The Weaponization of Knowledge in Cat’s Cradle | Comentale on Cat’s Cradle

Ed Comentale


Aren’t we all getting a little tired of this crap? Here at Salo U, we have to fight for knowledge on two fronts. Looking above, to the institutions of power, we confront shabby resources, political posturing, a fickle market, and meddlesome administrators. Looking below, to the public we hope to help, we find suspicion, resentment, outright hostility. As Vonnegut knew, knowledge is power, but this means not just the ability to craft bigger weapons of mass destruction, but the means of asserting the superiority of one class over another. Cat’s Cradle is Vonnegut’s first truly pessimistic novel, and it’s specifically pessimistic about America’s absurdly self-destructive relation to knowledge and knowledge production. Sure, the Hoenikker family quickly weaponizes ice-nine—a product of “pure research,” mere laboratory play—for love, money, and power. But beyond this spectacular scenario, the novel outlines a more mundane battle between smarts and stupidity, one that’s been raging since the early days of the republic and continues to confound mental, moral, and spiritual progress in the US.

The novel is nowhere more dispiriting than in its depiction of the relation between scientists and their assistant at the Research Laboratory of the General Forge and Foundry Company in Ilium, New York (a setting based on the laboratory at the General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York, where Vonnegut worked in his late twenties). Here, the scientist is worshipped as a near holy man, working “miracles” that are incomprehensible to the average citizen (43). His laboratory is a “sacred room” (55), where he appears to produce knowledge, power, and wealth out of thin air (41). Vonnegut, however, laces his description with grave irony. In its grandeur and secrecy, science does not contradict superstition, as Dr. Breed asserts, but becomes its own form of superstition, the “secret to life,” endowed with mystical properties that demand worship. “I know it’s high treason and ungrateful and ignorant and backward and anti-intellectual to call a dead man as famous as Felix Hoenikker a son of a bitch,” says Dr. Breed’s rebellious son, “but how the hell innocent is a man who helps make a thing like an atomic bomb” (68).

The fact is that Dr. Hoenikker and his kind are despised by nearly everyone else in the novel, most explicitly their own staff. Ms. Pefko—a secretary at the lab described by the narrator as a “dull normal”—can hardly contain her resentment. “You scientists think too much,” she exclaims, “I take dictation from Dr. Horvath and it’s just like a foreign language. I don’t think I’d understand—even if I was to go to college. And here he’s maybe talking about something that’s going to turn everything upside-down and inside-out like the atomic bomb” (32–4). In her hatred of “people who thought so much,” Ms. Pefko strikes the narrator as “an appropriate representative for almost all mankind” (33). Her hatred speaks for the hatred of the American masses, aligned as a mob against the scientist as celebrity and science as salvation. The women in the office “girl pool” serve as sexless handmaidens to the sciences. Their cement block office is described as a “cloister” (37). They see their bosses as “heartless, conscienceless, narrow boobies” and yearn for spiritual instead of scientific mysteries (39). Their exquisite caroling—“O Little Town of Bethlehem!”—suggests they seek miracles of life instead of death (47). And yet, for the narrator at least, they live willfully in “brainless serenity”; wielding stupidity in their defense against smarts (246).

But there are uglier Americans in this book, and this battle takes a fierce turn in the image of H. Lowe Crosby, an industrialist from Evanston, Illinois, and his wife, Hazel. A full-throated lout, Crosby sees any kind of knowledge as a threat to his exploitative business practices and his long-standing privilege. He rages against experts and their expertise, but less as a defense of his own ignorance than a way of maintaining his authority both home and abroad. His sworn enemy is the “pissant,” the little know-it-all—“someone who thinks he’s so damn smart”—and despite his protestations, it’s precisely size that matters to him: “It isn’t size that makes a man a pissant. It’s the way he thinks. I’ve seen men four times as big as this little feller here, and they were pissants. And I’ve seen little fellers—well, not this little actually, but pretty damn little, by God—and I’d call them real men” (129). Intellect is the only thing that troubles Crosby’s worldview, because intellect defies his self-serving economy of size and scale. In fact, his rants shift irrationally from his hatred of intelligence to his hatred of democracy and the government, which he sees as a leveling force, challenging the uneven class structure in which he’s made a killing. Here is the il-logic of the American right which we now inhabit: “The eggheads sit around trying to figure out new ways for everybody to be happy. Nobody can get fired, no matter what; and if someone does accidentally make a bicycle, the union accuses us of cruel and inhuman practices and the government confiscates the bicycle for back taxes and gives it to a blind man in Afghanistan” (89).

