"WALL-E," the latest animated production from Pixar Studios , is a heartwarming children’s film about ecological disaster. Its title character is a sturdy little trash-compacting robot whose name is the abbreviation for Waste Allocation Load-Lifter, Earth-class. He has been programmed to clear the vast junkpile left behind by mankind, which has long since absconded to live on a space station. His only companion -- at least as the film begins -- is a cockroach. Through plot developments it would spoil things to describe, WALL-E is transported to the human colony in deep space. In eight hundred years, it seems, our civilization will be a fusion of Wal-Mart, Club Med, and the World Wide Web.
Lots of kids will get their first taste of social satire from this film -- and chances are, they are going to enjoy it. Yet there is more to what Pixar has done than that. Some of the images are breathtaking. It turns out that robots have their romantic side, or at least WALL-E does; and the sight of him rescuing mementos from the wreckage (fragments shored up amidst human ruin) is perhaps more touching than the love story that later emerges.
I had heard almost nothing about the film before attending, so was not at all prepared for a strange surprise: It kept reminding me of Kenneth Burke’s writings about a grim future world he called Helhaven.
Burke, who died 15 years ago at the age of 96, was a poet, novelist, and critic who belonged to a cohort of modernist writers that included Hart Crane, Djuna Barnes, and William Carlos Williams. His name is not exactly a household word. It does not seem very likely that anyone at Pixar was counting on someone in the audience thinking, “Hey, this is a little bit like the essays that Kenneth Burke published in a couple of literary magazines in the early 1970s.” And I sure don’t mean to start an intellectual-property lawsuit here. The margin of overlap between Pixar and KB (as admirers tend to call him) is not a matter of direct influence. Rather, it’s a matter of each drawing out the most worrying implications of the way we live now.
Burke’s fiction and poetry tend to be overlooked by chroniclers of American literary history. But his experimental novel Towards a Better Life has exercised a strong influence on other writers -- especially Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man was deeply shaped by it. He also had a knack for being in interesting places at the right time. For example, he discovered and made the first English translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice; and in the course of his day job as editor for The Dial, Burke helped prepare for its initial American publication a poem called “The Wasteland,” by one T.S. Eliot.
By the early 1930s, his occasional writings on aesthetic questions began to give shape to an increasingly systematic effort to analyze the full range of what Burke called “symbolic action,” a term that subsumed the entire range of human culture. His books were all over the disciplinary map -- part philosophy, part sociology, dashes of anthropology, plus elements from literature in various languages thrown in for good measure -- all tied together through his own idiosyncratic idioms.
Alas, given the vagaries of translation, Burke seems to have gone largely unnoticed by his theoretical peers in Europe; but it is fair to say that Burke’s method of “dramatism” is a kind of rough-hewn Yankee structuralism. His later speculations on “logology” have certain semi-Lacanian implications, even though KB was unaware of the French psychoanalyst’s work until very late in the game.
Along the way, Burke seems to have pioneered something that has only been given a name in more recent decades: the field of ecocriticism. In a book from 1937 called Attitudes Towards History, he noted that, among the recently emerging fields of study, “there is one little fellow called Ecology, and in time we shall pay him more attention.”
Burke often used the first-person plural -- so it is easy to read this as saying he meant to get back to the subject eventually. But his wording also implied that everyone would need to do so, sooner or later. Ecology teaches us “that the total economy of the planet cannot be guided by an efficient rationale of exploitation alone,” wrote Burke more than 70 years ago, “but that the exploiting part must eventually suffer if it too greatly disturbs the balance of the whole.”
In the early 1970s, Burke returned to this theme in a couple of texts that now seem more prophetic than ever. The Helhaven writings first appeared in The Sewanee Review and The Michigan Quarterly Review, and have been reprinted in the posthumous collection On Human Nature: A Gathering While Everything Flows, 1967-1984, published five years ago by the University of California Press .
The Helhaven writings -- a blend of science fiction and critical theory, with some of KB’s own poetry mixed in -- fall outside the familiar categories for labeling either creative or scholarly prose. In them, Burke imagined a future in which everyone who could escape from Earth did, relocating to a new, paradise-like home on the lunar surface he called Helhaven. The name was a pun combining “haven,” “heaven,” and “hell.”
The immediate context for Burke’s vision bears remembering: The Apollo missions were in progress, the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, and the release of the Pentagon Papers was making “technocratic rationality” sound like an oxymoron. And comments in the Helhaven writings make it clear all of these circumstances were on the author’s mind.
