From Hyphen to Splice: Cybernetic Syntax in Limbo

In Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, the 1952 novel that has become an underground classic, anxiety about boundaries becomes acute. Like Wiener, by whom he was deeply influenced, Wolfe recognized the revolutionary potential of cybernetics to reconfigure bodies. Also like Wiener, he tried unsuccessfully to contain that potential, fearing that if it went too far it may threaten the autonomy of the (male) liberal subject. Abrasive, outrageous, transgressive, frustratingly misogynistic and occasionally brilliant, Limbo rarely leaves its readers feeling neutral. David Samuelson ranks it with Brave New World and 1984 as one of the three great dystopian novels of the century. [1] At the other end of the spectrum are readers (including some of my students) who see it as remarkable mostly for its egregious sexism and tendentious argument. Whatever one's view of Limbo's literary value, it is clear that the text is powerfully marked by the turn to a post-World War II cybernetic economy of information and simulacra.

Limbo arrived at a pivotal moment in US history, when changes in speed and communication were forcing a reorganization in technologies of control that would result in the computer revolution, and the Cold War loomed large in national consciousness. It was in this climate that cybernetics was beginning to change what counted as human. As we saw in preceding chapters, cybernetics constructed humans as information-processing systems whose boundaries are determined by the flow of information. Cybernetics problematized body boundaries at the same time that the culture generally was anxious about Communist penetrations into the body politic. The time was right for a text that would overlay the cybernetic reconfiguration of the human body onto the US geopolitical body and (given Wolfe's misogynistic views) the contested terrain of the gendered body. Limbo creates that imaginary geography and imbues it with the hypnagogic force of a nightmare. As a novel of ideas, it displays some of the passageways through which cybernetic notions began to circulate through US culture and connect up with contemporary political anxieties. As a novel of ideas, it is an important literary document because it stages encounters between literary form and bodies represented within the text. The textual corpus, no less than the represented world, bears the imprint of the cybernetic paradigm upon its body.

War, acknowledged and covert, is the repressed trauma that threatens to erupt throughout Limbo. But this is war transfigured, so compounded with neocortical forays and cybernetic refashionings that the terrains on which it is fought include synapses and circuits as well as checkpoints and borders. Although he set the novel in 1990, Wolfe asserts in an afterword that "Anybody who 'paints a picture' of some coming year is kidding--he's only fancying up something in the present or past, not blueprinting the future. All such writing is essentially satiric (today-centered), not utopic (tomorrow-centered)" (p. 412). His insistence on the novel's satiric intent is a useful reminder that Limbo refracts its cybernetics concerns through the hysterical denunciations and national delirium precipitated by the Cold War. In Pure War, Paul Virilio argues that postmodern technologies, especially global information networks and supersonic transport, have changed how military organizations conceptualize the enemy. [2] Whereas a country's borders were previously presumed adequate to distinguish between citizen and alien, in the post-World War II period the distinction between inside and outside ceased to signify in the same way. The military no longer thought of their task as protecting the body politic against an exterior enemy. Rather they were deployed against a country's own population, as in Latin American death squads. Such military operations are not aberrations, Virilio contends, but harbingers of a deep shift from exo-colonization to endo-colonization throughout postmodern cultures. Although Virilio's thesis may be overstated, it nevertheless provides useful insight into the McCarthy era in the US. McCarthyism marks the juncture where paranoia about the inability to distinguish between citizen and alien, "loyal American" and Communist spy, was at its height. In a scenario that, following Virilio, I might call endo-colonization, Limbo joins political and geographical remappings with the cybernetic implosion into the body's interior.

As Donna Haraway has pointed out, cyborgs are simultaneously entities and metaphors, living beings and narrative constructions. [3] The conjunction of technology and discourse is crucial. [4] Were the cyborg only a product of discourse, it could perhaps be relegated to science fiction, of interest to SF aficionados but not of vital concern to the culture. Were it only a technological practice, it could be confined to such technical fields as bionics, medical prostheses, and virtual reality. Manifesting itself as both technological object and discursive formation, it partakes of the power of the imagination as well as the actuality of technology. Cyborgs actually do exist. About 10% of the current US population are estimated to be cyborgs in the technical sense, including people with electronic pacemakers, artificial joints, drug implant systems, implanted corneal lenses, and artificial skin. A much higher percentage participates in occupations that make them into metaphoric cyborgs, including the computer keyboarder joined in a cybernetic circuit with the screen, the neurosurgeon guided by fiber optic microscopy during an operation, and the adolescent game player in the local video game arcade. "Terminal identity" Scott Bukatman has named this condition, calling it an "unmistakably doubled articulation" that signals the end of traditional concepts of identity even as it points toward the cybernetic loop that generates a new kind of subjectivity. [5]

Limbo edges uneasily toward this subjectivity, and then only with significant reservations. Instead of a circuit, it envisions polarities joined by a hyphen: human-machine, male-female, text-marginalia. The difference between hyphen and circuit lies in how tight the coupling is (recall Wiener's argument about the virtues of loose coupling), and how much the hyphenated subject is transfigured when he becomes a cybernetic entity. Whereas the hyphen joins opposites in a metonymic tension that can be seen as maintaining the identity of each, the circuit implies a more reflexive and transformative union. When the body is integrated into a cybernetic circuit, modification of the circuit will necessarily modify consciousness as well. Connected by multiple feedback loops to the objects it designs, the mind is also an object of design. In Limbo the ideology of the hyphen is threatened by the more radical implications of the cybernetic splice. Like Norbert Wiener, the patron saint of Limbo, Wolfe responds to this threat with anxiety. To see how this anxiety both generates the text and fails to contain the subversive implications of cybernetics, let us turn now to a consideration of this fantasmatic narrative.

