A Constellation of Intimacies: Parallels Between the Struggles of Today and Tomorrow in Cunningham's 'Specimen Days'
In this article, the author provides an examination of Michael Cunningham’s 2005 narrative Specimen Days, which is composed of a trio of novellas set in three separate, yet related time periods. By positioning this narrative in relation to perspectives of human desire, feeling and migration, the author explains how Specimen Days speaks to cultural scripts and performances of daily life. In particular, Cunningham’s narrative can be interpreted as being a multilayered allegory concerned with the social relations of intimacy, including the ways people experience non-normative forms of amative sociality across a range of contexts.
Affect; Alien; Cyborg; Relationship; Queer
Introduction: Understanding Social Alterity in Intimate and Oppressive Contexts
In June 2005, the American gay and lesbian magazine The Advocate published a brief and cordial interview that the writer David Bahr conducted with the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Michael Cunningham. During the interview, Bahr talks with Cunningham about his then-recent novel Specimen Days, which is the narrative that followed Cunningham’s prize-winning novel, The Hours (Bahr 2005: 60-1). Cunningham’s The Hours focused on the lives of gay and lesbian people, which is a theme that appears in much of Cunningham’s oeuvre. His narrative Specimen Days is not explicitly about lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people, yet the interviewer David Bahr tells Cunningham that Specimen Days offers: “one of your queerest stories” (Bahr 2005: 60). In response, Cunningham explains, “I’ve always thought of myself as a queer [rather than gay] writer” (Bahr 2005: 60). In his comment, Cunningham frames his work and himself in both a personal and professional way, linking his writing’s qualities to his own personal lived experience. Instead of self-identifying with the fixity that comes with the term gay, he chooses the more capacious word queer, which many critics see as an umbrella term encapsulating many more forms of social and sexual experiences (Somerville 2007: 189). In narrating his sense of self in this way, Cunningham prompts readers to consider his text through a lens shaped by a myriad of socio-political struggles as well as beliefs about human desires and feelings.
To understand the intimate aspects of Specimen Days, let us consider the ways in which Cunningham connects the social relations of outcasts in a multilayered narrative of American struggle. One of the book’s three novellas, ‘Like Beauty’, speaks to the aforesaid issues by focusing on the lives of several characters, including an extraterrestrial refugee and two cyborgs that the populace perceives as ‘abominations’ and ‘criminals’ (Cunningham 2005). The meanings of the characters’ social statuses become apparent as the characters come to terms with their position of alterity during the course of the narrative. One of Cunningham’s cyborgs links his frustration at having to hide his unusual identity with the experience of ‘being illegal’ (Cunningham 2005). By doing so, the narrative suggests a parallel between cyborgs and undocumented migrants, who also are criminalized by oppressive American nativists. To survive this oppression, the cyborgs and aliens must perform social roles that are inconsistent with their interests, such as working as a nanny and a prostitute. Yet alongside these less desirable performances, the text’s aliens, cyborgs and others are shown as generating meaningful intimate bonds that mirror the closeness of present-day amative relations (Cunningham 2005: 231). In this manner, ‘Like Beauty’ presents several unconventional intimacies that bring to mind the lives of queer people and migrants who negotiate unsavory daily challenges as well as survive the humiliations and violence emanating from authoritarians and corporatist society. Interestingly, this futuristic and unconventional story is told in a correspondingly unconventional way insofar as this tale of aliens and cyborgs is positioned alongside two other short novellas. These other novellas connect with and parallel ‘Like Beauty’, yet ‘Like Beauty’ is the most innovative and unique piece in Cunningham’s set. Hence, I focus on ‘Like Beauty’ by theorizing that the text embodies a sub-genre I call ‘intimate allegory’, which I understand as a multi-textual story form arising in the wake of twentieth century queer movements, which resisted American ideals of intimate bonds. While the text is an allegory, I am mindful of the ways it also exhibits a slippage in genre. This set of novellas remains difficult to categorize and might also be understood as experimental and queerly composed because of how the storytelling resists simplistic taxonomies. In a comparable fashion, this allegory offers a resistance to the forces and stresses of an inflexible society through the characters’ acts of contesting the cultural scripts that prescribe normative ways of living.
