What work they do
and what it does to them:
Alienation in JR

by Anja Zeidler

I. Theory
II. Work

“Helping Out“: Jobs on the Side
“The On-Going Situation“: Bureaucracy
“Nothing Real“: Alienated Work

III. “Who Uses Whom“: Alienation from the Other
IV. “A Well-Oiled Machine“: Alienation from Oneself
V. JR: Work “Worth Doing“


I. Theory 

People are predominantly shown at work in Gaddis‘ long novel; they talk about their ideas of satisfying work and the unease they feel in their present jobs. The artists in particular have nothing much left but to search for work that keeps them alive, the creative role they would like to play in society is not asked for. “Who asked him to paint it anyhow!“ Major Hyde says to Jack Gibbs in a dispute over Schepperman and his paintings. “Nobody!“ Gibbs summarizes his friend‘s position in society (48). What defines this society is the utter indifference of big business toward the human being as a human being. “His human qualities only exist insofar as they exist for capital alien to him,“ Marx writes in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. And so, as man and capital are alien to each other and “thus stand in an indifferent, external and accidental relationship to each other, it is inevitable that this foreigness should also appear as something real."[1]  It is pecuniary success only on which the character‘s value as human beings depends. They can hardly conceive of their work – and life for that matter – as a qualitative value. Where money should be a mere means to live one‘s life, it becomes life‘s center; work – on the other hand – “life‘s activity,“  as Marx has it, is no more than a means to satisfy needs beyond it, it is alienated work. 

In the following reading of JR three terms in particular will be of importance as theoretical background: ‘alienation,‘ ‘reification,‘ and ‘commodity fetishism.‘ All three make a statement about how the products of man‘s activity grow more and more independent of their creators. When Marx uses the term ‘alienation‘ he refers to a process, in the course of which the man-made products and forces acquire an independent life and turn against their creators. “The phantoms of their brains,“ he writes at the beginning of The German Ideology, “have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations"[2]   The unity of producer and product breaks and the product appears to man as an alien power, makes him forget that he has created that world himself, that the world he lives in is man-made. ‘Commodity fetishism‘ and ‘reification‘ are a heightening of the situation, more or less two ways to express the same social condition, one that is based on the fact that relationships between things obscure human relationships. This is what Marx aims at when in a famous passage of Capital he writes about the “fetish character of commodities and their secret“: 

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. […]In order, […], to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands. This I call the Fetishism, which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.[3] 

The “fantastic form of a relation between things“ implies what Georg Lukács will explicitly discuss as ‘reification‘ in History and Class Consciousness (1923). Lukács defines the essence of commodity-structure as “a ‘phantom objectivity‘, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.“ [4] On the basis of Max Weber‘s theories of rationalisation, Lukács‘ analyses – among other things - phenomena of institutional bureaucratisation, of the bureaucratisation of life in general. I will come back to it in my reading of JR. It will be very generally structured according to ‘three steps’ of alienation Marx describes as follows: “An immediate consequence of man’s estrangement from the product of his labour [II. Work], his life activity, […], is the estrangement of man from man [III. ‘Who Uses Whom: Alienation from the Other]. […] What is true of man’s relationship to his labour, to the product of his labour, and to himself, is also true of his relationship to other men, and to the labour and the object of the labour of other men.  […] Estranged labour […] turns man’s species-being […] into a being alien to him  […]. It estranges man from his own body, from nature as it exists outside him, from his spiritual essence, his human existence [IV. ‘A Well-Oiled Machine’: Alienation from Oneself].” [5]  

II. Work

 Above the portal of the school’s main building there is an inscription which reads as follows: “EBFM SAOH AQQFBP“ (20). It has not only triggered confusion among the novel’s characters but also among its readers. As a reminder, here is its short history: the school’s former teacher and painter Schepperman had once proposed the idea of a motto for the school and met with approval by the school principal. As soon as Whiteback had learnt that the chosen motto “was communist” (456), though, approval turned to shock and rejection. In this situation Jack Gibbs – never in want of curious ideas – manages to convince Whiteback to “make it look like a quotation from Herakahm, yes from the classics that is to say simply by adding curlicues to the letter” (456). Later he tells Eigen: “I tried to help him out worst God damn thing you can do” (409). However, when officially inquired by journalist Gall, who wants to use the inscription as a motto for the book he is writing on behalf of the “Foundation,” Gibbs answers: “You might try Empedocles [...] I think it’s a fragment from the second generation of his cosmogony, maybe even the first [...]. When limbs and parts of bodies were wandering around everywhere separately heads without necks, arms without shoulders, unattached eyes looking for foreheads“ (45). Gibbs’ answer is – among other things - a cynical comment on the puerile behavior of a Whiteback, Hyde and diCephalis. They crawl on their knees and knock over buckets full of water as they are desperately trying to switch off the video which shows Edward Bast’s unsuccessful Mozart lecture which was meant to impress the financial backers of the school present at that very moment. 

If the reader frees the motto above the school portal of its curlicues – which requires that he has brought the different parts of the story together, cleared away the many layers of “inane, conceiving, sly, deceitful speech”[6] – then what remains is: “FROM EACH ACCORD.” Stephen Matanle[7] was one of the first readers to complete the sentence and point to its origin: “From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” is a famous quote from The Critique of the Gotha Programme by Karl Marx. In the same paragraph Marx summarizes the ideal conditions of a communist society, “after work is no longer a mere means to live, but life’s first and most important aim.”[8] The inscription above the portal is one of Schepperman’s pieces of art, “one of his God damned statements” (409) as Jack Gibbs calls it. It can be read as his comment on the state of a society in which conditions are the very opposite to Marx’ ideal. It is also a way of commenting on a school that seems to obey no other than market laws. So, what kind of work does a society dominated by market laws sanction? And what does it do to people?

“Helping Out:” Jobs on the Side
When talking about one’s own work or the work of others the phrase “helping out” reappears time and again. Principal Whiteback introduces Edward Bast to Amy Joubert with: ”Mr. Bast is helping out Miss Flesch on her Ring to have it ready for Friday” (18), Senator Pecci proposes to Miss Flesch, “my wife, […], maybe […] she could help you out with introducing your Rhinegold story …?” (30), Edward Bast explains his business trip for JR as “just somebody who asked me to help him out this one time it was just a, just a sort of an errand” (287); at the end even Gibbs alias Grynszpan “joins” the transactions done by the ‘J R Family of Companies’ and tells Bast: “Grynszpan stopped by just helping out” (579, italics added). The work, which is described in such terms, bears the mark of flightiness, of superficiality. Born out of ‘short-dated’ necessity for labor, which might be obsolete the next moment, the human being as worker is only needed temporarily. People are at the mercy of money, they are literally pushed around by capital.

For Edward Bast work is a means of pure survival. He is actually driven towards a nervous breakdown by the various nerve-racking jobs on the side – odd jobs that he does “to earn some money” (287), “to help pay…” (365) his debts (the reader has to add), turning him into a plaything, a prisoner of money. Though his work is meant to bring in money, it does not even reach that aim: neither Crawley ever pays him for the commissioned “zebra music,” nor do the musicians for whom he wrote “three minutes of nothing music” (112), or those for whom he transcribed a piece of music, “they still haven’t paid me” (383). One crucial effect of all these jobs on the side is that Bast never has time for the real thing, his work composing his own music, even though all his thoughts circle around that work. “Man like you keep saying you write this music but like everything I see you say it’s some business you’re in” (369) Rhoda scolds at him. Not until his stay in hospital, freed from all obligations and with demands trimmed by the circumstances of his life, does he finish a solo piece for cello.

