Natalie’s Blog

Nov 13

There are two levels on which I think I can compare the nonhuman corporate forces (still trying to think of a better term for this!) in The Jungle and The Circle. On the macro level, there is overlap in terms of the corporate structure by which the Chicago machine (incorporating not just politics, but also the meatpacking industry and more abstract forces like the weather) and the Circle operate. The invisible hand in The Jungle is described as a force controlling Jurgis’s life: it pulls him to work in spite of the horrific danger he faces there and manipulates the justice system so he has no recourse. In capitalist theory, the invisible hand is portrayed as the way by which fairness manifests in a system in which everyone pursues their selfish interests — Adam Smith even uses the word “nature” in the title of his book (i.e. “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”). But as Sinclair’s novel points out, the invisible hand is by no means a natural force; instead, it is operated by a coterie of oligarchs who control the entire economy of a city.

In The Circle, the ostensibly unbiased force that is the invisible eye is instead very much in the control of the nefarious Eamon Bailey. The Circle’s attempts to control all aspects of user life manifests in the novel in two ways. First, their goal is to essentially become a monopoly, as Kalden points out. At the beginning of the novel, the company is already its own self-contained economy, with a company store, gym, recreational areas, dormitories, etc. Through programs like Demoxie, they seek to expand that vision to their wider user base by taking over how users vote. Like the Chicago meatpacking industry, the Circle is a private company that wants to take over the government — as Eamon Bailey (I think) points out when Mae proposes Demoxie, the program could even eliminate the need for Congress. Moreover, with their invisible eyes watching not just politicians but everyday civilians going about their daily lives, the Circles seeks to take their monopoly to a whole other level by controlling all behavior through a system of surveillance. As we see in the specific case of Mae, the Circle takes advantage of all the personal information they are able to gather about her to essentially control her actions, forcing her to go transparent, condone company values, and ultimately betray her family and friends in the service of the Circle. However, like Jurgis for most of The Jungle, Mae is unaware that she is a puppet being controlled by the corporation.

That brings me to a second level of comparison: the two protagonists. Both Jurgis and Mae spend most of their respective novels operating as cogs in the machine of the corporations in which they are entangled. Jurgis cannot help but work to feed his family, forced by the need for survival to prop up the meatpacking industry; he even becomes a strikebreaker at one point. Mae takes a much more consistently active role in the supporting the Circle’s mission as she becomes one of their most (blindly) loyal followers. This is in spite of the fact that Jurgis and Mae obviously operate in entirely different positions within their respective corporations; Jurgis is one of the masses, a mere “hand,” as Sinclair constantly points out, whereas Mae rises in the ranks to become an executive. In my paper, I will think more carefully about the implications of the fact that an everyman and an executive could both be portrayed as cogs in the  machine, though I think it has something to do with the vastness of the nonhuman corporate/economic forces that control them.

The difference between Jurgis and Mae, though, is that by the end of The Jungle, Sinclair argues that, in finding Socialism, Jurgis now does comprehend the invisible hand that was controlling him. Critics have long rightly argued that Sinclair’s handling of the issue throughout the novel, but particularly in its last few pedantic chapters, takes a vastly oversimplifying, un-nuanced perspective on the ills of the capitalist economy. One way I am thinking of wrapping up my paper is comparing the would-be scenes of revelation in the two novels: Jurgis’s coming-to-Socialism moment, and Mae’s final encounter with Kalden/Ty in which he asks her to help him dismantle the Circle from within. Obviously, the two novels have two entirely different outcomes for their central characters, and I want to think about whether the reasons Mae’s failure to recognize the machine she has been supporting can add nuance to the understanding of corporate machines that Sinclair leaves us with in The Jungle.

One question I am struggling to parse is how to reconcile the nonhuman nature of corporations/capitalism in these two novels with the fact that both novels also point out that these forces are controlled by human figures (e.g Mike Scully and Eamon Bailey). I think the answer might lie in the fact that the ruling elite of both novels wants its subordinates to believe that the forces are nonhuman, because this lends an air of impartiality to their operations, which is why they cast them as “invisible” forces that operate through incomprehensible things like “nature” and nonhuman cameras. Both also seek to characterize these forces as being the convergence of individuals into a sort of utopia of aligned interests — the invisible hand guided by the joint selfish interests of individual economic actors, and the invisible eye as a way of regulating behavior through the threat of a collective watch by many individuals. But the reality in both cases, I think, is that this utopian ideal of nonhuman or pan-human control is an illusion that conceals the power wielded by a few elites.