Specimen Days challenges scripts and socio-political constructs as many marginalized communities and subordinated peoples have had to do historically. Across the United States, people of color, people with disabilities, the economically disadvantaged, queer communities and multitudes of women have engaged in activism, advocacy, civil disobedience and other kinds of protest as a means of undoing unfair circumstances. Much as these groups have done, Specimen Days invites readers to ponder the results of transgressing boundaries and notions of morality that often relegate vulnerable peoples to the peripheries, where they are forced to perform for the dominant culture. Robyn W Warhol and Susan S Lanser provide cogent commentary on the ways so-called unconventional desires are theorized in feminist work, performative acts and queer experiences writ large (2015: 8). As Warhol and Lanser show us, feminist and queer cultural forms have a history of suggesting ideas of performativity. Lanser and Warhol’s work builds on the ideas developed by scholars like Judith Butler. In the pioneering book Gender Trouble, Butler writes, ‘Consider gender, for instance, as a corporeal style, an “act”, as it were, which is both intentional and performative, where “performative” suggests a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning’ (1990: 177). Cunningham’s text shows how the characters are drawn into several kinds of performance and are forced to negotiate with a bevy of constraints as they perform social roles to make a living and be deemed valuable within their social environments. The constraints in question are fostered by relations of heteronormativity and loathsome belief systems, such as the supremacist imperative to maintain forms of ‘racial purity’ (Cunningham 2005: 113). By and large, Cunningham’s main characters reject such notions of purity and normativity as well as engage with new kinds of coalition where differences are embraced. In so doing, Cunningham’s allegory leads readers to see how these characters’ performances relate to daily life in their own realities. While this intimate allegory is defined most prominently in the third novella, this storytelling form is in part predicated on ideas of difference that come through in the first two novellas. This form invites readers to compare the novellas, see links between them, and ponder how these texts resist the forces of conformity, segregation and taxonomy that often hinder social progress and harm people. This storytelling formula is not entirely unique, however, as narratives such as the television show American Horror Story: Asylum and Hollywood films like District 9 and X-Men: The Last Stand also allegorize the struggles of queers and ethnic groups.
The intimate allegory and the queer subtext of Cunningham’s third novella become more discernible as the text focuses on the relations of two cyborgs and an alien named Catareen. This science fictional portrayal functions like a linchpin insofar as it drives readers to see the parallels between the last novella’s unconventional intimacy and other forms of sociality in the first two novellas. Similarly, this last novella’s position—as the third text in Specimen Days—also makes a remarkable statement through its positioning, telling us that this text’s set of ideas has moved beyond the prior two, resisting the limitations of twoness and binarism that are ubiquitous in today’s thinking about matters such as gender and sexuality. For instance, this allegory’s main character—a cyborg named Simon—is neither man nor machine, but rather inhabits a third identity that pushes social boundaries. To develop this line of thinking, my project places Cunningham’s third novella at the center of the discussion, making it the primary object of analysis. This paper’s focus on the third novella’s allegory offers an alternative pathway to studying Specimen Days and allows us to rethink our reading practices as well as ways of looking at the world.
Synthesizing a Critical Framework: Cyborg Intimacies in Context and Theory
As the first and second novella take place in the industrial revolution and the early twenty-first century respectively, ‘Like Beauty’ offers a major departure by jumping more than a hundred years into a dystopian future where America as we know it has fallen. While each of these stories could be seen as self-contained, they also exhibit similarities and connections to one another, as well as to the writing of the nineteenth-century poet Walt Whitman, who is regarded as being exceptionally compassionate, innovative and radical for his time. Whitman’s poetic language is integrated directly into the narratives of each novella in Specimen Days, suggesting that Whitman’s creative thought correlates with the text’s motifs and the characters’ experiences. Whitman’s presence within the three novellas is never explained directly, but readers who are cognizant of the poet’s emphasis on desire, intimacy and love may surmise that his presence functions as a connective tissue that emphasizes intimate feelings as being a key, yet often discounted, component of the American cultural mosaic, driving readers to ponder the intimacies of their own lives. Whitman’s presence leads us to consider intimacy as taking various shapes. Instead of imagining intimacy as being bound between just one man and one woman, this text validates a variety of intimacies beyond heterosexuality.
Although some readers might interpret the intimacies in ‘Like Beauty’ as resembling those of dominant heteronormative culture, I contend that Cunningham’s narrative lays bare a greater continuum of queer desires, feelings, practices and thoughts. Scholars of queer narratives such as Judith Roof have called into question the heterosexual ideology present in much narrative and theory (Roof 1996: 63). Much like Roof, I employ a queer reading strategy that departs from conventional praxis. That is to say, by giving greater attention to the third novella, this project challenges the normative belief that narrative study requires a certain order of operations, such as the act of beginning with the beginning. Rather than follow convention, this project contends that the unusual intimacies of the third novella merit another approach that values the queerness of the characters as well as honoring the alternative approach of the writing itself. This queer approach also provides for a more socially conscious understanding of how the story’s human-made cyborgs are forced to hide from an authoritarian post-American government that attempts to harass, imprison and kill them due to their behavioral and physical differences (Cunningham 2005: 251). Although these simulos are partly mechanical in their interior physical composition, they possess a highly advanced form of artificial intelligence and a human-like exterior body, which allows them to pass as human beings. The simulos’ passing evokes the way that ethnic and sexual minorities often feel forced to hide their so-called behavioral and physical differences to advance themselves economically and politically.
