The Human v. the Machine: Dominant Images of the Body in TransAtlantic

Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic weaves together history and fiction to create an extremely personalized account of actual events. Two of these stories, that of Frederick Douglass coupled with those of Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown, are particularly interesting because they are predominantly concerned with the bodies of the human and the machine likened to the human’s. Therefore, the dominant images of the body in TransAtlantic are those of the physical body and how it operates in relation to social experiences. Michel Foucault’s theory of the body in a political purpose and Mary Douglas’ theory of the body as a function of society can be applied to McCann’s accounts of Frederick’s and Alcock and Brown’s accomplishments.

According to Foucault, the physical body is not merely a biological organism, but it is also a target for political subjection as much as an anatomical mean of production (100). While historians have extensively studied the body in terms of demography or pathology, it also holds obvious significance in the economic sphere of society. The body’s economic use is intertwined with political power and investment as a driving force of production; however, Foucault notes, this power of labor is only possible if the body is subjugated (100). When the body is both productive and subjected it becomes a useful commodity. Furthermore, this subjection does not need to be obtained through violence alone. It may be calculated, subtle, and careful yet still inspire physical order – that is, there may be a “knowledge” of the body that encompasses more than an understanding of its biological functioning and therefore a “mastery of its forces that is more than the ability to conquer them” (100). This knowledge and mastery may be deemed the “political technology” of the body, which is rarely a systematic arrangement but constitutes a wide range of bits and pieces (100).

Foucault’s thinking seems highly reminiscent of slavery or indentured servitude, but he adds that power that is exercised on the body is not a property of this political technology, but a strategy of tactics and techniques of domination rather than appropriation (101). Therefore, Foucault notes, any sort of power over the body should be viewed in terms of a network of relations that are constantly in tension and activity instead of a privilege one may possess over another. It is not a contract intended to regulate services rendered, but an endless battle; power is not the privilege of the dominant class but the combined effect of its strategic decisions that are manifested by the position of the dominated (101). Foucault goes even beyond that to say the dominant class does not utilize this power as an act of obligation or prohibition on the dominated who do not possess the authority to exercise it. This power is transmitted by and through the dominated to the dominant – it exerts its pressure on them as they struggle against it and resist its grip (101). Yet these relations between the dominant and the dominated are ambiguous and composed of countless risks of potential confrontation, instability, and temporary inversions of power.

In TransAtlantic, this line of Foucault’s thinking can be seen in Frederick Douglass’ story. Frederick travels from Boston to Dublin to encourage the movement toward abolition of slavery and is received by his Irish publisher, Webb. As he recounts his time as a slave, the image of the body as an economic and political commodity is obvious. Yet this image transforms in Dublin because, though he is no longer under the formal control of any master, Frederick is still subjected to Webb’s authority. For example, while on a tour through the city Webb tells Frederick not to hand out coins to a begging group of boys (McCann 41). Frederick notes that, in his portrait on the cover of the Irish edition of his book, Webb had attempted to “remove the Negro from him” by illustrating him as “straight-nosed, aquiline, clear-jawed” (46). Finally, Webb later advises Frederick to look for a new coat since his current one was designed with a relatively high cut at the back (51). Frederick obeys all these suggestions, because in a sense he is still a commodity even in Dublin. He remains a force of labor; however, rather than working to produce a tangible good he strives toward liberation, abolition, and justice. Though subtle and perhaps unconscious, Webb does exert authority over Frederick, but it is neither complete nor unquestioned because Frederick gives a single coin to one of the boys and sends Webb the bill for his new jacket (41, 51). Thus Webb, the dominant class, places pressure on Frederick, the dominated, who also resists Webb’s power in small ways.

Foucault’s theory continues to state that as the relations between the two classes produces power, power produces knowledge as well (101). This, however, is not simply because knowledge serves power, or is useful to it. Instead, Foucault maintains that there is no power relation without a correlating field of knowledge (101). These new power-knowledge relations therefore should not be investigated on the basis of one who is either dominant or dominated and possesses knowledge, but instead must be regarded as effects of the implications of such relations. In other words, the activities of a knowledgeable person do not produce further knowledge that is either useful or resistant to power, but the processes and conflicts inherent in a power-knowledge relation determine both the possible forms and domains of knowledge (101). With this in mind, analyzing the political investment of the body assumes an abandonment of violence where power is concerned, including the metaphor of property and commodity (102). Adjusting the idea of the physical human body to that of the state, concern with the political technology would be an examination of materials and tactics that “serve as weapons, relays, communication routes,” etc. that invest in human bodies and transform them into objects of knowledge (102). Thus the human body can be both the object and target of power.

La Mettrie presents this thought as the relation between the useful body and the intelligible body as one of docility versus utility (103). In this way, the body is subject to transformation, manipulation, and improvement. During the eighteenth century, the body was under strict disciplines which allowed for meticulous control of the body’s movements, gestures, and attitudes. These disciplines assured constant subjection of the body and imposed a link of docility-utility in subjected and practiced bodies (103). They increase the mechanical forces of the body in terms of economic utility while simultaneously diminishing these forces in terms of political obedience (104). Thus the power-knowledge relation, and the disciplinary principles that arise from it, establish in the body the ceaseless struggle between a drive for increased aptitude and one for increased domination (104). Again, this is present in McCann’s portrayal of Frederick’s speeches in Dublin. Although he is working tirelessly on speeches and presentations to various crowds, Frederick admits that sometimes he thought of himself as “an elaborate poodle on a leash” (McCann 55). His mission is of extreme importance and certainly endeavors toward increased aptitude, as Foucault calls it. But at the same time, with Frederick tasked with remembering small matters of etiquette and mannerisms to support his image in the eyes of the Irish, there is a sense of increasing external domination over his person.

