From the Underground to The Circle, and Back Again

Since my late teens, I’ve had a penchant for Russian literature. It started with Dostoevsky. It may have been because we were both clerks—Dostoevsky’s “underground man,” that is, he’d been a clerk, too, a petty clerk in the Russian civil service. That could have been our initial bonding, the basis of our strange friendship. I’ll always remember what Dostoevsky said at the start of his novella, Notes from Underground: “It goes without saying that both these Notes and their author are fictitious. Nevertheless, people like the author of these notes may, and indeed must, exist in our society, when we take into account the circumstances under which that society has been formed.” We hit it off immediately, despite our epochal differences, despite our age gap (he was forty), our different tongues. Like him I was rude and enjoyed being rude. It was all I could do, of course, for not taking bribes, for not wanting in. I was serving my time, paying my penance, as a wages clerk at the dock board in Liverpool; it was around 1978, not long before the power cuts. An OPEC oil embargo had sent advanced economies into giddy noise dives, and the Sex Pistols had had a debut hit, “Anarchy in the UK.” These were heady times, full of crises and chaos, of psychological alienation and economic annihilation, of Punk Rock and Disco, of Blue Mondays and Saturday Night Fever.

During the candlelit doom of Callaghan’s “Winter of Discontent” (1978/9), blackouts, strikes and piled up rubbish seemed the social order of the day. The decade was dramatised by a sense of lost innocence. I watched my adolescence dissipate into damp Liverpool air, into a monotone grey upon grey. I was adrift, often between jobs, between tiresome, pointless office jobs that in Liverpool most people thought I was lucky to have. I was a self-avowed underground man; Dostoevsky populated my imagination. Before long, I could recite passages of Notes From Underground by heart. In around one hundred pages, our anti-hero, our “PARADOXICALIST—as Dostoevsky called him—uttered an unnerving yet strangely uplifting refrain. This paradoxalist was woven from a weird cloth. He teems with opposite elements. He calls himself an insect and a mouse and takes pleasure from his own suffering. He seems stark raving mad. Or maybe he’s completely normal… maybe it’s the world that’s stark raving mad, that drives people over the edge, into action.

The underground man reads a lot, maybe even thinks too much too often, has a “hysterical craving for contrast and contradiction.” Sometimes he wants, needs, to plunge headlong into society, to feel its thrills and dangers, its delights and disorder. Phoney order bores him, disgusts him. He has to get out. Out of his self and out into the world. One night he passes a tavern and glimpses a ballroom brawl. There, a six-foot-plus army officer, brandishing billiard cues, is dispatching assailants out of the window. In enters the underground man, yearning to be thrown from the window himself. But “without a word of explanation,” he’s placed aside. The officer passes by “as though he hadn’t noticed me.” “I could forgive blows,” the underground man says, “but I absolutely cannot forgive him for having moved me, for having completely failed to notice me.”

How to get even, how to make the officer take notice of him? How to make the world take notice of him? A duel? A literary quarrel? A missive in the mail? The underground man spots his enemy strolling along the Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s main boulevard, rarely moving aside for anybody and trampling right through people. This bully just strolls right though everybody, like they’re empty space. Ordinary people move aside, “wriggle like eels” and make way for him, for professional authority figures like him, for those in power, for those with power. What if you don’t move aside? What if you stand your ground? The idea takes hold.

At first, the underground man balks. In one attempt, and at the last second, he loses his nerve and steps aside. Another time, ready to go for it, he stumbles and sprawls across the sidewalk, falling at the officer’s feet. Afterwards, he’s feverish for days. Then one afternoon, unexpectedly, he sees his antagonist again, out on the Nevsky. This time, closing his eyes, he doesn’t budge an inch, not one inch! “He did not even look round and pretended not to notice me,” the underground man beams. “But he was only pretending, I am convinced of that. I am convinced of that to this day! Of course, I got the worst of it—he was stronger, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I had attained my goal, had kept my dignity. I’d placed myself publicly on an equal social footing.” And so, “perhaps I am more alive than you are,” the underground man taunts. “Take a closer look at it! We don’t even know where life lives now, or what it is, or what it’s called…”

