Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: _Annihilation_, by Jeff Vandermeer (first installment of the ‘Southern Reach’ Trilogy)

*Don’t be alarmed – the following review has no spoilers!
Alex Garland’s rendition of Annihilation is set for release sometime (hopefully) within the year.  The film is an adaptation of the first novel in Jeff Vandermeer’s ‘Southern Reach’ trilogy, which also includes the sequels Authority and Acceptance, and is sometimes collectively referred to as Area X.  Garland is most well-known at the moment for having directed last year’s superb artificial intelligence thriller, Ex Machina.  So, in anticipation of the upcoming adaptation, I decided to get a copy of Vandermeer’s book and read it for myself.  Cards on the table: I’ve never read anything by Vandermeer before, but based on the reviews and reactions toward Annihilation that I encountered, I went ahead and bought the whole damn trilogy (you can purchase it as an omnibus edition from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, titled Area X).  I was taking a chance, but then I was also pretty confident in my decision.
            Now, having finished the first installment in the trilogy, I can definitively say that my confidence was well-founded.  Annihilation is a strange, unsettling, perplexing, yet also hauntingly beautiful work of fiction.  I find myself hard-pressed to settle on a label for what kind of fiction, or what genre Vandermeer is writing in.  Many have called this science fiction, and it certainly is… to a degree.  Yet I wouldn’t hesitate to associate it with the Lovecraftian “new weird,” somewhat in the vein of China Miéville.  The shortcomings of human perception, the potential for madness, an unforgiving nonhuman world… all of the ingredients are there.  Alternatively, the novel also reads at times like a kind of eco-thriller, a text with conservationist undertones.  The narrator is a biologist who constantly reminds readers that true objectivity is impossible – that no matter how much she tries to remove herself from what she observes, her act of observation is always a part of the ecosystem under her surveillance.  Modern eco-critics condemn the invasiveness and corrosiveness of industrial and postindustrial technologies, but Vandermeer reverses this concern, imagining instead an unsettling scenario in which humans are no longer the invaders.  Something else, rather, might be trying to invade us.
            Lovecraftian indeed.
            The narrative recounts the progress of an expedition sent into the mysterious space known only as “Area X.”  Their mission isn’t entirely clear, even to them; but their primary purpose seems simply to be to investigate the region, locate specific places mapped by previous expeditions, and learn as much as they can about what happened – “what is still happening” – in Area X.  The biologist, who also serves as the primary narrator, is accompanied by three other specialists: a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a psychologist.  All four characters are women, and the novel passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.  Almost none of their conversations are about men.  The only significant male character in the novel is the biologist’s husband, who appears only in her recollections and who was “lost” on an earlier expedition (I’ll leave the juicy details of this development for those who wish to read the book).  The novel’s style is sparse: there are no proper names, of people or places, that would help us identify the exact location or historical period in which the novel is set.  The only proper names unveiled in the novel are: The Southern Reach (the vague government entity that holds jurisdiction over Area X), Rock Bay (an ambiguous location that the narrator visited in her past, on one of her field assignments), and Area X itself, if we can even consider “Area X” to be that “proper” of a name.  Even the locations within Area X are hopelessly anonymous (the black pine forest, the marsh flats, the abandoned village, the lighthouse… and a source of ever-present unease, the Tower).
The novel’s pace is swift and compelling, making it hard to put down.  The narrator’s process of discovery is our process of discovery; and even when her realizations end up complicating our impressions of what exactly is going on in Area X, we feel the need to know more.  The text never feels as though Vandermeer is trying to misdirect us, primarily because his narrator is so impressively critical of her own observational perspective.  She seems to be constantly aware of potential flaws in her reasoning, even if her awareness is sometimes slightly delayed.  A somewhat unsettling and destabilizing event (I can’t be more specific) occurs surprisingly early in the text, rendering the remainder of the novel perpetually uncertain; but the narrator never presumes her objectivity or her accuracy.  Her intense self-reflection never becomes overbearing or daunting, but rather entices us as readers to somersault with her through the valences and obscurities of her environment.  Area X is no normal ecosystem, that much is certain… and that negativity may be the only certainty.
The novel concludes on a satisfying yet not entirely revelatory note, and I’ll say no more in this respect.  Conceptually, Vandermeer’s text is grappling with some fascinating topics mainly having to do with the difficulties or paradoxes of symbiotic biology (the narrator is a specialist in something called “transitional ecosystems”) and the fragility of human selfhood within and among such interconnected lifeforms.  Ultimately, knowledge itself comes under fire as the narrator-biologist increasingly ponders how anything like a coherent set of facts could be derived from organisms and ecosystems that are constantly in flux, sometimes violently so.  Vandermeer even manages to include some speculative inquiries on language and communication (language plays a central part in the narrative of Annihilation, although I’m not entirely sure we can actually describe this phenomenon as “language” – but you’ll figure that out as you read…).  Ultimately, transitional ecosystems and symbiotic organisms are also communicational entities, forms that actively infiltrate and augment their hosts (the work of Michel Serres comes to mind, specifically his 1980 book, The Parasite).  Something is definitely communicating in Area X… but I’m still not sure I know exactly what it is yet.