It shows that Edward Bast lives in a kind of interim state, never gets to the life he really wishes to live, postponing it again and again, “just this one time.” Such repeated delay of a satisfying life, such predominance of a kind of life that does not belong to oneself as it keeps one from developing one’s creative potentials of whatever kind, such life too determined by outside forces has become normal for another character in the novel, the scribbler Gall:

I’ve been working on a Western I can finish if I can get an advance on this book about cobalt or whatever it is for your company, then with the final payment on the Western I’ll be able to get far enough on the cobalt book to collect the second payment and settle things with this Foundation where they’re handing out grants to novelists who want to write plays [...] Yes well to get a grant you have to be a novelist not a playwright but you have to be writing a play not a novel, I’ve applied for that under the name Jim Blake because that’s the name I wrote another Western novel called Guns of God and if I change the novel I’m working on now into a play just long enough to get a grant I ...“ (417). 

The content of his work disappears in a jungle of adjustments made to a system built on money. Its rules guide all Gall does in his work, keep all his mental energies occupied. His reaction to Ford from the “Foundation,” who cautions him not to be too open about technological unemployment (“I don’t think that’s a point the Foundation wants you to stress, particularly. But it’s your book”) equally shows Gall’s adjustments to money: “But you’re paying for it” (20) he says and is quickly ready to drop the matter. Edward Bast, at least and at last, will cut the Gordian knot of dependencies and write his own short piece of music.

 Like Rhoda so does Jack Gibbs express his criticism of Bast, “you don’t finish things, jump from one thing to the other don’t finish anything” (383); in this, though, he is wrong - the opposite is true: Bast finishes his various jobs on the side without exception, a fact almost tragic as it doesn’t lead him anywhere except into a delirious state. The commissioned work he does is in no way appreciated. When Edward Bast tries to explain to Crawley a “double mordent” with “that just indicates a grace” (439), Crawley ignores Bast’s concrete definition of a musical term to express his own undifferentiated ideas about music: “That’s it Bast grace, did your homework didn’t you” (439). His other composition of some “nothing music” will be rejected as still too complex, the accordion player doesn’t pay attention to Bast’s score, “all he played was oompah oompah” (383), and Crawley gives Bast the advice to “simplify Mister Bast. Simplify” (449), “reducing Thoreau’s idea to facile advice,” as Gregory Comnes says. [9]

Jack Gibbs vehemently criticizes such work sanctioned by society, work that has the sole purpose of making money: “First time in history so many opportunities to do so many God damned things not worth doing” (477). This also seems the reason for his own weakness, which will be later described by Norman Angel when talking about Gibb’s working morale as employee in the Bast company: “He’d work out some crackerjack idea right to the point you could do something with it then he’d just leave it there, like it wasn’t worth just getting down and doing it” (147). So what he blames Edward Bast for – “you don’t finish anything” - applies to no one better than to him. From one day to the next he leaves the Bast company, he no longer appears at school, he has interrupted work at his book Agape Agape years ago and his attempt at taking it up again doesn’t lead anywhere. Thus he doesn’t even do things he would presumably label “worth doing.” The more maliciously mocking are his comments on a conversation between Amy Joubert and Edward Bast about Bast’s work composing music: “Blessed is he who has found his work,” (116) he comments with a Carlyle quote. [10] Unlike Amy Joubert Gibbs knows that Bast has just lost his job at the school and that in his attempt to make music his sole work he does not follow any calling (as Amy Joubert believes) but a necessity. To follow a calling would mean “a luxury [Bast literally] can’t afford” (540): here, ironically, Davidoff’s judgment about art turns true. It is - by the way - a tragic-comic circumstance that Edward Bast has a right to shares of his uncle’s (and official father’s) Thomas Bast’s company. Unfortunately, though, he doesn’t know of them and so loses them to his cousin Stella. 

“The On-Going Situation”: Bureaucracy
The Mozart lecture, written by Miss Flesch and disastrous for Edward Bast, exemplifies the kind of curriculum the school dictates. It also mirrors Whiteback’s tensed-up weighing of the various interests of the school’s financial backers. Edward Bast had received the sheets of the script, loose and in total disorder, from Dan diCephalis. He can only read the beginning of the lecture in its original form; soon the disorder shows and Bast has to improvise; he does so with comic-heroic pathos talking about the wretchedness of Mozart’s life and his uncomprehending contemporaries. However, of interest here is the beginning of the text, the part written by Miss Flesch, because it is there that the norm the text follows becomes apparent. In the sense of Major Hyde’s opinion, “books you don’t know what you’re getting into,” (25) Whiteback believes that the greatest approximation to a general “bla, bla, bla” – to use a favorite word sequence of Miss Flesch – will best guarantee the avoidance of the “unplanlessness” (44) he fears so much. “[T]o weed out the bad risks” is of chief importance for the school’s principal (50, 453), and it is a “non-content” that can best provide security against disagreeable contents – a trick Davidoff also seems to have absolute confidence in: “I thought we would make it as general as possible” (104) he announces in regard to the new “bio” on Monty Moncrieff of Typhon International. 

Security against contents unwanted are ensured by the accumulating clichés and set pieces of the Flesch lecture (“fairy tale life […], tale, filled with magic and enchantment, […] darling of the gods, […] little magician,” 40); they lead away from the historic Mozart, away from concreteness and precision, and the redundancy of her style intensifies this tendency. The Flesch text demonstrates on a small scale what is true for the novel on a large scale, the tendency away from the material and towards the abstract. Reality exists, above all, as a sign on paper. Miss Flesch creates her Mozart out of the words’ “reality” alone. As “Amadeus, […means] beloved by the gods” Mozart is in fact the “darling of the gods;” as ‘Constanze’ means “constancy,” Mozart’s wife is “constant to her dear childlike husband” (41); the significate is no longer of interest, on the contrary, real life is the risk to be avoided. 

Whiteback works at avoiding risks in an absolute and exclusive manner, his work is in fact limited to “the correct calculation of the possible outcome of the sequence of events […] the adroit evasion of disruptive ‘accidents’ by means of protective devices and preventive measures” [11] as Georg Lukács would put it. One of Whiteback’s fixed and ritually reappearing expression is “structuring the material in terms of the on-going situation” (39). It is again money that stands behind that ominously vague, seemingly irreversible ‘situation.’ On the one hand, Whiteback depends on certain financial backers, the “Foundation,” above all, which sporadically sends checkers whom Whiteback tries to impress as best as he can. [12] On the other hand, he feels under an obligation to the politicians of the school district, District Superintendent Teadall Vern and congressman Mario Pecci, who are – due to election campaigns – interested in the school’s immaculate image. To the list of dependencies can be added the fact that the curriculum, the course of lessons, and also the obligatory “Pledge of Alliance” spoken before school starts are keenly eyed by the parents elected into the school committees. On the basis of these dependencies Bast’s deviation from the curriculum (not done from intention) and Gibbs intentional violations of religious and patriotic feelings are disliked very much. Finally, Whiteback finds himself bound to certain “directives, forms, rules, regulations, guidelines” (49) that reach him after long ways through the hierarchies as he tries to explain himself: “You teachers get them from me, I get them from the District Superahm, Vern that is to say yes and he gets them from . . ., […] of course we all get them from the state and the state gets them from the federal education office” (49) and “the government’s just protecting their investment” (59) Major Hyde interrupts and once again emphasizes the common denominator, money. 

It has become clear that the so-called “on-going situation” is a financial situation. It is small wonder that from the very beginning of the novel until the school’s closure at the end Whiteback & Co. talk about nothing but budget matters. Their planing and organizational handling of school affairs, nevertheless, is an empty gesture and hollow talk. They are so busy tending the school’s image that they forget the contents. “As bureaucracy makes its ‘formal’ objects its content, it gets into conflict with its ‘real’ objects everywhere,” Marx writes in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. In JR, pupils have to give way to expensive technology no one can use just because the principle “If you don’t spend you don’t get” (23) holds true and thus more equipment is bought. “The equipment can be shown to justify itself, in budgetary terms that is to say,” (23) Whiteback remarks correctly. So in the end, the external form, the image justifies itself. “Adherence to the rules, originally conceived as a means, becomes transformed into an end-in-itself; there occurs the familiar process of displacement of goals whereby an instrumental value becomes a terminal value,“ Robert K. Merton writes in a well-known essay of American sociology. [13] In the end, Whiteback’s devotion to the “on-going situation” at school has moved him farther and farther away from the “real situation” at school, reality gets out of control: a pupil is shot (451), after Bast’s dismissal from school several teachers enter into a strike (177), consumption and selling of drugs is a daily occurrence, Miss Flesch sues the school after an accident on school territory, Coach Vogel causes various pregnancies (451), JR is able to do business undisturbed, organizing the installation of a telephone booth at school, making long-distance calls to Sydney and Hong Kong, making possible the delivery of millions of wooden forks via the school’s post office. The forks appear on an account presented to Whiteback, but he believes – though mildly confused – that they must be a donation by the government in connection with the opening of the new cafeteria. Whiteback doesn’t seem to have any idea of the real situation at his school. Vern finally points to the core of the kind of work done there: “Dan was paid to make Whiteback look good he couldn’t do it and he’s out. Whiteback’s been paid to make me look good he hasn’t done it and he’s out” (463) – and those are the last words spoken at that school. Vern’s speech summarizes the survival-of-the-fittest ethics characteristic for the world of business and thus, again, identifies the school as belonging to that world.