There’s something going on here inside the underground man’s head that Dostoevsky calls “intensely developed individuality.” It’s a “positive disease,” he says, a “hyperconsciousness,” a “feeling that one has reached the last barrier.” Realising back then that it couldn’t have been otherwise, that it couldn’t have been any different, was the reason why I wanted it to be otherwise, wanted it to be different, just for the hell of it, just for spite. It had to change, it could change… bah, what did it matter if it changed or not… I vacillated, was grimly determined, was determined to be grim. Like a lot of people in this era, I’d reached the final barrier; my hopeless situation meant it was never hopeless, that it could be changed… I had no idea then how it could change, what would happen next, where I could go, what I could do…

Meanwhile, I watched Dostoevsky up the ante with his underground paradoxicalist. Hyperconsciousness, apparently, emerges through “the intricacies of sensuality.” Underground people revel in it; they can never be organ stops or piano keys, coolly reasoning beings. We feel. We act stupidly sometimes, impulsively, often irrationally. We could never live in any Crystal Palace, never abandon our own free will. “Let me ask you now,” Dostoevsky says: “what can one expect from this person if they’re endowed with such strange qualities?” They wouldn’t be in love with any Crystal Palace, with any “pure” rationality, with any “two times two equals four.” Now, “two times two equals four is a fine thing,” says Dostoevsky, but after two times two equals four “there’s nothing left to do, or even to learn.” It’s a done deal: “everything will be computed and designed with such exactitude that no more actions or adventures will be possible in the world.” And yet, just when Dostoevsky fears most this hyper-professionalised world of logic and logarithms, he jolts: “I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if, suddenly, for no particular reason, in the midst of the universal future rational wellbeing, somebody were to appear and, putting their hands on their hips, would say to us all: ‘how about it, why don’t we knock this rational wellbeing into smithereens with one swift kick, with the sole purpose of sending all these logarithms to the devil!’”

The target of Dostoevsky’s vitriol—the “Crystal Palace”—is Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s radical utopia, descriptions of which form the most radiant passages of the latter’s novel What Is To Be Done?, appearing in 1863, two years before Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. Key scene is protagonist Vera Pavlovna’s fourth dream phase, imagining human perfectibility, an ideal symbolised by a “building, an enormous building, such as are now in but a few capitals… or no, there is not a single one like that now! It stands amid fields and meadows, gardens and woods… There is nothing like it now; no, but there is one that points towards it—the palace which stands on Sydenham Hill. Glass and steel, steel and glass, and that is all. No, that is not all, that is only the shell of the building… But there, inside, there is a real house, an enormous house. It is covered by this crystal and steel building as by a sheath. . . Life is healthy and quiet here. It preserves freshness.”

Chernyshevsky had visited Joseph Paxton’s famous pinnacle of Hyde Park’s 1851 Great International Exhibition, after it had moved to Sydenham Hill. Dostoevsky, too, had been there, in 1862, and wrote about it in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, his European travelogue from 1863. He’d gasped for breadth at Paxton’s Crystal Palace, at the sight of this incarnation of ultimate truth, but recoiled in horror at the thought of living in a society modelled on it: “you feel that here something has been achieved, that here there is victory and triumph. No matter how independent you might be, for some reason you become terrified. ‘Hasn’t the ideal in fact been achieved here?’ you think. ‘Isn’t this the ultimate?… Isn’t it in fact necessary to accept this as the truth fulfilled and grow dumb once and for all?’’’

In the late 1950s, the novelist and satirist Alan Harrington explicitly drew on Dostoevsky in his quirky non-fiction account of Life in the Crystal Palace. One time friend of Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Harrington (1939-1997) was a chip off Dostoevsky’s own block, typically mixing black humour with poetic imagination, mockery (and self-mockery) with biting social critique. Life in the Crystal Palace centres around Harrington’s many years working in Public Relations for an unnamed giant US corporation (Standard Oil, in New Jersey), and “begins,” the book’s blurb says, “where The Organization Man [William H. Whyte’s classic] left off, vividly reporting the author’s experiences. It says to those who yearn for perfect security, ‘I’ve had it, and I gave it up.’ And it tells why.” Dostoevsky’s spirit haunts Harrington’s years at the Corporation, having a job for life, being a company man, wearing an ordinary grey suit, having security, a pension, a chance to live without anxiety, an entire lifetime as an employee, a protected man, amiable, decent, polite, cooperative, what could be better? And the Crystal Palace, the glimmering symbol of corporate professional life, seems nothing less than the headquarters of the Good Society, of the happy life.

