Player Piano, the One-Dimensional Society, and the Emergency Brake of History

by Matthew Gannon

“What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened”

-       T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” 1936

“A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.”

-       Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, 1952

One-Dimensional Society

In his seminal book on advanced industrial society, One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse makes the case that even many ostensibly democratic nations are, at heart, totalitarian. Totalitarianism, he argues, need not manifest as dystopian wastelands with labor camps, dictatorship, secret police, and all those other Orwellian characteristics: “For ‘totalitarian’ is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests.”

Player Piano, which purports to be “not a book about what is, but a book about what could be,” is such a totalitarian society – not one organized by terrorism but by economic-technical coordination of vested interests. Its society is one that appears, as its main character Paul Proteus notes, as a “clean, straight rafter,” that, once the surface is scraped away, is rotten to the core.

Paul doesn’t just grapple with his technocratic totalitarian society in Player Piano, but also with the meaning of his life (as well as life in general), the paradox of progress, and the potential for human freedom at odds with the straightjackets of circumstance and history. The society of Player Piano is neatly organized, with its National Manufacturing Council – of which Paul’s father was its leader and Paul is expected to take over one day – and its other corporatized, streamlined, and highly industrial services. Led by a few elite individuals all disconnected from the government as such, Player Piano envisions a future so run amok by corporatized capitalism and automated technology that it has nearly reached the point of human superfluity. Humans are the messy, inefficient, and irrational distractions for the machines, which could almost go on running themselves for perpetuity.

This ability for machines to run themselves throughout time without the need for human ingenuity and human bodies to accompany it is the bleak dystopian core of Player Piano. Much like Brave New World, a novel Vonnegut was happy to admit he all but copied from, the rotten core of this industrialized society is not its denigration of human bodies and the call for militarized obedience (like in1984). The rotten core buried under a façade of shining machines is that this society has made humanity superfluous, sucked all meaning out of the world, and replaced humanist values with a machine ethic predicated upon a new holy trinity: “Efficiency, Economy, and Quality.”

Player Piano contains a society going through its own peculiar Industrial Revolution that evokes Marx, who, when faced with the first Industrial Revolution, saw the inexorable contradictions that lay ahead. A society cannot go on making life easier with amenities and concentrating wealth while simultaneously generating an enormous discontented population. Both Marx and Vonnegut understood that the dissatisfied population will boom and, when it becomes conscious of itself, find it has nothing to lose but its chains.

In many ways Player Piano reads like an exposition on Marxian political and sociological theory. There is a good old-fashioned proletarian revolution mounting throughout the novel. But Vonnegut, having seen the horrific results of industrialism that not even Marx could have imagined (industrial warfare, mass-production on an unprecedented scale, the sloth induced by mass media), has a different outlook on history. Whereas Marx saw history culminating in the concentration of technology for the benefit of the masses (wherein the coming revolution would use those technologies to liberate humanity), Vonnegut rejects the onslaught of history and cries for a halt to progress itself. Humanity’s liberation will not come through pure technological means but instead through a critical reformulation of its relationship to technology on ontological and epistemological grounds. Machines are slaves, one character notes, and “anybody that competes with slaves becomes a slave.”

Player Piano is thus a novel about the noble quest to regain humanity in the wake of dehumanizing conditions. Above all, this means a revolutionary reconstruction of humanity’s conception of progress and time. Walter Benjamin once wrote:

“Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake.”

Vonnegut is clearly grabbing for that emergency brake. The captains of industry in Player Piano often refer to history as an inevitable, even mechanical march forward in “the procession of civilization, opening new, undreamed-of doors to better things, for better living, for more people, at less cost.” This is a philosophy of history befitting a commercial rather than a serious thinker. But history has lost all meaning in this society, and, as one character notes, everything is promotion. Why have history when you could have advertising? 

