by MELISSA HUTTON
In the fourth grade, my class went on a school trip to the Buehler Challenger and Science Center in Paramus, New Jersey. If I hadn’t googled the building today I would have told you it was a dome with silver panes, widescreens and shiny floors. Buehler is an extension of Bergen Community College, nondescript and supported by aging and discolored concrete columns. We followed adults, brushing our hands against the wall or each other, buzzing and wondering what our “mission” would be. In a room with a dark screen we were given blue vests and assigned roles. My name was called. My pulse jumped. My teacher said, “Control.”
Sylvia Plath wrote her five-poem bee sequence in October 1962. The first poem, “The Bee Meeting” opens with the speaker feeling as nude as a chicken neck, wondering if anyone loves her. There is a man dressed like an astronaut but called a surgeon in a green helmet, / Shining gloves and white suit. The villagers are anonymous. The bees are hysterical. If I stand very still, the speaker continues, they will think I am cow parsley. Being seen is dangerous and sometimes the best thing I can be is absent.
Control, before a sweaty palm grasping an iPhone meant both a desire for and relinquishing of it, meant that I sat on a high chair next to Nicole. She had thick bangs and the highest ponytail. I could swivel a camera around scanning the other half of my class in the artificial aircraft. I could type commands into the computer in front of me. I could speak into a microphone.
Luce Irigaray describes in her essay “A Natal Lacuna,” how in Unica Zürn’s work, the visible appears in a frame like a back-to-front-window, through which an interior universe is transmitted, vomited, or expelled through the real or fantasmic orifices of the body. Scientific inquiry involves boxes, jars, educational space centers and putting things in them. This makes subjects visible and observation possible, much like an essay. In Thinking with Irigaray, Elaine Miller writes, The order of the visible often paradoxically obscures, rather than manifests, life. Jars and windows make subjects visible but the environment unnatural. The visible is wonderful, but limited. Invisibility is not absence but excess. According to Irigaray, it is possible to recognize overabundance all at once in the register of beauty. Sylvia Plath wrote the bee poems on a draft of The Bell Jar, back-to-front.
We didn’t notice that the material about NASA was dated but it didn’t matter anyway. Space was cool, as was having a keyboard and a mission. This was a few years before any of us would hide Myspace from our parents and toggle with our top friends and their hearts. It was many years before I’d read Sylvia Plath’s bee poems. It was a self-contained experiment, technology without overload.
The feeling of overload—is often lived as if it were a totally new phenomenon and as if it were dictated by the new technology, not the people using it. I’m always repeating myself, but productive repetition compels us to do the work of breaking what seem like involuntary habits and re-directing our patterns of thought.
After the first half of us sat in mission control, we switched with our classmates in the artificial spaceship. Me and Nicole hurried to our seats inside the spaceship to find out that the kids now in our mission control seats were doing something we didn’t realize we could with the camera. We felt like we’d missed out. We could’ve done more.
The widely-used metaphor, Knowing is seeing, has certain connotations. R.B. Zajonc’s study on mere-repeated-exposure shows us that repetition itself, with the absence of negative stimuli, can enhance positive effect. It is a function of classical conditioning. We do not need to be aware of stimuli around us to develop an inclination towards it. Exposure accounts for our tastes. My body accounts for my preference. Productive repetition compels us to do the work of breaking what seem like involuntary habits and re-directing our patterns of thought.
After Buehler, I’d repeat myself many times and communicate in clippings to form stringy and prismatic hexagonal connections, always ending in excess and knowing I’d very likely never fill the spaces in between…
1. Honey bees detect gravity with magnetic material in the bands across their abdomens. Their bodies are magnetic all over but higher concentrations are in the abdomen and the antennae. How instructive is this! says the speaker in “The Swarm,” The dumb, banded bodies.
2. Reiteration itself is the point. Reiteration of metaphor and of ideas through language is necessary for further exploration. Repetition of ideas unexamined is potentially restrictive but it is during repetition and replication that ideas are mutable—bound to evolve and change. Scrolling is a means of repetition and further exploration. It is also a reminder of our inability to know everything, which can slip quickly into feeling like an inability to know anything.
3. Of Sylvia Plath’s bee poems, Jessica Lewis Luck writes, If she chooses life, then she must acknowledge that life is built on biological structures and processes beyond her control. Without a director, there is no rational center and there is a certain lack of control of the outcome of the self. Here is my honey-machine the speaker in “Stings” offers, It will work without thinking. Like the bees and the hive Plath describes, there is no authority. But the body is the self. No matter how far you go into the mind you will always find the body. The hidden and immaterial is not within us but between us. Our relations with others and the world are not visible. But we desire control over that which is reflected back to us.
4. Virtual proximity is this term coined by Janine Solberg, meaning the potential to find or encounter a source through the use of finding aids, search technologies, metadata, and similar mechanisms. It is about the potential to make the right sources visible; the voices and experiences that are routinely pushed to the side. It is about how the work of reevaluating your sources and your position in relation to a source never ends. It is about the company you keep. Because lives and connections seem to take shape and become visible online, virtual proximity requires acknowledgment if not an acceptance of continuous human interference and processes beyond individual control or awareness. It requires at the same time that we take responsibility for them.
5. Honey bees leave the hive for flowers. Honey bees return and dance in the colony’s language: Electrically charged figure eights. A honey bee born without a magnetic abdomen is a honey bee born without gravity. A honey bee born without gravity is a honey bee born without language; she can’t dance or she is left to find other means.
6. Biology is a site of play and indecision is the most accurate model. Real time updates are ripples that televise, restate and upset the status quo. Disequilibrium is a catalyst for making social change the new balance. Reiteration itself is the point. Beauty is realized in overabundance and invisibility is light. Organizational structures of the brain, and by that I mean metaphors, illustrate connection strengths, vicinities, and relationship patterns. Productive repetition compels us to do the work of breaking what seem like involuntary habits and re-directing our patterns of thought. (An indecisive body works the hardest.)
That day in Paramus, I had my photo taken in a baggy sky blue space suit. My eyes were huge and my body looked small. For years, it was my favorite.
Melissa Hutton is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York.