Here all frustrations are banished. “Even in younger men,” Harrington says, “the hard muscle of ambition tends to go slack after awhile… gradually you become accustomed to the Utopian drift… when we moved to the suburbs, the company paid its employees moving expenses and helped them settle in their new homes.” “I began to feel,” says Harrington, “what I now recognise was a gradually deepening contentment. If you are on the watch for symptoms, here are a few: (1) You find that you are planning your life defensively, in terms of savings plans and pensions, rather than thinking speculatively. (2) You become much less impatient over inefficiency, shrug your shoulders and accept it as the way things are. (3) Your critical faculties become dull; you accept second-best; it seems unsporting to complain. (4) Nothing makes you nervous. (5) You find that you are content to talk to people without saying anything. (6) You mention something like ‘our Human Development Department’ to outsiders and learn with surprise that they think you made a joke.”

“I can’t even get sick anymore,” says Harrington. “This will sound ridiculous, but when the company obtained a supply of influenza shots, I found myself in the absurd position of refusing one. For some reason I wanted a chance to resist the flu in my own way. What is the moral of all this? I am not quite sure, but some time ago Dostoevsky put it in Notes from Underground: ‘In the Crystal Palace suffering is unthinkable. You believe, do you not, in a Crystal Palace which shall be forever unbreakable—in an edifice, that is to say, at which no one shall be able to put out his tongue, or in any other way to mock?… I should fight shy of such a building.”

Underground man Harrington could never accept the numbing security of the big corporation. At heart, he’s a dialectical personality, fighting shy of such an edifice, standing up to the monotony of cubicle life, wanting to stick his tongue out—just for the hell of it—to live a bit, out on the edge. Circa 2015, it’s a curious thing rereading Alan Harrington’s tale of bygone corporate America. It’s a curious thing, too, rereading Dostoevsky in mature adulthood, now that my underground days seem so long ago. The underground is still in me; yet even thinking nowadays that professional life is based on any kind of rationality seems absurd to the grown up me. The problem with two times two equals four is that most professionals accept its principle, but end up sticking their tongues out to it, too; sometimes, when it suits them, two times two equals five is an very fine thing. Today’s austerity measures, we know, are based as much on nonscience (and nonsense) as any kind of rational science. So the underground person sticking tongues out, contesting structures of power, acting out on the Nevsky Prospect somewhere, is up against something much more than either Dostoevsky or Harrington could ever have imagined in their day. Hurrah for the underground! But it’s a different underground now, and underground people are different; so are our assailants, our antagonists. “I wonder what he’s doing now,” asks Dostoevsky, “that dear friend of mine? Who’s he trampling on now?”

If we want to see the real incarnation of Dostoevsky’s Crystal Palace in the Third Millennium professionalised world, we should look no further than Dave Eggers’ The Circle, his barely fictionalised parable of The Corporation, the omnipotent, multi-grained, decaffeinated dream conglomerate of Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Paypal, set in a dazzling Californian campus, “wild with Pacific colour.” The Harrington utopia of a job for life has suddenly transformed itself into a dystopic job to the Death, death in paradise, where once flabby contentment now gives way to lean jittery anxiety; life in work means having no life, living in permanent fear of being dispensable, performing worse than your counterparts, your peers. Nothing is hidden anymore; all is transparent, trackable, observable, quantifiable; nobody doesn’t participate. As somebody reminds protagonist Mae Holland, the young woman who’s recruited wholesale into the Circle’s professionalised ideal, “don’t you see that it’s all connected? You play your part. You have to part-icipate.” At the Circle, your PARTICIPATION RANK is common knowledge; everybody knows it. “We see this workplace as a community,” another colleague reminds Mae, “and every person who works here is part of that community.”

If the performance stacks up, everything is yours. But the performance never lets up, has to get better, faster, more efficient; nothing short of a perfection is permitted, a perfection in which there’s everything left to do. The Circle gets under your skin; you become it; you sleep it, eat it, procreate it. This isn’t so much a suburban Leave it to Beaver as The Day of the Locusts; but the locusts are now inside you, inside your head, eating away, and we have to fight mightily not to let them in. Yet Mae is smitten and bitten, and sounds a lot like Chernyshevsky’s Vera Pavlovna but in wide awake time: “a few thousand Circlers began to gather in the twilight, and standing among them, Mae knew that she never wanted to work—never wanted to be—anywhere else. Her hometown, and the rest of California, the rest of America, seemed like some chaotic mess in the developing world. Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work. And it was natural that it was so, Mae thought, who else but utopians could make utopia?”