Similar to Foucault’s “The Political Investment of the Body,” Douglas’ “The Two Bodies” presents a theory of the relationship between the social body and the physical body. However, rather than the power of an individual over another, Douglas asserts that it is society who wields this power over the individual by restricting how the physical body is perceived, and she attempts to identify some natural tendency to express certain social situations in appropriate bodily styles (78). Her position is that the physical body is continuously subjected to change through the social categories that define it; therefore, the physical body always sustains a certain view of society. Like Foucault’s dominant and dominated classes, this continuous subjection allows for an unending exchange of meanings between the two bodily experiences which results in each reinforcing the categories of the other (78). A consequence of these interactions is that the body is a highly-restricted medium of expression with its cultural categories closely associating with the categories in which society is seen. Therefore, some agreement must exist between the social and bodily expressions of control because each enhances meaning in the other and because the categories in which each experience is perceived are reciprocally derived and mutually reinforcing (79). They can only be separated through conscious, deliberate effort. Strong social control necessitates strong bodily control – the scope of the body as an acting medium is restricted by the demands of the social situation being expressed (80).

Thus the human body is always considered as an image of society – there is no method of thinking on the body that does not involve a social aspect as well. In this sense, by “natural tendency” Douglas seeks to explore those behaviors that are unconscious and, though culturally determined, obeyed universally across all cultures (78). Furthermore, if bodily control is a reflection of social control, abandonment of bodily control is in response to the particular requirements of a social experience (79). This plays a significant role in what Douglas terms the “purity rule,” which “seeks progressively to disembody or etherealize the forms of expression” (80). Put in simpler terms, Douglas is stating that all social interactions necessarily require unintentional, involuntary organic processes of the physical body to be filtered out. Consider, for example, the accumulation of social skills in children. The development of these manners teaches children to gain control over their organic processes, especially those concerning waste production and expulsion (80). All of these physical events signify certain courses of action and therefore in turn also provide a universal catalyst for interruptions to those actions (80). If these processes cannot be controlled, formal procedures that distance them strip them of their natural meaning and allow social interactions to continue uninterrupted.

In TransAtlantic, the process of socialization and eventual control Douglas describes in her work is analogous to the plane used in the transatlantic journey undertaken by Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown. As the men go from war soldiers to national heroes, Alcock and Brown’s aircraft undergoes a similar transformation. They use a modified Vickers Vimy, turning a channel for destruction into a mark of technological and historical progress. The fact that it was once a weapon of war adds a certain significance and depth to its use in a nonviolent mission. On the other hand, the pilots’ choice of this particular aircraft also memorializes and adds poignancy to its former purpose and its current practicality. Furthermore, McCann has both men describe the plane using female pronouns – Alcock, for example, saw her as a “nippy little thing” despite it being wide and lumbering (McCann 3) – and this allows the reader to also consider the aircraft as an extension of the men while on their journey. Over the course of their flight, Alcock and Brown experience several mishaps. First, the wireless generator on board breaks, disabling the heating in their suits and their only means of contact with anyone else (24). Then a piece of exhaust pipe is loosed, then snow begins to cover the petrol-overflow gauge, the airspeed meter stops working, and finally they are forced to fly blind through a massive cloud bank (24, 27, 29). All of these events can be seen as the Vimy’s version of the body’s physical processes. Each is involuntary, unwanted, and detrimental to the goal of flying to Ireland. Brown and Alcock’s actions to correct them, and success in doing so, can therefore be seen as that process of socialization to control and prevent their expression.

Like the Alcock and Brown with the Vimy, Frederick Douglass also attempts to subjugate his own bodily functions. He realizes early on that Ireland is different than America, and that he must tread carefully when delivering speeches and presenting himself to attentive parties. Thinking that he cannot allow for a single mistake, Frederick is extremely aware of his reputation. He experiences pressure, placed on his own self, to appear informed but not arrogant, reserved but not aloof, resolute but not haughty. He wonders if his manner of holding a teacup appears crude (50). Indeed, he feels the need to be conscious of every turn and every gesture because so much was expected of him (46). It is only after two weeks of consistent regulation, without being degraded or defamed for his behavior, that Frederick feels he can properly “inhabit his skin” in the public space of Irish society (51).

The parts of the physical body can be likened to members of society, each with their obligations to the whole. But at the same time, by Douglas’ purity rule the physical body is conceptualized as the polar opposite of the social body (80). Therefore, not only are the physical body’s requirements subordinated to those of the social body, but they are also contrasted against them. Any complex social system suggests that human intercourse is disembodied. Furthermore, a social experience that requires a high degree of control will consequently result in a degradation of organic processes and a wariness of situations where consciousness cannot be controlled (81). The physical body only constitutes meaning through its responses to the social system, and the tension between the two bodies is what allows for the elaboration of meanings (81).

Works Cited

Douglas, Mary. “The Two Bodies.” Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, Routledge, 1996, pp. 78-81.

Foucault, Michel. “The Political Investment of the Body.” Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan, Random House, 1979, pp. 100-104.

McCann, Colum. TransAtlantic, Bloomsbury, 2013.