Nov 9

In this blog post, I will refine my meditation on hands with particular focus on the ways in which they manifest in the Jungle. First, though, I think it important to more precisely define Adam Smith’s use of “hands” in The Wealth of Nations. Throughout the text, the word “hand” is most commonly used as a synecdoche for laborer, something that Sinclair also does with great frequency in The Jungle. Smith also does occasionally refer to the physical work of literal hands, as in his famous discussion of the manufacture of a single pin: “The rapidity with which some of the operations of those manufactures are performed, exceeds what the human hand could…”

The “hand” image for which Adam Smith is most famous for coining, though, is his concept of the “invisible hand.” He actually only uses the phrase once in the entire text, but it has become one of the key and defining moments in Smith’s body of work. Smith theorizes that every individual works to maximize the returns on his labor investment, i.e. he “labors to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can,” led onward by an “invisible hand.” The big idea of Smith’s theory of capitalism, then, is that when all individuals act in ways that are motivated by profit maximization, they will converge to a market equilibrium; Smith argues that the invisible hand is beneficial to society, because “by pursuing his own interest, he [i.e. the individual] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”

Sinclair obviously disagrees with this last point. I referred last time to the hand of the political machine that oppresses Jurgis. The Chicago politicians are certainly motivated to maximize their personal profit by having a “hand” in many different aspects of the city’s economy; Sinclair describes how Mike Scully holds state office, but also controls the city government, the meatpacking industry, and even the giant dump in Jurgis and Ona’s neighborhood. Scully has more than his share of hands (he is no longer just an “individual”), which allows him to tip the scales in his favor.

Even while Scully has too many hands, Sinclair portrays Jurgis and the other laborers as having literally no hands. In the gruesome catalog of injuries that occur in the different parts of the meatpacking factory, many of the injuries have to do with hands — men cut their hands on knives and get blood poisoning, the skin is ripped from their hands as it sticks to frozen knives, their hands become encased in frozen blood and sweat. There are even accidents where men cut off their hands.

At the same time, the men are seen by employers solely for the work potential of their hands. As in Wealth of Nations, Sinclair frequently uses the word “hand” to refer to “factory hand” or some other laborer. (In my final paper, I will want to devote some time to researching whether that was an intentional choice on Sinclair’s part to echo the language of Smith; we certainly know he was making intertextual references when he calls Jurgis a “cog in the great packing machine,” echoing the phrase from the Communist Manifesto.) This makes it all the more cruel that the men so frequently injure their hands; in doing so, they become useless  as hands both in the literal and figurative sense.

Nov 1

I was really intrigued today by our discussion of the hand sculpture in The Circle. Professor Dimock brought up the connection between this passage and Moby Dick, but I was even more struck by the passage’s connection to The Jungle. At some point in our discussion of The Jungle, we looked at the passage about Pat Callahan’s “unseen hand” guiding politics in Chicago. There is another point where the phrase “unseen hand” is used in the novel, to characterize the force that is “dragging” Jurgis to work every day. In a book whose main purpose is as an indictment of capitalism, I think it’s clear that we’re meant to see the “unseen hand” as a figure for Adam Smith’s disembodied “invisible hand” that is supposed to guide the free market. Sinclair’s point is that the hand is certainly invisible, but it is not an impartial/fair arbiter of the economy.

Capitalism isn’t the central theme of The Circle in the way that it is in The Jungle, but it’s certainly at least one player. As such, I think it’s also fair to read the sculpture as a figure for the “invisible hand” of capitalism (not least because it’s made of translucent plexiglass).  I think it’s interesting to consider how the hand, which is a distinctly human body part, is being used in The Wealth of NationThe Jungle, and The Circle as a representation of a nonhuman and nonphysical force.

Like Smith’s invisible hand, the Circle, as metaphorized through the translucent hand sculpture, seeks to control it users without doing so obviously. And like the “unseen hand” in The Jungle, it does so with the semblance of fairness while in reality being deeply unfair. The concept of a biased hand connects to the discussion we had about how we should feel about the wide dissemination of Annie’s family history — the question, I think, is not whether it is relevant or not to know that Annie’s ancestors owned slaves, but rather who is the arbiter of privacy. This is going a bit farther afield of the hand discussion, but to consider a real-world example, if you think about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, the problem there is not the idea of transparency that WikiLeaks promotes, but the fact that their instance upon transparency is not fairly distributed. (e.g. during the election of 2016, WikiLeaks released emails from the DNC and Clinton’s campaign on the premise of “transparency,” but did not do the same to the Trump campaign, so the idea of transparency was tainted all along by bias.) In this real world example, Assange is a sort of unseen hand, but again, not an impartial one.

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