Josh Privett- On Player Piano

Josh Privett is a writer and college instructor in Greenville, SC. Josh has spoken on two Kurt Vonnegut Society panels at the American Literature Association and recently published an article on Player Piano in New Academia: An International Journal of English Language, Literature and Literary Theory. He is beginning a PhD in American literature at Georgia State University in the fall.

Read Josh Privett’s essay on Player Piano at the following link:  Kurt Vonnegut Society

Q: Player Piano is generally a “lesser known” Vonnegut novel. What drew you toward writing about it?

A: In 2014 I began working my way through Vonnegut’s writings, starting with his earliest works. I found Player Piano interesting in how it anticipates Vonnegut’s more “experimental” novels from the ‘60s. His first novel, like his later works, relies on the techniques of science fiction. While tackling the moral ambiguity of the corporate world, Vonnegut balances keen criticism with seriously humorous scenes and characters—a poignant combination that he reuses again and again in his works. However, it is clear that Vonnegut is still finding his voice in Player Piano, which he gave a “B” on a self-graded report card. At 350 pages, the novel is long compared to his later works, and its conventional narrative style, realism, and linear plot make it seem tame compared to the experimental fiction he’s known for. Nevertheless, Player Piano introduces Vonnegut’s favorite themes and displays his talent for creating complex, memorable characters.

Q: Many critics have interpreted the ending of Player Piano as evidence of Vonnegut’s misanthropy. Your essay takes a different path, interpreting the ending as a critique of capitalism. What led you to explore this path?

A: Many scholars read the ending of Player Piano as Vonnegut’s commentary on an innate failure in human nature, an inability to do the right thing—a fatal flaw similar to original sin. They argue that human nature, not socioeconomic forces, causes the workers to abandon their revolution. This interpretation, in my opinion, fails to recognize Vonnegut’s love for the common workingman, whom he champions throughout his works. Also, the ending comes as a surprise: the novel’s plot builds up to this revolution, but the workers suddenly and inexplicably abort it in the novel’s final pages. I wanted to determine why, in the narrator’s words, the workers were “proud and smiling because [their] hands were busy doing what they liked to do best . . . —replacing men like [themselves] with machines.” Instead of beginning with the workers’ psyches or human nature, I turned my attention to how outside forces (i.e., the capitalist ideology in Ilium) influence the workers.

Q: How would you describe Vonnegut’s politics?

It’s always dangerous to try to put someone in a box, but Vonnegut, as I understand him, endorsed a form of American populism and vilified any view—especially American capitalism—that was classist. Vonnegut’s ethics motivated his politics. His concern for humans led him to distrust any economic or politic system that prizes some people and discards others, or one that values a commodity more than the person who produced it. Nevertheless, Vonnegut was a flawed, complex man: his biographer, Charles Shields, reveals that the author owned stock in Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of napalm, and in global corporations that had poor working conditions. So it goes.

Q: You identify the novel’s central question as such: If the means of production in Ilium dehumanize the workers, why do they reproduce the conditions necessary for their exploitation? To answer this question, you refer to the work of Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. Many readers may be unfamiliar with his work. How would you describe his main argument as it relates to Player Piano?

A: Marxist criticism seeks to understand how the views and ideas of the ruling class—that is, ideology—affect us. Louis Althusser argues that certain institutions in a capitalistic society—church, school, television, books, the family—transmit the dominant ideology and subtly shape our lives. He says these institutions influence us more effectively than any threat from the army, police, or legal system. When we read a novel, watch television, or go to school, we are being molded by ideology. In fact, ideology is ubiquitous in society, preexisting and determining individuals’ lives and therefore subjecting everyone to it.

Player Piano depicts America as a version of state capitalism, in which the state functions as a corporation that controls the means of production. A supercomputer, EPICAC XIV, runs the economy, and machines obviate the need for a human workforce (and, the novel suggests, the need for humans in general). Reduced to either military service or menial manual labor, the workers in Ilium attempt to throw off their oppressive conditions by destroying the machines that replace and dehumanize them. However, as the novel concludes, these workers suddenly abandon their revolution and begin to rebuild the machines. In effect, they are recreating the conditions that allow the upper class (engineers and managers) to retain power in society. As the novel’s protagonist, Paul Proteus, says, they are recreating the “same old nightmare.”

I wanted to examine the motivations for the workers’ sudden change in behavior. As I said, I was not convinced that Vonnegut was using this scene to comment on humanity’s innate moral flaws or weaknesses. Instead, I analyzed the institutions in Ilium that shape the values and views of its citizens: the family, represented by the Hagstrohms, whose lives have become meaningless because of technology; advertising campaigns that promote the upper class; a television show that romanticizes life in a working class family; and the educational system that instills in students a classist mentality. I believe that these institutions program the working class to be, in Vonnegut’s words, “thorough believers in mechanization . . . even when their lives had been badly damaged by mechanization.” Because the workers are in submission to the ruling class’s ideology, which dehumanizes them, they abort their revolution at the novel’s end and rebuild the machines that replace them.

Q: Player Piano was published in 1952. Since then our lives have become even more dominated by technology, capitalism, and the surveillance state. Do you see instances of our “recreating the same old nightmare” in current events?