This view of history is essentially a clockwork history. Player Piano contains an automated society, so it makes sense that its history is totally automated as well. Its history is predetermined by the needs of industrialism, not the choices of actual human beings. Free will has been stripped away. Machines have no need for will. Machines don’t even have much need for humanity. Vonnegut attempts to re-inject humanity, that great incomprehensible variable, into the equation of history. The Ghost Shirt Society, that group of radicals formed to counter the status quo, advocates that “men and women be returned to work as controllers of machines, and that the control of people by machines be curtailed.” They understand that the “freedom” provided by machines is a simulated freedom that produces only false-needs. A government-provided refrigerator, microwave, television, and washing machine are not the equivalent to human freedom. As Marcuse wrote, “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.”  

The majority of the U.S. population has had “the spiritual stuffing knocked out of them.” They are desperate for meaning and for dignity. They need to have a place in this world but none is provided for them. “Now that the machines have taken over, it’s quite somebody who has anything to offer. All most people can do is hope to be given something.” The machines brought to society material abundance, a veritable Eden, but people quickly discovered that everything worth enjoying with material abundance, “pride, dignity, self-respect, work worth doing, has been condemned as unfit for human consumption.” The material abundance of this futuristic society thus had the opposite effect it was intended. Instead of spreading peace and contentedness, bile and discontent flourished in their place.

What, then, is to be done about a society that denigrates humanity in the name of efficiency? It is a difficult predicament, because to oppose such an efficient industrial society seems to support inefficiency, which would be irrational. Marcuse, in One-Dimensional Man, says that “the most vexing aspects of advanced industrial civilization” is the “rational character of its irrationality.”
In order to counter this rational irrationality it is necessary to adopt a position of irrational rationality. This is precisely what the Ghost Shirt Society sets out to do: “we’ve got to be a little childish,” they insist, “and fighting is necessarily undignified and immature.”  Humanity itself, the Ghost Shirt Society writes in its manifesto, is imperfect, frail, inefficient, alternately brilliant and stupid. Machines are perfect in their own one-dimensional ways, but as multi-dimensional beings, there is virtue in human imperfection, more virtue than any machine could hope to hold – namely the potential of human will and humanity’s freedom to choose what kind of beings they would like to be, rather than have that predetermined, or programmed like a machine. Vonnegut thus grasps for the emergency brake of history in Player Piano by calling for a halt to the continued enslavement of humanity and advocating a new ontological basis for the relationship between humanity and machines predicated upon a new conception of progress.

A Battlefield at Peace

While Player Piano seems very much like a tirade against modern technology it is much more a critique of progress, specifically technological progress unaccompanied by social and political progress. In his 2005 memoir A Man Without A Country, Vonnegut admits that many have accused of him being a Luddite. Surely Player Piano is the primary evidence for such accusers. In some ways Vonnegut certainly is a Luddite, though in many important ways he is not. He is a Luddite in the sense that he shares the Luddite’s rejection of dehumanizing technologies. He is not a Luddite in the sense that he does not totally rejects technology as such, but rather rejects society’s unhealthy relationship to technology. This is a subtle distinction to be sure, but still an important one to make.

Technology and the concept of progress are inextricably bound together. Vonnegut’s critique of progress stems not from his desire to stymie technological developments, but his quest for social and political progress, which all too often lag behind that of technological progress. Furthermore, technological progress so often overshadows social and political progress that it precludes them, or stands in as a replacement for them. In his essay “On the Concept of History,” philosopher Walter Benjamin writes that Nazi Germany became the technocratic nightmare we know it to be because “it regarded technological development as the driving force of stream with which it thought it was moving,” and created “the illusion that factory work ostensibly further technological progress constituted a political achievement.” As a result, he writes, “one reason fascism has a chance is that, in the name of progress, its opponents treat it as a historical norm.”

The society of Player Piano is precisely one in which the populace believes technological progress to be interchangeable with political achievement, while in reality the elision of the two only produces the elimination of the latter. Vonnegut thus really only criticizes the “intemperate faith in lawless technological progress” rather than technology as such. A society that makes technological advances without social progress has not made true progress at all. In fact, it has regressed, because the new technologies only serve to enslave humanity further, yoking them to newer and crueler forms of exploitation. This is why Paul Proteus’s testimony that “a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction,” is so undeniably true.

