Francesca Pierini is an Adjunct Lecturer at University of Basel. In this short article, she proposes a reading of The Machine Stops (1909), a sci-fi short story E.M. Forster wrote in 1909, in order to reflect on several specific aspects of the narrative that closely resonate with our most recent experiences in a time of COVID-19 pandemic, from social isolation to distance lecturing.
The Machine Stops, the short story that E.M. Forster wrote in 1909, begins with a phone call on Zoom. Of course, the technology’s name is not mentioned in the text, but when Kuno, a young man who lives in the northern hemisphere of the planet, calls his mother Vashti, in the southern hemisphere, in a state of deep distress, his face appears on Vashti’s “round plate” and his voice is heard in real time. Kuno hopes Vashti will agree to take an “air-bus” and pay him a visit in person. He complains: “I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come.” (Forster, 1909)
Initially, Vashti does not understand the necessity of a meeting face to face. She is very much reluctant to leave her comfortable hexagonal cell underground, a suitably aired and heated room that the Machine provides with all amenities: food, music, clothing, water hot and cold: “there was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.” (Forster, 1909)
Isolation, a nearly “chosen” form of it, seems to be humanity’s standard mode of living, perceived as quite advanced and civilized. individuals live in laborious separation from one another, each working and communicating with one another from their cells through the Machine’s various devices. Vashti, for instance, is a lecturer, and after Kuno’s phone call she returns to her class: “the clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well.” (Forster, 1909)
The Sky over Sumatra
All the while, the Machine constantly hums in in the background. Nobody pays attention to its remote buzz and nobody seems to doubt the general benignity of the system it presides over, in spite of its crudely authoritarian traits, such as those of according or denying authorizations to reproduce, or removing children from their parents immediately after their birth, assigning them to a geographical place far away from their families.
Obedience to laws not fully comprehended and detrimental to most seems to be the norm. By our current standards, those of a superseded and quite “primitive” civilization, individuals look pale and sick, weakened in their physical capabilities but complicit in their own captivity.
But then again, our civilization, the narrator explains, is “the civilization that had mistaken the functions of the system, and had used it for bringing people to things, instead of for bringing things to people. Those funny old days, when men went for change of air instead of changing the air in their rooms!” (Forster, 1909)
After much hesitating, Vashti decides to board the aircraft and visit her son. She travels during the night. Forster’s description of the nocturnal sky is stunning:
For a moment she saw the coast of Sumatra edged by the phosphorescence of waves, and crowned by lighthouses, still sending forth their disregarded beams. These also vanished, and only the stars distracted her. They were not motionless, but swayed to and fro above her head, thronging out of one skylight into another, as if the universe and not the air-ship was careening. And, as often happens on clear nights, they seemed now to be in perspective, now on a plane; now piled tier beyond tier into the infinite heavens, now concealing infinity, a roof limiting for ever the visions of men. (Forster, 1909)
Vashti finds the view “intolerable.” (Forster, 1909) In Vashti’s world, there is no longer a single trace of the past belief in a transcendental power. The universe does not inspire awe and does not hold spiritual power “dawn, midday, twilight, the zodiacal path, touched neither men’s lives not their hearts, and science retreated into the ground, to concentrate herself upon problems that she was certain of solving.” (Forster, 1909)
The Imponderable Bloom
Forster calls the object of this lost sense of mystery, of this collective disenchantment, the “imponderable bloom,” (Forster, 1909) and he places it at the core of the relationship between humanity and nature as well as at the core of human intercourse. At the very beginning of the story, the notion is explained to us:
She could not be sure, for the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people — an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes, Vashti thought. The imponderable bloom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as the imponderable bloom of the grape was ignored by the manufacturers of artificial fruit. Something “good enough” had long since been accepted by our race. (Forster, 1909, Italics added)
Half-way in this short meditation, before going back to Forster’s story and a theatrical adaptation I have just seen of it, I would like to put forward a few remarks, of a professional nature, from a personal point of view. To my mind, this idea acquires a whole new meaning in view of the social changes that are quickly, sometimes surreptitiously, establishing themselves during these difficult and confusing times.
As a university lecturer, I am under the strong impression I understand what Forster means when he talks about the “imponderable bloom.” After all, much has been said about it within a pedagogic context, as well as a therapeutic one. I am not trying to argue that academic learning mainly occurs mysteriously and imponderably; it mainly occurs through reading books and listening to lectures, and these activities can be done in isolation and on Zoom, respectively, which is a lot better than nothing, if you ask me.
When the choice is not between distance learning or learning in person, but distance learning or no learning, then, obviously, I take no issue with any distance learning tool. But Zoom and distance lecturing, in any context where learning opportunities are not actively impeded, discouraged, or difficult to come across, is the perfect instance of something just “good enough.”