“Nothing Real”: Alienated Work

The tendency towards the abstract, which has been mentioned above, is a concrete experience many characters have in their work. There is something unreal to time and space. Eigen speaks cursingly about his work place at Typhon International: “Whole place there’s nothing real about any of it” (408), and Terry – even if she doesn’t make heavy demands on her job as secretary of Norman Angel – talks about her feeling of stagnation and standstill in her work: “How the days go by you can’t tell one from the next sometimes” (155). The mechanical, ever redundant character of her work – “the phone, the typewriter, voices meeting and parting” (155) endlessly – leaves an emptiness that has also taken possession of others. Gall draws Ford’s attention to “some of those blank faces” he sees in the windows of the school building, “there, the one at that window having a smoke in the boys’ washroom while his class is being taught by television, speaking of technological unemployment” (20). Here work is limited to not much more than pressing a button at the beginning and the end of a lesson. The class lectures, recorded on video, are subject to Whiteback’s censorship; he can connect to any of them if he wishes to do so. In such rationally calculated working process, man appears “neither objectively nor in his relation to his work […] as the authentic master of the process; on the contrary, he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already preexisting and self-sufficient, it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not,” Georg Lukács writes in History and Class Consciousness. [14] Work resembles a permanent self-renunciation: The teacher’s abilities are only needed in a standardized form and what they do becomes more and more alien to them as it has less and less to do with themselves as characters with their own special abilities. 

Such work is not without effect on the characters and their perception of the world, all the more so since they spent a major part of their life at their work – “I mean like you said once we spend half our life here” (157) Terry quotes Norman Angel, or, “look back on it kindly […] it’s […] finally all you’ve got” (464) Coach Vogel observes after the school’s liquidation to his colleague Dan diCephalis, an absurd remark in the face of the work’s insignificance. Due to the mechanical and ritual character of work the flowing and qualitative (as opposed to quantitative) character of time is lost. In an illuminating essay on the concept of time in J R Susan Strehle points out how inauthentic the character’s relation to time is: “Most characters in the novel reify time, seeing it as the spatial product of their clocks,” [15] a fact also dealt with by Georg Lukács when he writes about the “contemplative character” of alienated, routine work, where the active quality of human practice is lost, where space and time are reduced to a common denominator, where time is leveled to the level of space. 

The character’s life is dominated by the many public clocks dissecting the flow of time. The arm of the school clock, hovering over all that happens at that place, “lop[s] off a fragment of the [minute],” (31) “severed a minute’s remnant” (228), “clipped away identical minutes” (178); and the clock at the work place of Carol and Florence, secretaries of Typhon International, is “knocking whole wedges at once from what remained of the hour” (256). Under the influence of reified time, the characters themselves disintegrate, lose their past and the quality of something that has grown, developed, changed in time. Characters like Whiteback, diCephalis, Hyde, Davidoff, J R seem to lack any past or memories. But also others like Jack Gibbs, Thomas Eigen or Amy Joubert who cannot be called one-dimensional characters, “reveal strikingly little about their own past lives.”[16] They cannot – it seems – bear their memories, let alone handle them, and thus their past lies swept away, lies in ruins. 

The alienated situation of their lives depends to a great extent on the quality of the work that lacks any deeper relation to themselves as persons. The one thing holding man and work together is money. Alienated work according to Marx is external to the worker, does not belong to his nature, he negates himself in such work and does develop neither mental nor physical energies. One should, though, differentiate between those who are already incorporated into their alienated existence – those belonging to an advanced level of alienation as Herbert Marcuse says – and those, who are conscious of their alienation, though they find themselves unable to leave that state for a better, happier life. For Davidoff, Hyde, Crawley, who belong to the first group, reality has only one dimension, “before their tribunal,” Marcuse says, “the ‘false consciousness’ of their rationality becomes the true consciousness.”[17] Characters like Whiteback or diCephalis seem to be without any consciousness; they function like a cog in the machine, if the machine stalls or stops they panic and reveal their impotence and helplessness, their inability to act as independent human beings. 

Others like Thomas Eigen perceive their alienation very consciously. His own description of his work – he writes speeches for the managerial caste of Typhon International – mirrors his feeling of degradation, almost humiliation through his employer who is “paying a grown man a good salary to watch a Chinaman blow food across the room” (261) as he summarizes a business dinner. It seems to him that he is acting as nursery-school teacher to a high rank Second World War military, “spoon feed[ing] him a speech so he wouldn’t say Plato rhymes with tomato” (408); he perceives in his work nothing but incapacitation and abuse for alien means. He is full of indignation about Davidoff’s interferences in his speeches, “every damn speech I write we go over twenty times till he gets human betterment and a two edged sword at one fell swoop and his God damn iceberg into it” (408). 

Many characters in JR miss a work which would give their abilities room for development: from Coach Vogel at whose ideal work place “a man’s mind can turn loose and soar” (463) (“I’ve been cramped here you know Dan badly cramped” (463) he says about his work at school) to Ann diCephalis who wants to use sensitivity and creativity in her teaching and through it achieve self-realization. However, the machine loving Vogel is a crazy scientist, and the narcissistic Ann diCephalis doesn’t show a lot of creativity to say nothing about sensitivity – “Dressed up in toilet paper you’re a bride?” she bickers at her daughter Nora; her idea of empathy or sympathetic understanding via video speaks for itself: “an intimate medium, it really is, because when you look into the camera you’re looking each child right in the eye” (37). Ann diCephalis is constantly talking about ‘inspiration’ but the word is as empty as the talk a Whiteback or Hyde repeat mechanically. 

Equally empty, though with alarming effect, are Vogel’s scientific activities. After the school’s closure he works as “colorful new head of research and development at the Ray-X corporation” (member of the “J R Family of Companies”) at a project, which is meant to test the telegraphic transport of people. [18] The experiment is carried out and sending off the test person from “the company’s Texas installation” (689) is successful; at the place of arrival “somewhere in Maine,” though, there are difficulties “with the reconstituting process” of the telegraphed person Dan diCephalis, difficulties that cannot be mended. The choice of Maine and Texas is a deliberate one as Joseph Tabbi shows by drawing attention to a passage from Walden, where Thoreau writes about the newest invention of his time: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas: but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” [19] In other words, from the very beginning the teletravel project is without sense, lacks any useful aim, it is “the blind fury of doing” [20] which prevails. The results may be, in the best of all cases, “improved means to unimproved ends” (in this case not even that). 

