Jon S. Skolnik, American Institute of Technology for Sexual Linguistics, December 30th, 2099
In his percipient 1859 essay “Quotations and Originality,” Emerson puts, “In the highest civilization, the book is still the highest delight. He who has once known its satisfactions is provided with a resource against calamity.” Indeed, in every century of American history, preeminent works of literature conspicuously emerge as resources against their century’s ‘calamity.’ To many writers, such calamity comes in the form of technology. Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, reified the zeitgeist of 19th-century Luddism by allegorizing the dangers of the private ownership of scientific power. In the 20th century, Huxley’s A Brave New World warned of vesting this power in public hands, satirizing a dystopian state that manufactures the consent of its populace through technological oppression. Naturally, with the new turn of the century, it falls upon literary academia to canonize works that best capture the calamity of the 21st century, where individuals, as opposed to firms or states, experienced the
largest leap in technological agency.
By examining Leonard Delaney’s most contentious work of short fiction, Taken by the Tetris Blocks, this review positions his oeuvre as a perennial touchstone of 21st-century American literature. His self-published six-part series Digital Desires—which also includes the lesser-known but nonetheless consequential titles, Conquered By Clippy, Coaxed by the Copyright Page, and My Racist Robot Lawyer—captures the unique technophobic milieu of the 2000s by way of the emergent technology’s sexual influence.
The Plight of Professional Womanhood
Christie Aackerlund, the leading protagonist of Digital Desires, proves a dynamic subject of inquiry. Christie is an ambitious, sexually desirable writer working for Squawker Media (a name whose subtle yet incisive satirical origin quickly establishes tone). Her lascivious boss, Dick Denton desires Christie sexually and assigns her stories far below her paygrade. He is unable to recognize her worth to the company beyond her sexual appeal. Christie is steeped within what Irigaray (1985) might call her ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’, the former ignored in service of the latter. However, as we’ll find, Christie’s plight is not without pleasure.
A Marxist Appropriation of Sexual Revolution
In explaining the Blocks’ mysterious appearance from the sky, Delaney puts, “Nobody knew if they were aliens or human technology.” After Christie’s schism with Squawker, she finds solace in the comfort of a male Z Block, with a Russian accent, that doubles as a restroom sink countertop. Here, Delaney deftly alludes to Cold-War hysteria, parallelizing the Blocks’ influence to the spread of communism. Naturally, Delaney lays the foundation for this comparison with Marxist undertones. As the Z Block puts, “[Dick] keeps Blocks in the basement, doing menial tasks, when we are capable of much more.” In light of the Z Block’s subsequent confession that he has “not had the [sexual] power” Christie wields, we see that Delaney is masterfully presaging the Blocks’ sexual insurgency.
As Christie’s tryst with the Z Block escalates emotionally, so too does it sexually. When Christie fears that they will be heard in the restroom, the Z Block assuages her: “Da…is not problem. We control the building. 0956 will put on some music.” Delaney’s Marxist undertones verging on overtones here, it becomes clear then that the means of production is held by the Blocks. Christie welcomes the Z Block’s advances with a spirit of comradery, as she too is convinced she has been undermined by the bourgeoisie. “Fill my gap!” she proclaims, in a brilliant act of human-block coitus. Delaney’s use of ‘gap’ here remains fiercely contested by literary scholars. While some (P.E. Nusbaum, 2043; B. Jainow, 2020) regard it as Christie’s figurative gap in knowledge, which “awaits to be filled in the form of political enlightenment,” others (Dildeux, 2067; A. Nell, 2080) view it as the “metaphorical gap in trust between humans and technology.” The former analysis, of course, fails to capture the breadth of Delaney’s commentary.
As the affair progresses, a male L and I Block file into the restroom to engage in a collective sex act with Christie and the Z Block. Their sexual communion here positions the Blocks as a monolithic force as opposed to individual actors. Delaney puts, “Christie decided to give the [L Block] a new Earthly sensation.” We see here that the Z-Block’s self-alleged impotence was a red herring—a devious act of subterfuge aimed at lowering Christie’s guard. As the passage explains, “…she couldn’t stop. Nor could the…Blocks she was fucking. They were past the point of no return.” The Blocks have exploited Foucault’s power-knowledge relation. They’ve casted themselves as sexually deficient, despite having a shrewd awareness of their own eroticism.
Sexual Colonialism by Digital Bodies
Whereas Taken’s rising action presents the Blocks’ coup in terms of process and causality, its denouement presents long-term ramifications. Delaney flashes forward two months, with Christie now liberated from the professional limitations of her sexuality. Delaney explains, “She didn’t fuck the Blocks in her own home; that would be weird.” Such separations for Christie are, of course, necessary to preserve an independence from technology. Delaney, however, does away with the possibility of such independence with what starts for Christie as a stomach ache and progresses, much to bewilderment of readers and scholars alike, as “a bulge in her belly. An edge, then a corner.” It becomes clear, then, that Christie is not the harbinger of Block justice; she is the victim of it. Delaney’s sharp departure from subtlety verges on self-reflexivity. His is an intrepid authorial move, only amplifying its gut-wrenching takeaway: we cannot escape that which metaphorically lives inside of us. To Delaney, the technology of the 21st century has linked itself inextricably to the human psyche and biology. Humans, in other words, have become mere physical appendages of machine will.
Much of the scholarly community has posited that Taken reads as a polemic against singularity. However, this review contends that Taken is instead a lamentation of it, framing singularity as an event that was already sweeping much of the Western World at the time of its publication. Delaney is more empathetic than prophetic. He does not fear the future, but grieves the present. Perhaps, in this sense, what makes Digital Desires so consequential is not—as most scholars have argued—that the series was ahead of its time but, rather, deeply of its time in a society that wanted a crystal ball but needed a mirror.
Image: PAM illustration.
POLITICAL ANIMAL IS AN OPEN FORUM FOR SMART AND ACCESSIBLE DISCUSSIONS OF ALL THINGS POLITICAL. WHEREVER YOUR BELIEFS LIE ON THE POLITICAL SPECTRUM, THERE IS A PLACE FOR YOU HERE. OUR COMMITMENT IS TO QUALITY, NOT PARTY, AND WE INVITE ALL POLITICAL ANIMALS TO SEIZE THEIR VOICE WITH US.
THINK. DISCUSS. DEFEND. FREELY.