THE GENRE SPACES OF DAVID MITCHELL'S CLOUD ATLAS.
List'n, savages an' Civ'lizeds ain't divvied by tribes or b'liefs or mountain ranges, nay, ev'ry human is both, yay. Old Uns'd got the Smart o'gods but the savagery o'jackals an' that's what tripped the Fall. Some savages what I knowed got a beaut some Civ'lized heart beatin'in their ribs. --Meronym, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas
More even than the travel log and science fiction genres it emulates, David Mitchell's third novel Cloud Atlas, published in 2004 and short-listed for the Booker Prize that same year, is a novel of exotic encounters: encounters between opportunistic Europeans and the Pacific aborigines they displace; between complacent consumers and artificial food servers, suddenly all too human; and ultimately a novel about the encounters of those alluded to above--the savage and the civilized, selves and others. Such emphasis is also intimately linked to another of the novel's core themes: ethics, as it is precisely during such encounters that our ethical assumptions and prejudices are the most manifest, and the most vulnerable. Moreover, if one describes Cloud Atlas as a novel of encounters, one would be remiss to ignore that, like many of Mitchell's other works which demonstrate his particular talent for contrasting diverse literary forms, as much as anything else what Cloud Atlas depicts is encounters between modes of representation: genres which often present moral quandaries in different, even antithetical, terms. Such differences are not only a product of juxtaposition--the staccato prose, breakneck pace, and earnestness of "The First Luisa Rey Mystery," for example, markedly contrasting the surrealistic and often darkly humorous memoir of Timothy Cavendish--but also the intricate weaving together of the novel's diverse narratives and Cloud Atlas's matryoshka doll structure, which abruptly breaks each story mid-action, and sometimes mid-sentence, only to complete these narratives in reverse order as the novel concludes.
Much has been made of this unique structure in critical literature on the novel. Wendy Knepper, for example, argues that such genre play allows Cloud Atlas to function as what she terms a "world epic," engaging "in critical and creative world-making activities through its efforts to mobilize, reincorporate, recycle, or revitalize cultural resources, frameworks of knowledge, and global literacies that hitherto have been neglected, forgotten, or repressed" (2016, 97). Similarly, Jennifer Rickel argues that Mitchell's novel encourages readers to engage its contents through a variety of different interpretive lenses, thus aiding them in "resisting the depoliticized ethical framework that neoliberal capitalism reinforces as it corn-modifies the universal human and endorses consumer-based humanitarianism" (2016, 174). Finally, perhaps one of the most compelling claims about the implications of Cloud Atlas's inventive structure and mobilization of a diverse range of literary styles comes from Patrick O'Donnel's recent monograph on Mitchell, in which he draws a direct connection between the novel's form and its philosophical commitments: "Mitchell's insistence on the connections to be discerned between narrative structure and narrative idea leads us to ask, what is the relation between completion and incompletion, residual imperfection and impossible perfectibility in the telling of stories and the tracking of identities, civilizations, and cultures across time" (2015, 78). Such a relationship between the novel's function as a literary work, and its thematic concern with topics like historical change and historical and cultural perfectibility, is also the primary topic of this article. Similar to O'Donnell, I claim that just as important to understanding Cloud Atlas's use of genre as the novel's mobilization of marginalized cultural discourses and implicit critique of universalizing reading practices, is how the different spatiotemporal representations--what Mikhail Bakhtin referred to as chronotopes--mobilized throughout the novel reveal how "narrative form implicates philosophical perspective, politics, and historiographic context" (2011, 74). Unlike O'Donnel's evocative reading, however, this article takes a somewhat more systematic and formalist approach to analyzing Cloud Atlas's use of genre, arguing that concepts like time and change are perhaps best understood via the ways in which specific narrative structures produce unique representations of space throughout the text, such representations circumscribing the various conceptions of time presented in the novel.
Additionally, such an emphasis on space reveals how the collection of genres assembled throughout Cloud Atlas relate to the various modes of material production it depicts, thereby deepening accounts of the novel's interests in global economic systems. Indeed, the novel's pastiche of genres is intimately linked to Cloud Atlas's chronicling of the rise, apotheosis, and speculative fall of contemporary capitalism, the diverse literary conventions evoked in different sections of the novel finding thematic correspondence in the different modes of capitalism they describe. Such relationships prove especially illuminating when considered in the context of Henri Lefebvre's critique of social space, and in particular what he terms representations of space: the conceptual abstractions--maps, data sets, mathematical formulas, etc.--which societies use to mentally picture their world, and which Lefebvre directly links to the modes of social and material production dominant within those societies. These correspondences between genre, representations of space, and the various phases of (post)capitalist development exist throughout Cloud Atlas, each section linking forms of literary production (genre) to modes of material production (phases of capitalism). For example, while it adopts aspects of the pulp thriller, "The First Luisa Rey Mystery" also creates a textual world which mimics the liquid borders and lack of spatial particularity often associated with late capitalism (Harvey 1989, 293-94). Similar observations can be made about Cloud Atlas's other five narratives, each linking a dominant mode of production to the spatial elements of the narrative itself. Furthermore, it is through such emphasis on the different spatial relations found in Mitchell's novel that this article interprets Meronym's savage/civilized distinction, arguing that in addition to the emphasis it places on time--civilized peoples are those who think of the long-term repercussions of their actions; savages are those who do not--Cloud Atlas's exploration of ethics also needs to be interpreted through the lens of space.
Unsurprisingly, given the novel's unique structure and mobilization of elements from both backward- and forward-looking literary genres, the subject of time has received quite a bit of attention in scholarship on Cloud Atlas. Jo Alyson Parker, for example, claims that Cloud Atlas's interweaving of plots emphasizes an ethical paradigm which she describes using Stewart Brand's comments on what he terms the "Long Now," or "thinking, understanding, and acting responsibly over long periods of time" (2010, 210), and Heather Hicks argues that the novel's cyclical depiction of history functions as a sort of existential shield: "Cloud Atlas is less about how individuals can become historical agents in order to derail our momentum toward the apocalypse than about how literary genres provide us archetypes to resist the 'terror of history'" (2010). Alternatively, Gerd Bayer claims that the novel's juxtaposition of apocalyptic pasts, presents, and futures destabilizes the grand historical narratives described by both Parker and Hicks. He instead argues that the novel encourages readers to understand human experience in terms of an "eternal present" which "embraces the essentially flawed nature of humanity" and therefore disrupts narratives of cultural development whether they be cyclical or linear (Bayer 2015, 347). Similarly, O'Donnell's commentary emphasizes contingency, or "the collision of randomness with facticity," as a consistent feature of Mitchell's work more generally, emphasizing the essential function of chance in a collection of novels which nevertheless pay heed to the material particularities of the worlds they create (2015,1).