Aris Mousoutzanis and Olu Jenzen have discussed some of the characters’ differences in their commentaries on Cunningham’s text, but their analyses mostly address the portrayal of trauma and repetition. Jenzen’s writing smartly calls attention to some of the non-normative forms of kinship within the third novella, yet upon studying this third piece, other queer dynamics become visible (Jenzen 2010: 16). To expand this scholarship, my paper builds on these ideas, and those of Lionel Cantú and Eithne Luibheid, who work at the intersections of American ethnic studies and queer studies, examining the phenomena of identity, migration and sexuality. Like these critics, I analyze discourse and texts to explain how groups are marginalized and become entwined in the larger economic and political processes of American society. This set of experiences and vulnerabilities manifest within Cunningham’s three novellas, in which American workers suffer amid the dangerous conditions of the Industrial Revolution within In the Machine (97), the weaponized bodies of child terrorists kill innocent bystanders in ‘The Children’s Crusade’ (126) and the targeted cyborgs of Cunningham’s ‘Like Beauty’ are forced to labor in undesirable ways. As we empathize with the workers, children and cyborgs, we are led to consider how norms and policies that oppress vulnerable groups continue to be an ongoing problem. This notion is brought to the forefront when Cunningham depicts the senseless killing of a cyborg named Marcus, who is a close friend to the main protagonist, Simon (who is also a cyborg). Like his friend, Marcus was created to work in high-risk environments like outer-space, yet the government has labeled these cyborgs as threats and hunts them down because they have minds of their own (252). When Marcus is murdered by a computerized drone, Simon observes his friend’s horrifying death yet remains quiet to protect his own future:
‘A ray of brilliant red shot out and sheared Marcus’s right arm off at the shoulder. Simon stood still. The arm fell. It lay on the ground with its shoulder end smoking. The fingers twitched. Marcus did not slow down. The drone fired again … It let loose: a ray, a ray, a ray in split second intervals. Marcus’s other arm fell away, then his leg. He ran for another moment on one leg. His arm sockets were smoldering. He looked at Simon’ (234).
In several ways, the pointless killing of Marcus resembles the murders of many other persona non grata perpetrated throughout the history of humankind, yet it also resembles the way in which migrants are now being targeted and tracked by drones at U.S. borders (Davey 2008: 22; Nicas 2015: 3). This terror is dramatized as we see the drone’s ‘brilliant red’ ray strike down the good-natured Marcus, evoking imagery of a bloodbath. The narrative suggests there is something more to this injustice, particularly when we look at Marcus’s social circumstances (or intimacy) with Simon. The narrator states that ‘He looked at Simon’, gesturing towards the importance of the social relations between these two hunted cyborgs. This connection tells us the relation between these cyborgs means something, even if they (or Cunningham’s readers) have yet to comprehend it fully.
The uncommon sociality of Marcus and Simon mirrors the uncommon textual form of Cunningham’s tri-part novella structure, which is employed both in Specimen Days and his prior narrative The Hours. Such repeated use of fragmented storytelling emphasizes the impression that this form is intentional and fulfills an authorial purpose. In studying this form, the researcher Heon Joo Sohn has suggested The Hours exhibits a ‘generic ambiguity’ (2005: 31) that resists categorization. Following this line of thinking, I contend that Cunningham’s work reads as an inventive and non-normative intervention in allegory due to how it duplicates and challenges conventional modes of allegorical storytelling. This innovation in allegorical storytelling may come as little surprise to critics familiar with the work of Angus Fletcher, who hypothesizes that allegory has the potential to be a ‘radical linguistic procedure’ (2012: 3) that urges readers to think beyond the primary narrative that lies at the surface level. By recognizing Cunningham’s text in this manner, we allow for other interpretations of his texts and for the possibility that his work functions as an intimate community of stories. This privileging of diverse forms and sui generis intimacies can be theorized when we position Specimen Days in relation to the research of critics such as Eileen Boris, Harry Brown and Peggy Pascoe, among others. These researchers expound on the lives of unconventional couples and intimacies in the U.S., such as couples that consists of partners from diverse races, who have faced discriminatory measures and challenges. Perhaps the most famous examples of this animus are found in the U.S. Supreme Court cases Loving v. Virginia and Bowers v. Hardwick, in which the nation-state addressed the question of who could live together. Although American miscegenation laws were repealed and anti-gay laws are being litigated, queer and mixed-race couples continue to face bias, stigma and violence that induce forms of anxiety and trauma and can leave lasting impacts on people’s interior selves. Through this lens, we can read Cunningham’s narrative as signaling that the nation’s social, racial and sexual policies actually have given rise to new acts of solidarity and defiance.