In his “barnyard clownishness,” Crosby doesn’t simply reject intelligence, but actively praises stupidity, wields it, in some twisted but guilty pact with the lower classes (89). His corporate venture in the impoverished nation of San Lorenzo is informed by his love of dictators and insidious respect for a people “poor enough and scared enough to have some common sense” (89). In this, we confront not the weaponization of different knowledges, but the weaponization of stupidity itself. Crosby’s thinking proves to be wholly nihilistic, if not downright apocalyptic, and it fuels the suicidal drive of the novel’s ending. For Vonnegut, class resentment of this sort—conservative, patriotic, and anti-intellectual—proves particularly damning for the poor. The “bullies” and “teasers” always end up screwed in the end, stuck in dead-end jobs or left exposed, brutally, to forces beyond their understanding. In other words, stupidity is a stupid weapon, and it can turn quickly on its holder. It is ultimately their own self-loathing that does in the brainless mob, a bad faith in their own self-worth. Toward the end of the novel, the narrator recalls a tale about the “aboriginal Tasmanians” who “were so contemptible in the eyes of white men, by reason of their ignorance, that they were hunted for sport by the first settlers.” For Vonnegut, such contempt inevitably leads to self-loathing and suicidal despair; the Tasmanians, convinced of their own ignorance, “found life so unattractive that they gave up reproducing” (282).

In a novel that dwells constantly on the Holocaust and the horrific mass graves of modern history, the suicide of the race is ultimately driven by its twisted relation to knowledge. There is no pure research. Science always already knows sin. Knowledge and stupidity are both moralized, wielded in a battle for power and wealth that destroys the race as a whole. Both serve as instruments of terror, apocalyptic threats to personal and national security. In a way, this crisis is spurred by the state of knowledge itself, which has grown increasingly complex and professionalized in the modern era. As noted in an earlier post, Vonnegut’s work occupies a world increasingly torn between visionaries and functionaries, an elite few who can actively steer the course of history through the technology of knowledge and a passive populace forced to manage and conform to that technology in order to survive.

And yet Cat’s Cradle marks a deepening of Vonnegut’s cynicism regarding human being and human knowledge. In a way, it’s his first truly anti-humanistic novel, one in which the qualities that define the human race are precisely what destroy it. Here, no doubt, his quintessentially postmodern pessimism—rooted in knowability instead of unknowability or hopefulness instead of hopelessness—veers ironically away from more traditional forms of pessimism. As we learn from the very first Book of Bokonon, man’s purpose in life is discover his own purpose:

And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.

“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

“Certainly,” said man.

“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God. And He went away. (265)

And yet, as Rebekah Sheldon notes in her post on Cat’s Cradle, the human effort to create meaning often renders the human meaningless, if not entirely expendable. Indeed, the human production of knowledge—in both its abstraction and its application—seems intimately linked to death. In Vonnegut’s pessimistic vision, all meaning-making seems fueled by the death drive itself, a complete negation of human vitality, of eros. Man must be saved from himself, but that salvation inevitably takes the form of destruction. In the words of Julian Castle, the philanthropist in the jungle, the satanic saint trying to save his fellow men from themselves, “Man is vile, and man makes nothing worth making, knows nothing worth knowing” (169). His words are, of course, another doomed effort to give meaning to man.