Such positions nicely encapsulate critical conversations surrounding Cloud Atlas's central thematic tension: what one might describe as the Enlightenment versus anti-Enlightenment, or Utopian versus dystopian, impulses of the text, themes unsurprisingly related to the novel's presentation of history and time, as well as Enlightenment claims about an inherent human tendency toward progress. Lynda Ng, for example, explores these tensions though the theme of cannibalism, pointing out that Cloud Atlas's frequent association of supposedly "civilized" capitalist societies with cannibalistic practices problematizes notions of linear cultural development. Indeed, Ng goes so far as to claim that the ultimate apocalyptic event in the novel is civilization itself: "Each narrative thread could thus be seen as the development of one mode of civilization at the expense of the previous, in a series of self-consuming episodes pressing ever onwards" (2015, 118). Cannibalism therefore ceases to demark civilized and uncivilized cultures, and instead becomes a metaphor for the civilizing process itself. (1) Similarly, O'Donnell states that the novel "shows the extent to which utopic desire is built upon the materiality of dystopic reality, and how both function in relation to a projection of a future that is pure and permanent, at the end of history . . . vanquishing both contingency as the connective tissues of identities and histories and temporariness as the primary condition of human continuance" (2015, 92). Such subversions of Enlightenment dreams of progress, however, are themselves countered by "the dicey, ad-hoc story of multitude in the temporary communities that populate the novel," which frequently destabilize the march of Cloud Atlas's utopian/dystopian ideologies (94). This point also echoes Berthold Schoene's claim that the decentering of individual experience in Cloud Atlas--as well as in Mitchell's earlier novel Ghostwritten--helps to destabilize such universalizing impulses, while also preventing "specificity from rigidifying into an operative and hence world-creatively obstructive set of forces, composed of individualism, localism, nationalism" (2009,100).
Such tensions between universality and specificity are also of central importance to this article's assessment of Cloud Atlas, as are claims like Schoene's about the primacy of spatiality in Mitchell's writing. (2) As previously stated, however, my analysis of the novel takes a somewhat more formalistic approach to assessing Cloud Atlas's representations of space, focusing on how spatial relations are differently conceptualized in each of the novel's six interconnected stories, and how such representations relate to the presentation of both the economic institutions and formal elements (narrative framing, thematic structure, syntax, etc.) of each story. Beyond merely offering another lens for considering the novel's themes and inventive use of genre, such focus also presents what I would like to suggest is a thin materialist paradigm for the mediation of cultural difference: a standard for moral action loosely predicated upon the fact that diverse social formations, while importantly distinct, nevertheless exist within the same material world, and are thus governed by a shared set of material processes. As a loose conceptual analog for such a paradigm, I liken this thin materialism to Jurgen Habermas's theory of discourse ethics, which seeks to establish a universal ground for ethical mediation in the implicit assumptions that make argumentative speech acts possible. Notably, for Habermas this discursive universal "does not prejudge substantive regulations, as it is a rule of argumentation only," meaning that it is a "weak" normative ground that allows only for the discursive mediation of claims to moral or ethical Tightness without affecting the reception of the contents of such claims (1991, 94). Such weak, or thin, grounds thus ideally avoid forcing (or universalizing) the conclusions of one participant of discourse upon another.
Similarly, I argue that narrative and storytelling play a similar role in Cloud Atlas to Habermas's discourse ethics. In line with O'Donnell's assertion that the sharing of stories in Cloud Atlas, and ensuing relationship between reader and text, "comprises an act of reading pursuant to a poetic of relation that is not only interpretive but also political and dialectical," this article argues that storytelling in Cloud Atlas serves as a potential site for the mediation of difference--between reader and writer, storyteller and listener, self and other--which simultaneously refuses the Utopian urge to assimilate difference to sameness through the assimilatory tendencies of interpretation (2015, 82). To further this argument, this article appeals to Bakhtin's concept of the chronotope which implies that all storytelling is made possible through its organization of space and time, thus suggesting a universal structure to narrative ultimately grounded in the commonalities of human material experience. Before turning to Bakhtin's ideas, however, it is worth briefly returning to Lefebvre's theories of socialspace, which will be used to explore the chronotope's implications as a site for ethical mediation.
According to Lefebvre, it is by way of understanding the processes by which human bodies simultaneously exist in and produce spaces, that "we have a route from abstract to concrete which has the great virtue of demonstrating their reciprocal inherence" (2007,171). As such, analyzing human societies from the standpoint of space affords one the tools for considering the imbricated relationships of material (economic) and social (cultural/ideological/moral) realities. This method of thinking about the correspondence between conceptual abstractions (Lefebvre's representations of space), the everyday habits of individual peoples and societies (spatial practices), and the unified spaces of "lived" human reality (representational spaces) thus provides compelling ground for thinking about how the material relations depicted in each of Cloud Atlas's narratives are connected to the moralizing elements of these stories.
Importantly, this relationship between abstract representations of space (i.e., chronotopes) and the materiality of discrete spatial practices (the individual actions, habits, and beliefs of characters) is central to Bakhtin's theorization of the novel. Furthermore, according to Bakhtin, it is by means of the chronotope that "all the novel's abstract elements--philosophical and social generalizations, ideas, analyses of cause and effect... take on flesh and blood" (2011, 250), allowing them "to enter our experience" as part of the space of lived human reality (258). Therefore, it is the representations of space inherent to narrative that grant ideas, events, and traditions their cultural meaning--allowing such narratives to function like Lefebvre's representational spaces--and, furthermore, it is this entry into narrative through the chronotope that ultimately offers up such contents to moral or ethical evaluation. Finally, I suggest that it is the universality of this structure, the necessity of framing discrete events and actions through the spatio-temporal frameworks of chronotopes, ultimately grounded--as Lefebvre claims--in the spatial practices of human beings occupying a shared planet if not necessarily a shared (phenomenological) world, which allows storytelling to function as a site of ethical mediation distinct from, but nevertheless similar to, Habermas's discourse ethics: a universal framework for evaluating ethical actions rooted in the very structure of storytelling itself.
It is this quality of storytelling and narrative that, as O'Donnell and Schoene have similarly claimed, is revealed through Cloud Atlas's matryoshka structure, which not only evokes a diversity of lived human realities, but simultaneously demonstrates the contingency of the truth claims contained within these stories. The novel thus serves as a site of encounters between diverse worldviews, as readers are encouraged to bridge the inherent aporias between these perspectives and, despite their differences, inevitably develop an impression of coherence between them (3)--reinforced by the novel's intertextual references and pseudo-spiritual themes such as reincarnation. This supersensible impression of coherence is precisely why some critics have attacked the novel for its supposed superficiality (Bissell 2004). I, however, would like to suggest that, more than simply serving as a "feel-good crutch" for what might otherwise be an oppressively bleak novel, such tropes function as sites of imaginative possibility within the text, accentuating the reader's capacity to negotiate the diverse values and worldviews presented in the novel, and implying that these views do ultimately share a thin material ground in the commonality of human experiences of space and time on the planet Earth. Thus, Cloud Atlas's narrative--and by extension narrative itself--can be thought of as serving a complementary role to Lefebvre's theorization of space, mediating not between the material and cultural, but between different cultures by virtue of their common inherence in the material. To develop these points, the remainder of this article is divided into two sections. The first is a close reading of four of Cloud Atlas's narratives, (4) focusing on the unique representations of space these sections contain and how these representations correspond to the modes of production they depict. The second begins by rethinking Meronym's savage/civilized distinction in terms of space to suggest a thin materialist basis for moral action. This section then demonstrates how the novelistic chronotope gestures at such a core, suggesting that it is Cloud Atlas's juxtaposition of different genres which affords the novel an impression of moral coherence despite its thematic contradictions.
