The “Balloonhead” in the Early SF Pulps

A curious figure appears again and again in the pages of the early SF pulp magazines: a man with a gigantic head and a small, withered body. He is the man of the far future, the apotheosis of technological and mental evolution. His body has atrophied due to lack of use, for machinery has made muscular exertion unnecessary. With no need of physical strength, the man of the far future is spindly or amorphously flabby, bald and toothless. While his hands have sometimes kept their current shape, his fingers are more often exceptionally long, or have become tentacles. He is telepathic, coldly logical, passionless, asexual. In the most extreme visions, he is nothing but a huge, pulsing brain. (Many of the magazines from which I’ve taken the images below can be found at Comic Book + and Pulp Mags.)

How can we account for the ubiquity of the “balloonhead,” as SF bibliographer Everett Bleiler designates him, around the years 1900-1940? Why this “compulsion to repeat”? The balloonhead appeared during a crucial moment in the generic stabilization of SF. While the origins of SF are sometimes located in Plato’s utopian visions in Republic, or in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, a more concrete history of SF must recognize the American pulp magazines of the early twentieth century as the medium in which a relatively coherent set of conventions emerged, which were then named, marketed, written, and read under the designation “science fiction” for the first time. Alongside aliens and androids, time machines and space ships, the repetition of the balloonhead was constitutive of genre SF.

But if repetition is a driving force of generic stabilization, it also raises psychoanalytic questions about trauma, desire, and fantasy. Thus, I interpret the balloonhead as a symptom of the class and gender anxieties of a particular social formation, the engineers and technical experts who constituted the interpretive community of pulp SF. The American professional engineer emerged in the nineteenth century, when the US “imported” or domesticated the British industrial revolution. While the writings of economist and sociologist Thorsten Veblen represent the radical class-consciousness of the new engineers—Veblen called for a “soviet of technicians” to seize control of the economy—the pulp SF magazines express their dream life.

More specifically, I think the balloonhead figures the trauma of the new work process and division of labor introduced by Fredrick Winslow Taylor in his Principles of Scientific Management (1911). Pulp SF is the dreamscape of Taylorist capitalism, which radically separated manual and intellectual labor, the hand and the head. Taylor’s innovation was to break down the industrial work process into more “rational” and efficient steps, so that any worker could perform his or her task without having any prior skill or experience. This “scientific management” of the factory was aimed at diminishing the leverage of skilled craft laborers. As Harry Braverman argues in Labor and Monopoly Capital, when the skill and knowledge of work is united with its performance in the body of the worker, the worker cannot be easily replaced, and has a strong influence over the pace of work. Scientific management is an episode in the long history of capitalism’s attempts to break this unity of conception and execution in the body of the worker, to deskill and cheapen the work process, to reduce work to a repetitive set of machinelike tasks, and to transfer knowledge to management.

Ad from Wonder Stories
Ad from Wonder Stories. It appeals precisely to what the balloonhead has lost: masculine physicality.

Engineers and technicians were uniquely situated in the Taylorist labor regime during its early years of emergence. They were “heads,” mental laborers, an emerging class fraction aligned with management’s desire to rationalize and control the work process; but they were also “hands,” skilled practical laborers who were proud of their masculinity and weary of the “femininity” of intellectual work. The balloonhead is the engineers’ nightmare vision of the Taylorist division of hand and head, a figuration of the disjunction of conception and execution taken to its biological extreme. The contemporary anxieties about the sedentary, obese bodies of the current digital economy—for example, the technological slobs imagined in Disney’s Wall-E—are only the most recent chapter in this longer history of heads and hands.

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