Limbo presents itself as the notebooks of Dr. Martine, a neurosurgeon who defiantly left his medical post in World War III and fled to an uncharted Pacific island. He finds the islanders, the Mandunji tribe, practicing a primitive form of lobotomy to quiet the "tonus" in antisocial people. [6] Thus the text reinscribes the privileged status of homeostasis during the Macy period and also glances toward Wiener's devastating criticism of lobotomy in the 1948 Cybernetics and the 1950 The Human Use of Human Beings. [7] Wiener's interest in lobotomy is played out in a short story he wrote entitled "The Brain," which Wolfe may have known since it was published in a 1950 science fiction anthology under the transparent pseudonym, "W. Norbert," and explicitly attributed by the editor to Norbert Wiener. [8]

In the story, a mental patient is brought by his attending physician as a guest to an intellectual dinner club for "a small group of scientists" (p. 300). The dinner conversation is reminiscent of the Macy discussions. During dinner the patient, victim of amnesia, faints. When he comes to with the help of drugs, he begins to recall the trauma that caused his amnesia. He remembers that he was himself a physician and that his wife was fatally injured and his child made into a vegetable in a hit-and-run-accident by a fiendishly clever gangster called "The Brain." Later fate delivered the gangster into the patient's hand when he was called to the gangster's hideout to perform emergency surgery for a bullet wound to the head honcho's head. During the operation, he quietly performs a lobotomy. Later the gangster is caught because he has become stupid.

Like the protagonist of "The Brain," Martine performs lobotomies for the social good, rationalizing that it is better to do the surgery properly than to let people die from infections and botched jobs. He uses the operations to do neuroresearch on brain function mapping. He discovers that no matter how deeply he cuts, certain characteristics appear to be twinned. One twin cannot be excised without sacrificing the other. When aggression is cut out, eroticism goes too; when violence yields to the surgeon's knife, creativity also disappears. Martine expands his observations into a theory of human nature. Humans are essentially hyphenated creatures, he asserts, creative-destructive, peaceful-aggressive. The appearance on the island of "queer limbs," men who have had their arms and legs amputated and replaced by atomic-powered plastic prostheses, brings Martine's philosophy of the hyphen into juxtaposition with the splice, the neologistic cutting, re-joining, and re-circuiting that makes a cyb/ernetic org/anism into a cyborg. On the level of plot, the intrusion of the cyborgs gives Martine an excuse to leave his island family and find out how the world has shaped up in the aftermath of the war.

The island/mainland dichotomy is the first of a proliferating series of divisions. Their production follows a characteristic pattern. First the narrative presents what appears to be a unity (the island locale; the human psyche), which nevertheless cleaves in two (mainlanders come to the island; twin impulses are located within the psyche). The cleavage arouses anxiety, and textual representations try to achieve unity again by undergoing metamorphosis, usually truncation or amputation (Martine and the narrative leave the island behind and concentrate on the mainland, which posits itself as a unity; the islanders undergo lobotomies to make them "whole" citizens again). The logic implies that truncation is necessary if the part is to reconfigure itself as a whole. Better to formalize the split and render it irreversible, so that life can proceed according to a new definition of what constitutes wholeness. Without truncation, however painful it may be, the part is doomed to exist as a remainder. But amputation always proves futile in the end, because the truncated part splits in two again and the relentless progression continues.

Through delirious and savage puns, the text works out the permutations of this geography of the Imaginary. America has been bombed back to the Inland Strip, its coastal areas now virtually uninhabited wastelands. The image of a truncated country, its outer extremities blasted away, proves prophetic, for the ruling political ideology is Immob. Immob espouses such slogans as "No Demobilization without Immobilization" and "Pacifism means Passivity." "[T]he capacity for war is the capacity for movement," Paul Virilio writes citing Napoleon. [9] Immob reinscribes that proposition and reverses its import, reasoning that the only way to end war is to remove the capacity for motion. True believers become vol-amps, men who have undergone voluntary amputations of their limbs. Social mobility paradoxically translates into physical immobility. Upwardly mobile executives have the complete treatment to become quadroamps; janitors are content to be uniamps; women and blacks are relegated to the limbo of unmodified bodies. But like the constructions that preceded it, Immob ideology also splits in two. The majority party, discovering that its adherents are restless lying around with nothing to do, approves the replacement of missing limbs with powerful prostheses (or pros) which bestow enhanced mobility, enabling those who wear them to perform athletic feats impossible for unaltered bodies. These cyborgs are called (in a twinning pun that tries to encompass the cyborg under the sign of the hyphen) Pro-pros. The logic of the hyphen dictates that Pro-pros be mirrored by Anti-pros, who believe that cyborgism is a perversion of Immob philosophy. They spend their days proselytizing for voluntary amputation from microphones hooked up the baby baskets that are just the right size to accommodate their limbless human torsos, a detail that later becomes significant.