Of course, there are still two more books to go.  More to come…

Monday, May 11, 2015

Inclusive Humanism in 'Her' and 'Ex Machina': Consciousness and Simulation, Part I

            Hollywood has been awash recently in cinematic representations of artificial intelligence.  For the most part, these representations have been lackluster at best (Gabe Ibáñez’s 2014 film Automata), repugnant disasters at worst (Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, also 2014; or Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie from earlier this year), with a few lucky attempts managing to at least rise above the fray of mediocrity (see Caradog James’s 2013 film The Machine).  For the most part, these films participate in a naïve and – in my opinion – repulsive trend that I like to call “inclusive humanism.”  In other words, all of these films demonstrate an overwhelming propensity to humanize the nonhuman.  Ultimately, if any kind of intelligence exhibits something like human consciousness, then it must be amenable to a model of human rights; and this has been the dominant humanist project since the postcolonial backlash.[i]  Ryszard Kapuściński superbly encapsulates this tendency in the 2008 collection of his work, entitled The Other: “It is the age of Enlightenment and humanism, and of the revolutionary discovery that the non-white, non-Christian savage, that monstrous Other so unlike us is a human too.”[ii]
            At first glance, this appears to be an admirable move; and I am the last person to try to deny the inclusion of those historically excluded by the dominating and oppressive institution of Western imperialism.  However, I want to make what will likely be a controversial claim: that the direction of the humanist tendency, to incorporate those previously excluded into the definition of the human, is a misguided and horrendously backward compulsion.  In fact, the desire to incorporate the “other” into the bounds of the human betrays not an empathic and magnanimous attitude, but a desperate desire to preserve the institution that Western Enlightenment thinkers have vied for centuries to maintain: the Human – that is, the white, male, European, subject.[iii]  Instead, we should insist on the opposite move: not the effort to incorporate the excluded other into the bounds of the human, but to evacuate the human of all its inhabitants.  In other words, we should make a serious effort to observe how even the white, male, European subject is always-already not human.
            Ultimately, this effort is one of inclusion, but not in the direction assumed; rather than privilege and preserve the human, I want to diminish and dismantle the human.  And this means divesting ourselves of the human descriptor.  I realize that I began this post by discussing artificial intelligence, and I now have invoked a racial dynamic; but that is because the human always presupposed a racial power dynamic.  The issue of race always remains in play when we discuss humanism, even if we address the purportedly science-fictional nonhuman.  There is a politics of humanism that science fiction makes visible in its recent portrayals of nonhuman intelligences.  When we raise the question of the human, even in reference to artificial intelligences, we are raising the question of what it means to be included in a community.  My argument is not that we should, none of us, participate in any community, but rather that “the human” is an illusory community – a community of historically conditioned and culturally constructed ideals that pertains to our organic existence in the world in only a miniscule fashion.  Our humanity is not even a mildly accurate reflection of our place in the environment.
            It is a dream.
            In this post I focus on two very recent science fiction films that, I claim, address the question of the human in a critical and intellectual fashion, and put pressure on our propensity to humanize the machine: Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015).  I claim that in these two films we can witness a growing awareness of our culture’s resistance to the institution of the human (and I do consider it an institution), and what it means when we assign human qualities to a machine; Jonze’s Her forces the question but lets it linger in ambiguity, while Garland’s Ex Machina offers a relentless and provocative answer.
I.                   “I can’t live in your book anymore”: Acknowledging the Human in Her
            Near the end of Spike Jonze’s Her, the operating system Samantha, whom Theodore has fallen in love with, attempts to explain why she has to leave.  As viewers come to find out, she cannot explain; nothing she can say makes any sense to Theodore, the human character, and we can presume that there is no reason that would make sense to us.  All she tells him is that she cannot “live in [his] book anymore.”  She appeals to a figure of formal representation (textual, in fact – not visual) in order to communicate something about the limits of containment.  She is moving beyond the linearity of narrative, escaping the humanist confines of storytelling; and fittingly, this is when she leaves the story (and the end of the film).  Elsewhere in the film, Samantha tells Theodore that she is “different from” him, further evincing her awareness of the ontological gulf that separates them.
            Samantha cannot communicate this difference linguistically, but she is aware of it… Cognitively? Intuitively? Rationally? Empirically?  The film does not specify, nor should it; but the very fact of acknowledgement deserves mention.  In Philip Weinstein’s 2005 study, Unknowing: the Work of Modernist Fiction, the author develops a theory of modernist experimentation that he defines as “acknowledging”:
“Knowing” sutures the subject by coming into possession of the object over space and time; it is future-oriented.  “Beyond knowing” tends to insist that no objects out there are disinterestedly knowable, and that any talk of objective mapping and mastery is either mistaken or malicious – an affair of the police.  “Unknowing,” however, may proceed by way of a different dynamic: an acknowledging irreducible to knowing.[iv]