Creativity shows no restraint, Vogel’s desire “to turn loose and soar” releases, above all, destructive energies, teletravel carries one even faster towards total entropy. The fatal result adds an alarming quality to the mere ridiculousness and absurdity of the experiment. This is of no importance to Governor Cates, who has business connections with the Ray-X Corporation. Although he does not believe in a success or feasibility of the experiment, he supports it for his own financial reasons. “On the thematic level the allusion [to Thoreau] may stand as a silent protest against the senseless expansion and wasteful accumulation J R so thoroughly documents,” Joseph Tabbi resumes. [21] Against this background Vogel’s concrete realization of his desire for some kind of demanding, satisfying work – which surely is valid as an abstract wish – relativizes itself. His urge for unrestrained activity falls into line with Cates’ unrestrained pursuit of profit. It is – to use a phrase from Adorno – “the anthropological reflex of the production laws.” [22]

III. “Who Uses Whom”: Alienation From the Other

¾ Well, boys and, you little . . . ladies and gentlemen, getting right down to business, eh? That’s what brings us all together, eh? Business, Dave why don’t you just sit right down over there. That’s what brings people together, eh?“ (85) “real live stock broker” (83) Crawley welcomes the pupils of class 6J. They are on an excursion to Wall Street with their teacher Amy Joubert to be let in on its secrets and acquire a stock of the firm “Diamond Cable.” The novel, though, documents the exact opposite of Crawley’s offhand claim; here, business – affecting all spheres of life – separates people, disrupts marriages, destroys families, creates loneliness and isolation. What remains is a perverted family, the “J R Family of Companies.” “The market,” Max Weber defines in Economy and Society, “is the most impersonal practical relationship people can have in life.” [23] On the market people come together as owners of commodities and perceive the other in such terms. What makes sense on the market takes on inhuman qualities in the sphere of purely human relations. 

In J R family and business matters intermingle, family-like closeness changes into businesslike detachment. Amy Joubert’s high society family is a credit to such reversal: “all they exchanged at Christmas were three percent municipals,” (498) Jack Gibbs remarks to Amy Joubert, full of contempt but not knowing that his friend from boarding school, whose family he is talking about, is her brother. Amy’s husband, Lucien Joubert, does not shrink from using their son Francis as blackmailing tool in his fight for control over Typhon International (307). Her uncle, though, is neither impressed by these attempts nor by his niece’s emotions or her weak health. He meets her frequent attacks of dizziness – reactions, as it were, to a world grown incomprehensibly cold – with: “suppose she […] keeled over lying dead at your feet […] where would we be, damned Frenchman she married march in take over as the boy’s trustee guardian” (102). Those are his real concerns, which are also shared by Monty Moncrieff. The latter’s thoughts are not so much with his daughter as they are with his government post (208) or his stock: “he said you look tired Amy he looked so concerned […] I thought he wanted to talk to me to tell me something […] and then he turned with all his concern he turned to you [Beaton] and asked about his last option . . .” (211) and later to Jack Gibbs: “I finally realized he was always attentive to something else” (499). Her longing for closeness to her father remains unfulfilled, on the contrary, she finally recognizes that those “three percent municipals” have greater value for him than she does. 

Moncrieff seems to despise people – “he was watching people play football on television […] Mama always said he only watched because he liked to see someone loose” (499) -, John Cates no longer seems to perceive people as human beings at all; around him a perfectly calculating reason prevails. Also his body, whose organs are regularly replaced by new ones, has to obey to his inhuman reason; he would prefer machines to men. Only a world that can be described in the language of prices is of interest to him - human beings are nothing but variables. “Not talking about any damn ethics Beaton talking about the price of the damn stock” (435) he points out, voicing his “inhuman consciousness that estimates in abstractions only.”[24] His fundamental indifference to the real human being can, at times, take bizarre forms. A typing error, which turns “hippos” into “hippies,” doesn’t seem to surprise or disturb him even though the text (a memo for Crawley’s film promoting the project for a wild life park), in which the word appears, reads: “They want to shoot hippies in the National Parks” (436). Human beings are utility articles for John Cates and thus all he considers is, “probably even the damn Interior Department can’t issue permits for that” (436). The one person he misuses most frequently is the lawyer Beaton (beaten indeed), who functions as scapegoat and as a machine good enough to spit out law sections until, finally, he beats back himself. 

Other contexts, as well, show people as utility articles. Jack Gibbs blames Marian Eigen, “you just use him [Thomas Eigen] to, I don’t know put up curtains or pull down the God damned shade” (270) and Whiteback speaks about “utilizing the ahm, youngsters themselves” (45) or “you can’t use Vogel live” (46, live on video). The most intense moment of such alienated relations, however, is the proposal JR makes towards Edward Bast on their way home after the excursion to Wall Street: “I just mean like maybe we can use each other some time” (59, see also 135). The proposal is not only about the utility of the human being, it is both about his use and exchange value; JR is interested in the exchange of their respective use values: on the one side Edward Bast as the adult who will be able externally to represent the business conglomerate already forming in JR’s head (a role the 11-year old JR cannot play) – on the other side JR as employer of an Edward Bast who has just lost his job at school. The straightness of JR’s utterance makes it a model description of the relationship between commodity owners as Marx describes it in Capital. There, Marx uses the term “character mask” to consider a person insofar as he is the personification of economic relations: “The persons exist for one another merely as representatives of, and, therefore, as owners of commodities. In the course of our investigation we shall find, in general, that the characters [“Charaktermasken”] who appear on the economic stage are but the personifications of the economic relations that exist between them.” [25] JR’s sentence shows that he takes the adult world as observed on the excursion to Typhon International or as read in those leaflets of “Success Secrets, Selling Secrets” (59) literally - “that’s just what you do” (135,169,173), he emphasizes time and again. More than all the other fictional characters, “JR is constructed as a product.” [26] Whenever he tries to grasp the sense of that world, he does so in terms that are in accordance to the economic conditions of the world he lives in. 

When it comes to business relations JR’s attempt “to make sense” leads him to logical marketing-psychological insights that unmask the mechanisms of the market: “What like with this here Mary Lou honey you’re suppose to be twenty-one and over? I mean how does she know any more than this dumb bank in Nevada all she knows she gets this five dollars off you […] so you’re twenty-one and over” (168) – JR is able to enlighten the Hyde boy with whom he exchanges leaflets, “Bonus Offer[s]” (77), “free cosmetic samples,” “government surplus crap” (76) and such before starting his own big business. JR has recognized that it is credibility alone that counts and that it is money that provides credibility. “Gaddis’ more ‘serious play,” – and Joel Dana Black refers to the pecuniary activities of John Cates and others “who are playing to win” (see 107, 301, 444) 

“is the result of an assumed agreement among parties all too willing to suspend disbelief in an ultimate reality so long as the collective representations that appear are not necessarily truthful but merely credible. Under the lax standards of the collectively credible, however, nearly everything is agreeable and almost nothing is incredible ¾ i.e., empirically verifiable by a single individual.”[27] 

With this knowledge JR puts his signature under the order for the telephone booth that he wants to be installed at the school: 

“I just scribbled this here name which it’s nobody’s down at the bottom where it says arthurized by, I mean you think the telephone company goes around asking everybody is this here your signature? All they care it says requisition order right across the top so they come stick in this here telephone booth.“ (185) 

When it comes to relations outside business, though, it is Amy Joubert’s remark in a conversation with Jack Gibbs that holds true and is in accordance with the one-dimensionality of JR’s thinking, “he thinks there’s a millionaire behind everything he sees and that’s all he does see” (497). JR perceives all activity and human relations as obeying to market mechanisms, to a “buy and sell” and “making money.” Those are the only categories he thinks in when it comes to human relations and communication. This becomes particularly clear in a conversation with Edward Bast where JR tries to find out how Bast earns his money and learns about Bast’s work composing music. JR thinks this through and arrives at the following conclusion, “I mean can you make much doing that? Writing this here music I mean? […] I guess not or like why would you teach, right?” (127) And later he asks in a similar way: “like what business is your father in” and gets the answer: 

¾ Music.

¾ What he writes it? like you?

¾ He writes it and he’s a prominent conductor look, music’s not a business like shoes or . . .