Unity, cleavage, truncation and further cleavage--these are the counters through which geopolitical and cybernetic endo-colonization are represented in Limbo. Amputations, undertaken in an effort to stop the proliferation of doubleness, only drive the plot toward the next phase of the cycle, for they are nostalgic attempts to recover a unity that never was. This much Wolfe sees clearly. Less clear is the increasingly urgent issue of how the parts should be reassembled: through a hyphen or a circuit? I suggested earlier that the cyborg subverts Martine's (and Wolfe's) theory of the hyphen, for it implies that the hyphenated polarities will not be able to maintain their identity unchanged. This possibility, although not explicitly recognized by the narrator, is already encoded into the text, for the amputations intended to ensure that pacifism is irrevocable have instead ensured that the interface between human and machine is irrevocable. Although the Pro-pros justify the use of prostheses by pointing out that they can be detached, many of the changes (such as permanently installed bio-sockets into which the pros are snapped) have become integral parts of the organism. In a larger sense, the conversions have worked such far-reaching changes in social and economic infrastructures that return to a precybernetic state is not possible. Whether functioning as an amputee or prosthetic athlete, the citizen of Limbo's world is spliced into cybernetic circuits that irreversibly connect his body to the truncated, military-industrial limbo that the world has become. In the circuit of metaphoric exchanges that the cyborg sets up, the narrator finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the hyphenated separations that allow Wolfe to criticize capitalist society while maintaining intact his own sexist and technological assumptions. Breakdown occurs when the hyphen is no longer sufficient to keep body, gender, and political categories separate from one another.

In exploring this breakdown, I will find it helpful to go further into Wolfe's background and his relation to cybernetics. Not one to disguise his sources, he adds an afterword in which he lists the books that have influenced him. In case anyone missed his frequent allusions to Norbert Wiener, the afterword makes clear that Wiener is a seminal figure. The title he cites is Wiener's 1948 Cybernetics. I noted earlier that the cyborg is both a technological entity and a discursive construction. The chapters of Wiener's book illustrate how discourse collaborates with technology to create cyborgs. The transformations Wiener envisions are for far simpler mechanisms than human beings, but his explanations work as rhetorical software (Richard Doyle's phrase) to extend his conclusions to complex human behaviors as well. We saw the same kind of slippage during the Macy discussions. Here is how it characteristically occurs in Wiener's text. First a behavior is noted--an intention tremor, a muscle contraction, a phobic or philic reaction to a stimulus. Next an electronic or mathematical model is proposed that can produce the same behavior. Sometimes the model is used to construct a cybernetic mechanism that can be tested experimentally. Whether actual construction takes place or the idea remains a thought experiment, the claim is made that the human mechanism, although unknown, might plausibly be the same as the mechanism embodied in the model. The laboratory "white box" is thus discursively equated with the human "black box," with the result that the human is now also a "white box," that is, a servo-mechanism whose workings are known. Once the correlation is made, cybernetics can be used not only to correct dysfunction but also to improve normal functioning. As a result, the cyborg signifies something more than a retro-fitted human. It points toward an improved hybrid species that has the capacity to be humanity's evolutionary successor. As we saw in Chapter 4, the problem Wiener encountered was how to restrain this revolutionary potential of cybernetics so it would not threaten the liberal humanism that so deeply informed his thinking.

In "Self Portrait," a short story published a few months before Limbo and concerned with similar themes, Wolfe shows that he understands the limitations as well as the potential of Wiener's method. [10] "Cybernetics is simply the science of building machines that will duplicate and improve on the organs and functions of the animal, based on what we know about the systems of communication and control in the animal," the narrator says (p. 64). But he acknowledges that "everything depends on just how many of the functions you want to duplicate, just how much of the total organ you want to replace" (p. 64). In charge of a cybernetics laboratory, he decides to separate kinesthetic and neural functioning. He can be reasonably sure of creating an artificial limb that moves like a real one, but connecting it to the body's sensory-neural circuits is another matter. [11] His hesitation points up how speculative many of Wiener's claims were. More than a technology, they functioned as an ideology. Without mentioning Wolfe, Douglas D. Noble in "Mental Materiel: The Militarization of Learning and Intelligence in US Education," argues that the cybernetic paradigm has in fact brought about massive transformations in US social, economic, and educational infrastructures, as Wolfe predicted it would. [12] In his view, these transformations have primarily been driven by the US military. The cyborg, Noble insists, is no science fiction fantasy but an accurate image of the modern American soldier, including pilots wired into "intelligent cockpits," artillery gunners connected to computerized guidance systems, and infantrymen whose ground attacks are instantaneously broadcast on global television. His analysis, consistent with arguments by military strategists for "neocortical warfare" and the picture that Chris Gray draws of the military's interest in the cyborg, [13] indicate that Wiener's anti-military stance was not sufficient to present the marriage of war and cybernetics that he both feared and helped to initiate.

