Memoirs Found In A Bathtub (1961) – The End of Meaning
Why do the workers not rise up and smash the chains of their oppressors? This is a question that challenges every revolutionary thinker. It vexed Marx and now it vexes Islamist thinkers. Why do the workers not ruse up and smash the chains of their oppressors? For Marx as for contemporary Islamist thinkers, the answer was that the workers were in a state of false consciousness. A state where they believed that they were happy but in fact they were miserable. How to free people from this state of false consciousness was central to the writings and revolutionary activities of Guy Debord, one of the more influential intellectuals operating around the time of the May ‘68 strikes in France.
In The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Debord argues that capitalistic society is kept on its feet by the construction of The Spectacle by the media-industrial complex. The Spectacle is not merely a form of popular culture that keeps the proletariat mindlessly entertained and ignorant. Instead, it is a cultural product that sculpts reality itself. As Debord himself writes :
“It is a world vision which has become objectified”
The world is constructed by our perceptions of it and because our perceptions are managed, our world is too. There is no separation between the world and The Spectacle of it. We live in the world described by The Spectacle and so it is made real. This is why simply telling people the truth has no effect upon them. They exist within The Spectacle and language from outside The Spectacle makes no sense. Dismantling The Spectacle would require a different approach. The Situationists practised what was then known as Detournement. Detournement can be seen as the appropriation of Spectacle-friendly images and signs and their re-deployment to serve revolutionary ends. These stunts included dressing as a monk in order to mount a cathedral pulpit during Easter mass in order to deliver a sermon decrying the tyranny of God and the Church. These stunts, of course, follow upon the heels of artistic stunts such as the Bloomsbury Group’s Dreadnought Hoax in 1910 and they prefigure the modern fondness for satirical culture jamming.
However, what strikes me as I read about all of these various events is how basic they are to the daily functioning of politics. What difference is there between a Leftist pretending to be a monk in order to deliver a critique of God and the British Fascist leader Nick Griffin casting off the traditional trappings of Fascism in order to appear on question time looking like a normal politician who speaks not of rivers of blood and racial purity but of a form of underdog nationalism?
We exist in a universe of signs because our brains are lazy fuckers. Rather than engaging with objective reality, our brains are all too eager to take a short cut and lump together things that look similar or sound similar. All too often we think by association and by assumption. We navigate not the real world but a semantic network that serves us in stead of the real world. However, what would the world be like if we did not live under the aegis of Debord’s Spectacle? Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found In A Bathtub presents us with a social reality called The Building. It is a reality that makes The Spectacle appear positively utopian.
The book uses a first-person narration. The person in question is an effectively nameless man who seems to come from nowhere. Materialising in order to fill a role within The Building, the civil service of some presumably huge but entirely unseen civilisation, he sets about trying to orient himself in a world of spies and double-dealing. His Commander in Chief speaks of top secret missions and posthumous decoration but as the pages flick past it soon becomes clear that our narrator has no idea where to start. Nobody will tell him where to begin his mission. Everyone he questions either spouts incomprehensible code or distrusts his apparent ignorance, believing him to be working an angle or playing the fool. After all, if he did not know what he was supposed to be doing, why was he given the job? And besides which, why is he asking so many questions? Before long, the lack of information turns sinister. The world the narrator has been pushed into is evidently a cut-throat world in which denunciation as a traitor leads directly to execution, and where uncovering traitors seems to be the main function of the people employed within the Building. The result is an atmosphere of complete paranoia and complete ignorance. Readers familiar with Kafka’s The Trial (1925) will feel right at home. However, unlike Josef K, who engages with the deranged system on its own terms, Lem’s narrator begins immediately to see through it. Clearly, he hypothesises, the service has grown so big that it can no longer effectively manage itself and so it assigns jobs to people at random in the hope that eventually, by sheer luck, a necessary task will be accomplished. Everyone is pretending to know what they are doing and yet they are just as ignorant as the narrator.
Or are they?
Memoirs Found In A Bathtub demonstrates Lem’s absolute mastery of exposition. This is not to say that Lem’s expository text is beautifully written. Although it is. Instead, what I mean is that Lem displays an uncanny understanding of how exposition affects the reader and how it shapes their perception of the world contained in a work of fiction. Lem uses this understanding not to create a beautifully detailed world, but rather to keep his world in a permanent state of flux. A world that keeps his narrator, and therefore the reader, perpetually on the back foot. Destabilised, reeling like a drunk and desperate for some kind of handhold. A handhold that Lem is only to happy to provide in the next chapter.
Indeed, the book is structured as a series of conceptual breakthroughs. Having settled us down into a familiar Kafkaesque landscape of bureaucratic schizophrenia and paranoia, Lem then has his narrator discover a report about his mission that details not only his seemingly random and uninformed actions but also the states of mind that motivated these actions. Clearly, he is not acting at random, he is following a plan. This literary eigenstate established, Lem promptly collapses it into another haze of particles and probabilities. This quantum rubble then forms the foundations for another explanation, and then another, and then another. Each time the narrator is introduced to an understanding of the Building and his place in it, events conspire to make it seem childish and laughable. Yet each time the narrator, and the reader, fall for it. Hoping that this time, the truth about The Building will be expressed.
As we near the end of the book, the tools Lem uses in order to throw us off guard become more and more potent. At one point, the narrator is told that everything is code. What this means is that everything in the universe can be interpreted as being a code. Secret communications between secret agents. Of course, if everything is in code, including the codes themselves, and intention bears no relation to meaning then everything can be interpreted anyway you want. Because everything is meaningful, everything is meaningless.
With all values and hierarchies rendered moot, the narrator tries to position himself relative to the people around him. To concentrate upon personal loyalties and friendships. At one point he finds himself drinking with what he thinks are office clerks. The narrator bemoans the twists of fate that have led him into such disreputable company but, this no sooner said, the clerks cast off their disguises and reveal themselves to be professors and veteran spies. The narrator is then thrown into situations where even his apparent friends seem to be about to betray him. In The Building, even personal relationships come to lose their meaning and friends become enemies, loyalty becomes betrayal and trust becomes mistrust. The book ends with the narrator weeping over the loss of his razor. Even objects and possessions, language and actions become detached from their initial meanings.
Lem’s Memoirs Found In A Bathtub poses a question of dystopian novels such as Kafka’s The Trial and Orwell’s 1984 (1948). These books present us with images of schizophrenic states that tyrannise their inhabitants. Of government bodies supposedly set up to deliver justice and help the people transformed into hideous instruments of torture. There can be little doubt that Josef K and Winston Smith would live happier and longer lives if only they could somehow escape the grips of their respective governments. Kafka and Orwell share Debord’s instinct that things would be better if only people could be free of the system. But what does being free of the system really mean?
Lem’s book presents us with a dystopian society in tyranny flows from a lack of system. The Building is a nightmarish place to live precisely because it denies its citizens the luxury of knowing where they stand. Every hierarchy it introduces is suspect. Every law it imposes is subject to change. There is no peace, there is only the relentless churn of meanings and social narratives that constantly redefines the roles and positions of its citizens. To live in the Building would be to crave some kind of fixed order. Even if that order did amount, in Orwell’s words, to “a bot stamping on a human face forever”. The Building is a nightmarish place to live because it strips the lives of its citizens of meaning. They are free and yet they would welcome oppression as a release.
The message we can take from this extraordinary book is that while it may be nightmarish to live in a world where reality is sculpted to suit the desires and interests of the powers that be, the alternative of living in a world with no fixed social reality at all may well be even worse. It is a technically fastonishing and utterly terrifying piece of writing.