Something has broken in Vonnegut’s sense of the human and humanism, or perhaps that brokenness reveals itself fully for the first time, and Cat’s Cradle remains a “grisly tale” from first page to last. The novel’s clearest representative of the humanist tradition—Horlick Minton, the US ambassador to San Lorenzo—meets the novel’s most ridiculous death. Minton’s moral authority derives precisely from his critical relation to humankind. His love for his fellow man expresses itself in his willingness to critique their beliefs and behaviors in hopes of bettering them. Minton had been fired from the State Department for, officially, his “softness toward communism,” but he interprets his crime as a form of “pessimism,” a willingness to critique the American imperialist mentality in order to correct it (96–7). Poignantly, at a memorial service on San Lorenzo, he abandons his official duties as ambassador to, once again, critique the American attitude toward war, specifically its patriotic white-washing of human slaughter. He defends his break from protocol in decisively humanist terms, as a truthful critique of human action in the name of human progress:

“But if today is really in honor of a hundred children murdered in war,” he said, “is today a day for a thrilling show?

“The answer is yes, on one condition: that we, the celebrants, are working consciously and tirelessly to reduce the stupidity and viciousness of ourselves and of all mankind.” (254–5).

Such statements share the logic of Vonnegut’s pessimism outlined above, but they are colored here by a certain blind optimism. Minton and his wife are the first to die in the apocalyptic series of events at the novel’s end. They go down with the castle’s parapet, done in precisely by their human dignity, good manners, and emotional proportion, which prove completely inadequate in the face of real disaster (258–9). It’s a grim death, for both the Mintons and the humanist tradition they represent, but one that seems more fitting each year with the passing of the liberal humanist tradition that, in the rise of violent nationalisms and right-wing politics, marks millennial history.

Still, Vonnegut’s own understanding and depiction the branches of knowledge seem deeply problematic, rooted in a series of ideological binaries that leave each one lacking in some form or another. For the most part, Cat’s Cradle pits the sciences against the humanities, contrasting the concrete but cold truthfulness of the former with the soothing romantic falseness of the latter, and this distinction is in turn backed up by a series of cultural distinctions that are at once gendered, racial, and certainly political:



Remember, for instance, the clash between the calculating doctors and the caroling girl pool or, see, for instance, the early encounter between Dr. Breed, whose manner is “civilized, optimistic, capable, serene” and the author-narrator who sees himself in comparison as “bristly, diseased, cynical” (27). With these rather juvenile distinctions, Vonnegut’s work contributes to the crisis it seeks to address. His novel adopts such distinctions and constructs its plot around them, thereby naturalizing what are essentially social constructions and undermining all knowledge production in the process.

Even when Vonnegut tries to imagine more intensive or dynamic systems of knowledge production—a true unity of arts and sciences, for instance—he remains suspicious of any progress. On a large scale, the original social experiment of San Lorenzo proves a complete disaster. Johnson and McCabe thought a crafty mix of religion and political science might save the people from themselves, but their creation amounts to little more than the “demoniacal squirrel cage” it replaced, its citizens still living in “misery and muck,” caught between a government they disrespect and a religion that dupes them (124, 133). In turn, forced to play one-sided roles in this political passion play, Johnson and McCabe grow insane. “As young men, they had pretty much been alike, had both been half-angel, half-pirate,” but they paid a “terrible price in agony for the happiness of the people—McCabe knowing the agony of the tyrant and Bokonon knowing the agony of the saint” (175). Frank and the narrator retry the experiment on different terms, as a technocrat and a public relations expert, but their plan stalls on the same conundrums. Frank’s pitch sounds reasonable in theory: “You’re a worldly person, used to meeting the public; and I’m a technical person, used to working behind the scenes, making things go” (196). As it turns out, the arrangement only permits an abdication of responsibility on both ends; Frank quickly dismisses all of the moral issues pertaining to governance as beyond his ken, while the narrator, like Bokonon before him, abandons historical and scientific truth for the sake of manufactured miracles and soothing lies (223–5).

Vonnegut explores similar accommodations on a smaller scale, when considering the health of the individual. The philanthropist-doctor Julian Castle seeks to treat “the whole patient,” body as well as soul. As a doctor committed to making the human being feel better, he believes that his scientific code covers extra-scientific practices—aspirin as well as boko-maru (170–1; 219). Similarly, as a writer, the narrator seeks to humanize science and scientize humanism. He originally believed that his book about the first atomic bomb could be factual as well as “Christian” (1). Later, at the urging of Julian Castle, he thinks of the writer as a drug salesman and imagines a “book to read to people who are dying or in terrible pain” (153). He considers an overhaul of the 23rd Psalm, but drops the idea when he learns that Bokonon already tried and failed to produce anything better (154). Vonnegut’s commitment to this line of thinking reaches its idealistic climax late in Cat’s Cradle, in a beautifully constructed discussion between the Castles and the narrator about the possibility of a writers’ strike:

“I’m thinking of calling a general strike of all writers until mankind finally comes to its senses. Would you support it?”