Limbo takes the leap "Self-Portrait" resists, imagining that under the stimulus of war the machine component, no longer limited to mimicking an organic limb, is hardwired into the human nervous system to form an integrated cybernetic circuit. This movement toward the splice is figured in Limbo through tropes of motion. Here Wolfe follows Wiener's lead, for most of Wiener's examples concentrate on dysfunctions of movement. The intention tremor provided Wiener with one of his first experimental successes. Through a mechanism that duplicated the behavior of an intention tremor, Wiener diagnosed the problem as an inappropriate positive amplification of feedback and showed how it could be cured. Other kinds of movement dysfunctions are similarly diagnosed in the 1948 Cybernetics. Even phenomena not obviously associated with motor skills are figured as various kinds of motion. Thinking, for example, is figured as movement across neural synapses, and schizophrenia is represented as a feedback problem in the cognitive-neural loop. Wiener's emphasis on movement implies that curing dysfunctions of movement can cure the patient of whatever ails him, whether muscular, neural, or psychological. Given this context, what could be more cybernetic than to construct war as a dysfunction of movement? In this sense, Limbo follows the line of thought Wiener mapped out in Cybernetics, down to particular phrasings that Wolfe appropriates. Because in many respects he follows Wiener so closely, the departure he makes in insisting on the typographic hyphen rather than the cybernetic splice is the more significant. In the end, however, his resistance to the splice fails to restrain cybernetics' scarier implications, much as Wiener's resistance to the cybernetic penetration of boundaries failed to prevent the dissolution of the liberal humanist subject.

The breakdown of Wolfe's "hyphenation" theory occurs, perhaps predictably, when the hyphen is no longer sufficient to contain the repressed violence that the cyborg unleashes. In the world of Limbo, warfare has been replaced by a Superpower Olympics between the capitalist Inland Strip and the communist East Union, a competition designed to sublimate lethal violence into healthy competition. But in the 1990 Olympics, as if in recognition of Wiener's failure to prevent the promiscuous coupling of cybernetics with military research after World War II, cyborg competition neologistically slides into warfare rather than metonymically substitutes for it. Athletes from both sides are vol-amps, and they owe their victories as much to the technicians who design the prostheses as they do to their athletic abilities. Traditionally the Inland Strip has dominated the Olympics with its superior technology. Vishinu, leader of the East Union, announces that this year it will be different. His people are tired of the imperialist smugness of the Inland Strip and will demonstrate they are no second-rate colonials but superior cyberneticians. The East Union cyborgs proceed to sweep the competition, winning every category.

For weeks before the event, Vishinu has darkly hinted at the growing schism between the two countries. The rare metal columbium is needed to make the prostheses on which both sides depend, and the East Union alleges that the Inland Strip has been trying to hoard the world's columbium supply. At the final ceremony, instead of confirming that East Union cyberneticians will share their technology with the Inland Strip (as custom dictates), Vishinu signals the East Union athletes to unveil their newest prosthetic innovation, artificial arms that terminate in guns. According to the West's own logic, Vishinu satirically argues, the East Union's triumph in cybernetics means that it has won the right to all the world's columbium. While Martine watches incredulously on his television at a remote mountain retreat, the East Union cyborgs open fire on the reviewing stand where Inland Strip officials are seated. The apparatus of war has imploded inward to join with flesh and bone. As a result of this cybernetic splice, war radiates from body zones outward.

In the last war, when the EMSIAC computer mindlessly tried to return the plane Martine was flying to base and him to almost certain death, he ripped out the circuit cables and destroyed the communication-control box. But now endocolonization has proceeded far enough into the human and political body so that he can no longer disable the circuit simply by ripping out cables. Instead of fleeing to the margins he rushes toward the center, returning to the capital and demanding an audience with Helder, Vishinu's Western counterpart. He uses as his calling card cryptic allusions to an incident that only he and Helder know about--an incident that hints at the network of anxieties that have been activated through cyborg circuitry. The return of these repressed anxieties takes the form of a corpse that, refusing to stay buried, haunts the narrative. Throughout Martine's notebook, references to it have surfaced in puns and half-remembered flashes. Finally, with the outbreak of war, the repressed memories erupt into full articulation. The corpse's name is Rosemary, a nurse that Helder took to a college peace rally where he delivered a fiery speech. He returned with her to her apartment, tried to have sex with her, and when she refused, brutally raped her. After he left, she committed suicide by slashing her wrists. Martine's part in the affair was to provide a reluctant alibi for his roommate, allowing him to escape prosecution for the rape-manslaughter. The placement of Martine's recollection of the incident and his use of it to address the political crisis hint that the body politic and the politics of the body, like prostheses and trunk, are spliced together in an integrated circuit.

Throughout the text, the narrator--and behind him, the author--has exhibited profound ambivalence toward women. This ambivalence, like so much else in Wolfe's cybernetic novel, is figured through tropes of motion. Shortly after his arrival at the Inland Strip, Martine looks down onto the balcony of the apartment below and sees a quadroamp lying on a lounge reading a book. A young woman tries to arouse him sexually and begins to remove his prostheses. Uninterested, the young man pushes her away and resumes reading. The incident illustrates how sexual politics works under Immob. Prohibited from becoming vol-amps, women have taken the initiative in sexual encounters. They refuse to have sex with men wearing prostheses, for the interface between organism and mechanism is not perfect, and at moments of stress or tension the limbs are apt to careen out of control, smashing whatever is in the vicinity. Partnered with truncated, immobilized men, women have perfected techniques performed in the female superior position that give them satisfaction while requiring no motion from the men. Martine gets a first-hand demonstration when Neen, an artist visiting from the East Union, seduces him. To Martine the idea that men would be immobile during sex is obscene, for he believes that the only normal sexual experience for women is a "vaginal" orgasm reached using the male superior position. Like his Victorian antecedents, Martine atavistically polices what kinds of movements are proper for women during sexual intercourse, enforcing them with violence when necessary. To revenge himself on Neen and assure himself that he has not been emasculated after her "clitoral" orgasm, he rapes her and forces her to have a "vaginal" orgasm, which the text assures us she enjoys in spite of herself. Here the rape occurs in a context where Wolfe is in control of the dynamics, for it reflects his own deeply misogynistic views. Nevertheless, the narrative keeps moving toward the moment when another rape will be recalled, and when the cyborg circuitry in which the narrator is enmeshed makes authorial control much less certain.