Eggers even has an underground man, a guy called Mercer, Mae’s ex-boyfriend, a loser because he doesn’t want in, knows it’s a scam: He’s there to pull tongues at the Crystal Palace. Mae once loved him but now hates his guts. He’s her past, the mess outside, antiquarian bullshit; he spends his time making chandeliers out of dead animal parts. “Here’s the thing,” Mercer tells Mae in one fraught scene, “and it’s painful to say this to you. But you’re not very interesting anymore. You sit at a desk twelve hours a day and you have nothing to show for it except for some numbers that won’t exist or be remembered in a week. You’re leaving no evidence that you lived. There’s no proof.
‘Fuck you, Mercer.’” Mae rejoins.
“And worse,” he says, “you’re not doing anything interesting anymore. You’re not seeing anything, saying anything. The weird paradox is that you think you’re at the centre of things, and that makes your opinions more valuable, but you yourself are becoming less vibrant. I bet you haven’t done anything offscreen for months. Have you?
‘You’re such a fucker, Mercer.’”

But fucker Mercer’s big problem is his problem of wanting out. Somehow, he’s worse being off-line than on, worse unplugging himself, and fleeing, than standing his ground and engaging. It’s like standing under a tree during a lightening strike. He writes Mae one last note: “By the time you read this, I’ll be off the grid, and I expect that others will join me. In fact, I know others will join me. We’ll be living underground, and in the desert, in the woods. We’ll be like refugees, or hermits, some unfortunate but necessary combination of the two. Because this is what we are. I expect this is some second great schism, where two humanities will live, apart but parallel. There will be those who live under the surveillance dome you’re helping to create, and those who live, or try to live, apart from it. I’m scared to death for us all.” He’s right to be scared: fleeing in his pickup truck, drones hunt him down; SeeChange cameras track him. In fierce determination to get out, to escape beyond their gaze, Mercer ploughs his vehicle through a crash barrier and careens down a gorge below, dead, very dead indeed. Everything is on film, recorded, remarked upon: “Mae, you were trying to help a very disturbed, antisocial young man. You and the other participants were reaching out, trying to bring him into embrace of humanity, and he rejected that.”

There’s actually another underground man in Eggers’ life in the Crystal Palace. In a lot of ways, this character is more politically satisfying than Mercer, more our real dialectical personality. He’s an amateur masquerading as a pro, an insider who’s also an outsider. Wearing “an enormous hoodie,” he even looks like a contemporary underground man, an occupier or black bloc revolter. This underground man is none other than the Circle’s boy-wonder visionary, Tyler Gospodinov, the company’s first “Wise-Man,” whom everybody knows as “Ty.” Mae knows him as Kalden, Ty’s amateur alter-ego, his shadow self, a kind of Edward Snowden whistleblower who warns of the closing of the Circle, of the totalitarian nightmare he’d help create. He’s not running away from anything: he’s hacking it, trying to disassemble it, from the inside. But he needs help; he reaches out to Mae, seeing her as ambivalent, as still a potential subverter, as a twisted dialectician. Yet as things move, she’s too far gone; she’s straight. The other Wise-Men, says Kalden, have “professionalised our idealism, monetarised our utopia.” They “saw the connection between our work and politics,” he says, “and between politics and control. Public-private leads to private-private, and soon you have the Circle running most or even all government services, with incredible private sector efficiency and an insatiable appetite.”

Kalden knows more than Mercer. He’s an outsider-insider, a maggot in the apple, trying to eat his way out from the core. He’s not so much a Great Refuser as a Double Agent, calling out to others, to fellow underground men and women, those who aren’t unplugged and off-line but are tuned in, masters and mistresses of both worlds, knowing the limitations of each. But they know what’s what, know how to strategise, how to disrupt. Their value systems are intact; authentic, we might say. All know how resistance these days isn’t so much about what you do as who you are: it’s an ontological reality more than epistemological, something that cuts right inside you, into your beliefs, into your democratic hopes, into your anti-corporate desires. Resistance, in other words, needs to be wholesale, a total way of Being. The enigma of revolt is to make revolt enigmatic, from the inside as well as the outside, don’t make it obvious, nor even direct. If only our professional antagonists could be nailed in the street, bumping them out of the way! “There used to be an option of opting out,” Kalden says at the end of The Circle. “But now that’s over… The Circle needs to be dismantled.”

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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