As it defies commonplace generic labeling, yet relies on several science fiction elements, Specimen Days has much in common with writing that has been identified as ‘slipstream’ (Sterling 1989: 5). Slipstream work crosses boundaries in ways that resemble the manner in which many queer people transgress normative behaviors and categories. While considering this queer generic dimension, my paper mainly expounds on ‘Like Beauty’ because it provides a productive means of exploring the overall text, including the first two novellas in Specimen Days: ‘In the Machine’ and ‘The Children’s Crusade’, which are a ghost story and a detective story respectively. ‘Like Beauty’ tells the story of three outcasts: a cyborg named Simon, an alien woman called Catareen and a disfigured young man named Luke, who faces social difficulties because of a congenital disease. In the first novella, three characters named Catherine, Lucas and Simon confront the harsh realities of the industrial age, while in the second novella, ‘The Children’s Crusade’, a black woman character named Cat battles home-grown terrorism in the post-9/11 age. Within this second novella, Cat and a white man named Simon engage in an intimate relationship, which partly mirrors the intimacy between the cyborg Simon and an alien woman named Catareen in the last novella, ‘Like Beauty’. In the first novella, the narrator Lucas explains that Simon was ‘intimate with machinery’ (2005: 97), showing how his link to a factory’s equipment creates an unusual kind of social connection. Equally, in the second novella, the police officer Cat comes to have an intimacy with a would-be child bomber, which appeals to her because of how she lost her own son; but in doing so, she gives up her job for the sake of starting a new ‘family’ (213) that partly mirrors the unconventional intimacies between the cyborg Simon and the ‘four foot tall lizard’ Catareen (217). Through this approach, Cunningham unfixes readers from anthropocentric and heteronormative ideas, therefore leading readers to ponder how matters of affect, migration and sexuality are imbricated in these timelines.
Theorizing Other Intimacies: Performances of Cyborgs from Earth and Aliens from Nourthea
As Lionel Cantú and Eithne Luibhéid postulate, the struggles of migration are shaped intricately by the affective experiences of desire, intimacy and love. Interior feelings of love motivate people to migrate as oppression impels people into exile. This profound effect of affect on human lives likewise has been corroborated in the work of Sara Ahmed, Ann Cvetkovich and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, among many others (Ahmed 2004; Cvetkovich 2003; Sedgwick 2003). These ideas are useful for understanding how Cunningham’s work explores the story of the alien woman Catareen, a refugee from the planet Nourthea (Cunningham 2005: 267). Catareen came to the former U.S. after she resisted her tyrannical government’s policy. Because of her political dissidence, her family was murdered. Now Catareen works in a low-income position (like many exiled people) as a nanny for a rich family in New York City, where she cares for two spoiled children who are named, in a humorous manner, “Tomcruise” and “Katemoss” (238). While a talented caretaker, Catareen can also perform a rather frightening self by snarling, yet her scaring tactics are shown to be a last resort in self-protection. Conversely, Simon appears nearly fully human, but his muscles and skin are constructed over a metallic core. As he was intended to advance numerous corporate goals, he is powerful, and his machinery allows him to lift a human ‘up off his feet’ (225). Yet Cunningham mitigates this power by showing Simon has an ethical imperative programmed into him and is unable to use his strength maliciously. Simon nevertheless hides his identity because his government views cyborgs like him as ‘monsters and abominations’ and a form of ‘property’ (267). Much like the slaves and newcomers imprisoned by many cultures throughout the history of the New World, Simon and his kind are afforded neither choice nor rights in this future society, making them highly vulnerable to a slew of abuses.
Like many impoverished migrants today, the cyborg Simon has few opportunities and hence he ekes out a living in a queer way by working as a ‘scabrous subprostitute’ (228). Simon works for what might be called a pleasure-industry company, which caters to rich tourists. Simon’s subprostitute role is one of the elements that leads me to interpret Specimen Daysas a queer form of allegory. Like today’s sex workers, Simon works for money to support himself, but his social positioning can be read as signifying much more. Notably, the critic Elana Gomel contends “the allegorical text is always double” since allegory typically has two stories to tell (Gomel 1995, 89). In Simon’s case, the implication is that his work corresponds to that of present-day queers, who are imperiled by stigmas. Simon’s employer, Dangerous Encounters, is one of the few groups that hire un-credentialed people like Simon. Simon fits the company’s profile especially well. The company offers clients the opportunity to be menaced by ‘thugs’ (221) such as Simon in a milieu known as Old New York. Resembling a palimpsest, this space is a reenactment and performance of New York City as it was in the late twentieth century. Old New York is a tourist-filled zone built on the original site of New York City. Humans visit this locale out of curiosity, or for the purpose of satisfying personal desires. This narrative of reenactment is in keeping with the theorizations of queer narrative studies scholars, who have shown how queer texts often emphasize the idea of performance (See, for example, Lanser and Warhol 2015: 7). Simon performs his ‘menacing’ in Old New York’s Central Park, where he roughs up clients for yen—rather than dollars (Cunningham 2005: 220). Simon is compensated for performing as a sadomasochist, yet the text never moralizes about his actions, nor does it punish him for them.