On a structural level, the text strives to maintain the ideological purity of male identity by constructing categorical and hierarchical differences between men and women. The man has a real penis, the woman a shadowy surrogate that the narrator calls a "phantom penis"; the man is active, the woman passive; the man has a single orgasm of undoubted authenticity, while the woman's orgasms are duplicitous as well as double. The man responds to sexual aggression, but (the narrator insists) it is the woman who initiates sexual violence, even when she is raped. So far the novel reads like a devil's dictionary of sexist beliefs that are Neolithic even by the standards of the 1950s. Yet at the same time, the text also edges toward a realization that it cannot unequivocally articulate. Like man and machine, male and female are spliced together in a feedback circuit that makes them mutually determine each other. No less than geopolitical ideology, sexual ideology is subverted and reconfigured by the cybernetic paradigm.

Wolfe's outrageously sexist views echo those of his psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, by whom he was deeply influenced. [14] Bergler acknowledged that it could be difficult for some women to reach orgasm in the male superior position, but he nevertheless insisted that only this position, and only "vaginal" orgasms, were normal for women. The view is inscribed in Limbo, where the usual (as distinct from "normal") state for women is frigidity. Martine applies the label liberally, using it to describe every woman with whom he is intimate except one, his island wife Ooda. Frigidity applies both to women who are too aggressive (like Neen) and women who find sex with him unsatisfying (like his first wife Irene, whose connection with Neen is signified by the rhyme connecting their names). With astonishing blindness, he never considers that the dysfunction might lie in him or his view of women. The text strives to endorse the narrator's blindness. Yet it also engenders ambiguities beyond the narrator's control, and perhaps beyond Wolfe's.

The kind of cyborg Wolfe envisions locates the cybernetic splice at the joining of appendage to trunk. As the placement of the splice suggests, the novel's sexual politics revolve around fear of symbolic and actual castration, manifested as extreme anxiety about issues of control and domination. Wolfe, described by his biographer as a small man with a large mustache and fat cigar, creates in Immob a fantasy about technological extensions of the male body that endow it with supernatural power. [15] During the sex act, however, the extensions are laid aside and only a truncated body remains. If the artificial limbs swell to an unnatural potency, the hidden price is the withering of the limb called in US slang the third leg or short arm. The connection becomes explicit when Martine discovers that his son Tom, whom he has not seen in twenty years, has become an activist in the Anti-Pro cause. Tom is a quadroamp, spending his days spreading the word from the baby basket that accommodates his limbless trunk. When war breaks out, his already truncated body is mutilated by exploding glass shards. Martine finds him in the street, lifts the blanket that covers his trunk, and sees the mark of castration as well as the wounded torso. He then shoots Tom, ostensibly to put him out of his misery and perhaps also to exorcise the specter of castration he represents.

In more than one sense, Limbo is a masculine fantasy that relates to women through mechanisms of projection. It is, moreover, a fantasy fixated in male adolescence. Wavering between infantile dependence and adult potency, the Immob recreates the dynamic typical of male adolescence every time he takes off his prostheses to have sex. With the pros on, he is capable of feats that even pros like O. J. Simpson and Mike Tyson would envy. With the pros off, he is reduced to infantile dependence on women. The unity he sought in becoming a vol-amp is given the lie by the split he experiences within himself as a superman and a symbolically castrated infant. The woman is constructed in correspondingly ambivalent ways, as a willing victim to male violence, a nurturing mother who infantilizes her son, and a domineering sex partner all too willing to find pleasure in the man's symbolic castration. The instabilities in her subject position are consistent with the ambiguities characteristic of male adolescence. The overwritten prose, the penchant for puns, the hostility toward women that the narrative displays all recall a perpetually adolescent male who has learned to use what Martine calls a "screen of words" to compete with other men and insulate himself from emotional involvements with women.