1. SPACE AND GENRE: A READING
As many of the critics mentioned above demonstrate, Cloud Atlas's inventive structure serves as a useful catalyst for considering the inherent universalizing impulse of storytelling. As such, in line with the general symbol-and structure-seeking tendencies of literary criticism, scholarship on Cloud Atlas tends to emphasize the numerous ways the ostensibly divergent elements of the novel are drawn into a unified whole. For instance, Jason Mezey, who also associates the novel with the epic, notes that the repetition of six in both the number of narratives in Cloud Atlas and the stories themselves harkens back to the "hexametric line used by Homer and Virgil" (2011, 18), one of many examples of how the novel unifies its chapters through their mutual relationship to broader literary, intellectual, and historical traditions. Similarly, critics like Knepper, Rickel, and Ng, though emphasizing the importance of marginalized discourses, different reading practices, and conflicting historical narratives in the novel, nevertheless tend to assess Cloud Atlas through the lens of the numerous thematic and structural linkages urging readers to receive the text as a cohesive whole, while Schoene argues that the universalizing process of globalization depicted in the novel somewhat unintuitively "accentuates [the globalized subject's] difference and unleashes into the world its unruly ubiquity" (2009, 100). In contrast, the following reading takes a different--if not necessarily conflicting--approach by emphasizing the differences between the genre conventions mobilized through the novel not only in terms of how they uniquely structure time and space but also, for the moment, ignoring how such differences--as Schoene claims--play a unifying function within the text, the goal being to accentuate how each narrative encourages very different reading and interpretive practices, and therefore very different receptions of thematically similar contents.
Set in the 1850s, during the height of Europe's imperial and mercantile might, the first half of "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" focuses on the exotic Chatham Islands and their obscure local histories, the most contentious of these being the supposed genocide of the peaceful Moriori by the warlike Maori--themselves ironically displaced by European colonization. As Ng argues, this displacement implicates Western colonialism in the supposed cannibalistic practices of the Maori, one of a number of ways the novel subtly deconstructs Western discourses surrounding the "cannibal other" (2015,112-15). As cannibalism functions as a "way of locating the outer-most edge of civilization" (114), the novel unsurprisingly presents the related Moriori genocide as the subject of numerous historical revisions and cultural debates among both the European colonists and the descendants of the Maori. Despite this subtle critique of western notions of development, however, the muddiness surrounding this history nevertheless reinforces a common dichotomy in Western colonialist literature: between the opacity of non-western chronicles, stories, and myths and the supposed transparency of European History. Such a distinction between the rational and benighted spaces of the globe structures Adam's narrative in terms of Western stereotypes about cultural development. As such, "The Pacific Journal" is organized around a very particular representation of space: a conceptual map of the world which defines different regions of the globe not only in terms of their tractability to Western modes of understanding, but also in moral (i.e., Christian versus heathen; civilized versus uncivilized) and economic terms (i.e., regions of the globe ripe for European colonization and economic exploitation).
The centrality of these spaces to Adam's narrative is perhaps best exemplified by his surrealistic experience climbing Conical Tor, a "high hill" on the island. Knocked unconscious, he dreams of his home and nuclear family, who shun him due to his inability to communicate in anything but "the guttural barkings of an Indian race" (Mitchell 2004, 19). Regaining consciousness, Adam awakens in what he believes are the "undiscovered" remnants of a "fearsome & sublime" Moriori shrine comprised of "dendroglyph" visages (20). The scene ends with a horrified Adam--having encountered what he believes is a human heart--fleeing the crater by means of foot holes "hewn into the rock & by God's grace" (21). That this, the most "exotic" of Adam's experiences on the island, is an encounter with an indigenous space and not a person is significant, as it allows his interpretation of the event to function as purely prejudicial speculation. This is reinforced by the prefacing of the encounter with Adam's dream, which evokes both the safety of home and the paranoia of cultural contamination through his loss of Western language--and metonymically Western thought and values. The dream thus predisposes one to interpret what follows as a moment of both physical danger and perceived moral crisis for Adam. Even entering the uncharted space of "heathen" spiritual practices--assumed to include human sacrifice--jeopardizes his ability to return to the spaces of Western domesticity a virtuous man.
In addition to provoking moral panic, the shrine also seems to elude Adam's efforts at rational categorization. His post-hoc reflections on the event are rife with interpretive contradictions. The site, for example, is described as "prehistoric" but some of the dendroglyphs are thought only ten years old, problematizing not only the dating of the shrine, but also the categorization of "prehistoric" as a temporal or spatial descriptor--an absolute concept describing a period prior to humanity's ability to record the past versus one which contrasts the developed and undeveloped (i.e., non-Western) regions of the world. Similarly, if the shrine is indeed the work of the peaceful Moriori--victims of genocide a generation ago--the questions of who has been adding to the menagerie of carvings, and why the site seems to have been used for ritualistic human sacrifice, remain unanswered. Contrasting the site's recalcitrance to rationalization is the grace of the presumably rational God who guides Adam's steps back to the local pocket of civilization, reinforcing the theme of Adam's worldview as being defined by distinctions between the rational and irrational, illuminated and benighted, Christian and heathen parts of the globe.
Though the Prophetess, the ship on which Adam sails home to Hawaii, is absent in his description of his adventure on Conical Tor, this third defining space of the "Pacific Journal" is nevertheless implicitly invoked in this scene; it is this liminal space that links the other two and, more importantly, serves as the primary site of moral conflict--and thus potential cultural contamination--in the story. Indeed, as Paul Gilroy notes, ships had a special significance during the late colonial era which extends beyond their status as "micro-systems of linguistic and political hybridity" (1993, 12). They also served as a breeding ground for anti-hegemonic racial and class discourses, Africans, for example, composing approximately "a quarter of the British navy" by the close of the eighteenth century (13). It is fitting then that the ship serves as the site where Autua, the last living Moriori, thwarts the efforts of Dr. Goose to rob and murder Adam, reversing both the role of savior--Adam having previously helped the stowaway Autua--and revealing the potential "barbarity" of Western man. The ship therefore presents a number of conflicting symbolic possibilities as a space of both potential moral and physical danger for Adam, and one that not only presents the possibility for Autua's salvation, but also his moral agency. Significantly, this sort of liminal space is particular to "The Journal," such modes of lengthy transport between an imperial center and colonial periphery disappearing as the novel progresses. Thus, Adam's story evokes a representation of space both specific to the colonial period, and one that is revealed to be--thanks to its juxtaposition to the novel's other narratives--conspicuously produced: a product of not only the ideological, but also the material constraints of the society it depicts.
As the Ewing and Frobisher sections of Cloud Atlas are narrated through the writings of their protagonists, "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery" marks the novel's first major divergence in narrative form. Written in brief, at times less than page-long, chapters, Luisa Rey's story is the only narrative in the book to take place from multiple perspectives, and is written in a tight, character-focused omniscient third-person. The snappy dialogue and short declarative sentences of these sections also starkly contrast the more languid, if occasionally jumpy, Ewing and Frobisher narratives. Perhaps the greatest change, however, is how events and spaces--in a manner not unlike Bakhtin's adventure time--are far more interchangeable than those of Cloud Atlas's other narratives--an aspect of the text further emphasized by the story's episodic title.
