[Written in the fall of 2018]
If the newly discovered W.E.B. Du Bois science-fiction short story “Princess Steel” (published and introduced in 2015 by Adrienne Brown and Britt Rusert) has been dated correctly and was, in fact, written sometime between 1908-1910, this would mean Du Bois had drawn up schematics for a communist supercomputer before IBM was even formed. Du Bois’ mad sociologist, Professor Hannibal Johnson, placed an advertisement in the Evening Post for a two-pm demonstration at the top floor of the Whistler Building in New York of the results of his great sociological experiment. The only people who attend are two unnamed, self-identified amateur sociologists – a husband and wife who, we learn from the husband’s narration, had taken a sociology course or two while students together at the University of Chicago. The couple is unpleasantly surprised to find that Professor Hannibal Johnson is black. The husband tries to make small talk with the professor, attempting to disguise his discomfort and his contempt. He compliments Professor Hannibal Johnson for his fine library. But it’s not a library. Professor Hannibal Johnson calls it the Great Chronicle:
“I discovered it,” he said, “twenty-seven years ago. This is a chronicle of everyday facts, births, deaths, marriages, sickness, houses, schools, churches, organizations, the inﬁrm, insane, blind, crimes, travel and migration, occupations, crops, things made and unmade—just the everyday facts of life but kept with surprising accuracy by a Silent Brotherhood for 200 years. This treasure has come to me, and forms,” he said, “the basis of my great discovery […]”
On the basis of his discovery of the Great Chronicle, Professor Hannibal Johnson came closer than anyone before or after him to completing the project of positivist sociology. In “The Princess Steel,” empirical sociology is brought to its limit and, at its limit, is suspended and transformed into something else entirely. But the Great Chronicle is only a near-perfect record of raw sociological data, data which would have to be processed in order to say anything about the shape a human life in general. Initially, Professor Hannibal Johnson is only after generalizations inductively inferred from the Great Chronicle – generalizations which, if legitimate, could be used to generate verifiable predictions about the future of social life. But Professor Hannibal Johnson wants more. On the model of natural laws governing physical bodies, he wants to discover the social laws governing our bodies. To infer laws from empirical data, Professor Hannibal Johnson invents the megascope out of the same technological substrate of early punch-card based tabulating machines (the same material out of which IBM’s unit record equipment would later be developed). Professor Hannibal Johnson’s presentation accelerates:
We looked round the room—there were desks and papers, machines apparently for tabulating, a typewriter with a carriage full five feet long, and rolls of paper with figures; but past these he pointed to a great frame over which was stretched a thin transparent ﬁlm, covered with tiny rectangular lines, and pierced with tiny holes. He pulled his chair nearer and spoke nervously and with intense preoccupation: “A dot measured by height and breadth on a plane surface like this may measure a single human deed in two dimensions. Now place plane on plane, dot over dot and you have a history of these deeds in days and months and years; so far man has gone, though the Great Chronicle renders my work infinitely more accurate and extensive; but I go further: If now these planes be curved about one center and reflected to and fro we get a curve of inﬁnite curvings which is—”—he paused impressively—“which is the Law of Life.”
Years before IBM (International Business Machines) had even been consolidated into a single corporation under the name of CTR (the Computing-Tabulating-Recording co.) in 1911, let alone IBM’s innovation (12 rows x 80 columns) on Hollerith’s original punch-card (12 rows x 24 columns) and accompanying counting tech, Professor Hannibal Johnson was working on another, larger scale of data storage and processing entirely – from card to plane, from hole punched to record the fact of behaviors to a 2-d dot with variable height and breadth to record the shape of behaviors, from counting machinery auto-reading one card or several cards in parallel in a series to counting machinery auto-reading a stack of planes all at once. But he went further, wrapping the planes to be simultaneously read over a great sphere to generate visualizations of the data in the form of curves, which, when themselves read simultaneously, should have generated a single curve, what Professor Hannibal Johnson callsthe Great Curve or the Law of Life. The megascope should have generated the anonymous arcing shape of a human life in general. With the Law of Life, the little contingencies of human behavior could have been rendered intelligible, or even necessary, as the predictable movements of atoms in a grand social physics. But when Professor Hannibal Johnson sets out to plot the Great Curve, something goes terribly wrong:
The old man rose and reached up to the gloomy ceiling—we glanced and saw a network of levers and wires and a great bright silent wheel that whirled so steadily it seemed quite still till ever and again its cogs caught a black ball and sent it whirling till it stopped in the faint tinkle of a silvery bell. The old man seized a lever and swung his weight to it— click-click-clank—it said. We heard the slow tremulous sliding of a great mass. “Look,” he said. We looked out the great window and there hanging before it we saw a vast solid crystal globe. I think I have never seen so perfect and beautiful a sphere. It was nearly fifty feet in diameter and seemed at first like a great ball of light, a scintillating captive star glistening in the morning sunlight. “This,” he said, “is the globe on which I plot my curves of life. You know in the Middle Age they used to use spheres like this—of course smaller and far less perfect—but that was mere playing with science just as their alchemy was but the play and folly of chemistry. Now my first series of experiments covering the last 20 years has been the plotting of the curves which will give me the Great Curve but—,” and here he came nearer and almost whispered, “but when I would cast the great lines of this Curve I was continually hampered by curious counter-curves and shadows and crossings—which all my calculations could not eliminate. Then suddenly a hypothesis occurred to me. Human life is not alone on earth—there is an Over-life—nay—nay I mean nothing metaphysical or theological—I mean a social Over-life—a life of Over-men, Super-men, not merely Captains of Industry but field marshalls of the Zeitgeist, who today are guiding the world events and dominating the lives of men. It is a Life so near ourselves that we think it is ourselves, and yet so vast that we vaguely identify it with the universe. I am now seeking these shadowing curves of the Over-life. But I go further: I will not merely know this Over-life. I will see it with my Soul. And I have seen it,” he cried triumphantly with burning eyes.
