Measurement, Irony and the Grotesque in Gulliver's Travels
Length: 2148 words (6.1 double-spaced pages)
Postmodernity is obsessed with the Eighteenth Century. As an example of how our nostalgia for that period manifests itself, Hans Kellner has pointed out that a genre of novels and films set in Eighteenth century has exploded in popularity: Lempriere's Dictionary, Perfume, "The Madness of King George III." We could also point to the ongoing revision of scholarship on the period, of which GEMCS itself is an example. In considering what generates this contemporary fascination I have given some thought to the aesthetic and political issues surrounding the beginnings, and perhaps also the end, of the bourgeois social sphere.
A conviction, argued most aggressively by Jean Baudrillard, is beginning to take hold, in and out of the academy, that this sphere, after an almost totalizing expansion, is now in decline. The panic over the loss of the social, whether supportable or not, offers a possible explanation for the contemporary nostalgia for the period in which Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels. In this age of dissolution, what do we see when we look back at the age of our creation? One thing we observe is the development of a peculiar kind of irony which we can't help but distinguish from our experience of this trope in the age of its dominance. The satirical effect of the irony in Gulliver's Travels read by the Postmodern will be precisely what it was not at the time of its production.
The historical distance between Eighteenth Century and Contemporary readers can be understood by way of Hayden White's use of the master tropes in "Foucault Decoded." White assigns one of the master tropes to each of the four archeological periods described by Foucault in The Order of Things. In White's system, Foucault's Renaissance was metaphorical, locating truth in similarity. Swift wrote in what Foucault considered the Classical Period, which, for White, had metonymy as its overriding mode of reason, because a new transparency of representation made it possible to organize knowledge by a standard and represent it symbolically on a table. The Modern period was characterized by synecdoche, in that the subject of knowledge, Man, was now included in the study of the world, in a part-whole relationship. Finally, the Contemporary or Postmodern mode is ironic, characterized by a questioning of the foundations of knowledge and a Dionysian disappearance of the subject of that knowledge.
It is in this epistemological space that Baudrillard can argue that representation is no longer transparent, or even opaque, but impossible, as the world of signifieds has been swallowed by the world of signifiers, leaving only signifiers.
Given a depthless world of signs, or if you wish, given The Age Of Irony, it seems fitting that Foucault should have privileged literature within the system of The Order of Things, because literature is the world of signifiers that admits readily that its connection to the signifieds of the Real is only suggested and always deferred. While Foucault and White show the sciences of each period to be trapped within a single trope, literature enjoys a singular ability to step outside, move between, or encompass more than one of these modal tropes. Literature invites its reader to draw metaphorical connections between the prose and what the reader sees as his or her own personal experience. Gulliver's function as a measuring stick is metonymic: he comes from the British world--ostensibly the land of the Real--and so the British reader feels he can be used to establish differences between the Real and the fantasy worlds he visits. This process reflects the ideological construction of the British Subject in the Colonial period. The aspect of the observed that can be measured by Gulliver serves to organize and name the whole, excluding whatever remains. In other words, just as a thermometer does not measure intelligence, the yardstick of rationality Gulliver finally brings down on the Yahoos fails to measure warmth, or any other human or British quality, if I can rightly call warmth a British quality.
Gulliver's journey becomes synecdochic when he serves a role in the visited society and this role has a reciprocal effect on his own character; he no longer can be said to function as a constant or impartial measure. His trustworthiness as narrator is undermined and his representations become opaque or fall under suspect. This blow to representation brings the grotesque into play. As Gulliver changes scenes, the multiplicity of perspectives forces an ironic mode on the reader, in which the grotesque gains destabilizing power.
To clarify what it means that the grotesque destabilizes in an Age of Irony, we can examine, for contrast, the role of the grotesque in the aesthetic of Swift's time, in the Age of metonymy, measurement, and of course, Reason. In The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, Stallybrass and White document the active role played by literary artists in the creation of a public sphere in the late-Seventeenth and early-Eighteenth centuries. Dryden, Pope and Swift are given as examples of artists who use the grotesque as a domesticated sign of the low intended to embarrass the audience into self-regulation. This device was part of a larger program to create a rational space for discourse, a social sphere aligned with the coffee house and in direct opposition to the participatory carnivals and rowdy playhouses. So, while readers could enjoy the comedy of Swift's obscene portrayal of the body, as a rule they would have projected this disgust away from themselves and at the unfit audience of the popular playhouse, associating themselves with the rational social sphere or the coffee-house. The political-aesthetic of the time could not allow a freely or multiplicitously ironic reading of Swift's irony. Rather, the rhetorical effect of Swift's irony was actually metonymic, reaffirming bourgeois values by employing the bodily grotesque as a signifier for the undesirable playhouse and carnival.
This metonymic dissassociation of the self from the body in aesthetics was aligned with the rise of scientific rationality. Despite the fanciful nature of Swift's writing, Swift's ironic descriptions of science should not be read as broadside attacks against science and rationality, but against human fantasy when it intrudes on the careful empirical progress of knowledge. Frances Louis argues in Swift's Anatomy of Misunderstanding, in a chapter section significantly entitled "The Real Thing," that Swift, like the Royal Society friends he would have met in the coffee houses, believed in "an unquestioned physical reality to be approached straightaway" (10). His irony, then, could not have the effect of undermining any of the basic ideological assumptions of his readers in The Age of Metonymy. Rather, his irony warns them away from the very ridiculousness you find in his writing and calls them back to the safety of the metonymic ideology of species-genus analytics: it guides them back to "The Real Thing."