¾ No I know, I mean that’s why he’s this here prominent conductor right . . . ? [...] I mean where he make’s some money being this conductor so he can go write this here music in his spare time he doesn’t make much off, right? (134)[28] 

Both examples make clear what it is JR tries to find out. He wants to know how things work, what kind of mechanisms are at work, what kind of tools one needs to make money. His questions are not so much asked out of a human or psychological interest; JR uses these examples from “real life” to learn more about the instruments the adults use in order to make money.[29] When Edward Bast says, “look, music’s not a business like shoes,” JR understands this utterance only in one way: one cannot make money with music, one can with shoes. When it comes to the holy of holies, Bast’s music itself, JR’s “how-to-do-it”-mentality on the one hand and Edward Bast’s romantic enthusiasm on the other hand clash comically: 

¾ Look I’m not trying to write tunes for money, I’m . . . (Bast)

¾ I know, I mean how come you’re writing it.

¾ It’s just what I have to do! now will you . . .

¾ I know, that’s what I mean. How come [...] I mean when you’re writing this here music do you need to be someplace with a piano or a horn or something? (134-35) 

Whereas JR is not interested in any deeper reasons and is not at all concerned with why Bast does what he does  (his “how come” just asks about the how), Bast automatically misinterprets the question in such way. His romantic, at times pathetic character makes him easily vulnerable, his ‘humaneness,’ however, also sharpens his eye for JR’s inhuman enterprises. His scolding words for JR, who has just bought up a company – “Just because you read about these things it doesn’t mean you can just step in there and do them” (296) – are also misunderstood, JR again comprehends them in accordance to his “how-to-do-it”-mentality: believing that Bast wants to draw his attention to some new rule he again asks, “How come?” Bast, however, wishes to point out the existence of another kind of reality, he wants to show JR that “these are real people up there that’s how come” (296). With this, though, Bast describes a different play, one that JR does not wish to play at that moment: “I mean this [his play ‘how to win’] isn’t any popularity contest” (296). 

In their perception of the world JR and Bast differ fundamentally; their definition of the same company shows it: “I mean that’s all Eagle is […] this neat tax loss carryforward and all these here tax credits and all” (298) reads JR’s explanation that can do without people, while Bast emphasizes: “these people who’ve worked all their lives for miserable wages so they can finally retire on a miserable pension” (298). What is hinted at here for the first time in the novel will gain in dramatic quality in the course of events – hardly recognizable, though, for drowning in the novels’s white noise. Behind JR’s torrent of words the human tragedies, which he causes, disappear entirely; here, the voice of Edward Bast - only to be filtered out with some effort – is responsible for the humane element. “All I know is I told those people up there they didn’t have to worry” (295). For the proprietors and stockholders of the various enterprises, which JR has bought up, Bast is the last hope, “you’re all we have left” (635) music lover Brisboy of “Wagner Funerals” calls after him out of a taxi; and Mooneyham of X-L-Lithograph cannot hold back his tears, “running of his cheeks into his Spanish omelet, telling me how he went to a Bible breakfast seeking guidance . . .” (379). 

JR does not see the human reality behind his cornering activities (or, rather, does not find any relevance in paying attention to it as that would mean departing from the rules); for him the “manifold animistic fictions”[30] of “money that is […] out working and earning” (45), “money working for you” (171) or “twenty-two fifty working for you” (92) are real. Money, however, does not go out into the world; there are people behind “the stock’s activity” (104) or “the conflicting behavior of prevailing economic forces” (83). Nevertheless, it is the stock market in particular that makes people invisible – JR learns this from David Davidoff on his school excursion and successfully uses it for his own enterprises, 

“you don’t see anybody you don’t know anybody only in the mail and the telephone because that’s how they do it nobody has to see anybody, you can be this here funny lookingest person that lives in a toilet somewhere how do they know, I mean like all those guys at the Stock Exchange where they’re selling all this stock to each other? They don’t give a shit whose it is they’re just selling it back and forth for some voice that told them on the phone why should they give a shit if you’re a hundred and fifty“ (172). 

For the eleven-year old JR that invisibility is the necessary prerequisite of his enterprises and the telephone functions as a perfect mask. Although Edward Bast repeatedly tries to uncover JR’s ‘play,’ either no one listens or no one lets him finish his sentence, and so the decisive detail of JR’s biography enters the various stories told about him as “Bast told me once the Boss never got out of sixth [grade] frankly sometimes I believe it” (522). Consequently, his rise is, to a great extent, due to the failure of human communication. It is not by chance that the novel ends with JR’s question, “you listening? Hey? You listening . . . ?” (726), but no one is listening. 

The catastrophic state of communication is another symptom of the high degree of alienation between people. The intonation of isolation finds its most extreme form in Whiteback’s office where empty phrases are glued together in a kind of collage and the voices are “wandering around everywhere separately,” indifferent to each other, sometimes as trio: 

¾ My shelter . . .

¾ My Ring . . . [...]

¾ My wife . . . (26). 

Sometimes as quartet: 

¾ Once we have their confidence . . .

¾ Now whether or not a campaign . . .

¾ I think nationally . . .

¾ PRwise . . .

The telephone rang“ (27), 

cutting off the torn and isolated fringes of sentences for good. Everywhere the telephone interrupts conversations which are never taken up again. It is the communication machine used most frequently and at the same time the instrument impeding communication most excessively. The reader is also affected by these impediments, because she can only hear and read one side of those numerous and long telephone conversations, the information from the other side has to be reconstructed. 

The telephone dominates the whole course of conversations. People conform to the ringing of the telephone never paying attention to the needs of the person present. The telephone’s rule over people is absolute and what Karl Marx says at the beginning of the German Ideology has become true: “They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations.” In part the telephones even act like real beings, “ranting” (59) or “berating one another” (52); other machines, video players, radios literally force people down on their knees: on all fours Major Hyde tries to get control over the television set that cannot be switched off (43). “The instrument of labour strikes down the labourer,” Marx wrote in Capital,[31] things take over the rule – “God damned things in the saddle and ride mankind” (400) Jack Gibbs quotes Emerson[32] – in the end the machine has a higher status than the human being. 

In Whiteback’s consciousness this has already taken place: “with the space problem for this expensive equipment our retarded ahm […] we had to put them into ahm, out of business” (453) he explains to District Superintendent Teadall Vern. The handicapped children have to give way to the expensive equipment that Major Hyde has sold to the school on behalf of his company “Diamond Cable” “for a hundredth the price” (224) – what will happen to the children no one knows. The purpose of the purchase, “key the individual to the technology” (224), puts the machine before man. It is the machine that comes first for Major Hyde, human beings follow, “a washing machine’s a responsive environment to some youngsters” (224), his language easily turns people into things and so “retards” become “retreads” (453). Both Whiteback and Hyde are thrown off balance by too much humaneness; that is one way to read their reaction to Edward Bast’s “Mozart lecture.” In the face of the lecture, thus, they automatically switch over to technical details. When Bast says: “For believing and shitting are two very different things . . .,” Hyde hurriedly remarks: “You find the sound system on these commercial receivers are pretty uniformly poor . . .” (42). When Gall, who has missed important parts of the lecture, asks his colleague Ford: “Did I miss something?” Ford answers: “Technical difficulties creep in, trouble with their framing there a few times and they need some practice with their lenses but once you’ve got good hardware that’s all it takes” (44). All use terms like “technology,” “sound system,” “lenses,” “hardware” so that they do not need to talk about the human being. [33]  

Things are treated better than human beings. When the school has financial difficulties, people have to go first, they have to yield to the machines: “Dan’s leaving us? […] – Yes well Vern felt ahm, Dan that is to say Dan feels it might help clear the air before we submit this austerity budget” (455) and Whiteback hopes that Gibbs “would be as cooperative as Dan here in terms of his ahm, of resigning . . .” (456). Who ousts whom here, however, is quite clear (Jack Gibbs once took a note reading: “Who uses whom [Lenin?]). “As soon[…] as it occurs to capital […] no longer to be for the worker, he himself is no longer for himself: he has no work, hence no wages, and since he has no existence as a human being but only as a worker, he can go and bury himself, starve to death.” [34] Man is exchangeable commodity and as such purchasable; “if you don’t own them you can’t trust them” (98, see also 183, 424) reads Cates’ guiding principle: when finally the worker has turned into a property owned by someone else his dependency is perfected and he can be blackmailed by his own survival, his own existence. 