This formal iterability is also found in the treatment of space in "Half-Lives," which mirrors the type of spatial organization theorists like David Harvey (1989) and Fredric Jameson (1991, 154-80) describe as typical of late capitalist societies. The narrative rapidly changes not only perspectives, but physical locations as well, chapters often opening with brief, usually single-sentence, descriptions of setting--"Joe Napier watches a bank of CCTV screens covering a lecture theater" (Mitchell 2004, 102)--or the actions of characters--"Fay Li searches Luisa Rey's room" (135). Such cursory scene-setting, alongside the story's emphasis on action and brief chapters, makes it difficult for readers to develop a clear impression of place in "The First Luisa Rey Mystery," as settings are rarely described with more detail than is required to understand what is happening in each scene. This element of the narrative is further emphasized by the generic nature of these spaces, which often include hotel rooms, nondescript apartments, corporate offices, and sites of travel--cars, planes, airports, etc. The last are worthy of special note due to them no longer being spaces in which stories unfold--the voyage from the Chatham Islands to Hawaii, for example, encompassing a substantial part of Adam's narrative--but rather sites where discrete events take place--a car is run off the road and a plane explodes--or comprising omitted periods of time implicitly connecting the generic spaces described above. Cumulatively these elements of Luisa's story create a very different representation of space than that found in "The Pacific Journal." The world is no longer divided by regions of enlightenment, barbarism, and the liminal spaces in between, but rather a series of easily recognizable and interchangeable spaces connected by modes of transportation that seem trivially quick and easy compared to those found in the Ewing and Frobisher stories.
As in "The Pacific Journal," this spatial fungibility is also mirrored by the economic institutions whose conspiratorial machinations drive the plot of "Half-Lives." When Luisa's investigative journalism starts to become a nuisance for Seaboard, for example, it is suggested that one of the corporation's subsidiaries buy the magazine she works for. Thus, beyond simply evoking the "edge of your seat" tension of the corporate thriller, such events also imply a lack of distinction between the institutions of state, social, and economic power. This interchangeability between capitalist and state authority can be linked back to the topic of space through Lefebvre's concept of abstract space:
Abstract space functions "objectally," as a set of things/signs and their formal relationships: glass and stone, concrete and steel, angles and curves, full and empty. Formal and quantitative, it erases distinctions, as much those which derive from nature and (historical) time as those which originate in the body (age, sex, ethnicity). The signification of this ensemble refers back to a sort of super-signification which escapes meaning's net: the functioning of capitalism, which contrives to be blatant and covert at one and the same time. The dominant form of space, that of the centers of wealth and power, endeavors to mold the spaces it dominates (i.e. peripheral spaces), and it seeks, often by violent means, to reduce the obstacles and resistance it encounters there. (Lefebvre 2007, 49)
For Lefebvre, abstract space exemplifies the instrumental logic of contemporary capitalism, which attempts to bring all other spatial practices into its orbit. It achieves this by reducing these practices to mathematical formulas and productive efficiency, as office complexes and manufacturing plants are developed by the same corporate and state interests which simultaneously oversee the construction of housing complexes for their employees in an effort to maintain a readily available and easily exploitable workforce. It is this reduction of things to their "formal relationships," how they connect to one another in the barest mechanical terms, and how these unities might be held to ever greater standards of productive efficiency, that thus comes to define social reality.
The logic of this formalism is mirrored in the genre conventions of "Half-Lives." The easy mobility of both persons and capital, the vast network of imbrications between local, corporate, and government interests--all common tropes of the thriller genre--are also the products of abstract space: a techno-scientific representation of the world which seeks to reduce all specificity and non-conformity to the status of mere interference or noise. Such logic also seems to manifest itself in "Half-Lives" at a prose level, as the following description of a corporate jet demonstrates: "The detonator is triggered. The C"4 ignites. The jet is engulfed by a fireball. The jet's metals, plastics, circuitry, its passengers, their bones, clothes, notebooks, and their brains all lose definition in flames exceeding 1200 degrees C" (Mitchell 2004, 393). In a typical thriller one might expect such a moment to be either the focus of special embellishment or an opportunity for punctuated shock, the narrative immediately jumping scenes following the calamity. Instead, there is something almost poetic about the languorousness and exaggerated sparseness of the passage--more typical of moments of rapid plot development in thrillers--as the progression of events is described in mechanical detail. The first two sentences consist of the most basic syntactic forms: article, subject, compound verb; article, subject, verb. The complexity of the writing picks up a bit in the third sentence, the prepositional phrase "by a fireball" tacked on to the previous form. Finally, this simplicity is broken by the last sentence, whose subjects are separated into two lists, the first naming the material components of the plane, the second the material components of its passengers, all of which are incinerated into a homogenous mass at "1200 C." This conceptual homogenization, however, begins in the first several sentences where objects are reduced to their barest mechanical functions and interactions: detonators trigger, bombs explode, and a plane is engulfed in flame. The final sentence does not so much diverge from these simple mechanical themes as amplify them, as the particular objects contained in the plane--biological and mechanical--are fused together physically by the blaze, and conceptually through the device of listing. Much like the materials described by Lefebvre, "glass and stone, concrete and steel, angles and curves," these objects "lose their definition"--just as planes contain plastic and circuitry, human beings contain bone and carry notebooks--and are consumed as part of a function: material fueling the explosion. Thus, the clipped, almost surgically precise language of the thriller--exaggerated in this passage--also seems to suggest the conceptual homogenization of capitalist abstraction, as subjects, objects, and the powers of literary representation are all reduced to a substanceless formalism which itself reflects the interchangeability of spaces manifested throughout "Half-Lives."
