to philanthropy. (5)
Jobs in high tech as police jobs, positions to guard information, control its dissemination, and protect investments. More than that, times are unsafe, and such a reality centers around a presumption (a term that can be interpreted many ways, but I will focus on the legal meaning “an inference of the truth of a fact from other facts”) that is formulated in relationship to how much an entity can give, donate, or volunteer to the greater good. Presumption is rigged, the act of giving in this world is premised on the very nodes of corporate power that control the means of capital. The inference of truth in this world is shaped by how much capital one is willing and able to donate to its creation. There is no mediating force between the nodes of capital, power and those who are employed to enforce this reality. Any idea of a social net in this world is entirely missing. And what is so subtly apparent in this novel is the complete evisceration of social welfare for the working poor (another truly resonant element of this novel with our moment).
The dark reality of the world in this novel becomes excruciatingly clear by the end of the first chapter:
I was still one mass of useless and antiquated prejudices. Since everything was now supposed to be based on a contract—which was founded neither on oath nor atonement nor Man—trust and faith no longer existed. Discipline had vanished from the world, it had been replaced by catastrophe. We were living in permanent unrest, and no one could trust anyone else. Was it my responsibility? (15)
I must admit I haven’t been reading as much literature lately as I have in the past, but the passage above captures beautifully the crisis and questions of our moment —“Is it my responsibility? Am I my brother’s keeper? Can I afford to believe in a community?” And the permanent unrest and steady dose of catastrophe keeps us all in order, constantly scared, meek, and ready and willing to capitulate trust and faith in one another for some false sense of security and comfort. The social contract has been made null and void through the constant din of uncertainty, fear, and repression. I, like Captain Richard, remain one mass of seemingly useless and antiquated prejudices.
These “useless and antiquated prejudices” give way to large parts of this narratives peripatetic peregrinations into the mental landscape of nostalgia. Which often accounts for the filling out of an otherwise very straightforward and deceivingly simple plot line. But the way in which the novel is structured around nostalgia is of particular interest to me, for anyone who reads this blog knows I suffer interminably from the nostaglia disease. What I find remarkable about the narrative style is that these nostalgic rivulets that take over the narrative logic are quite similar to the ways I read the internet. I follow links, search for things from my past, use sites like YouTube as a veritable nostalgia machine. The narrative structure of The Glass Bees is so very similar to the way in which I understand the internet for my own uses as to be uncanny. While at first I found the unpredictable links out to other ideas, stories, and anecdotes bothersome and disjointing, I soon realized it is not dissimilar to how I navigate my own story on the internet. Yet, these distractions form the loose threads of an important and meaningful past that has been obfuscated by the immediate financial demands is further compounded by the absence of anything resembling a community. The individual is isolated and alone, almost dehumanized:
Everywhere they [horses] had been replaced by automatons. Corresponding to this change was a change in men: they became more mechanical, more calculable, and often you hardly felt that you were among human beings. Only at rare moments did I still hear a sound from the past—the sound of bugles at sunrise and the neighing of horses which made our hearts tremble. All that was gone. (30-31)
Follow that with this:
Prognoses which have been made contend that our technology will terminate in pure necromancy. If so, everything we now experience would be only a departure and mechanics would become refined to a degree that would no longer require any crude embodiment. (38)
A horrific thought which beautifully counterbalances the notion our moment is caught up with, a kind of “elated technical optimism”—a phrase Captain Richard uses later on in the novel to describe Zapparoni (90). I think the struggle around the conception of technology and its impact on our understanding of history, community, and our humaness is at the heart of this naturalistic science fiction novel. For unlike Philip K. Dick’s work, this novel is not fueled by a drug-like paranoia —though Jünger was no stranger to mind-altering drugs— but rather more akin to a futuristic Frank Norris, framing a kind of virtual naturalism that is deeply preoccupied with the systemic logic of capital. I’m thinking specifically here of Norris’ The Octopus, The Pit, and McTeague. That to me is what is so deeply frightening about Jünger, the de-naturalized organics of capital which is seamlessly grafted upon the mad-made nature of the future.
This becomes readily apparent when we actually get to examine the automatons in the novel. They are introduced from the very first chapter, but it isn’t until chapter 12 that we get a precise descriptions of their workings. Sterling frames the paradigm shift Jünger’s automata represent beautifully in the introduction:
Robots as Jünger portrays them have nothing to do with common standards of 1957. These robots don’t clank, beep, or take any orders….on the contrary: these microminiature, computerized, buglike automata are straight out of the MIT Media Lab and Wired magazine circa 1994. Uncannily anticipating the scattered structure of the Internet. (ix)
The idea of these small, subtle robots that worked together in a loose organizational logic to accomplish tasks and reproduce nature makes them far more unnerving than an obedient Robbie the Robot. They work according to a systemic design through which each has a role, featuring a wide range of “diverse models and colonies.” In fact, Captain Richard’s interview with Zapparoni consists of a brief conversation followed by an outing in a garden where he is left alone with a swarm of automata, or glass bees, “about the size of a walnut still encased in its green shell.” Their functions were much the same as natural bees, to take the nectar from the various flowers, yet at the same time the question of whether they could also fertilize the plants was raised. Can these automata reciprocate a natural intercourse?
The relationship between these nut-sized robots and our contemporary realities of exchange and intercourse on the internet becomes increasingly similar to the system Jünger describes:
At first glance, the glass hives were distinguished from the old pattern by a large number of entrances. They resembled less a hive than an automatic telephone exchange…what if what I have been observing was not so much a new medium as a new dimension, opened up by an inventive brain; it was a key which unlocked many rooms. For instance, what if these creatures could be used—as they are used in the world of flowers—as messengers of love between human beings….? (129, 140)
This description of the hives as a loosely joined dimension of exchange that is de-centralized and automatic, yet potentially capable of connecting humans though messengers of love is a fascinating image that frames the imaginative space of Jünger’s novel as remarkably prescient in its subtle elegance. He frames a kind of proto-naturalistic system of exchange premised on nature, yet at the same time unnatural and frightening.
At the same time, the question undergirding the entire experiment with the glass bees is that “such economic absurdities are produced only when power is at stake” (139). “Technology is not pursued to accelerate progress but to intensify power” (x), and we must understand our relationship within this equation. Technical versus human perfection is at the heart of this system: are we going to move towards a technical perfection of such a system “that strives towards the calculable”? Or do we push toward human perfection which is incalculable? According to Captain Richard, the two choices are incompatible, and one must choose where their energies rest to do “cleaner work” (155).
Personally, I think the cleaner work rests in the latter, and hence the real focus on the human dimension of what it is I do as a “high-tech worker.” I don’t police or control data, nor am I so concerned about scaling enterprises or the next generation of Web 2.0 tools as sold by corporations or systems of technical complexity and control. The idea is to make real, localized, and human connections that echo out into some kind of circumscribed eternity.