Frequenting a place of learning is an altogether different matter, it is an experience that engages our mental faculties as well as our bodies, and I am not talking of nondescript “collateral” social activities for students, I am talking of encounters, that kind of human intercourse through which we learn who we are, and become who we want to be, something we should resolve to temporarily suspend only under exceptional circumstances – like our present ones – for a limited amount of time, and mourn all along.
As a student, “human nuances” have been at the centre of my learning experience all along. I was lucky enough to be in a situation from which I could study them and let them touch me. Perhaps I should say that my university in London used to be a second home to me, but the truth is that it was more like a first, because it had much more purpose and stability than all my accommodations, always highly precarious, barely paid for at the last minute through multiple incomes from several very odd jobs – at a time, I must say, when this arrangement was still possible, if the student in question were motivated enough and oblivious to the long-term unhealthy aspects of such a lifestyle.
I now see my university, in a highly romanticized way, as the incubator of my future self. Throughout all those experiences and those jobs, the encounters and the nuances, I have decided what I needed to “steal,” to appropriate for myself, and from whom: friends and peers, certainly, but especially lecturers.
The tendency our society is upholding more and more, so well described in Forster’s narrative, is that of making direct experiences more and more difficult; of making, on the one hand, the outside world increasingly hostile to humans – I am thinking of viruses as much as economic boundaries: how could any student work in London while supporting themselves through postgraduate education these days? – and selling, on the other hand, a discourse on renewed potential for connections, learning and knowing from the comfort of our homes. The Machine Stops is precisely about this: a generation that has lost any sense of distance, does not know the meaning of “near” and “far” and has come to perceive the outside world as dangerous and unhealthy to its own species.
A “Zoom Theatre” Performance
Therefore, if watching a theatrical adaptation of E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops on Zoom, during the Covid-19 pandemic feels almost too obvious at first, on second thought the performance, in and of itself a very enjoyable show, well thought-out, inventive, energetic and fun, comes across as all the more interesting because it is conceived and staged from the perspective of the very paradox we have been discussing so far: can some sort of “imponderable bloom,” of real learning, take place in the context of a theatrical show that must necessarily do without any physical encounter with the audience?
The mise en scène, in other words, ignites a commentary, and places a mirror, in front of the very metamorphosis our lives have gone through lately. We watch the performance with other people and we are able to catch a glimpse of their apartments, their families and pets. Kuno speaks to Vashti among us and we are all invited to their conversation. Text and technology go so well together this time, that even if it had been possible to organize a “traditional” performance, it would have made perfect sense, this time, to experiment with a “Zoom theatre” one, as a way to give a sense of the isolation and claustrophobic setting in which the characters of the text live.
This performance is a small-scale, but extremely successful experiment in using technology reflexively in the service of the text. It took place on the 6 and 7 of June 2020, organized and produced by Big Telly Theatre Company in partnership with the Riverside Theatre, Coleraine and Ulster University. Directed by Zoe Seaton, it was the third Zoom performance after “The Tempest” and “Operation Elsewhere.” According to the invitation e-mail I was sent, the previous two performances were watched by over 5,000 people in 14 countries, featured by the UK national press and media, The New York Times and CNN in the USA.
The Convenient and the Imponderable
I will not summarize the entire story, for those who have not read it and wish to do so in the quiet of their own cells. Let me only say that Vashti and Kuno finally meet. Kuno tells his mother he has visited the surface of the earth without a permission and is now facing grave consequences. To him, this daring excursion was worthwhile, because as he measured himself against the environment, learning to walk again, he understood that: “man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.” (Forster, 1909).
The Machine Stops connects itself to current issues remarkably, and remarkably often. See, for instance, the following definition of “progress:” “some invincible pressure, which came no one knew whither, and which, when gratified, was succeeded by some new pressure equally invincible.” (Forster, 1909) See this description of our rhizomic world in its impasse with nature:
In all the world there was not one who understood the monster as a whole. Those master brains had perished. They had left full directions, it is true, and their successors had each of them mastered a portion of those directions. But Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine. (Forster, 1909)
Lastly, see what Forster has to say about a government that, in a state of emergency, on the one hand ask for solidarity from its citizens, appealing to a sense of community and closeness that in peaceful times regularly discourages and mortifies; on the other hand it takes advantage of such a state to implement extraordinary measures: “the Mending Apparatus has treated us so well in the past that we all sympathize with it, and will wait patiently for its recovery. In its own good time it will resume its duties. Meanwhile let us do without our beds, our tabloids, our other little wants. Such, I feel sure, would be the wish of the Machine.” (Forster, 1909) “There was a hysterical talk of “measures,” of “provisional dictatorship.” (Forster, 1909)
Therefore, when I hear friends and colleagues arguing the advantages and disadvantages of Zoom learning in comparison to classroom learning as an option for future teaching life, in peaceful Covid-19-free times, I can’t avoid thinking of the grape and its artificial counterpart, all of us obsessively upholding the “good enough” against the good, the “normal” against the natural, the convenient against the imponderable.
Banner Image: Portrait of E.M. Forster by Dora Carrington, c. 1924. Wikipedia Commons