Such a lack of distinction between humans and the things they produce continues in "An Orison of Sonmi 451." Leaving the contemporary moment, the novel returns to a more overtly mediated narrative structure in the form of an interview with the section's titular character, a cloned food service worker, or fabricant, turned revolutionary. Similar to those of Adam and Robert, Sonmi's story is narrated through past recollections. This frame is complicated, however, by the presence of a Nea So Copros (Korean) archivist--a sort of administrative historian--whose questions guide the narrative. The effect is that, much like computerized media--notably, the interview is being digitized--Sonmi's story is sped up, slowed down, and paused for clarification or elaboration by the archivist. This narrative malleability reinforces a corresponding impression of temporal and spatial malleability in Sonmi's story. (5) Thematically this temporal and spatial homogenization is introduced at the opening of the narrative. When asked to describe her earliest memories, Sonmi responds, "Fabricants have no earliest memories, Archivist. One twenty-four-hour cycle in Papa Song's is indistinguishable from any other" (Mitchell 2004, 185). More so than anything in "Half-Lives," this description evokes the corporate logic of homogenized abstract space. Much like a McDonald's, each Papa Song's is ostensibly identical, but then so too is the existence of the service workers who maintain these restaurants. A perfection of the planned labor communities described by Lefebvre, Papa Song's is the ultimate manifestation of capitalist efficacy, as nearly all of the processes necessary to reproduce the restaurant's labor forces are contained within the establishment itself: the workers ceaselessly "eat," sleep, and labor in the same space, while even the food they serve, and soporific "soap" they consume, is produced from the bodies of fellow fabricants who have outlived their usefulness--a particularly chilling evocation of the theme of cannibalism explored by Knepper and Ng. (6)
The sort of depersonalization characterized by the abstract space of Papa Song's also manifests itself in the section's narration. The materiality of the facility where Sonmi is interviewed is never described--though the conventions of the story imply the sort of nondescript bureaucratic space where Orwell's Winston, or the Wachowskis's Neo, was interrogated. Here, even if the spirit of justice is ignored, its bureaucratic forms are maintained with such ruthless indifference that even a political dissident's testimony must be recorded and archived prior to her execution. (7) This sort of impersonal bureaucracy is not only reflected in the story's framing, but also by the revelation that this journey, rather than being an organic process, was the product of government manipulation: a 1984-esque conspiracy to reinforce the legitimacy of Nea So Copros's authority through the manufacture of a controlled threat of fabricant rebellion. Sonmi's story, rather than being an extraordinary moment of personal and social change, is thus rendered a planned deviation from the hyper-capitalist norms of Korean society, one of an ostensibly boundless number of meaningless infractions which are assimilated back into the indelible march of capitalist abstraction. (8)
Though the first five sections of Cloud Atlas portray the rise, evolution, and eventual fall of capitalist spaces, the middle section of the novel represents a very different type of social space. Like "The Orison of Sonmi 451," Zachry's tale is told from memory. The beginning of his narrative, however, immediately informs readers that this section of the novel will be very different from what preceded it. The story opens with Zachry evoking the figure of "Old Georgie," a folk devil of Zachry's Valleymen tribe: "Old Georgie's path an' mine crossed more times'n I'm comfy mem'ryin,' an' after I'm died, no sayin' what that fangy devil won't try an' do to me... so gimme some mutton an' I'll tell you 'bout our first meetin.' A fat joosesome slice, nay, none o' your burnt wafery off'rin's" (Mitchell 2004, 239). Apparent from this introduction--in addition to a drastic orthographic and syntactic shift--is Cloud Atlas's departure from the tightly organized narrative structures typical of the rest of the novel. Rather, Zachry's story mimics the conventions of verbal storytelling--though ironically in novel form. Due to this shift, after the moment of telling is ritualistically framed in the context of a family meal, Zachry's narrative begins by explicitly establishing its central themes: his encounters with "Old Georgie" and their effect upon his life and moral development.
This sort of summative device plays an important role in oral storytelling, announcing to listeners that a story is about to begin and informing them what to expect from it. In novels, this preparatory function is usually fulfilled through genre conventions, which prime readerly expectations without the need for an overt narrative abstract. (9) Zachry's use of such an abstract thus marks a radical shift in how both space and causality function within the novel. Rather than being guided by a clearly definable chronotope, coherence in Zachry's narrative is based more on the recurrent themes of the abstract than on cause-and-effect relationships. Thus, while the events of Cloud Atlas's other narratives are primarily driven by human actions and interests, (10) Zachry's story is framed in terms of spiritual forces--Old Georgie the devil and Sonmi the saint, as well as the related spaces where humans encounter such transcendental forces--whose interventions in human affairs imply a cyclical and "timeless" struggle between good and evil. Similarly, other cyclical processes, such as the changing of the seasons, death and birth, and yearly visits from the Prescients, become the primary grounds for the unfolding of events within Zachry's narrative, an understanding of time that is more in line with myths than novelistic chronotopes. This structure emphasizes the themes of Zachry's moral struggles over those of causation, an emphasis which is further reinforced by the seemingly recurrent nature of these struggles, distinguishing Zachry's character development from the more linear moral awakening of Adam Ewing and the flat, thrilleresque characterization of Luisa Rey.
Such temporal distinctions are intimately linked to the narrative's representation of space and, just as Zachry's narrative lacks a clearly-defined chronotope, it also lacks the clearly-differentiated forms of social space fostered by capitalist abstraction. Rather, in contrast to contemporary capitalism's emphasis on the formal distinction between spaces of material production and biological reproduction, the world of Valleymen is divided between the unified social space of the village, where all the forms of social and material production and reproduction take place concomitantly, and the "absolute spaces" where human reality encounters the transcendental: the spiritually profane spaces of the post-apocalyptic wasteland and the Valleymen's burial ground. How space is conceptualized by the tribe is thus very different from the capitalist representations of space found throughout the rest of Cloud Atlas.
Of course, due to Cloud Atlas's structure, the social space of the Valleymen does not exist in isolation but in the context of a series of formal encounters, the mostly familiar conventions of the novel's individual stories being violently interrupted by its nested structure. As previously mentioned, this structure has also been usefully connected to the theme of cannibalism by Ng and Knepper, the novel's narratives "cannibalizing" one another as the text progresses. Such narrative violence is further implied by the tendency of Cloud Atlas's characters to misinterpret elements of the other stories, evoking the problem of universalizing neoliberal reading practices described by Rickel. Interestingly, such readings are often implicitly tied to the very notion they critique: a Hegelian concept of linear cultural and historical development which the novel must necessarily embrace, deconstruct, or to which it must present an alternative. Time is thus commonly used as an ur-lens for reading Cloud Atlas. Even critics like O'Donnell and Schoene, who respectively connect their temporal readings of the novel to the material contingencies and territorial themes of globalization respectively, tend to place time before space in their readings of Mitchell's novels. It is precisely this emphasis on time as a lens for interpreting the novel that the following section reverses, demonstrating how interpreting Cloud Atlas primarily through the lens of space helps to illuminate another of its central themes/problems: the reconciliation of the urge toward a universalizing a standard of ethics with the tendency of such Utopian ideals to produce acts of assimilatory violence.
2. INTERSECTIONS OF TIME, SPACE, AND ETHICS
As Meronym's savage/civilized distinction emphasizes what seems to be a universalizing ethical paradigm based upon time, this scene is a good place to start reassessing the importance of space in the novel. Here Meronym describes the savage as someone who "sat'fies his needs now. He's hungry, he'll eat. He's angry, he'll knuckly. He's swellin,' he'll shoot up a woman" (Mitchell 2004, 303). She contrasts this figure to the civilized man who has "the same needs too, but he sees further. He'll eat half his food now, yay, but plant half so he won't go hungry 'morrow. He's angry, he'll stop'n' think why so he won't get angry next time" (303). As previously stated, this passage seems to define human morality in terms of time: the primary difference between a savage human and a civilized one is the latter's capacity to foresee the social repercussions of their actions.