To illustrate this point, Vonnegut describes a scene at the beginning of the novel where Paul Proteus looks out his office window in upstate New York and sees what he describes as a battlefield at peace: “Here in the basin of the river bend, the Mohawks had overpowered the Algonquins, the Dutch the Mohawks, the British the Dutch, the American the British.” These horrid scenes “where men had once howled and hacked at one another, and fought nip-and-tuck with nature as well” were now nothing but “bones and rotten palings and cannon balls and arrowheads.” As if to rub salt in the wounds, the product of such centuries is merely “baby carriages and bottle caps, motorcycles and refrigerators, television sets and tricycles.” These are, as Vonnegut says, the “the fruits of peace.” This is the so-called progress of which Vonnegut is rightly derisive.

Nothing But a Cat on the Fence

Proteus himself doubts this concept of progress, and sees the increasing technification of humanity as a dangerous process with a bleak endgame. He can beat Charlie Checker for now, but how much longer will the human mind surpass the robotic mind? As it is, the robotic body has surpassed the human body. The novel even hints at the eroticization of robotics. In the warehouse Proteus admires the bodily aesthetics of the machines with an almost erotic longing. “Machines themselves were entertaining and delightful.” They are “a thousand little dancers” who never miss a step or fail to delight: “practiced precision calisthenics – bobbing, spinning, leaping, thrusting, waving…” “. They sing too, with their “Furrazz-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ak” and “Vaaaaaaa-zuzip!” and “Aw-grumphtonka-tonka.”

This fascistic adoration of the metallized body matches the aesthetic ideal of Filippo Tommasso Marinetti, the 20th-century futurist poet who, when praising fascist art, glorified the “dreamed-of metallization of the human body.” In his manifesto for futurism and fascism, Marinetti wrote: “we want to glorify war — the only cure for the world.” This is the logical endgame for the metallized body that even Paul Proteus cannot help secretly desiring. Such lust is a lust for war though, or at the very least, the longing for the obsolescence of humanity itself. Paul Proteus must thus unlearn his desiring for the metallized body, and, by the end of the novel, his reeducation is complete.

It is this perverse denigration of all things human that Vonnegut finds so utterly offensive. The idea that, as Paul articulates on trial, “we’re no good because we’re human.” Humans are contrasted with machines, something Vonnegut finds distasteful: “it’s a pretty unimpressive kind of man that comes out on top when compared to a machine.” Yet everything about humanity has been reduced to a machine status, and humans make second-rate machines at best. The society itself is a mechanical pantomime, a behavioral and gestural reproduction of mass ideology, not unlike the dreadful play the engineers were forced to sit through at the Meadows business conference. All the world’s a stage and they are being forced to act their roles upon it. All everybody talked about was how great things were: “who could deny that that was magnificent and gratifying? It was what everyone said when he had to make a talk.” This is the “corporate personality,” to which everyone adheres. This is the “time-consuming pomp and circumstance lovingly preserved by the rank-happy champions of efficiency.” When Paul speaks to Anita she critiques him, analyzes his responses, and finally edits and polishes them.

Human interaction is mechanized. Paul speaks of the “mechanics of marriage.” When his wife tells him she loves him he never fails to robotically reply: “I love you, Anita.” It’s not real love or emotion. It is, as Vonnegut says, “a creditable counterfeit of warmth.” Ed Finnerty even jokes about a human can easily be robotized itself: “Stainless steel, covered with sponge rubber, and heated electrically to 98.6 degrees.” Yet this is precisely what has happened. Their industry relies on “production with almost no man power.” It is a society that “learned to get along without their men and women.” This is a society sanitized of humanity. Humans are too inefficient, “unmachine-like,” as Vonnegut says. Humans are placed in quarantine across the river. Susan Buck-Morss once said that Western countries have no need for the gulag, they have the ghetto. Homestead is the ghetto/gulag, it is a prison without bars because the bars are political and infinitely more effective than those in a real prison. The flesh and bone of the human body becomes its own kind of prison. Consider the cat in the machine room at the beginning of the novel. Startled by the robotics it is ultimately electrocuted on the fence. “Nothing but a cat on the fence.” As the cat goes, so goes humanity.