Were this all Limbo was, it would be merely frustrating rather than frustrating and brilliant. What makes it compelling is its ability to represent and comment on its own limitations. Consider the explanation Martine gives for why Immob has been so successful. The author drops a broad hint in the baby baskets that Immob devotees adopt. In a theory adapted from Bergler's book on narcissism, Wolfe has his narrator suggest that the narcissistic wound from which the amputations derive is the male infant's separation from the mother and his outraged discovery that his body is not coextensive with the world. [16] Amputation allows the man to return to his pre-Oedipal state where he will have his needs cared for by attentive and nurturing females. In locating the moment of trauma prior to the Oedipal triangle, Wolfe re-enacts the same kind of move that Lacan makes in his revision of Freud. Whereas Freud identified the male child's fear of castration with the moment when he sees female genitalia and constructs them as lack, Wolfe (following Bergler) places the anxious moment considerably earlier, in the series of "splittings" and separations that the infant experiences from his primary love object, the mother. [17] Given this scenario, the catalyst for anxiety is not the woman's lack but the ambiguity of boundaries between infant and mother. The mother is the object of projected anger for two contradictory but paradoxically reinforcing reasons. When she withdraws from the infant, she traumatizes him; when she does not withdraw, she engulfs him. The question of who is responsible for the narcissistic wound and its aftermath is a matter for anxious consideration in Limbo--a query that presupposes the violation of boundaries is central to the formation of male subjectivity. In its stagings of traumatic moments of "splitting," the text vacillates on its answers to the question. At times it seems the woman is appropriating the male infant into her body; at other times it seems the amputated men are willfully forcing women into nurturing roles they would rather escape. In fact, once male and female are plugged into a cybernetic circuit, the question of origin becomes irrelevant. Each constitutes the other. In approaching this realization, the text goes beyond the presuppositions that underlie its sexual politics and gropes, however tentatively, toward cyborg subjectivity.

Crucial to this process are transformations in the textual body that re-enact and re-present the textual dynamics of Immob. The textual body begins by figuring itself as Martine's notebook, "mark ii," written in the narrative present. In this notebook, Martine notices that Immob's slogans have a disturbingly familiar ring, particularly its icon of a man getting run over by a steamroller (intended to symbolize technology before Immob, although for the narrator and reader it precisely characterizes Immob). Only when war erupts does Martine realize why the steamroller image is eerily familiar. In a notebook written two decades earlier that he entitled "mark i," he used the steamroller as an ironic emblem for the war machine. In the same notebook and in a similarly ironic vein, he had written a satiric fantasy of a society in which people preempt the atrocities of war by voluntarily cutting off their own limbs. After Martine deserted and re-routed his plane to the island, Helder found the notebook among Martine's gear and decided to use the satire as a blueprint for an actual postwar society. Surrounding Martine's bitter jokes with his own flat-footed, self-serving commentary, he ventriloquized Martine's words, making them speak the message he wanted, not what Martine intended. Martine's notebook thus functions like a child he abandoned (as he abandoned his son Tom when he fled) who then was turned into the very thing he dreaded most (like Tom). The present narrative is recorded in another notebook called "mark ii." The revelation that the Immob bible is actually Martine's (mis)appropriated notebook, mark i, demonstrates that the body of the text is subject to the same kind of cleavages, truncations and further cleavages that mark the bodies represented within the text.

Although Martine tries to heal the split narrative by renouncing the first notebook and destroying the second, the narrative continues to fragment. The form this fragmentation takes is significant, for it follows the geography of Immob. The text splits into a trunk, consisting of the main narrative, and prosthetic extensions constituted through drawings that punctuate the text and lines that scrawl down the page where the trunk ends. Prosthesis and trunk are connected through puns that act like cyborg circuitry, splicing the organic body of the writing together with the prosthetic extensions that operate in a subvocal margin. Pros are thus punningly and cunningly linked not only with the hyphenated Pro-pros, but also with the more dangerous and circuitous cyborg pros/e, the truncated/spliced noun that speaks the name of the text's body (prose) as well as the name of the prostheses (pros) attached to it and represented with it.

Wolfe is not the only writer to link writing and prosthesis. In Prosthesis, David Wills explores connections between his father's wooden leg and the language that his father's son adopted as his prosthesis of choice. [18] Trunk and prosthesis, body and writing, are alike in having limits and in having relations with something beyond those limits. "Prosthesis is the writing of my self as a limit to writing" (p. 18), Wills explains as he interrogates the boundaries and splicings between the body of his prose and his (father's) body in prose. "There is no simple name for a discourse that articulates with, rather than issuing from, the body, while at the same time realizing that there is no other discourse--in the sense of no other translation, transfer, or relation--no other conception of it except as it is a balancing act performed by the body, a shift or transfer between the body and its exteriority" (p. 20). The conflation that Wills addresses in this difficult and subtle passage is the superimposition of a body of prose with bodies constituted within prose. The passage points toward a double entanglement of the textual corpus and the physical body. Writing is a way to extend the author's body into the exterior world; in this sense it functions as a technological aid so intimately bound up with his thinking and neural circuits that it acts like a prosthesis. At the same time, the writing within itself is trying to come to terms with what it means to have a prosthesis, particularly with whether the prosthesis should be incorporated into the subject's identity (in which case he becomes a cyborg) or remain outside (in which case the prosthesis is necessarily alien from the self and so not something one can use with the "natural" dexterity). For Wolfe, the choice cannot be made in a clear-cut or unambiguous way. He can neither embrace the transformations that becoming a textual cyborg would imply or remain content with an amputated text that has a limited range of motion. So he simultaneously crafts prosthetic extensions for the text and forbids the text to recognize them as itself. Just as pros/e destabilizes the concept of the natural human body, so it also destabilizes the notion of a text contained and embodied solely within its typographic markers. Pros/e implies a text spliced into a cybernetic circuit that reaches beyond the typography of the printed book into a variety of graphic and semiotic prostheses that it both authorizes and denies.