Jean Baudrillard argues that the radical expansion of this social sphere, which provided the environment in which Gulliver's Travels could be written, has led to the loss of The Real Thing. The mechanical reproduction of the Real, made socially possible by the communicative freedom of the social sphere, the invention of mechanical and electronic reproduction, and, importantly, the construction of a self-regulated audience, capable of receiving rational discourse, has produced an excess of information. The social grew and grew until the information it produced was more than it could digest. We are in a period of social implosion, analogous to the run on the commercial banks that occured before the Great Depression, when it became clear that there was not enough capital for everyone to withdraw their funds. There is not enough Real to guarantee the representative capacity of our representations of the Real. The return of the Postmodern imagination to an earlier time, before the disappearance of reality, represents an ideological bum rush on the fountain of reality. The use of representation to regain reality, of course, only creates more excess, exasperating our depression in the economy of signs.
Significantly, Baudrillard links the proliferation of signs to nuclear proliferation, because just as the nuclear threat provides a deterrence against warfare, the excess proliferation of signs creates a psychological deterrence against any meaningful use of these signs, particularly against the political use-value of signification. Given this change in the economy of signs, it becomes clear that the use- value of Swift's employment of irony and the grotesque in Gulliver's Travels could not be constant throughout these historical changes, that its consumption now will mean precisely what it did not at the time of its production.
Harold Bloom noted in a 1986 introduction that, in the fourth voyage of Gulliver's Travels, "Swift rather dubiously seems to want it every which way at once, so that the Yahoos both are and are not representations of ourselves, and the Houyhnhnms are and are not wholly admirable or ideal. Or is it the nature of irony itself, which must weary us, or finally make us long for a true sublime, even if it should turn out to be grotesque" (6)? In the metonymic political-aesthetic of the early Eighteenth Century, this ironic trap had a fixed satirical message: separate and temper body and mind. As Gulliver says:
When I behold a Lump of Deformity, and Diseases both in Body and Mind, smitten with Pride, it immediately breaks all the Measures of my Patience.
However, the contemporary reader knows far less about how we would enforce this dualism of good behavior. The satirical function of irony has transmuted into a pastiche, devoid of ideology. The reigning metonymic structure of Classical thought ordained that no message, not even one more difficult to interpret than Gulliver's, could have failed to reify the developing bourgeois ideology circulated within the early social sphere. Now, reading within the suction of the implosion of the bloated social sphere, meanings proliferate endlessly in excess, an excess which is indistinguishable from lack, and which causes even Harold Bloom to throw up his hands at the problem. In the words of this Postmodern reader, "Swift audaciously plays at the farthest limits of irony, limits that make satire impossible, because no norm exists to which we might hope to return" (8). Gulliver's Travels signifies everything and nothing.
If the rhetorical power of irony has developed in accordance with the social sphere's explosion and implosion, so has the intertwined relevance of measurement and the grotesque. The political and aesthetic regulation of measurement and the grotesque represented an alienation of the shared space of the body in favor of a new, singular empiricism which harnessed the power of vision as never before. The hidden origins of thought, the smallest particles, the previously unspeakable biology, the physical laws, even our unconscious motivations have all been brought to the surface by Gulliver's powers of observation and measurement. But, saying everything is visible at the surface now amounts to the same as revealing the absence of depth. No unconscious, no invisibility, nothing unspeakable, because if these things existed, they would be in view. There is no postmodern grotesque or sublime, because these suggest a source of values that can differentiate between the acceptable and the grotesque and an unknowable that can be suggested by the sublime. We have the amplified state of the grotesque and the sublime, the ob-scene: after the absolute success of metonymic reasoning, everything is more visible than visible.
It is tempting, in the desire to maintain a responsible form of social criticism, to reject Baudrillard's line of reasoning out-of-hand as an apolitical or even regressive form of uncritical hype. But, in his words, his writing is not apolitical but hyperpolitical. It is because everything is political that no political difference can be grasped and put to use: Consider this passage from Baudrillard's Fatal Strategies:
We thought we discovered something subversive when we affirmed that the body [was]... political. We have only precipitated their indifferentiation into an analytical and ideological fog -- a little like discovering that all illnesses are psychosomatic. A wonderful discovery, but one which gets you nowhere: it just assigns them to a more poorly defined category.
Everywhere the widely accepted obviousness of a generalization of this order -- political, cultural, social, sexual, psychological -- marks its death sentence (57- 8). So, what shall we make of our own quasi-objective revision of the Eighteenth Century? Why are we wading through the textual evidence like so many Gullivers, colonizing the radical Otherness of the past? Is this the death drive of the metonymic subject? In what Baudrillard reminds us is the most important master-slave relationship, we are subjects inspecting objects, like Gulliver among the Houyhnhnms. Why does the Gulliver, who should have been the master, bow down before these horses? Why does he prefer them to his own land and kind, forsaking the Real? Though no meaning can be made of this in our Age of Irony, we can recognize this same passive seduction by the object in our nostalgia for the Eighteenth Century.