The seeming elegance of this moral paradigm is complicated in two important ways, however, when applied to the diversity of Cloud Atlas's narratives. The first is that many of Cloud Atlas's most villainous characters and institutions are often some of its most "forward-thinking." Thus, for example, the villainous Henry Goose and conniving Vyvyan Ayrs both demonstrate more forethought than the protagonist/victims of their respective stories, and the Nea So Copros government's totalitarianism is a manifestation of the need of capitalist institutions to control time as described by Jean-Francois Lyotard (1991, 66-67)--a gambit which ironically results in both social instability and environmental devastation. The second and more significant problem, however, is the failure of such a program to account for how causality is differently determined by the organization of social space in each of the novel's six sections. Thus, causality in "Sloosha's Crossin'" cannot be disentangled from the Valleymen's organization of their world into sacred and profane spaces, as well as the spiritual forces which inhabit them, making cause-and-effect thinking in Zachry's narrative a function of distinguishing between these absolute forces and the representations of space which organize them--does Zachry's urge to kill Meronym originate with Sonmi the saint or Old Georgie the devil? Alternatively, the abstract representations of space found in "The First Luisa Rey Mystery" tend to blur the distinction between the local and the global, evoking the postmodern specter of indirect or systemic cause-and-effect relationships. Such imbrications necessitate the arduous detective work of coming to grips with complex networks of motivations and institutions before long-term decision-making can take place and, as a result, make very different ethical demands upon the "forward-thinking" subject.
Both the problems of an abstract understanding of causality, and the insufficiency of a purely temporal moral paradigm, can be ameliorated by interpreting Meronym's claims about morality in spatial terms. The first problem results from attempting to apply a simplified formal concept to a variety of contexts with distinct social and material contents: the idea that cause and effect (understood in terms of culturally specific representations of space) can be usefully abstracted from the complex systems (i.e., collections of spatial practices) in which they are embedded. The second problem is a function of the first, in that purely temporal interpretations of Meronym's statement fail to emphasize the particular social and material contexts to which the latter refers: the gathering of food, sexual reproduction, and the resolution of interpersonal conflicts which are inevitably informed by the social and material environments where these activities occur and which contribute to the production of different representations of space. As such, moral and ethical concerns are ultimately revealed to be about space: how it is occupied, its resources utilized and distributed. The moment these concerns are erased in favor of a purely abstract conceptualization of causality, the ethical institutions immanent within these social contexts are elided by much the same universalizing (neo)liberal impulse critiqued by Rickel; stripped of its relationship to social space, causality is an ethically null concept geared toward the perpetuation of individual systems--persons, governments, economic institutions, etc.--without heed being paid to the particularity of how these systems were themselves produced.
Such tendencies toward universalizing abstractions are precisely what Lefebvre critiques in The Production of Space. According to Lefebvre, space is always occupied, meaning that the processes by which human bodies produce and reproduce themselves always take place within the complex spatial frameworks alluded to above, where these bodies procure food, make tools, and engage in sexual reproduction:
Before producing effects in the material realm (tools and objects), before producing itself by drawing nourishment from that realm, and before reproducing itself by generating other bodies, each living body is space and has its space: it produces itself in space and it also produces that space. This is a truly remarkable relationship: the body with the energies at its disposal, the living body, creates or produces its own space; conversely, the laws of space, which is to say the laws of discrimination in space, also govern the living body and the deployment of energies. (Lefebvre 2007,170)
For Lefebvre, the cognitive process of abstraction--the blank mental spaces upon which humans map "the laws of space" which define their activities--is inherently a reduction of these produced spaces, and it is within this mental space that the theoretical and the practical become disconnected from one another. These abstracted concepts--for example causality--are then mapped ex post facto onto the material world from which they derive as representations of space and, in the extreme, manifest themselves as abstract space: a series of purely formal relations which, when forced upon social spaces, leads to social contradictions. Such observations are pertinent to Cloud Atlas in that it is exactly this theory/practice problem which manifests itself when Meronym's ethical evaluation of the savage and the civilized is haphazardly applied to the particularities of each of Cloud Atlas's diverse narratives without paying heed to their unique social, "historical," and material contents. As Cloud Atlas is a novel, however, the result is textual contradictions and inconsistencies rather than social ones.
Interpreting Cloud Atlas in spatial terms helps alleviate these contradictions. Important here is the fact that Meronym contextualizes her description of civilized man's forethought within a pre-existing network of familial relations: it is not just considering the effects of one's actions, but considering these actions in the context of one's "sisses an' daughters what need respectin' that defines the civilized man" (Mitchell 2004, 303). Such kinship relations are not merely based upon familiarity, but also the practical concerns of mutual survival and, more importantly, the propagation of the family line. This logic is then extended to larger community forms, "so he'll respect his bros' sisses an' daughters," implying increasingly complex networks of sociality which must be accounted for when planning moral actions in the long-term (303). Thus, it is not merely long-term thinking which undergirds Meronym's definition of the civilized, but also the fact that such thinking is grounded in complex webs of social and material relations--specific to a given society--which one must learn to navigate to survive. Such an interpretation problematizes the use of an abstract understanding of causality as a universal site for grounding moral action. Rather, this site is instead tentatively located in the structure of narrative itself, inherently rooted in the spatial laws from which the different concepts of causality are derived through the process of abstraction, and which Cloud Atlas's overarching form reveals to be contingent on the spatial materialities presented throughout the novel. Finally, despite these differences, it is the fact that such temporal abstractions are nevertheless connected to the same sets of physical laws, and human storytelling capacities, that allows for the mediation between them.
This emphasis on the spatial dimensions of moral action is also related to Cloud Atlas's use of genre and thematic emphasis on the different phases of capitalism. Thus, as suggested by many of the other critics mentioned in this essay, cannibalism does not just exist as trope in the novel, or serve as a useful metaphor for describing its structure. It also concerns how the different modes of production consume one another throughout the text, each of Cloud Atlas's six stories inviting interpretations founded upon struggles over social spaces and their inherent connection to modes of production. Thus, "The Pacific Journal" and "Sloosha's Crossin'" can be read not only in terms of colonial disputes over territory, but also in terms of the subjugation of native peoples, conquests which inevitably involve the renegotiation of the social spaces and modes of production found in these narratives. Similarly, "The First Luisa Rey Mystery" and "An Orison of Sonmi 451" concern the increasing colonization of social space by capitalist abstraction. Conceived in this manner, these narratives also bookend one another, Luisa's story depicting the development of the same late-capitalist institutions which reach their culmination in the total alignment of state and corporate interests in "An Orison of Sonmi 451": a triumph of abstract space which, despite its ostensible invulnerability, is on the verge of collapse by the end of Sonmi's story. Even narratives which seem like outliers, such as those of Robert Frobisher and Timothy Cavendish, can be read in terms of spatial conflict when one notes how Frobisher's story thematically chronicles the final years of the deteriorating aristocratic and mercantile social spaces whose destruction made way for the spatial necessities of industrial capitalism, as well as the same social-democratic institutions which are themselves decaying in "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish"--points evocative of O'Donnell's claims about "Human Utopias inevitably mirror[ing] the dystopian conditions which undergird them" in the novel (O'Donnell 2015, 92).