Ineliminable and anomalous lives interfere with the reduction of human life to a single curve. Though they are allegorized as mythic individuals, these lives are always classed and collective, intervening in history to transform it irreversibly. Having made their interventions, they’re reduced to a mere trace, discernible only as rogue counter-curves and shadow-crossings in the new order they themselves help initiate. Du Bois calls these vanishing mediators Over-men, and, taken together, the lives of the Over-men compose the Over-life of humanity – neither divine nor metaphysical, but only social. Brown and Rusert suggest that, at this point, “The Princess Steel” becomes a Du Boisian economic study in the tradition of historical materialism. Professor Hannibal Johnson reaches the limit of what can be inferred about past and future social life from present-day empirical data. Class struggle plays out at a greater scale and longer duration than positivist sociology can grasp, what Du Bois calls the Great Near, Greater than the Far Great of distant galaxies (observable only through the telescope) and Nearer than the Near small (observable to us only through the microscope). The megascope itself represents the Great Near in the form of a speculative romance, through fantasy tropes. Even the fairy tale is more adequate to the task of representing the Great Near to us than generalizations from present empirical data. This is because social anomalies determine the social norm, a determination which occurs when social forces collide in eruptions of class conflict. For the rest of the story, Du Bois dramatizes an eruption cutting across the Curve of Steel – “the sum of all the facts and quantities and times and lives that go to make Steel, that skeleton of the Modern World” – as a conflict staged on the Over-world of steel by its Over-men.
When Professor Hannibal Johnson hooks the narrator and his wife up to the megascope, with cords attached to their eyes and ears and hands and heads, the machine whirs to life and the view of Broadway from the top floor of the Whistler Building fades into the geography of Pittsburg PA. Landmarks and features of the Pittsburg landscape are exaggerated to gargantuan, but appropriate, proportions relative to their relevance to the history of class struggle in the steel industry. The landscape is punctuated by steel mills of the gods, towering like medieval castles. The tallest, most sinister of the mills churns out a silvery river, the Great River of Things, as the mill’s massive wheel turns. The narrator thinks he hears voices from the things floating down the river in a rapid procession of steel-based products, appendages, tools, and commodities. What the narrator realizes, however, is that these sounds are only the echoes of the souls fed to the mill through a great gaping hopper. These souls of laborers in the steel mills are ground and bolted into the salable output of the river of things. The river is watched over and guarded by the Lord of the Golden Way, a knight who won the mill in a past clash with Sir Guess over the fate of steel itself. It was Sir Guess who, in his desire for knowledge, allegorized in the black Witch Knowal, meets the Ogre named Evilgood. The Ogre tells him that making a deal with the Lord of the Golden Way for the Golden Sword is the only way to defeat the dark Queen of the Iron Isles buried in the hills of Pittsburg and cut off her arm; the only way to free her daughter and expose her to the hell-flame to mature her into the beauty named Princess Steel. Sir Guess is struck down by the Lord of the Golden Way, who seizes Princess Steel for himself and draws the silvery strands of her hair into the great, turning wheel of his mill. To this day, Princess Steel lies dormant, waiting for her rescuer, Sir Guess, to awaken. Our amateur sociologist narrator asks the Princess Steel himself, what will happen then?
Her laugh was like the beating of the billows on the bar, angry with soft- ness. One hand lashed up and with a quick sharp grasp she pulled a single curl. I watched where the curl wended its way past Chicago, past Omaha, past the great plain and the sad mountain and the rough roaring of lands toward the sea and San Francisco; and suddenly the world whirled in San Francisco. The fire burst, the earth trembled, buildings fell, great cries rang round the world. Only the Steel stood silent and grim in the treacherous innocence—I gasped in fear—again lashed that blue and fatal hand: another curl trembled and far down in Valparaiso the earth sighed and sank and staggered, and the steel stood cold and grim; again, and the Isles of the Sea quivered, a great ship shivered and dove to it[s] death. Again—but I cried in horror “Hold—hold O Princess—” the hand sank and low the voice came sad and full of awful sweetness. “I watch and ward above my sleeping Lord till he awake and then woe World! when I shake my curls a-loose.”
What Princess Steel awaits is a revolutionary science to weaponize the steel-scaffolded world of the present against the expropriators, to unlock the terroristic potential latent in each steel kitchen sink, cable-stayed bridge, and skyscraper frame. Professor Hannibal Johnson’s megascope generates allegories of different kinds of primitive accumulation that occurred just long enough ago to have become opaque to us. However, it’s also a prophetic piece of machinery, an oracle reading real possible futures of emancipation from expropriation out of the nearly-imperceptible stirrings of revolutionary powers left unactualized in the present.