Scholars, such as Donna Haraway, Mimi Nguyen, Esperanza Miyaki and Veronica Hollinger have theorized diverse cyborg contexts, suggesting that queers and cyborgs are kindred beings because of their dissident forms of embodied and interior experience. These scholars urge us to consider how cyborg paradigms can challenge traditional sexual ideologies; for instance, as cyborgs are unable to reproduce like most human beings, cyborgs give life to new forms of gender, eroticism, and intimacy. Nevertheless, many cyborgs in mainstream science fiction conform to heteronormative standards due to their own choosing or because of their programming. As proof, we need only consider the heteromasculine cyborgs in Star Trek’s The Next Generation, the Terminator series, and Bladerunner, among others. While Simon never wholly identifies as straight or gay, his actions suggest queerness such as when he appreciates so-called ‘dikey’ video programs (232). Likewise, he understands simulos, like his fellow simulo Marcus, to be dressing in ‘man-drag’, signaling an understanding that human masculinity is a construct that can be performed by others (234). Moreover, in a scene before Marcus’s death, Simon holds Marcus’s hand in a meaningful way, comforting him as he worries about the future. While resonating as homoerotic, their relation is based in their shared status as outsiders and hybrid ‘artificials’ (239). In a discussion of such perilous contexts, José Esteban Muñoz asserts that there is a need to theorize a form of queer futurity that allows us to look beyond our own present difficulties and recognize the possibility of a new horizon of more hospitable socio-political conditions (19). Simon is part of that effort to foster a better future as he protects Catareen when she gives one of the drones false information about his location. Simon’s rescue of Catareen is portrayed as heroic as he risks his own ‘life’ in a dramatic chase: this self-risk shows the depth of his concern for her well-being. This portion of the text and his remarks about her ‘glorious’ quality (217) reveal that Simon is attracted to Catareen despite the fact that simulos like him are built without the ability to have ‘emotional responses’ (305). Simon’s behavior suggests he possesses inchoate forms of affective emotion as these two team up for a cross-country journey motivated both by a desire for personal safety and Simon’s wish to meet his human maker. Like many queers who traveled to the supposedly liberal West Coast, Simon is drawn to Colorado, braving multiple threats along the way. It is through this cross-country search for non-traditional intimacies that Simon’s feelings for Catareen come into greater focus.
Making the Cyborg’s Intimacy Queer: Reimagining Ideas of Interiority and Relationality
To instill a greater sense of humanity and a moral compass in Simon, his creator—Emory Lowell—based the cyborg’s internal programming on the poetry of a major American literary figure, Walt Whitman. While critics have interpreted this approach in several ways, I contend we can look to archival research where investigators have hypothesized that Whitman engaged in sexual relationships with both men as well as women (Schmidgall 2012: 252), which leads us to view Whitman in a decidedly queer way. Similarly, Cunningham has said in a recent interview that he views any disavowal of Whitman’s queerness as ‘heterosexism’ (60), suggesting that any interpretation of Specimen Days must take into account Whitman’s queerness. Whitman’s identity and sexuality arguably occupy a unique position in Specimen Days because Simon frequently quotes from Whitman’s poetry in the text, creating an intertextual link between Simon and Whitman. As Simon channels Whitman’s words, there arises an equivalency between the two, suggesting that Whitman’s life and work lives on through Simon’s interiority. This equivalency, and the fact that much of Whitman’s poetry exhibits queer sexual undertones, effectively renders Simon a queer cyborg. By this, I mean that Simon comes to embody a queer figure with Whitmanesque qualities enacted in various ways. Simon’s citation of Whitman’s words is notable because he apparently cannot control his quotations from these poetic verses. Simon finds himself saying Whitman’s words unintentionally, which has the humorous effect of confusing interlocutors who misunderstand Whitman’s verses. This inherent, yet still constructed, aspect of his subjectivity is emblematic of the transgressive desires that LGBTQ folks are unable to change or control. For although therapists have tried to convert queers to heterosexuality, such efforts fail or are seen as hurting people; thus these so-called therapies are being outlawed in order to prevent further harm (Stolberg 2011: 14).
Simon’s first transgression of challenging social mores takes place as he works for Dangerous Encounters in Old New York. In his work, he performs the role of a bully for customers who want to experience historical New York City. While ‘menacing’ a German tourist in Central Park, he edges over into sexual territory despite the fact his job never requires him to do so. As Simon works his client over, he intuits that his client wants more than simple robbery and roughing up. The client asks him ‘What if I don’t have the money? … What will you do to me?’ suggesting masochism and a desire for punishment (Cunningham 2005: 225). But Simon thinks, ‘It’s not sex, sir. … He offered no note of S&M seduction this time’ (225). He continues his menacing of the client by saying, ‘I. Will. Kill. Your. Fat. Sad. Ass’ (225). Simon never physically injures the man; rather, he intuits that the man wants erotic gratification. To satisfy his client, Simon grabs the man’s crotch and squeezes before forcefully taking the man’s money. As a ‘bonus’, Simon exposes the man’s buttocks and spanks him in the park’s open air (226). The text’s omniscient narrator relays this story in a way that implies it is an ordinary day’s work for Simon, but for readers this scene is evocative of contemporary sex work, which mainstream US society prohibits within most states. In Simon’s workplace role, such menacing appears ostensibly legal, yet Simon’s performance as a public dominatrix posits a larger set of questions about the socio-sexual dimensions of cyborgs who menace and gratify other men for money in the open spaces of Old New York City’s Central Park.
To a similar extent, ‘Like Beauty’ leads readers to consider the unconventional intimacy that arises when Simon and Catareen escape from Old New York and travel across the former US in search of Simon’s creator. As these two pariahs travel, the narrative suggests an emerging erotic and intimate connection between them. Both Simon and Catareen skinny-dip in the water and, upon emerging, regard each other in a ‘shy’ way (287). Cunningham writes:
‘Catareen naked was all sinew, with thin, strong arms and legs, tiny breast-buds, and a small, compact rise of boney squarish pelvis. Who was the sculptor? Giacometti. She looked like a sculpture of Giacometti’ (287).