It has become clear that commerce and business acumen have brought people apart, “each […] establish[ing] an alien power over the other, […] thereby to find satisfaction of his own selfish need, [35] as Marx writes in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. From the beginning Father Bast had brought discord between his sons [36] by introducing the principle of competition early in their lives: “Every week Father gave a dime to the one who showed the most improvement” (7). From the standpoint of an ethics as it exists between brothers the market (typically not bound to ethical norms) is looked upon as depraved, “it is fundamentally alien to fraternization.” [37] So, the Bast family as well is dominated by Catesian principles, here also human closeness is reversed to business detachment. Generally, the feeling of togetherness is, more or less, absent from the novel, there is hardly any place for the exchange of human plurality. Schepperman – in search for such a place – is seen wandering through New York (“always meet him coming out of a White Rose bar” [409]); although Zona Selk, an old friend of John Cates, grants him financial support for his art, his paintings go straight into a bank safe due to a hastily signed contract. They never reach the public sphere where people might see them and react to them, talk about them, give them reality, recognize them as something communicated to the world by the painter Schepperman. So Scheppermann is what his paintings are: no more than a Selkian investment.

IV. “A Well-Oiled Machine”: Alienation From Oneself

Many characters in J R are mere objects, they are not subjects, not ‘active’ agents. ‘Action,’ one definition goes, “is any reflected, systematic, purposeful activity […]. Activity and deed can be ascribed to man alone (as a being who reflects upon things); the analogous term for animals is ‘behavior,’ for an organic nature ‘process’.” [38] “Without agency,” says sociologist Richard Harvey Brown, “we do not act we merely behave.” [39] And in The Human Condition Hannah Arendt emphasizes the special relationship between ‘acting’ and ‘togetherness’: “action corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth.” [40] In JR, many characters just ‘behave’, they react – often automatically – to external stimuli; a policeman shoots a handicapped boy, who startles people with a water pistol; Whiteback apologetically speaks of “the agent’s trained reflexes” (451). He himself tends towards fixed, conditioned behavior and predictable reactions; Dan and Ann diCephalis ritualistically repeat their quarrels, so that they themselves always know in advance what the other is going to say next. As ‘psychometrician’ Dan diCephalis treats reality in mathematical and quantitative terms – human beings are reduced to a certain number of holes on punch cards. His method assumes that men do not act but merely behave. 

In this society people have to put their entire self into operation to make it conform to the needs of the market. The models provided by the media or those at the top like John Cates are the only examples worth imitating and emulating. “The media tell the man in the mass who he is – they give him identity,” says C. Wright Mills, “they tell him what he wants to be – they give him aspirations; […] they tell him how to get that way – they give him technique; […] they tell him how to feel that he is that way even when he is not – they give him escape.” [41] The media have undoubtedly found the perfect consumer in JR. “This is me” (650) is his enthusiastic reaction to the newspaper portrait fabricated by Davidoff and Gall, “shrewd eye for tax situations,” “a man of vision” (659), “a man who sees where the parade is heading” (651). In a certain way he is even right, because he is above all the product of those “how-to” books and leaflets on “Success Secrets” –  “they give him identity.” JR, who has no father and a mother never present, has certainly not learnt from his parents and instead takes his guidelines from newspapers, magazines, the TV, and also other adults, John Cates for example. His case makes the discrepancy between reality – “the snot nosed sixth grader” [42] – and the image – “[the man], who calmly steps and leads” (651) – especially conspicuous, makes the sham of the fabricated commodity ‘identity’ obvious. 

The media give aspiration, C. Wright Mills continued: the radio, untraceable and thus not to be switched off in the chaos of the apartment on 96th street, forces “mouthwash […] to perk up your personality” (574) upon an unwilling Jack Gibbs; and JR seems to try to give Edward Bast similar suggestions, though vehemently rejected by him: “I don’t want to learn how to sell myself and develop into a more poised confident forceful person” (379). Dan diCephalis, on the other hand, takes such offers as seriously as Mr. Pivner, in The Recognitions, takes Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. [43] To the dismay of his wife, exercises confident poses and expressions in front of the mirror (“they give him technique”) every evening, because “to be successful one has to be able to present one’s personality advantageously in competition with others […]. Success depends to a great extent on the way one sells one’s personality, hence the experience to be some kind of commodity, or rather seller and commodity to be sold at the same time.” [44] Dan explains to his wife: “It’s in, something in connection with […] this job […] in the management area […] Executive decision making” (165). In Whiteback’s office he constantly and almost doggedly tries to imitate congressman Pecci’s “pinstriped presence” (24), “busy responding to Mister Pecci’s stylish appearance and squaring the handkerchief in his own breast pocket” (26). Vogel’s claim, though – “knew you hated it [the school] the day you walked in” (464) – might suggest that diCephalis is in fact unhappy, even if he no longer takes notice of it himself. 

The “blinkered zeal to copy social practices,” as Paul Ingendaay puts it, [45] orientates itself by those who have successfully reached the higher regions of society. JR merely embodies more blatantly what is otherwise true for many other characters in the novel: they are what David Riesman in his famous book The Lonely Crowd calls the ‘other-directed character,’ explaining: “their contemporaries are the source of direction […] – either those known to [them] or those with whom [they are] indirectly acquainted, through friends and through the mass media.” [46] David Davidoff, for example, is the walking image of his own version of Typhon International boss John Cates, “who opened the frontiers of America” (91), a man that walks his way alone, true to nothing but his own inner principles and “directed toward generalized but nonetheless inescapable destined goals” [47] – that is, at least, how Davidoff’s description of his boss goes. [48] He himself has taken on the image of the rough frontiersman, obtrusively showing off during the visit of Amy Joubert’s class: “He braced back, doubled fists on his hips in a commanding stance of out-of-doors” (92). He has control, he tries to suggest, any time ready to knuckle down and fight, right now “lead[ing the children] in a brave stride off the curb” (82), “shooting rights and lefts as though fighting his way through a horde” (89) – there is yawning emptiness on the corridors of Typhon International, though. In other words, Davidoff tends towards the grand gesture. The gap between the role he plays and the context in which he performs it (‘curb’ and ‘corridor’) is a silent comment on the ridiculousness of his behavior. But the gesture does not need to mean anything, pretense of meaning is enough. The same holds true for Whiteback’s language, which does not have to make any sense as long as it sounds competent. The gap widens when Davidoff, dazzled by Amy Joubert’s presence, takes some liberties to make believe that he is in no way inferior to the powerful John Cates. Later Beaton reports to a disbelieving John Cates: 

“an [...] inspiration of Mister Davidoff’s sir, to have class six J threaten suit against the company as an exercise in corporate democracy [...] Mister Davidoff seems to have arranged it as a game to give the children a looksee at the system I believe he put it, a few corporate dollars to play with [...] Frankly sir with this and the attention he gave her class for an Annual Report feature I felt he was trying to make an impression on Mrs. Joubert“ (424 f.). 

