Exploring “Black Box” and Roles in Society, by Caite Clarke © 2015
Black Box questions the relationship between these so called “beauties” and their role in American society, and causes me to wonder if they are fully aware of their purpose. The term beauty refers to women with cybernetic capabilities whose role is to collect data to benefit their country as a whole. I believe that the beauty we are hearing from is fully aware of the decisions she has made, and why she is driven to help the greater good of her country; however the way author Jennifer Egan explores the concept of gender puts into question what kind of society the beauty is helping to benefit.
The beauty has come to the place in her life due to the environment she has been surrounded by. Thinking of her mother she reminds herself, “she concealed your paternity out of faith that her own inexhaustible love would be enough” (43). The beauty has a strong female role model, only to find out later during her childhood that her father is movie star, with a number of children from affairs and marriages. Her father has a successful career by way of material gain, one that focuses primarily on himself, rather than the children that he has helped bring into the world. As a single parent, the mother of the beauty has provided “inexhaustible love” towards her: putting the beauty’s life before her own. The same selflessness is exhibited in her husband, whose values come from the tribe-like mindset of his Kenyan homeland. Her husband is referred to as a national security hero, and is the beauty’s primary justification in volunteering for the mission. The people surrounding the beauty have shown her what it means to live a life that is for the greater good. She accounts the time spent with her mother and her husband with a tone of reverie and longing. The people who matter most in her life have influenced her to become a part of the task force of beauties gathering knowledge from the powerful men driven by corporate greed.
Egan also explores a struggle of power amongst genders. Through her Designated Mate’s eye, a beauty is seen simply as a sexual object. The Designated Mates are powerful men that beauties are assigned to extract information from. They believe that they are fully in control over the women they pair up with, even though the beauty is capable of claiming all of their intellectual property. Their true level of value is noted when, “a giggle and a look of incomprehension are a beauty’s most powerful tools. If the men relax into their chairs neutralization has been successful” (24). The women in this world are viewed as inferior in the eyes of the men they have been assigned to. The collective need to manipulate the opposite gender suggests a power struggle. The predominant gender of the collective government is never disclosed. If Egan’s story coincides with that of America’s history, government officials would for the most part consist of men. Looking towards the men in her life, her husband is seen as a national security hero, for reasons that are unstated, and her birth father is a movie star. All the men depicted in the story are in positions of power. The beauties would therefore be controlled by men in society, giving reason to the objectification they face from Designated Mates. At first glance it seems as though they have no control of the life they are given, however the duties they perform are voluntary. They can also effectively manipulate the men they are surrounded by. This causes me to wonder who is running the show. Regardless of the given circumstances, it is clear that a beauty has no personal reason to extrapolate information from a Designated Mate beyond assisting someone else’s quest for control.
The utilitarian sense of faith that Black Box’s beauty exhibits is self-less and trusting. She fully submits herself to the power of someone else for the greater good of the country she lives in. The question that remains is how aware are her and the other beauties of the role that they play in their society. The beauty is simply a product of her environment, surrounded by altruistic people that she respects. Within the struggle for control amongst beauties and men in high places, what remains clear is that this protagonist is just one of many pawns in someone else’s game of power. There is no sense of self in a life that is spent in the duty of others, but in her eyes it is the most honourable.
Egan, Jennifer. “Black Box.” The New Yorker (4 June 2012).
Sexism in “Black Box,” by Elizabeth Robinson© 2015
“Black Box” is a cleverly written piece that some have read as feminist, promoting the strength and independence of women within the context of a career that has traditionally been dominated by men – the career of a spy. I would argue, however, that this piece is actually the opposite: that it portrays a situation in which a woman’s abilities and gender have been exploited by a highly sexist society in such a way that her refusal to allow this exploitation was impossible.
In “Black Box” the main character, a 33 year old woman, is infiltrating a very sexist society in which she is subjected to dehumanizing behaviour and sexual harassment based exclusively on her gender. In her role as a spy, she is forced to act like the other women within this society, known as ‘beauties’, and to do so she needs “giggles; bare legs; shyness” (1) but apparently not intelligence or independent thought. As all the other ‘beauties’, she must act superficial and simple minded, allowing herself to be sexually harassed (7) and her very existence ignored (23).
