disembodied voices

In recent years I’ve begun to write more fiction from a male perspective. My earliest attempts scored mixed reviews from women, but enough men were taken in that I opted to continue. Not only does maleness free my narrators to speak and act in new ways; it justifies the absence of female themes that don’t grab me.

When, as a teen, I first read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, a masterpiece of gothic romance, I didn’t know she’d published it under a man’s name (in 1847; her novelist sisters did the same). As for the male narrator whose account frames the story, I just took it for granted that a woman could credibly mimic a man. And once I dared to do likewise (or, in third person, to track male thoughts) it felt more natural than I’d expected. But hey, in our patriarchal culture, women listen to men all day. Men dominate politics, current affairs, philosophy, industry, science etc., and when they write fiction, more women than men tend to read it (and far fewer men read what women write). Which means women spend extended time in men’s heads: we live and work in spaces they’ve designed, learn facts that reflect their left-brain bias, watch films they so often direct (with their masculine aesthetics). No wonder the question ‘What do men want?’ seldom excites speculation. We know what they want because, in general, at least compared to us, they’ve got it.

Meanwhile, men like Mark Zuckerberg own vast social media platforms whose users, through their online activity, enable the refinement of algorithms that train AI to anticipate their desires even as it trains them to want what they’re selectively fed – confusing what’s in our hearts or guts with what’s programmed into our heads until the gap between us and machines collapses.

Reading countless novels by men before I’d learned to think for myself, I innocently internalised all those male perspectives. Never having seen them critiqued, how could I reject them? Most of my reading, unlike other activities, was unsupervised: my parents and the school librarians seemed quite oblivious to the subversive possibilities of the texts lining their shelves. And maybe I could relate to male narrators because by the time I began to ride horses (age nine), I identified with my father rather than my uptight mother. He wasn’t afraid of snakes, spiders, strangers, sunburn, deep water or horseshit. And though I read adventure stories by and about women, the average man enjoyed more freedom (while I spent all my spare time reading).

Not that gender matters. The problem is masculine energy untempered by the feminine, and vice versa, whether it comes with a male or a female identity; because what’s missing creates a vacuum, a need that can’t be satisfied. My male narrators aren’t like that. And yet, having failed to follow the pack, they tend to be alienated.

As a student of Marxism in the early ’80s, author Anthony Macris dwelt on the question of alienation: ‘For a long time it was all I could see, all I could feel, this massive, inexorable shift at all levels of being towards the dominance of capitalist rationality.’ He continues: ‘And moreover, it was something I would be expected to participate in if I was to prosper or flourish as human being in any way.’ Apparently he rose to that expectation, exploring through fiction the effect of the ever-increasing penetration of market forces into everyday life. Yet he acknowledges the ‘conflict, or contradiction, or irony’ of ‘how to make any meaningful statement on reification in a commodified, reified world, which extends to the publishing industry’. And novelist Jarrett Kobek concurs, re the e-book version of his satire I Hate the Internet (2016):

Ah, yes. Ultimately, we live in a very dark moment where if you want to be part of any extended conversation beyond a handful of people, you do have to sign on to some things that, ultimately, are very unpalatable. Every era has its unanswerable questions, so maybe the thing to do, which is what I did in the book, is to just acknowledge the inherent hypocrisy of all of it. Though maybe that’s an easy dodge.

Maybe. So, to adapt successfully to prevailing conditions, an author needs to embrace or, at least, tolerate contradiction. Scholar McKenzie Wark writes:

The bourgeois novel is a genre of fantasy fiction smeared with naturalistic detail – filler – to make it appear otherwise. It excludes the totality so that bourgeois subjects can keep prattling on about their precious “inner lives”.

The totality according to Wark includes climate change, the omission of which theme negates any claim to ‘realism’. But one look at the tools now running our country, with their brief for a descent into hell, should tell us reality doesn’t sell. And as our collective future grows ever more uncertain, escapist fiction continues to do well.

When reading, I tend to hear an author’s words in my head (one reason why the widespread belief that hearing disembodied voices = schizophrenia seems misguided; all voices come from somewhere). The risk is that too much listening or reading can numb us (like all excess consumption), leading to passivity and failure to feel or think. Say, isn’t this sort of what digital culture supports and, even if not overtly, to a great extent enforces through male-conceived, high-tech online and urban environments that bombard us with images of young women, urge us to buy now and pay later, oblige us to agree to endless Ts & Cs with each transaction, and demand that we generate yet more passwords? Is the ubiquitous use of female robo-voices – to field your call, assist your purchase, navigate while you drive etc. – meant to disguise the identities of the minority of men who profit from our dependence on the ‘convenience’ they offer?

Out of touch with nature, despite or because of how we exploit it, we seek ourselves in the mirror of technology. And yet the science that’s enabled our unprecedented dissociation is increasingly revealing how profoundly nature inhabits us, our bodies hosting vast colonies of microbes that regulate our health and even our psyches, while we indulge fantasies of autonomy through gaming, social networking, mediated news feeds etc. Yet what is our insatiable hunger for more information, and the global cult of narcissistic self-marketing (for those of us with something to sell, which is most of us, even if it’s just a fake persona), but a last-ditch bid to outrun redundancy – a collective explosion of unconscious protest against being superseded by a godlike AI that soon won’t need us? As we empty our memories into corporate digital databases, uploading photos to Facebook etc. to free up more mental space by forgetting, are we exercising the greatest awareness of which we’re humanly capable? Or are we following the path of least resistance that leads to extinction? Yet if we mount an extinction rebellion, a bunch of unethical self-serving men get threatened and start drafting laws geared to hold our giving a damn against us, with the aim of crushing dissent because that’s fascism, regardless of gender.

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3 Responses to disembodied voices

  1. Interesting timing..I just received an invitation today via Linkedin to connect…from a solo dad. I’m usually very wary about connecting because of the very uneasy relationship I have with IT networks, IA and the power they increasing have over our lives to ‘remain connected’ and control our minds…and how it seems to me the whole enterprise is male-driven…wanting to become god/knowers/controllers of all…of the truth…like religion…and, for me, growing up in a world designed by men as doers/out there & women-as-supports…and fighting hard against this to find my own voice and my own reality. So this invitation came as a challenge, and it probably should not be. What I do see changing is that women are more out there doing and controlling….having a voice…gaining their power. Underneath it all though…who has designed their mind…and does it matter?

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Annette. Did you accept the invitation? As for who has designed these women’s minds… or our minds… today I happened to read & resonate w/ the following: ‘The [tech] companies have already succeeded in their goal of altering human evolution. We’ve all become a bit cyborg. Our phone is an extension of our memory; we’ve outsourced basic mental functions to algorithms; we’ve handed over our secrets to be stored on servers and mined by computers. What we need to always remember is that we’re not just merging with machines, but with the companies that run the machines.’ That’s from World Without Mind by Franklin Foer. A man. I know.

  2. …brilliant! The process of peeling away the Patriarchy that we have been soaked and hardened in for generations is a massive effort and becoming more difficult and insidious for all the reasons spoken of in your blog. Your voice is genius and courageous. Thank you.

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