Simon’s detailed observations about Catareen’s body indicate a fascination and attraction that clearly goes beyond the coldness commonly associated with artificial intelligence, cyborgs and robots. In this erotic bathing scene, which resembles the imagery of older, more traditional narratives, the implication is that Simon begins to desire Catareen in a way that indeed resembles the desire in humans’ relations. The text reifies this impulse later in the same scene when he observes her and says, ‘Beautiful’ (287). Although Simon was ‘not entirely sure what he meant by the word’ (287), we garner another clue as he clearly focuses on her body’s erogenous zones—the breast-buds —which frame her as a feminine flower about to bloom. As the story soon tells us, however, Catareen is near the end of her life. Another alien explains that Catareen’s species ‘are vital and productive right up until the end’ (309). The text calls us to reconsider how we judge each other’s interiors on the basis of our exteriors—much in the same way that Specimen Days pushes us to realize that while Simon may not be fully human, he has many elements associated with humanity, such as intelligent thinking, self-awareness and ethics. Cunningham’s work thus encourages us to see difference not as a limitation; rather, Specimen Days prompts us to re-think our notions of humanness as well as the intimacies existing beyond mainstream cultures.
Cunningham is by no means the first author to narrate an unorthodox sensual encounter between two ostensibly incompatible partners. The critic and editor Ellen Datlow has published anthologies such as Off Limits that are comprised of science fiction stories about alien intimacies and the sexualities of beings originating beyond Earth (Datlow 1990 and 1997). As the stories in Datlow’s collections attest, there are many ways of conceptualizing alien intimacy and sexuality. This perceived range lends some credibility to my assertion that Simon and Catareen experience an eroticism and intimacy, despite the fact that it may not duplicate human sexuality or desire. Much can be gleaned from Simon’s likening of Catareen to the sculptures of Giacometti, who produced artistry that the critic Anne Umland has called ‘elliptically erotic’ (2011:2). Simon’s comparison links Catareen’s body with the aesthetic beauty of fine art. Though Simon does not appear to realize his feelings for Catareen till the story’s conclusion, we see a build-up of erotic energy between the two, which begins with Simon’s fascination for Catareen’s eye-catching alien body. Specimen Days bespeaks the idea that for Simon, beauty transcends the socially constructed limits that his world’s dominant society has imposed on desire. That is to say, while Simon signals that it remains taboo for humans—or in Simon’s case, simulos posing as humans—to be intimate with Nadians, we see that Simon overcomes that hurdle. When Catareen and Simon travel together their perceived closeness would likely be read by their contemporaries as contentious:
‘Here a human (what passed as a human) and a Nadian traveling together would excite more suspicion’ (Cunningham 2005: 255).
While many might read their closeness as impossible, Simon remains respectful towards and protective of Catareen: a protectiveness that is demonstrated when he saves her from the drone that attacks them as they leave Old New York. Alongside Simon’s protection of Catareen, he demonstrates a notable appreciation for Catareen’s beauty, which is in keeping with Cunningham’s other texts. In a parallel to Simon, Cunningham shows a similar scenario in his novel By Nightfall where the main character—Peter Harris—likewise begins to feel a very deep appreciation for the beauty of another man. Peter questions his captivation with this man because in the past he self-identified as heterosexual and he has a wife. Cunningham’s interest in affect and desire becomes clearer when we consider Simon’s interest in the attraction caused by beauty, which he only partially feels (253).
Simon begins to explain this lack of feeling as he spends more time with Catareen. As they travel, Simon explains to her that his self-presentation is based on computer programming and that his interior core lacks what some would call authentic human feeling, saying: ‘There’s no emotion behind it. Does that bother you?’ (256). Simon’s unusual personality never bothers the alien Catareen, who is herself rather stoic and soft-spoken. Though his feelings are somewhat nascent, we can deduce some of their significance as Simon shows affection for her. Simon makes private observations about her physical appearance of beauty, appreciates her company and watches over her well-being like a partner or lover.