Thus, what is achieved by reading Cloud Atlas in terms of social space is a highlighting of not just the correspondences between the novel's themes and its overarching structure, but also the inherent interrelationship between the social contents of each of its narratives, the material (modes of production) realities from which they were born, and the unique understandings of time they enable; in other words, the very "route from abstract to concrete" which Lefebvre reminds us is the ultimate goal of Marxist criticism and theory (2007,171). Moreover, violence as a central theme of the novel exists as much between these discrete socio-economic structures as within them, demonstrating that violence is as often a product of materially circumscribed conceptions of the good as it is "killers" and "barbarians." Beyond emphasizing this sort of structural violence, however, a topic also addressed by critics like Knepper, Mezey, and Ng, I argue that such relationships between the social and material imply a common ground for ethical mediation between the diversity of cultures represented in the novel, as these social spaces and modes of production are inevitably grounded in the same physical laws which govern human interactions on earth. To demonstrate how such grounding manifests itself in a work of fiction, however, a more nuanced understanding of literary writing than that offered by Lefebvre is required. Such an understanding is found in Bakhtin's chronotope which, though it posits spatiotemporal understanding in terms of transcendental concepts, and thus not the dialectical relationship between human reason and the physical world found in Lefebvre's Marxism, conceives of the literary work as the site of cultural possibility par excellence, rather than the source of reification Lefebvre tends to associate with textuality.
For Bakhtin, a key aspect of literary works is how they encourage readers to think about the incompleteness of their own comprehensions: "through contact with the present [in the novel], an object is attracted to the incomplete process of a world-in-the-making, and is stamped with the seal of inconclusiveness" (2011, 30). Such inconclusiveness is the recognition that human beings exist in a world that is constantly in the process of becoming and, as such, a world incapable of being determined or conceptually exhausted by human thought. For Bakhtin it is the chronotope, as an abstract conception of the working of time and space, which produces this inconclusiveness by making the complexities of this world "palpable and visible; the chronotope makes narrative events concrete, makes them take on flesh.... An event can be communicated, it becomes information.... But the event does not [in and of itself] become a figure" (250). Thus, what makes the event a figure, a site of meaning and unique significance, is narrative itself: a particular representational framework for conceptualizing the functioning of time and space that, unlike representations of space, returns objects to the context of a living world. Incidentally it is the urge to return ethical universale to the field of lived human experience which drives Habermas's discourse ethics as a standard for ethical mediation both rooted in real world material contexts, while nevertheless being cognitive: that is, grounded in "universal competences in terms of patterns of development that are invariant across cultures, these patterns being determined by what is conceived as an internal logic of the corresponding learning processes" (1991,35). Bakhtin's notion of the chronotope seems another compelling site for such a universal, as it is both sensitive to specific material contexts, while nevertheless being rooted in the universal human capacity for storytelling, itself inextricably tied to logical structures which define the human ability to comprehend causality. Moreover, Bakhtin suggests that it is precisely when the reified categories of human thought, as manifested in the chronotope (or representations of space), encounter their limits in the literary work that we, as readers, begin to see beyond their limits, a beyond which inevitably encourages us to reassess our preconceptions.
Returning to Cloud Atlas, it has already been established that reading Meronym's savage/civilized distinction in the context of Lefebvre's theories of social space implies a thin materialist core for moral action within the novel. It is the chronotope, however, which makes this core's presence "sensible," the feeling that the narrative is always gesturing to something "more" which inevitably manifests itself in the spiritual tropes the novel is both celebrated and criticized for. As Mezey states, one of the most important facets of Mitchell's novel is that "Far from being 'utterly finished,' Cloud Atlas evokes a text that is continuously fashioned and re-fashioned" (2011, 27); in other words, Cloud Atlas is a novel as much about the act of storytelling itself as the individual narratives which make up its firmament. This is the function of Cloud Atlas's radical juxtaposition of different literary narratives, between which exist explicit interconnections--for example, the theme of reincarnation suggested by the birthmark shared by many of the novel's characters--and explicit moments of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and revision. Thus, in addition to likening the thin normative core to Habermas's theories of discourse, I'd also like to suggest that the cumulative function of these thematic convergences and divergences is a form of mediation not unlike what Jameson terms transcoding (1982, 40). In this process, a common frame of comparison serves to mediate between two distinct yet interrelated phenomena--for example an economic base and social superstructure--despite this relationship being far too vast to be fully comprehended by human subjects. In addition to the types of intertextual references gestured at above, I would like to suggest the chronotope as such a site in Cloud Atlas. Thus, it is precisely the tendency of storytelling and interpretation to produce misreadings and contradictions, for different interpretive frameworks to lead to radically different world views, that drives the human urge for new interpretations and new meanings. As such, in contrast to Habermas's discourse ethics, it is as much difference as it is cognitive universals which mediate between the diverse experiences narrated in the novel. Though the content of each of Cloud Atlas's narratives is far too complex and distinct to be reduced to the terms of their peers, these stories' chronotopes nevertheless serve as a point of comparison between them by means of how such chronotopes encourage revisions and reinterpretations of the contents of the novel's other narratives, gesturing at a "beyond"--the ongoing process of becoming described by Bakhtin--which manifests itself as a supersensible impression of spirit.
Of course, such common ground does not produce any determinate prescriptions, but rather only a potential site for negotiating between different points of view. This point is thematized in Cloud Atlas as Isaac Sachs ruminates on the nature of history:
The workings of the actual past + the virtual past may be illustrated by an event well known to collective history, such as the sinking of the Titanic. The disaster as it actually occurred descends into obscurity as its eyewitnesses die off, documents perish + the wreck of the ship dissolves in its Atlantic grave. Yet a virtual sinking of the Titanic, created from reworked memories, papers, hearsay, fiction--in short, belief--grows ever "truer." The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent. The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will. (Mitchell 2004, 392-93)
Here, the reality of what is ostensibly a discrete and clearly definable event, the sinking of the Titanic, is refracted through a variety of interpretive processes: texts which narrate the event by locating its details within chronotope-like narrative frameworks. Such texts not only take the form of the news stories and documents which circulate around the event, but the oral narratives and individual memories of the survivors. The resulting proliferation of "virtual pasts"--evoking post-structuralist relativity--trouble Sachs, as the numerous "texts" surrounding the event become increasingly resistant to interrogation, ultimately coming to undergird what he terms "mythologies," hermeneutics which justify a particular manner of conceptualizing the world, and often different forms of domination.
Despite the proliferation of these "virtual pasts," Sachs never calls the reality of the event itself into question, only humanity's collective ability to gain access to it--a product of the inherent incommensurability of narrative forms and contents, which simultaneously lend them to describing the processes of becoming. This seems to shed light on Sonmi's claim that "truth is singular. Its 'versions' are mistruths" (Mitchell 2004, 185). Accepted at face value, this statement immediately suggests two interpretations. The first aligns itself with Sachs's idea of virtual pasts: truth lies in the fidelity of a memory or report to an event. As we have seen, however, human beings are never perfect conduits for such truths, and the one possibility the novel suggests to bridge this deficiency--the creation of a fabricant or artificial intelligence with a more privileged ontological perspective--would undermine the very (tentative) humanism Cloud Atlas seems to espouse. Alternatively, this statement could be read transcendentally, referring to abstract notions such as love or compassion which "tie the world together." This interpretation, however, also feels unsatisfying. As previously mentioned, Cloud Atlas calls the veracity of its narratives into question almost as often as it seeks to connect them--so, for example, Robert Frobisher suggests that Adam Ewing's journal is a little too polished to be an authentic document, and Zachry's son dismisses his father's stories as "musey duck fartin'" (308). Not only do these questions about the veracity of each narrative resonate with Sachs's ideas about the overdetermination of the event, they also--alongside the drastically different forms of each story--weave a (healthy?) dose of skepticism into the text which quietly resists the readerly urge toward unification.