A: Absolutely. Smartphones and social media outlets have “programmed” us to (over)share our private lives. And mass media unconsciously shapes our views of women. Television shows, movies, and magazines tell us that the “ideal” woman is impossibly beautiful, hyper-sexualized—and digitally altered to appear that way. Corporations fund this image because they will sell more beauty products if they make women believe that this image is the standard for beauty. Unfortunately, this message/image permits the objectification of women in society.

Q:Any thoughts on how Vonnegut might have viewed the Occupy movement?

A: I’m not sure whether Vonnegut would have supported the Occupy movement. I think he would sympathize with the “ninety-nine percent.” In Player Piano he criticizes America for permitting a class hierarchy. However, doesn’t he warn in “Harrison Bergeron” that social equality is impossible, even undesirable? (I haven’t read much commentary on that story, so I don’t know what the critical consensus is.) Vonnegut’s forward to Player Piano has always baffled me, but maybe it’s appropriate here: “At this point in history, 1952 A.D., our lives and freedom depend largely upon the skill and imagination and courage of our managers and engineers, and I hope that God will help them to help us all stay alive and free.” Maybe Vonnegut recognized that there will always be an upper class, and that the best we can hope for is that they will treat us—the “ninety-nine percent”—with respect.

Q: In the novel, Vonnegut uses an “outsider” character, the Shah of Bratphur, to make the most cutting social observations. Why do you think he made this choice, rather than having these observations come from one of the main characters?

A: Because the Shah of Bratphur (a fictional third-world country) is an outsider to the American system, he possesses a perspicuity that other characters lack. Unlike Dr. Halyard, a U.S. government official serving as the Shah’s guide, the Shah is not influenced by American capitalist ideology. When Halyard and the Shah observe workers from the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps filling a pothole, the Shah calls the workers slaves, whereas Halyard labels them “the average man.” I think Vonnegut’s point is that Halyard cannot recognize the class system in his own country because capitalist ideology shapes his worldview. Nevertheless, the Shah’s comment exposes the reality that a class system exists in Ilium.

Q: How would you describe Paul and Anita’s marriage in the novel? What do you think Vonnegut was trying to show, and how might the marriage be interpreted from an ideological perspective?

A: Paul and Anita Proteus epitomize the ideal 1950s American home. Paul has a comfortable nine-to-five, and Anita, who is unemployed, focuses all of her attention on helping him climb the corporate ladder. However, society has programmed Anita to master the “mechanics of marriage.” In fact, the couple returns affectionate words automatically, like machines: “I love you, Paul . . . And I love you, Anita.” Their marriage is automatic, mechanic, and meaningless. Certainly, Vonnegut is satirizing his society’s ideal American home. Although he is often criticized for his depiction of women in his fiction, Vonnegut is also satirizing the postwar belief that a woman must be domestic to be fulfilled. Anita is arguably one of Vonnegut’s more powerful, assertive female characters, because she leaves Paul for another man after Paul defects from the upper class.

Q: In your view, are there other Vonnegut novels or stories in which ideology plays a key role?

A: I think most of Vonnegut’s stories warn us of the ruling ideology’s influence. For example, Mother Night examines how someone who propagates Nazi propaganda begins to believe its lies. A more relevant example, perhaps, is Breakfast of Champions, which relates how the American Dream structures our lives, desires, and morals. In that novel Vonnegut also critiques the educational system for teaching a version of American history that celebrates whites and dehumanizes blacks. Materialism and racism are still two dominant ideologies in America, and novels like Breakfast of Champions urge us to examine whether we are influenced by someone else’s agenda.

Q: When did you first become interested in Vonnegut?

A: I first encountered Vonnegut’s fiction in 2010. Fascinated by the large “V” on the cover of my friend’s copy of Cat’s Cradle, I searched for Vonnegut at a local bookstore and found Breakfast of Champions. I had never before read postmodern or experimental fiction, so I enjoyed the chaos of Breakfast, and I loved its satiric tone. Vonnegut was a breath of fresh air in my university education in English literature. He provided a new perspective on life and literature and confirmed that literature can be entertaining and significant—seriously funny. In fact, Vonnegut proved to me that the most powerful literature is both.

Q: Are you working on any Vonnegut criticism at the moment?

A: I’m not working on any Vonnegut criticism at the moment, but I have a few ideas for future projects. In his analysis on ideology, Althusser concludes that the educational system has superseded the church as the primary transmitter of ideology. In light of this claim, I want to continue examining how Vonnegut portrays these two institutions in his works. I’m also interested in contextualizing Vonnegut within twentieth-century philosophical movements, specifically anti-foundationalism and pragmatism.

Q: Why do you think Vonnegut’s work continues to resonate with young readers and scholars?

A: Vonnegut makes postmodern ideas accessible. The clarity of his prose is tangibly different from the style of many of his contemporaries. Like most of us, Vonnegut had a love-hate relationship with America; unlike most of us, he articulated his ambivalence in memorable, creative ways. I think younger readers are attracted to his humor and countercultural attitude. I think readers of all ages keep reading his works because he has a message. Vonnegut is one of the most didactic, ethical American writers since the Puritans.

Q: If you were sent to a desert island and could only take one Vonnegut book with you, which one would it be?

A: Considering the predicament, I think I would have to take Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut’s ruminations on religion, humanity, and science in that novel would keep my brain engaged, and the novel’s island setting and apocalyptic conclusion would be highly ironic—just like Vonnegut would want.