As we consider Simon’s burgeoning feelings through the allegorical lens, his desires arguably become emblematic of how some queers struggle to reconcile sexual feelings in the context of compulsory heterosexuality, which historically has demonized sentiments that deviate from dominant culture. As Simon tells Catareen about his unusual state of feelings, she identifies with his predicament, calling it ‘stroth”’ in her language (253). She cannot translate the concept for Simon, but through semantics, readers may hypothesize stroth to be an emotional connection or inner feeling, such as adoration, desire or passion. Although these desires appear mysterious, we can deduce their significance by looking at them as a whole, as well as in terms of how unconventional intimacies result in numerous challenges. Ryan Conrad and Yasmin Nair show a deep skepticism towards the intimacies that conform to fixed forms of coupling like same-sex marriage, yet Cunningham’s work holds up a comparable form of coupling as Simon and Catareen generate an intimate connection and partnership. A scene that speaks to this idea is the moment when Simon and Catareen are driving a Winnebago (as many contemporary couples do) across the US. Although this scene might duplicate the common image of Americans vacationing for the purpose of heteronormative familial bonding, this moment is decidedly different insofar as Simon and Catareen have stolen the motorhome and harbor another purpose: to reconnect with Simon’s father (Emory), who had mixed his own engineering skills with the artistry of Walt Whitman to make Simon. This queer origin, in which a cyborg is made from the ideas of two men, resonates as a queer form of reproduction. In addition, as Simon and Catareen travel, she states that this —as in this moment – is stroth. When Simon asks her for clarification, she says, ‘I mean we’ (293), suggesting that their intimate connection has an element of passion to it. Her words are simple, but they reveal that Simon means more to her than a friend. After she says this, the narrator tells us that, ‘A low crackle shot through his circuitry, a quick electrical whir’ (293). The crackle and whir of Simon’s interior suggest he feels a remarkable sensation as Catareen acknowledges their growing connection. Catareen never explicitly defines what this relation is, though her linking of Simon to herself leads us to deduce that she has developed an attachment to him. Skeptics may interpret these scenes as reproducing heteronormative familialism, however scholars such as Judith Butler point to the ‘reformulation of kinship’ (1993: 241) that has come to exist in social milieus enacted by queer figures such as drag performers. Like Butler, I envision the sociality of living beings as taking shape in many forms beyond that of the binaristic —as in gay vs. straight—and thus there are many shades of queerness along the continuum of desire, feeling and interiority.
Cunningham’s novella certainly allows for intimacies that stretch our current dominant ideals of affect, yet the text still employs recognizable frameworks, such as stoicism, which provide an entry-point into understanding their relations. For instance, readers see Catareen’s self-awareness of her rather minimalist emotions when Simon ruminates on his existence as being literally and symbolically ‘heartless’ (291). She replies: ‘I am same’ (291), signifying the idea she exhibits a similarly masculine form of stoicism, which has the effect of further marking her gender performance as non-traditional. The Nadians’ gender performances and desires are something of a blindspot for both Simon and readers since the story is told from Simon’s perspective, and there is difficulty in discerning the nuances of Nadian physicality, which resembles what some scholars today refer to as androgyny or genderqueer. Simon’s appreciation of her beauty empowers readers to embrace alternative conceptualizations of beauty. This embrace of otherness is shored up when Simon and Catareen arrive in Denver, Colorado, and meet Emory and Emory’s wife, Othea—an alien woman. This human and alien have had a baby whose “skin was the color of celery stalk … She had ears, perfectly human but dwarfed, like tiny shells’ (311). Their child mirrors Simon, since Simon is also Emory’s creation, despite the fact Simon disregards such a label outright when Emory implies it, stating: ‘I’m not your son’ (307). In spite of this denial, the text suggests that Simon is Emory’s progeny, and it that it is his unorthodox origins that mark him as a queer being although, unlike the baby—who is the product of another unconventional intimacy—Simon came into being through the efforts of a company that Emory worked for five years earlier. Likewise, as Simon and Catareen unite during their travels, their inability to reproduce exemplifies queerness: Catareen’s biology and Simon’s partial humanity allow them to evade prescriptions of compulsory heterosexuality.
After arriving at Emory’s house in Colorado, Simon has an opportunity to ask his creator about these matters of difference, including whether cyborgs like him might have the potential for more emotional experience. He explains to Emory:
‘I have this sense of a missing part. Some sort of, I don’t know. Engagement. Aliveness. Catareen calls it stroth … I can see everything perfectly, but I don’t quite connect with it’ (307).
His words “I don’t quite connect” illuminate a partiality or glimmer of emotional lived experience. His uncertainty about his bonds with others exemplifies what many queer people experience insofar as while they may wish to act upon their desire and connect to others through their feelings, such forms of engagement are frequently constrained, leaving queers to languish in a state of forced repression. Moreover, Simon learns that Emory and the other people in Emory’s house, are planning to leave Earth soon in order to travel to a distant star system to escape the frustrating political and social climate. Emory invites Simon to go along with them, offering to do some tinkering to enable Simon to explore his emotions more fully (307). Although this appeals to Simon, he ultimately decides to stay on Earth because he wishes to remain with Catareen, who is dying and cannot be taken aboard the ship. When he tells Emory about his desire to stay with Catareen, his creator responds, ‘This is really rather extraordinary, you know’, suggesting that Emory recognizes Simon’s emotional attachment to Catareen (327). Although this affection for Catareen may superficially resemble a heterosexual relationship, this pairing rewrites the textual time period’s conventional model of desire and emotional attachment, thus suggesting a much wider variety (as well as potential) of unconventional amative experiences.