Subjecting herself to this demeaning and sexist treatment is not unusual when one considers that this is, after all, a spy story. However, there are some fundamental issues with her situation; mainly that the government placing her in this situation has done so based on her gender, not on her physical abilities or intellect. She has not been given any training, and in fact her “lack of espionage and language training” is said to be an asset (21). Her government prizes the fact that her “record [is] clean and neutral” (21) suggesting that they prefer her to be ignorant to a certain extent. On top of this, they show little concern for her physical well-being, telling her that “should you die, you will have triumphed merely by delivering your physical person into our hands” (43). This is just an elaborate way of saying that the government doesn’t really care whether she lives or dies – an opinion that is perilously close to the prevailing attitude towards women within the society she is infiltrating. In short, the government only chose her because as a woman she could be invisible within that particular society.
Now, it could be said that her voluntary participation in this mission trumps the sexist attitude of her government or of the society she is spying on. But despite being a supposed volunteer, she seems fairly reluctant, having to remind herself that she is a volunteer and will get no compensation (7). As a result of this reluctance, one might infer that what her service would involve was not fully explained to her. Also, her husband’s support of her “patriotism” (15) when one considers that her “patriotism” includes sexual harassment (7) suggests that perhaps her husband approves of the sexist treatment of his wife. In any case, the repeated references to her husband’s approval, combined with her own reluctance, implies that she is being manipulated into the situation rather than being a true volunteer.
Even if she is in a sexist society, placed there by a sexist government, against her will, she still demonstrates bravery in the face of sexism; it could be argued that this makes the story feminist. However, if she is brave by default, can it truly be said to be bravery? That is to say, bravery is the result of a choice, when someone decides to be courageous rather than run away or let someone else fight instead. But if that choice is taken away, and the only way to survive is to be brave, then it couldn’t really be called bravery. It is survival, self-preservation, not a conscious defiance of a sexist situation.
The main character of “Black Box” is placed, against her will, in a sexist society by a sexist government, where she is forced to survive despite sexual harassment and dehumanizing behaviour. Her actions are prompted by self-preservation, not bravery. In short, the fact that the story appears feminist at first glance is purely ironic when one delves deeper to reveal the sexism of the main character’s situation.
Egan, Jennifer. “Black Box.” The New Yorker (4 June 2012).
Posthumous Materiality And Speculative Realism In Being Dead, by Erin Baillie-Rutter © 2015
Being Dead by Jim Crace is a perfect example of Speculative Realist thought. A fundamental element of Speculative Realism is the debunking of the human as a central force. Instead, the once considered ‘inanimate’ or the ‘static object’ which was entirely reliant on the human for activation is now the activator and holds its own state of agency. Much like how dark matter which encompasses a planet is just as active as the planet itself, In Being Dead Celice and Joseph act as diminishing central beings, pulled into the micro organismal animacy of the afterlife. The element of death in Being Dead is in a pre-human or post-human context, diminishing the humanistic rituals of a comforting death. Instead, the main characters, who are nearly entirely posthumous in the novel, slowly degrade into their surroundings. As the two main characters lie alone on their death bed, a bed which is shared with numerous other creatures, they are not separate from the natural world and certainly not alone. Their bodies become reanimated in death, with the aid of various insects and organismal entities which will gain new life and thrive off of their demise. The centrality is reversed as their mortuary mapping is presented to us with Celice and Joseph becoming reliant on the non-human for activation.
Both Celice and Joseph were zoologists before their death. Yet after their death and in their afterlife they become the creatures that they once studied. Serving as a perfect example of the debunking and reversal of the human as a sole primary character with agency. Celice and Joseph become the specimens, as we watch and dissect them in a mortuary manor, barren of humanistic ceremonial funerary comfort. The reversal of humans being central to the order of things is the backbone of this book “human kind is only marginal….We’ll not be missed” (86). The animation which is given to death in Being Dead is a form of life itself, becoming a decomposing self-reliant symphony. The details of their degradation into the sand are micro organismal and make the persistent underline of the main characters as studied specimens. The creatures that they once claimed as their own, and named to their liking, now feed off of them. Ultimately, gaining new life from their death “when every human being in the world has perished, and all our sewerage pipes and gas cookers and diesel engines have fossilized, there will still be insects” (86). The assumed permanence of humankind is no longer a stable notion in Being Dead, rather Crace depicts humankind as impermanent and weak with a certain demise—which fits harmoniously with the concept of Celice and Joseph being transformed into specimens and following the inevitable evolutionary path of all living things, which is ultimately composed of Time and, of course, death.
Crace, Jim. Being Dead. New York: Picador USA, 1999.
Darwin, Charles. The Origin Of Species. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2003.
Hamilton, Clive. “Climate Change Signals The End Of The Social Sciences”. The Conversation 24 January 2013. Web. Accessed: 10 February 2015.
Harman, Graham. The Continental Turn: Continental Materialism And Realism. Web. Accessed: 8 April 2015.