The advanced technology in Player Piano hasn’t liberated humanity, only furthered their exploitation. Their lives are easier, but not more meaningful. The technology they have has not been harnessed to revolutionizing human meaning-making. The technology isn’t used to bring out the best in humanity. It doesn’t supplement humanity – it merely replaces it. The replaced humanity is ghost-like, a trace of what it once was. Humanity is player of the player piano, a recording on a tape, like the poor Rudy Hertz, onetime skilled mechanic.

It is for these reasons that technology and progress are rejected. Vonnegut reaches for the emergency brake, looking for, as Eliot puts it in the epigraph, the passage which we did not take and the door we never opened. Vonnegut demands that humanity return to a prior state of technological progress and begin again, this time ensuring social progress along with technological progress. The reader ought to align with Finnerty, an arch-human in this novel, when he says “my sympathy’s with any man up against a machine,” particularly when it is the machine of history itself. “Those who live by electronics, die by electronics. Sic semper tyrannis.” If this mechanized history, an automated and unquestionable history, is allowed to continue unfettered then ultimately all of humanity will end up enslaved, victims of their own creation, or else threatened with extinction due to environmental degradation or perpetual warfare. The only way to halt history, as Benjamin intimated, is to halt time itself. Benjamin posited that, “The concept of mankind’s historical progress cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time.” In Player Piano Vonnegut describes this fully automated society as “an altogether pleasant and convenient place in which to sweat out Judgment Day.” This is the empty, homogenous time that must be blasted out of historical continuity in order for new historical and sociopolitical potentials to arise and, ultimately, to allow transcendent humanity to inherit the earth.

Against Time

There is an important moment in Player Piano that, if the reader isn’t paying close enough attention to, slips by unnoticed. Nevertheless, it pinpoints Vonnegut’s the uniquely temporal critique of progress. This moment occurs about halfway through the novel, when Paul Proteus is at an old-fashioned farmhouse on the outskirts of the technified and automated industrial hub of Ilium. Paul is at this farmhouse, a veritable fossil in a futuristic landscape, to buy it. Against all aesthetic, social, and political convention Proteus is looking back in time, longing for a simpler era rather than the convoluted nightmare of his automated present. He describes the house as “cut off from the boiling rapids of history, society, and the economy. Timeless.”

While inside the farmhouse he notices a grandfather clock, which is such an antique that its inner works are made of wood. Proteus’s attention is immediately drawn to the clock, and he quickly compares it to his own watch, a “shock-proof, waterproof, anti-magnetic, glow-in-the-dark, self-winding chronometer.” Noticing that the grandfather clock is off by about twelve minutes, he indulges in “an atavistic whim” by winding his own hi-tech watch to match the time espoused by the grandfather clock.

By slipping out of standard, mechanical time by just twelve minutes, Paul Proteus slips into a new time line, an alternative time running parallel to the present. Proteus, in a very small way, has traveled in time. Player Piano thus inaugurates time travel as a potent literary device, something Vonnegut would use to great effect in later novels, particularly Slaughterhouse-Five. By planting the seeds of doubt in the traditional progression of time Vonnegut creates the potential for a revolutionary rupture in history that would become an integral part of his entire oeuvre.

By juxtaposing the farmhouse and the clock against the totally automated and futuristic society of Ilium, Vonnegut establishes anachronism as a novel form of time travel. Anachronism is so often understood as an error, a flaw in the plot in which characters use or refer to concepts, inventions, historical figures, etc. that are out of place in time and history, that its use as a subversive force often goes unrecognized. Not all writers use anachronism by mistake though, and Vonnegut employs it masterfully in Player Piano. Vonnegut isn’t the only writer to take advantage of anachronism, but he is undoubtedly one of its finest practitioners. The word anachronism literally means, from the Greek, against time. The key to using anachronism is the ability to make use that moment of crisis readers experience when forced to read against time. Using this device intentionally serves to, in the words of the 20th-century literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, “brush history against the grain.” As a literary device, anachronism is nothing less than revolutionary in its capacity to indict the present and summon new realities.