The importance of Simon’s decision to stay with Catareen bespeaks the profound connection that Simon and Catareen have forged during the course of their travel from Old New York to Denver. Once he tells Emory that he is remaining with Catareen, Simon returns to Catareen’s bedroom. She encourages him to depart with the other space travelers, but he says, ‘I wouldn’t want to go without you …. This is where I want to be’ (329). Her protests cannot change his mind, and as she closes her eyes to rest, we see further confirmation of his feelings for her. The narrator tells us: ‘Carefully, he put his arm over her … He inclined his head towards hers, let the skin of his cheek touch the skin of her forehead. He thought she would not mind that’ (329). This skin to skin contact symbolizes a consummation of their bond as well as revealing the meaningfulness of their closeness. Upon Catareen’s death, Simon shows pronounced care for her body, burying her in a way that speaks to the amative bond that these two derelicts came to share. While Simon never cries over losing Catareen, we see him conduct a very reverent burial. After placing her corpse in the grave that he has dug, he worries about how to bury her body. Cunningham writes:
‘It didn’t seem right to put dirt directly onto her face. He thought at first he would go back into the house for a cloth but decided instead to remove his shirt and drape it over her head. He thought she should have something of his in the grave with her’ (332).
Simon’s desire to bury Catareen properly tells us he desires to honor her memory and the connection they shared. For Simon, Cunningham writes, ‘A pure change happened. He felt a buzzing through his circuits. He had no name for it’ (333). These sensations intimate that Simon has begun an emotional evolution, which is reinforced when Simon quotes Whitman:
The earth, that is sufficient, I do not want the constellations any nearer, I know they are very well where they are, I know they suffice for those who belong to them’ (333).
Simon’s recitation looks to faraway places—constellations—such as the place Catareen calls home, thereby uniting his memory with her past: becoming closer, yet still distant, like a gathering of stars in the sky.
Towards a Conclusion: What becomes of the intimate allegory and uncommon relations?
Simon’s extraordinary story in Specimen Days challenges our notions of emotional experience, which continues to define the lived experiences of the Earth’s peoples, albeit in ways that some people have yet to appreciate or recognize. The story of Simon and Catareen tells us that it is not the supposed limitations of alien existence or cyborg affect that are important. What matters, according Specimen Days, is the meaning that these characters attach to the affect, which binds these intelligent life forms together in mutually satisfying affinities. Just as Simon vocalizes Whitman’s idea of constellations, it becomes clear that comparable intimacies exist in close proximities to one another—much like stars that line up in the heavens. The parallels of these intimacies suggest that mutually supportive forms of affect should be honored, revered and supported, regardless of their appearance or process. For after all, affect can be—according to the late queer studies researcher Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick—a rewarding and powerful influence that produces: ‘durable, structural changes in one’s relational and interpretive strategies toward both self and others’ (Sedgwick 2003: 62). Much as Sedgwick suggests, emotions such as desire and shame impel us in myriad ways, and her words urge us to become more self-reflective about the roles affective experience plays in our lives. This point applies to Cunningham’s text inasmuch as Specimen Days reveals how forms of emotional intimacy are central in human cultures, yet continue to be conceptualized in simplistic forms and stigmatized as a troubling burden.
Although Simon’s story may partly mirror the classic American narrative of personal
growth, Cunningham takes that storyline in a new direction that leads us to contemplate deeper ontological questions concerning justice. To ponder such questions, we benefit by linking these stories’ elements to others by Cunningham. In such rumination, we foster a critical comparativism, in which we look beyond the surface and consider how these scenes relate to a larger economy of feelings in culture and texts. It is this narrative’s form of intimate allegory that ultimately situates readers in a deep questioning about the ways that uncommon feelings take shape between unconventional people. We are led to question why we perform our daily lives according to particular social standards that feel arbitrary and disconnected from our own personal values and larger worldview. Such questioning also opens us up to seeing the benefits of performing new relations where they had never existed beforehand. Such forms of social relations as the cyborg and alien pairing are new frontiers that Americans will likely need to consider as we explore space and augment our physical bodies with various forms of machinery. In this process, Specimen Days instructs us to think about what it means to be an ethical and feeling subject in places where unusual intimacies are demonized. Simon’s exploration of his queer feelings shows that, though reconciling alternative forms of affect may be challenging, there is much to be gained by braving the struggle.
The narratives of Cunningham’s Specimen Days generate a cautionary (and inspirational) tale that warns readers about the problems of failing to recognize new or unusual intimacies as deserving dignity and opportunity. In this manner, the text turns the lens back on US culture and suggests that American groups, institutions and populations should carefully question how and why hard-and-fast limits are imposed in the relationality of belonging, humanity and citizenship. Banning or censoring new formulations of social relationality prevent dialogue and growth, which are key to Simon’s personal story and the stories of many Americans. Moreover, Specimen Days empowers us to compare and consider the ways in which American cultures have at times employed a narrow interpretation of cultural ideals such as the imperative to engage in so-called proper intimacies. By taking such approaches, we may look outside the imperatives that demand strict adherence to cultural scripts and performances that hinder our ability to feel and think in a wide range of ways. In sum, the unusual approaches and stories within Cunningham’s text largely encourage us to embrace chances for social experimentation and to explore the uncharted feelings and sensations within ourselves more freely.
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