It is no surprise to find, then, that the pros/e of Limbo's corpus implies a dispersed subjectivity. Whereas the voice that speaks (from) the text's trunk is clearly characterized as Martine, the subject that produces and is produced by the prosthetic marginalia is more difficult to identity. The question of which voice speaks from what textual body was a complicated issue in Wolfe's career. To supplement his income, he worked for a while as a ghostwriter for Billy Rose's syndicated column. Here his words issued from a body of print signed with someone else's name. He also wrote for popular science magazines including Mechanix Illustrated, frequently contributing to articles published under someone else's byline. In addition, he collaborated on low-level popular science books. One of these, Plastics, What Everyone Should Know, appeared under Wolfe's name, although it was written by someone else. [19] The synthetic chemical product that came of age in World War II and that Wolfe envisions as the substance of choice for prostheses thus functions as a kind of prosthesis for his corpus, extending his name through a body of print ventriloquized by someone else.

To explore the complex play between Martine's voiced narrative and the drawings, nonverbal lines, and punning neologisms that serve as prostheses to the textual trunk, I want to consider one of the drawings in more detail. It shows a nude woman with three prosthetic legs--the Immob logo--extruding from each of her nipples (p. 294). She wears glasses, carries a huge hypodermic needle, and has around her neck a series of tiny contiguous circles, which can be taken to represent the necklace popular in the 1950s known as a choker. To the right of her figure is a grotesque and diapered male torso, minus arms and legs, precariously perched on a flat carriage outfitted with Immob prosthetic legs instead of wheels. He has his mouth open in a silent scream, perhaps because the woman appears to be aiming the needle at him. In the text immediately preceding the drawing, Rosemary is mentioned. Although the truncated text does not acknowledge the drawing and indeed seems unaware of its existence, the proximity of Rosemary's name indicates that the drawing is of her, the needle presumably explained by her profession as a nurse.

In a larger sense the drawing depicts the Immob woman. The voiced narrative ventriloquizes her body to speak of the injustices she has inflicted upon men, constructing her retrospectively as a cyborg who nourishes and emasculates cyborg sons. It makes her excess, signified by the needle she brandishes and the legs that sprout from her nipples, responsible for her lover/son's lack. In this deeply misogynistic writing, it is no surprise to read that woman are raped because they want to be. Female excess is represented as stimulating and encouraging male violence, and rape is poetic revenge for the violence women have done to men when they are too young and helpless to protect themselves. The voiced narrative strives to locate the origin of the relentless dynamic of splitting and truncation within the female body. According to this textual trunk, it is the refusal of the woman's body to respect decent boundaries between itself and another that initiates the downward spiral into amputation and eventual holocaust.

Countering these narrative constructions are other interpretations authorized by the drawings, nonverbal lines, puns, and lapses in narrative continuity. From these semiotic spaces, which Kristeva has associated with the feminine, come inversions and disruptions of the hierarchical categories that the narrative uses to construct maleness and femaleness. [20] Written into non-existence by her suicide within the text's represented world, Rosemary returns in the prosthetic space of the drawing and demands to be acknowledged. On multiple levels, the drawing deconstructs the narrative's gender categories. In the represented world women are not allowed to be cyborgs, yet this female figure has more pros attached to her body than any man. Women come after men in the represented world, but here the woman's body is on the left and is thus "read" before the man's. Above all women and men are separate and distinct, but in this space parts of the man's body have attached themselves to her. Faced with these disruptions, the voiced narrative is forced to recognize that it does not unequivocally control the textual space. The semiotic intrusions contest its totalizing claims to write the world.

The challenge is reflected within the narrative by internal contradictions that translate into pros/e the intimations of the semiotic disruptions. As the voiced narrative tries to come to grips with these contradictions, it cycles closer to the realization that the hierarchical categories of male and female have imploded into the same space. The lobotomies Martine performs suggest how deep this collapse goes. To rid the psyche (coded male in Limbo) of subversive (female) elements, it is necessary to amputate. For a time the amputations work, allowing male performance to be enhanced by prostheses that bestow new potency. But eventually these must be shed and the woman encountered again. Then the subvocal feminine within merges with the prostheses without, initiating a new cycle of violence and amputation. No matter how deeply the cuts are made, they can never excise the ambiguities that haunt and constitute these post-human and post-typographic bodies. Limbo envisions cybernetics as a writing technology that inscribes over the hierarchical categories of traditional sexuality the indeterminate circuitry of cyborg gender.

As a white male writing in the early 1950s, Wolfe was aware that the politics of gender relations were beginning to shift. Several times the narrator mentions "women's liberation," quarantined by quotation marks and authorial scorn. Nevertheless, even he cannot escape the feminine within. After ending his first notebook with a huge "NO" inscribed across the page, he has the second notebook end with an equally vehement "YES," which he intends as an affirmation of humankind's hyphenated nature. His mother's birth name was Noyes (No-Yes), and he dimly senses the connection between matrilineal heritage and the affirmation he seeks. But the hyphen is not the same as the splice. By inscribing Noyes as No-yes, he seeks to draw a line that would preserve each half of the hyphenation as a distinct entity. His voiced concessions to sexual politics are similarly limited to realizing that women are not entirely monsters. The real power relations at stake in sexist relations remain opaque to him, just as do the deeper implications of being wired into a cybernetic circuit.