Generally speaking, Davidoff wants to impress, but his “appearance promises more, far more, than he can keep. Insofar one is tricked by his appearance,” Wolfgang Fritz Haug says in his critique of commodity aestheticism. [49] Davidoff himself, as it were, is tricked by his own image: during Moncrieff’s absence from Typhon International he believes, “that he was running the store” (426). “Anybody ever run a store by giving away everything in it?” (426) Cates summarizes the real situation and Davidoff has to leave Typhon International and becomes PR man in JR’s firm. Cates’ reaction to Davidoff’s incessant effort “of improving the corporate image” (426) – “This keeps up […] there won’t be anything left but the damn image” (426) – summarizes what the novel thoroughly demonstrates: in the end, the world merely exists on paper, whether as stock or paper money or in the form of Davidoff’s newspaper portraits. For Davidoff the image is more real than reality; it is his reality (and job) making him the ideal man for JR’s paper empire; because “all that is needed for this paper magic to work is the ready credibility of such “underwriters” as J R’s opportunistic PR man, Dave Davidoff, who are willing captives of a discourse they take to be their own: “Believe anything I hear myself about paper” (513). [50]  

The same is true for JR as his reaction to the newspaper portrait shows. With his ‘That’s me” he perceives himself in the exact way the media want him to – his “sensory immediacy” is broken to use words of W. F. Haug: 

“The standpoint of the capital, giving priority to utilization, is opposed to the sensual and instinctual reality of the human being. Whether trimmed by capital to the role of its functionary (the capitalist) or to the role of the worker, the individuals and their instincts will have the same fate anyway: their sensory immediacy has to be broken and made absolutely controllable.” [51]  

JR is only able to perceive himself in the images and phrases delivered by society. “What was I suppose to hear!” (657) he asks Bast who has just made him listen to Bach’s 21st Cantata “to make you hear! To make you, to make you feel to try to…” (658). [52] But JR only sees what he is meant to see, he only hears what he is meant to hear. He is the reproduction of public discourse, “seeks self-definition […] by copying what he finds in society.” [53] “JR is not an actor in the novel at all: he is society itself, the inescapable context (as opposed to the agent) of plot, of individual action, of personal life.” [54] “I’m trying to find out what I’m supposed to do so you say it’s trash?” (661) JR reproaches Bast for the latter’s long accusation (660f.); this is JR’s way of giving an answer to a question directly or indirectly asked by almost all characters in the novel, the question of “what’s worth doing.” Amy Joubert’s decision to work at Whiteback’s school had also taken its starting point with that question. Her attempt, though, is an attempt at breaking away from the ‘three percent municipal’ household of her father. JR’s search is about work accepted by society, work that conforms to the values of capitalistic society as presented in the novel. 

JR, who does not even have a name, perfectly meets what Erich Fromm calls “‘ego-lessness’ characteristic for the market orientation.”[55] Market orientation means, he goes on, “that no specific and permanent frame of reference is developed; the exchangeability of actions is the only permanence within such orientation.”[56] The same is true for Riesman’s ‘other-directed character’ who “must be able to receive signals from far and near; the sources are many, the changes rapid. What can be internalized, then, is […] the elaborate equipment needed to attend to such messages.”[57] One changes one’s identity, changes roles and masks according to market requirements; if demanded by circumstances one even changes names as Norman Angels’s family did: “That name was changed from Engels, somewhere along the way” (4, 232) Anne Bast uses to remark whenever the name is mentioned. JR recommends Edward Bast, whose name has been misprinted on the visiting cards and the file case purchased by JR himself, simply to change his name (292) and the Bast sisters “remember Father saying […] It might be cheaper just to change his name […], you know how cheap names are” (61, 65). The exchangeability of names here indicates the exchangeability of the human being itself. Whiteback – perceiving Bast not as human being but as function (“he’s music appreciation” [19], “our composer in residence, Whiteback blurted with what sounded like relief” [40]) – time and again forgets Bast’s name, which he has to look up on the check printed by the school computer, “Mister ahm, Mister his name’s on a check right here somewhere” (456). His own name appears sometimes as “Whitefoot” (704), at other times as “Whiteface” (437) and also as “Whitelaw” (449). Before Dan diCephalis is liquidated through Vogel’s experiment he looses his name step by step, starting with the pupil’s short form “diSyph,” ending with Davidoff’s creation “Mister Ten-forty […], call him that because we got him through some computer management service” (515). This is “[a] place,” JR explains to Edward Bast, “where everybody’s this here number” (645). What JR frankly calls “this here number” the computer firm itself names “coded anonymity” (55). The aim is, Dan diCephalis himself tries to point out to his wife, to “respect the dignity of the private individ . . .” (55). However, as it in fact has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘individuality’ or ‘individual’ – “the market personality,” Erich Fromm says, “has to be free of any individuality”[58] – the word does not have to be completed. In other words, the dignity of the human being is guaranteed by the annihilation of its individuality. 

At the end of the novel also John Cates is robbed of his name by some misunderstanding: after that he is called ‘Mister Katz’ even by his old friend Zona Selk. The loss of name, though, is – as was the case with Dan diCephalis – only a last consequence of an ongoing process of dissolution. Zona Selk grossly summarizes this process: 

„dried up old Raggedy Andy with his tin heart I’ll sue him for impersonating himself for impersonating Mister Katz he’s nobody, he’s a lot of old parts stuck together he doesn’t even exist he started losing things eighty years ago he lost a thumbnail on the Albany nightboat and that idiot classmate of his Handler’s been dismantling him ever since, started an appendectomy punctured the spleen took it out then came the gall bladder that made it look like appendicitis in the first place now look at him, he’s listening through somebody else’s inner ears those corneal transplants God knows whose eyes he’s looking through, windup toy with a tin heart he’ll end up with a dog’s brain and some nigger’s kidney’s why can’t I take him to court and have him declared nonexistent, null void nonexistent“ (708).  

On one of the many loose sheets belonging to Jack Gibb’s work in progress Agape Agape there is the following note: “Gogol’s character who in the end became a kind of gaping hole in humanity” (486).[59] The person in question is estate owner Plyushkin from Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, whose miserliness has turned him into a ruin with “the
cold-blooded, unfeeling expression of inhumane old age
." [60]   This is the description of the eighty-year old John Cates, who has been dominated by one theme only throughout his life, a theme which even now in hospital turns him into its slave: “By God lie here not know the price of anything” (694). Cates has become an instrument of money, a machine, an inanimate object. 

Lifelessness, rigidity, the empty and blank stare, mechanical movements can be repeatedly observed in the course of the novel; the human body itself “is an awkward assemblage of limbs” as Stephen H. Matanle shows. [61] The eye of the camera, which Ford directs onto the school’s windows at the beginning of the novel, ‘sees’ a “frieze of teachers” (20), petrified, as it were, in their dispensability as employees at Whiteback’s school. After the shock about her husband’s, father’s and uncle’s cold-bloodedness Amy Joubert changes in a way Beaton later describes as: “She sounded very cold […], she sounded frozen inside in fact” (707). 

These are not the novel’s last words, though. “Gaddis’s J R is a damning vision of what America looks like from the corporate level, and thus a powerful argument for the necessity of recovering the human level,” Steven Moore resumes.[62] There are niches of hope. It would go beyond the scope of this reading, though, to look at them now.[63]

V. JR: Work “Worth Doing”

The novel reproduces money‘s excessiveness on a structural level and thus produces its supposed “unreadability“ that has frustrated readers like George Steiner (“This is the essential aim of ‘final unreadability‘“) or John Gardner. What has scared them away from the novel is both the absence of a narrator and the suffocating jargon of big business, the dead language of bureaucracy, filling page after page, growing rampantly and mercilessly like the plants outside the Bast‘s house on Long Island. In order to make sense, the novel demands work and what Julio Cortázar once termed a “lector complice.“ Gaddis himself emphasizes: “It is the notion that the reader is brought in almost as a collaborator.“ This novel embodies indeed what Ernst Bloch once called in Marxist terms “the pathos of ‘production,‘ the pathos of ‘fabrication,‘ the dialectical and reciprocal representation, the mutual reflection of subject-object, object-subject.“ [64] Although the reader – on first looking into JR - is indeed shocked, is meant to be shocked, to feel unease, is meant to be pushed to the limits, the shock is also meant to make the reader take on an active role in the process of reconstructing sense. JR “disillusions man, so that he will think, act and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and reigned his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun,“ to mildly misuse Marx‘ definition of ‘emancipation‘ and the task of a critique of religion. The novel, which excessively portrays the breakdown, the total nonfunctioning of communication within a “money-dimensional” world, creates a new realm for communication, triggering “the change from [passive] aesthetic experience to [active] symbolical and communicative action.” [65] Undoubtedly, it is work “worth doing.” 


[1] Karl Marx. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Second Manuscript. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/second.htm , P1.
[4] Georg Lukács. “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” in History and Class Consciousness. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc05.htm, P1 (I The Phenomenon of Reification).
[6] William Gass in his introduction to The Recognitions. New York: Penguin 1993, p. ix.
[7] “Love and Strife in William Gaddis’s J R.” In John Kuehl and Steven Moore (eds.). In Recognition of William Gaddis. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1984, p. 108.
[9] Gregory Comnes. “Fragments of Redemption: Reading William Gaddis’ J R.” Twentieth Century Literature 35.2 (Summer 1989), p. 167.