Here again, the solution to this quandary manifests itself as a middle ground: the idea that Sonmi's belief in "one truth" and Meronym's celebration of a "true true" appeal to a standard for grounding human ethics within the process of representation itself, a process which refracts the event through the very interpretive frameworks respectively celebrated and denounced by Bakhtin and Lefebvre, and which is grounded in material laws themselves only accessible through these frameworks, rendering "truth" forever just out of reach (Mitchell 2004, 274). Thus, what Sonmi and Meronym gesture at is the ever-changing, and contingent relationship of human social realities to material space: the fact that despite the manifold ways in which humans express their experiences and imaginings to themselves and one another, these representations nevertheless derive from life in a shared material world. What I would like to suggest is that this inherence, which manifests itself as a profound impression of transcendental meaning, is as much a product of mediations between the different chronotopes presented throughout the novel as it is the discrete themes and correspondences that ostensibly tie the text together. Such intertextual connections are the product of the centripetal and centrifugal forces of representation itself, which simultaneously strive to bind our experiences together as well as tear them apart. Thus, the requirement of a story to orientate itself to a (culturally?) specific representation of space in order to become coherent seems as much a ground for fostering mutual understandings as it is the foundation of our conflicts.
Ng compellingly describes Cloud Atlas as a novel in which "Hobbesian bellicosity consumes Rousseauian innocence," emphasizing how the efficacy of violence often trumps any impulse toward peaceful co-existence (2015, 117). The implication is that capitalist development--which the novel no doubt depicts--is incommensurate or even incompatible with moral progress, or social justice. As previously stated, however, this type of critique interestingly necessitates the type of broad view of human developmental history it criticizes: it is the process of one mode of production cannibalizing another that functions as a deconstruction of the idealism driving both liberal humanism and Hegelian Marxism. In many ways this seems a fair criticism of the idea that material abundance necessarily leads to a more equitable world. In closing, however, I would like to reaffirm an alternative way of thinking about history suggested throughout this article. Marx himself claimed that "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past" (1852). In Cloud Atlas, I believe, such observations pertain just as much to the production of history as narrative as they do history as event. Thus, even if Cloud Atlas is implicitly critical of the premise that material change necessarily leads to social progress, the novel nevertheless suggests that our sense of past, present, and future is circumscribed by what Jameson describes as the necessity of history, the constraints which refuse "desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis" (1981, 102). When necessity meets desire, for Jameson the result is narrative, our only means of accessing the "absent cause" of history.
It is the particularity of such narrative forms to the particularities of material relations presented by each of Cloud Atlas's stories that this article has sought to demonstrate. Conceptualizing Cloud Atlas through the lens of a broad view of its imbricated narratives, whether as a story of linear development or endless cycles, tends to elide these particularities--the fact that even though they face similar problems, the characters of the novel nevertheless must address them in a manner consistent with their, as Marx would say, existing circumstances. This does not, however, necessarily freeze human experience in an endless present: just because Frobisher brings his own interpretative tools to Adam's Journal doesn't mean he has entirely assimilated its content to himself, nor does it mean this content is utterly alien. What it does do, however, is raise to readerly consciousness the role and limits of such tools in our ability to recognize others. Thus, the importance of not forgetting that Cloud Atlas is a novel about storytelling, the magic of which is its ability to animate the too-often-stale discussions which define our social world, infusing them with the capacity not only to move and to fascinate, but also to question the presuppositions they contain. By mobilizing this quality of literature not only to assess the essence of moral decision-making, but also to consider how these decision-making processes are inherently connected to the spatial frameworks of representation, Cloud Atlas offers this relationship up for contemplation, consideration, and perhaps revision.
(1) Knepper further links the theme of cannibalism to the novel's structure, its stories not only incorporating elements of other narratives, but also ostensibly swallowing them--Zachry's story, for example, being clenched between the beginning and end of Sonmi's. This self-cannibalism, according to Knepper, is what allows the novel to simultaneously function as an epic--encouraging readers to observe the complex intersection of the novel's diverse stories--as well as a deconstruction of this literary form as it critiques the epic's quest for totality.
(2) Schoene claims, for example, that one of the primary aims of Mitchell's writing is charting "human existence both transterritorially and as always determined by locally specific conditions" (2009, 97). This emphasis on the particularities of spatial relations is also reflected in O'Donnell's (2015) claims about the importance of material specificity of a given world/historical moment to the thematic contingency of Mitchell's novels.
(3) Cela Wallhead has similarly argued that a foundation for such cohesion between the novel's narratives can be found in the "perceived convergences, resonances, and interconnections between the historically distinct traumas" depicted in these stories (2010, 222).
(4) I have chosen to focus my analysis on "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing," "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery," 'An Orison of Sonmi 451," and "Sloosha's Crossin' an' EVrythin' After," as these narratives represent the widest range of modes of production/spatial relations in the novel.
(5) For a discussion of the existential, privacy and ethical issues of such technology in Cloud Atlas see N. Katherine Hayles (2009).
(6) Notably, the dehumanizing element of this process is further emphasized by Sonmi's assertion that fabricant workers have no memories, a product not only of the "soap," but also of the repetition of their daily lives, as memory is the product of a heterogeneity of experience that abstract spaces such as Papa Song's are ill-equipped to provide.
(7) Both Roy Osamu Kamada (2013) and Christopher Sims (2013) attribute a unique epistemological/ontological status to the fabricants.
(8) Even this seemingly perfected abstract space, however, contains flaws which will "eventually lead to its own dissolution on account of conflicts (contradictions) arising within it" (Lefebvre 2007, 51). These flaws are already beginning to manifest themselves in "An Orison of Sonmi 451," Sonmi forecasting the end of the state when she comments "all rising suns set, Archivist. Our corpocracy now smells of senility" (Mitchell 2004, 326). Indeed, this inevitable failure seems manifest in the archivist's inability to recognize some of the most important details of Sonmi's story--the flaws that reveal her tale as a product of Orwellian manipulation--as well as her ability to manipulate such records to her own ends, as they become the founding documents of the faith which defines the lifeworld of Cloud Atlas's middle narrative.
(9) For an explanation of these aspects of oral storytelling see William Labov (1972).
(10) Adam's sickness, for example, is the work of Doctor Goose; people die or disappear in the Luisa Rey mystery as a result of Seaboard's financial interests; and, Sonmi 451's development of sentience and revolutionary activities were all orchestrated by Neo So Corpos authorities.
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AARON FRANCIS SCHNEEBERGER received his PhD in August of 2018 from the University of Nevada, Reno. His dissertation, "Narrative Embodiments: Embodied Cognition in the Post-1945 American Novel," was completed with the assistance of a Russell J. and Dorothy S. Bilinski Education Foundation research fellowship. The project considers Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star, E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel, and Toni Morrison's Beloved in the context of recent scientific and philosophical observations about the role of embodiment in human cognition. He is currently working on turning this project into a book manuscript.
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|Author:||Schneeberger, Aaron Francis|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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