But just as important, it seems, was Burke’s realization that American life had completely trumped his previous effort to satirize it. At the very start of the Great Depression, Burke published a Jonathan Swift-like essay in The New Republic calling for his fellow citizens to destroy more of their natural resources. This was, he wrote, the key to prosperity. The old Protestant ethic of self-control and delayed gratification was a brake on the economy. “For though there is a limit to what a man can use,” he wrote, “there is no limit to what he can waste. The amount of production possible to a properly wasteful society is thus seen to be enormous.”
And if garbage was was good, war was better. “If people simply won’t throw things out fast enough to create new needs in keeping with the increased output under improved methods of manufacture,” suggested Burke, “we can always have recourse to the still more thoroughgoing wastage of war. An intelligently managed war can leave whole nations to be rebuilt, thus providing peak productivity for millions of the surviving population.”
Not everyone understood that Burke’s tongue was in cheek. A newspaper columnist expressed outrage, and the letters of indignation came pouring in. Burke’s editor at The New Republic told him that this invariably happened with satire. Some readers always took it seriously and got mad.
Four decades later, though, Burke saw an even greater problem. The joking recommendation he made in the 1930s to stimulate the economy via waste was, by the 1970s, an policy known as “planned obsolescence.” The idea of war as economic stimulus package evidently has its enthusiasts, too.
Furthermore, Burke now thought that the wasteful imperative was subsumed under what he called hypertechnologism -- the tendency for technology to develop its own momentum, and to reshape the world on its own terms. We had created machines to control and transform nature. But now they were controlling and transforming us. Our desires and attitudes tended to be the products of the latest innovations, rather than vice versa. (And to think that Burke died well before the rise of today’s market in consumer electronics.)
This wasn’t just a function of the economic system. It seemed to be part of the unfolding of our destiny as human beings. Borrowing a term from Aristotle, Burke referred to it as a manifestation of entelechy -- the tendency of a potential to realize itself. “Once human genius got implemented, or channelized, in terms of technological proliferation,” wrote Burke in 1974, “how [could we] turn back? Spontaneously what men hope for is more. And what realistic politician could ever hope to win on a platform that promised less?”
We were in “a self-perpetuating cycle,” he mused, “quite beyond our ability to adopt any major reforms in our ways of doing things.” Besides, failure to trust in progress is un-American. And so Burke tried to carry his speculations to their most extreme conclusion.
Suppose a beautiful lake were being turned into a chemical waste dump. Why try to figure out how to fix it? “That would be to turn back,” wrote Burke,” and we must fare ever forward. Hence with your eyes fixed on the beacon of the future, rather ask yourselves how, if you but polluted the lake ten times as much, you might convert it into some new source of energy ... a new fuel.”
By further extrapolation, Burke proposed letting the whole planet turn into a vast toxic cesspool as we built a new home -- a “gigantic womb-like Culture-Bubble, as it were” -- on the moon. The beautiful landscapes of Old Earth could be simulated on gigantic screens. Presumably there would be artificial gravity. Everything natural could be simulated by purely technological means.
We would have to take occasional trips back to be replenished by “the placenta of the Mother Earth,” our source for raw materials. Or rather, polluted materials. (Scientists on Helhaven would need to figure out how to purify them for human use.) Burke imagines a chapel on the lunar surface with telescopes pointed towards the Earth, with a passage from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas inscribed on the wall: “And the blessed in heaven shall look upon the sufferings of the damned, that they may love their blessedness more.”
The Helhaven writings seem darker -- and, well, battier -- than "WALL-E." Burke’s late work can get awfully wild, woolly, and self-referential; and these texts are a case in point. His imaginative streak is constantly disrupted by his theoretical glossolalia. He can barely sketch an image before his critical intelligence interrupts to begin picking it apart. The Helhaven texts, as such, can only appeal to someone already preoccupied with Burke's whole body of thought. You won't ever find in them the charm of watching a little robot struggle with a ping-pong paddle-ball.
But the similarities between KB’s perspective and that of the Pixar film are more striking than the differences. Both are warnings -- in each case, with a clear implication that the warning may have come much too late. For the point of such visions is not to picture how things might turn out. The planet-wide trash dump is not part of the future. Nor is the culture-bubble to be found in outer space. They are closer to us than that.
“Think of the many places in our country where the local drinking water is on the swill side, distastefully chlorinated, with traces of various contaminants,” he wrote almost four decades ago. “If, instead of putting up with that, you invest in bottled springwater, to that extent and by the same token you are already infused with the spirit of Helhaven. Even now, the kingdom of Helhaven is within you.”
Aquafina or Deer Park, anyone?