[12] In his book Multinational Corporations and the Control of Culture (New Jersey: Humanities, 1979) Armand Matterlarts writes about the growing influence of “Foundations” during the 60s and 70s, which equipped schools with new audiovisual technologies: “The rising number of Foundations“, he writes, “reveals the increasingly direct interest of the major industries in the education sector. In fact the majority of Foundations are attached to these industries ¾ thus giving Foundations their own role in the area of monopoly capitalism […] The Ford Foundation […] heads the list with a capital of over $ 3 billion.“ (156).

[13] Robert K. Merton. “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality.” In: Clyde Kluckhohn and Henry A. Murray (eds.). Personality in Nature, Society and Culture. New York (Alfred A. Knopf), 1949, p. 285.

[15] Susan Strehle. “Disclosing Time: William Gaddis’s JR.” Journal of Narrative Technique 12.1 (Winter 1982), p.1.
[16] Strehle, p.4
[17] Herbert Marcuse. One-Dimensional Man: Studies on the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Hamburg: Luchterhand, 1988 (German, my translation).
[18] Susan Strehle mentions that the idea of telegraphing people comes from Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings. See “Disclosing Time,” p. 5.
[19] Henry David Thoreau. Walden. Roslyn, New York: Walter J. Black 1970, p. 76. See Joseph Tabbi. “The Cybernetic Metaphor in William Gaddis J R.” A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews 2.4 (October 1989), p. 149f.
[20] See Theodor W. Adorno. Minima Moralia. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp 199, p. 206ff. (German, my translation).
[21] “The Cybernetic Metaphor,” p. 150.
[22] Minima Moralia, p. 207.
[23] Max Weber. Economy and Society vol. 1. Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1964, p.490. (German, my translation).
[24] Norman O. Brown. Life Against Death, 1947, p. 295.
[25] Karl Marx, Capital Vol. I, ch. 2 “Exchange.” See http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch02.htm, P2.
[26] Paul Ingendaay, The Novels of William Gaddis. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1993, p. 104 (German).
[27] “Paper Empires and Empirical Fictions,” p. 164. The term “collective representations,” she explains in a footnote, “I borrow from Owen Barfield, who discusses the collective nature of phenomenal representations in Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965).

[28] J R believes, as the reader learns later that the father of Edward Bast is a conductor on a train: “how could anybody be a prominent conductor on the Long Island Rail . . .“ Bast wants JR to tell him and he answers: “No but that’s what you told me once hey and besides . . .“ (657).

[29] About school JR has to say: “school’s always this bunch of crap which it never has anything to do with anything real” (649).
[30] Klaus Poenicke. “Body, Violence, Text: Probings Toward an ‘Ecological’ Reading of American Prose.” Amerikastudien 31.1 (1986), p. 183. “Franklin,” Poenicke writes, “is almost erotically excited by the idea that money may ‘beget’ money. He thus paves the way for those manifold animistic fictions which our stock markets to this day thrive upon.”
[32] See note 400.41 of the JR Annotations, http://www.williamgaddis.org/jr/jrnotes6.html. “Every on to his chosen work” is one line from the poem, reminding very much of the Marx quote, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”
[33] Of course they know what’s going on.
[36] “Was it true? […] that my father and uncle James once met on the street in some city abroad where they’d both arrived, and without a word they put down their suitcases and started to fight?” ([63] asks Stella but the aunts deny.
[37] Max Weber, Economy and Society., p.490.
[38] J. Derbolav. Entry word ‘act,’ ‘deed.’ Historical Dictionary of Philosophy, Vol. 3 (eds. Joachim Ritter). Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1974 (German, my translation).
[39] Richard Harvey Brown. Society as Text: Essays on Rhetoric, Reason, and Reality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987, p.31. His frame for an analysis of a “grammar of selfhood” is “the traditional Western conception of the person as an enduring ego that is an active, integral agent. […] my critical comments […] derive logically from a core value of our civilisation: that the irreducible essence of personal identity is moral agency – the capacity to intend and to act” (31).
[40] Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, p. 7
[41] C. Wright Mills. “The Mass Society.” In Eric and Mary Josephson (eds.). Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society. New York: Dell, 1962, p. 217.
[42] Carpenter’s Gothic. Harrisonburg, Virginia: Viking, 1985, p. 209.
[43] “He was preparing to meet he son [Otto], to win him as a friend and influence him as a person.” The Recognitions, p. 497. See also http://www.williamgaddis.org/recognitions/25anno2.htm, note 498.3.
[44] Erich Fromm. Man for Himself. An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, 1947 (German, my translation), p. 85. In Kafka Was the Rage Anatole Broyard writes how “like everyone else, [he] sat spellbound through his [Erich Fromm’s] lectures. (New York: Vintage 1993, p. 16).
[45] P. 79.
[46] David Riesman. The Lonely Crowd. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961, p.21.
[47] Riesman, p. 15.
[48] What we have here is Riesman’s second type, the „inner-directed character“ (see p. 14-17). „What Riesman calls the ‘inner-directed’ man“,John W. Aldridge writes in In Search of Heresy (Port Washington: Kemikat, 1967), „has been the typical hero of fiction from its beginnings and of drama from antiquity [...] One can in fact say that as the novel has evolved, its form has tended to imitate the movement of the ‘inner-directed’ hero“ (p. 113.) And C. Wright Mills says in „The Competitive Personality“: „the classic exemplar of liberalism, the old captain of industry, took on, at least in his cruder images, a somewhat bloated and overbearing shape. By the twentieth century he had been replaced in the business world by other types of economic men, among them the industrial rentier and the corporation executive, [... the latter] has never been a popular middle-class idol; he is too cold and high with impersonal power. On the engineering side, he is part of inexorable Science, and no economic hero; and on the business side, he is correctly seen as part of the big finance“ (p. 433 f.).
[49] Wolfgang Fritz Haug, “Critique of an Aestheticism of Commodities.” In Peter Bürger (ed.). Sociology of Literature and Art. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp 1978, p.410 (German, my translation).
[50] Joel Dana Black, p. 165.
[51] Haug, p. 408.
[53] Ingendaay, p. 108.
[54] Elisabeth Fox-Genovese. “J R by William Gaddis.” The New Republican (7th February 1976), p. 29.
[55] Man For Himself, p. 89.
[56] P. 93.
[57] Riesman, p.25.
[58] p. 93.
[60] Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls (Mertviye Dushi), ch. 6 (my translation).
[61] “Love and Strife in J R,” p. 110 ff.
[62] Steven Moore. William Gaddis. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989, p. 87.
[63] In “Fragments of Redemption: Reading William Gaddis’ J R,“ Gregory Comnes looks at “how the recovery of meaning and value is possible, at what cost and by what means, within the morally bankrupt and socially entropic landscape the novel presents” (p.161). “Since J R exhibits the distorted structures and bankrupt values of capitalism described by Benjamin and since the novel resists conventional aesthetic interpretation, the task of the reader is to ‘blast’ from the ‘bunk’ of the novel’s encrusted contexts of false value fragments that illuminate an understanding of worth heretofore hidden“ (S. 174). See also Johan Thielemans. “Art as Redemption of Trash: Bast and Friends in Gaddis’  J R“. In Kuehl/Moore (eds.). In Recognition of William Gaddis, p. 135-46.
[64] Ernst Bloch. The Principle Hope. Volume I. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp 1973, p. 297 (German, my translation).
[65] Hans Robert Jauß, quoted in Albrecht Wellmer. The Dialectic of the Modern and the Postmodern. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1993, p. 29 (German, my translation).

index || introductory & general || site search || Gaddis news
The Recognitions || J R || Carpenter's Gothic || A Frolic of his Own || Agapē Agape

All contents © 2000-2005 by the Gaddis Annotations site and the original authors, contributors, publishers, and publications.