“Do writers have a right to strike? That would be like the police or the firemen walking out.”

“Or the college professors.”

“Or the college professors,” I agreed. I shook my head. “No, I don’t think my conscience would let me support a strike like that. When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed.”

“I just can’t help thinking what a real shaking up it would give people if, all of a sudden, there were no new books, new plays, new histories, new poems . . .”

“And how proud would you be when people started dying like flies?” I demanded.

“They’d die more like mad dogs, I think—snarling and snapping at each other and biting their own tails.”

I turned to Castle the elder. “Sir, how does a man die when he’s deprived of the consolations of literature?”

“In one of two ways,” he said, “petrescence of the heart or atrophy of the nervous system.”

“Neither one very pleasant, I expect,” I suggested.

“No,” said Castle the elder. “For the love of God, both of you, please keep writing!” (231)

Of course, people need penicillin as well as poetry, and Vonnegut continues to write against the weight of human pain. But Cat’s Cradle is a successful book about the failure of books. All of its knowledge pertains to the uselessness of knowledge. The sentiments of Castle the Elder seem increasingly desperate in light of the bodies that continue to pile up around his House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle. No matter how humane its application, knowledge in the novel is always deficient, lacking, and often misleading. It is never more than supplemental, in need of other knowledge, and therefore deficient, unable to hold weight on its own. More to the point, knowledge is unable to keep other forms of knowledge in check, to temper the excesses and abuses of knowledge itself. Cat’s Cradle is never so darkly comic as when, long after the world has ended, Hazel Cosby wistfully declares, “I wish I had studied everything more” (278).

And yet Vonnegut’s skepticism does not entirely sink his commitment to knowledge and learning. In Cat’s Cradle, he seems to be on the lookout for forms of knowledge that are not so easily moralized or linked to destructive causes—that are specifically not progressive or even goal-driven. More specifically, he seeks experiences of knowledge-production that provide solace or pleasure for human life, but do not justify the latter or privilege it in any potentially harmful way. Cat’s Cradle, for instance, clearly celebrates the playful and inventive side of knowledge-production apart from any specific practical purposes it might serve. We see the unexpected pleasures of scientific invention most clearly at work in Hoenikker’s experiments, but such joy extends freely to other areas of life in the novel—to sexual play (boko-maru!), artistic play (Angela’s clarinet blues!), and even linguistic play. Vonnegut’s characters are never so giddy as when they are toying with the unexpected nuances and connotations of language, as when the elevator operator riffs on the meaning of “re-search” or the narrator parries Frank’s questions about nature and the meaning of life with a riddling series of syntactical inversion (59). There’s also the quasi-erotic thrill of grasping meaning in its totality, the satisfaction of seeing connections between disparate objects that denies, if only for a moment, the fractured nature of everyday life. We see such pleasure in the sublime visions of unity that define the Bokononist worldview, but it is also captured in more mundane ways by Frank’s exquisite model rendering of a railroad town (73–77) and Little Newt’s abstract artwork (164). Above all else, though, there’s the simple pleasure of human recognition, the knowledge and acknowledgment of others that sustains and enlivens everyday life without transforming it. Both the boko-maru and the Last Rites of Bokononism involve simple acts of mutual recognition, a zero-sum hailing of self and other that recalls the pleasant exchange of Here I am! and So glad you are! of the harmoniums in The Sirens of Titan. Such knowledge lies at the foundation of the Bokonon worldview and practice. As we learn from the Rites of Bokonon, God makes the mud to recognize himself and to recognize other mud, and that simple act of recognition is full and ecstatic in itself, without having to change a thing (220–2).

Increasingly, it seems, Vonnegut’s own writing presents itself along similar lines. Each new work appears less an authoritative statement in the war of knowledges, a masterful truth at war with other truths, than a playful invitation to the reader to recognize and be recognized.