But Limbo knows more than it can say, a paradox inscribed within the text by the narrator's image of a "screen of words" that hides something from him. Throughout there are flashes of insight that exceed his formulations and that are never adequately accounted for by his theorizing. The effect is finally of another voice trying to emerge, authored not so much by Wolfe as by the cybernetic circuit he can imagine but not fully articulate. Just as Martine's first notebook has been ventriloquized by Helder, so the narrative as a whole is ventriloquized by a constellation of forces that make it speak of a future in which hyphenation gives way to the spliced pros/e that both signifies and is the cyborg. If the ownership of the writing with which the prosthesis signifies is unclear, the obscurity is appropriate, for it indicates that control in a cybernetic circuit is not a localized function but an emergent property. Neither entirely in control nor out of control, Limbo teeters on the edge of an important recognition.

In one sense, the bodies of Limbo can are the cyborgs who populate the imaginative world of Immob. In another, more literal sense, the body of Limbo is constituted through the typefaces that march across the page. Normally readers attend to the represented world and only peripherally notice the text's physical body. When the pros/e of Limbo itself becomes a cyborg, however, the splice operates to join the imaginative world of the signifier with the physical body of print. Parallels between a text's physical form and its represented world have a long history in literature, from the seventeenth-century iconographic poems of George Herbert to the maps, tattoos, and body writing that litter the surfaces of Kathy Acker's contemporary novels. What is distinctive about Wolfe's use of the correlation is the suggestion that the bodies in the text and the body of the text not only represent cyborgs but themselves together comprise a cyborg in which the neologistic splice operates to join imaginative signification with literal physicality. In this integrated circuit, the physical body of the text and the bodies represented within the text evolve together toward a post-human, post-typographic future in which human and intelligent machine are spliced together in an integrated circuit, subjectivity is dispersed, vocalization is non-localized, bodies of print are punctuated with prostheses, and boundaries of many kinds are destabilized. More than a conduit through which ideas from cybernetics boiled into the wider US culture in the 1950s, Limbo is a staging of the complex dynamics between cyborg and literary bodies that demonstrates neither will remain unchanged by the encounter.Endnotes


[1]David N. Samuelson, "Limbo: The Great American Dystopia," Extrapolation 19 (1977): 76-87.

[2]Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer, Pure War, translated by Mark Polizzotti (New York: Semiotext(e), 1993), pp. 91-102.

[3]Donna Haraway, "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s," Socialist Review 80 (1985): 65-107.

[4]This portion of the argument appeared in N. Katherine Hayles, "The Life Cycle of Cyborgs: Writing the Posthuman," in A Question of Identity: Women, Science and Literature, edited by Marina Benjamin (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993), pp. 152-172, especially 156-161.

[5]Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 9.

[6]The idea of "tonus" (defined as muscle tone) may be a punning wink toward "clonus," spasms by muscles or groups of muscles. Wiener discusses Warren McCulloch's research on clonus in Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1st edition 1948, 2nd edition 1961).

[7]Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics. Wolfe probably also read Wiener's popular book, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950).

[8]W. Norbert (Norbert Wiener), "The Brain," Crossroads in Time, edited by Groff Conklin (Garden City: Doubleday Books, 1950), pp. 299-312. A typescript version, with different names for the characters and manuscript corrections, can be found in Box 12, Norbert Wiener Papers, Collection MC-22, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Archives, Cambridge MA.

[9]Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, translated by Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 1989), p. 10.

[10]Bernard Wolfe, "Self Portrait," Galaxi Science Fiction 3 (Nov. 1951): 58-83.

[11]"Self Portrait" also suggests a link between cybernetics and McCarthyism when the narrator consolidates his position by denouncing a scientific rival as a security risk and testifying against him at a hearing. The context presents this move as reprehensible, in line with the satiric tone of the piece. Wolfe was generally sympathetic to leftist causes and did not participate in the hysteria about Communism that characterized these years in the US When he was a young man, he served as a security guard for Leon Trotsky in Mexico.

[12]Douglas D. Noble, "Mental Materiel: The Militarization of Learning and Intelligence in US Education," Cyborg Worlds: The Military Information Society, ed. Les Levidow and Kevin Robbins (London: Free Association Books, 1989), pp. 13-42.

[13]For a discussion of neocortical warfare, see Colonel Richard Szafranski, US Air Force, "Harnessing Battlefield Technology: Neocortical Warfare? The Acme of Skill," Military Review: The Professional Journal of the United States Army (November 1994): 41-54. See also Chris Hables Gray, "The Cyborg Soldier: The US Military and the Post-modern Warrior," Cyborg Worlds, pp. 43-72.

[14]Carolyn Geduld, Wolfe's biographer, has an excellent discussion of Bergler's influence on Wolfe in Bernard Wolfe (New York: Twayne, 1972), pp. 54-62.

[15]Carolyn Geduld in Bernard Wolfe describes the author as a "very small man with a thick, sprouting mustache, a fat cigar, and a voice that grabs attention" (p. 15).

[16]Edmund Bergler discusses narcissism in a book whose title gives it top (or bottom) billing, The Basic Neurosis: Oral Regression and Psychic Masochism (New York: Grune and Stratton, 1949).

[17]For a discussion of Lacan's re-writing of Freud in this respect, see Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).

[18]David Wills, Prosthesis (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995).

[19]Bernard Wolfe, Plastics, What Everyone Should Know (ghostwritten by Raymond Rosenthal) (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1945).

[20]Julia Kristeva, "The Novel as Polylogue," Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, edited by Leon S. Roudiez, translated by Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), pp. 159-209.