Theodor Adorno once wrote that only that which does not fit in can be true. This is the basic principle of anachronism. By setting himself off from his present by twelve minutes Paul Proteus rejects his present and calls for an awakening of a new time and, along with it, a new consciousness. By disrupting readers and making them read against time, their normal perception of the progression of time is disrupted and their understandings of the temporal basis of progress is thrown into question. It shakes the foundations of “intemperate faith in lawless technological progress,” that Vonnegut so ruthlessly criticizes in Player Piano. Like tapping into a subterranean vein, Vonnegut delves into his readers collective psyche via schisms in time in order to unearth new modes of consciousness and being that can transcend the dehumanizing present. After all, it is the notion of progress that Vonnegut seeks to interrogate in this novel, and by placing Paul Proteus out of time, even by just twelveminutes, he gives himself the space to initiate his critique.

The Most Beautiful Peonies I Ever Saw…

As readers find at the end of the novel, Paul makes his choice and decides to break free from the chains of circumstance and history. “Finnerty could be anything he wanted to be,” Paul laments, while he “could have been only what he was.” Nevertheless, he desires to assert his humanity against the ghost at the player piano. Paul is appalled at the notion that he is “so well-integrated into the machinery of society and history as to be able to move in only one plane.” He is trapped in a truly one-dimensional society. Paul’s existential and professional crisis symbolizes the broader historical crisis of an automated history and society. That is, a society that not only is industrialized, but its history and social norms are as rigid as automated processes. Paul desires to opt out of this “procession of history,” as Vonnegut puts it. In the mechanized history, “somebody always wins, and somebody always loses.” The problem with a machine is that “it can’t make a mistake.”

Paul wishes to exit the dialectic of history, “to stop being the instrument of any set of beliefs or any whim of history.” Hegel’s world-spirit doesn’t run through him, he insists, he just wants to live in a house by the side of a road. He doesn’t want to deal with society, “but only with earth as God had given it to man.” He desires a life like Thoreau, to live purposefully, “heartily and blamelessly,naturally, by hands and wits.” His history, all of history, has been entirely hemmed in though, all the crossroads are extinct and there’s nothing but one-way streets. The only option is revolt. Paul becomes The Rebel.

To go about reaffirm humanity, Vonnegut claims, is not to claim human superiority over machines, but to claim humanity’s innate qualities are in and of themselves values that cannot be mechanically reproduced. Humanity must overcome mechanization not through sheer struggle, but by default. This sounds like a cop-out but it really isn’t. “The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings… not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems.” This existential cry is made in full acknowledgement of the imperfections of humanity. These inherent imperfections, these flaws, are the very things that make human life so valuable. The un-perfectible forecloses all potential for change, but the imperfect human has limitless potential. “The most beautiful peonies I ever saw… were grown in almost pure cat excrement,” says Paul. Each imperfection provides a chance for choice and human will. That, in and of itself, is the only value humanity ever needs.

Paul Proteus, at more than one moment, imagines, with no small amount of self-aggrandizement, that he is the end of a race. He represents that last vestige of humanity that desires to remake the world in the image of humanity, not machinery. After he is gone all roadblocks will be lifted and the clockwork history can proceed unfettered until all humans have become irrelevant. Après nous, les machines. Still, at the very end of the novel Vonnegut teases readers with a glimmer of unblemished redemptive possibility: “This isn’t the end, you know… Nothing ever is, nothing ever will be – not even Judgment Day.” After all, there’s always a step backward, and a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.

Read Matthew Gannon's opening essay, "Kurt Vonnegut Has Come Unstuck in Time"