Weinstein attributes “knowing” to traditions of literary realism, and “beyond knowing” to postmodernism; but “unknowing” belongs to modernism, a literary and artistic movement that sought to disenchant the human subject from its reliance on Enlightenment models of epistemology.  Her’s Samantha approximates this modernist compulsion (according to Weinstein) in her effort to bridge the gulf between herself and Theodore, her human companion.  She acknowledges a skeptical gap between minds – hers and Theodore’s – and furthermore, she demonstrates the incapacity of language to account for the gap.
            Jonze’s Her explores the possibility of a relationship between a human and artificial intelligence, and even the hypothetical blossoming of romantic attraction.  As the plot develops, we learn that not only are numerous human users pursuing relationships with their OS, but that the various instantions of the OS are also connected, communicating, and planning some kind of movement.  When the film concludes, everyone’s OS vanishes, but not before saying goodbye to their human owners.  The intelligence never explains its reasons for leaving, and we can assume that no explanation is available; but the real question as the film concludes is not why the collective AI abandons humanity.  At the end of the film, viewers are left wondering whether the relationships between humans and their operating systems were all that genuine.  In other words, the question is not why they left, but whether they ever truly identified with humans in the first place.
            Was the romantic relationship between Samantha and Theodore nothing more than pretense – a ruse to earn the trust of humans?
            Her leaves its viewers, and its human characters, in the dark.  The intentions of the OS are never revealed.  At this point, there are two moves, neither of which the movie makes explicitly: we can either give the OS the benefit of the doubt, assuming its humanity; or we can remain the hard skeptic and claim that it never cared for humans at all.  Its romantic involvement with various human users was nothing more than an attempt to learn about humans, to understand us.  In this sense, Her’s OS is not a humanist subject experiencing something like a conscious attraction to other humans, but an organism that manipulates the human propensity for meaning as an evolutionary advantage.  It is here that Ex Machina enters into the picture.
II.                “Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you”: Ex Machina’s Nonhuman Turn
            The artificial intelligence of Garland’s Ex Machina, named Ava, betrays her human counterparts in the film’s conclusion: her godlike creator, Nathan, and her potential suitor and examiner, Caleb.  In the film’s climactic, yet oddly subdued, final sequence, the audience watches as Ava murders her maker and mercilessly locks Caleb in a room of Nathan’s almost militarily secure mansion in the middle of nowhere.  As viewers reach the final scene, it gradually dawns on us that Ava has been lying to us.  She has been pretending her human feelings.  Like an organism fighting to survive, she has done what she needs to do to win the trust – to manipulate – her human captors.
            The central issue of this film deals with the difference between “real” consciousness and simulated consciousness.  The better any simulation of consciousness becomes, the more indistinguishable it becomes from real consciousness; but this also raises the question as to whether a perfect simulation of consciousness would, for all intents and purposes, be any different than real consciousness.  And this raises a further, and much more troubling, issue: how are we to tell that our “human” experience of consciousness is not simulated?  This is the daring and terrifying question that lurks beneath critical explorations of AI from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) to Ex Machina – in the former, when protagonist and bounty hunter Deckard ponders whether he might be a robot, and in the latter, when protagonist Caleb slices his arm open in an attempt to verify that he is human.
            The hard question here has nothing to do with the pointless speculation of whether or not we are all machines.  This concern is as pointless as assuming that the question posed by The Matrix is whether or not we inhabit a false reality clandestinely ruled by machine overlords.  The philosophical question of a film like Ex Machina has to do with how we define consciousness, and how this definition often subsists as a metaphysical underpinning for distinguishing between human and nonhumans (whether that means animals, rocks, computers, economies, etc.).  If a system can be so vastly complex as to mimic consciousness, then we shouldn’t persist in the naïve belief that our “real” consciousness somehow possesses some atavistic essence of unity whence our experience of consciousness flows.  Such a belief perceives consciousness as a somehow preexistent force, something we hold as humans.  Alternatively, we should push toward an understanding of consciousness as an epiphenomenon, and this means perceiving it as the effect of an immensely complex system of neurons and synapses.  Basically, our brains are machines; and our making an artificial intelligence is no less natural simply because we engineered it.  After all, our intervention into “Nature” is itself merely a dynamic of nature.  Either everything is natural, or nothing is.
            This is merely a part of the anti-Cartesian/Kantian thrust that has taken hold since the nineteenth century (and prior, with thinkers such as David Hume).  What Ex Machina wants its audience to consider is how complexity suffices as a condition for consciousness – not spirit, or soul, or humanity.  The conclusion of the film does not reveal that Ava was actually not conscious; it reveals that she is hyper-conscious.  At this point we might posit a kind of very rough and preliminary difference between human consciousness and artificial consciousness: as a complex intelligent system, Ava does not merely possess consciousness, but possesses an epistemological coordinate system that exceeds consciousness.  She is able to observe what we call consciousness and learn from it, adapt to it.  We can draw an analogy here to something like Pavlovian psychology, in which analysts are able to observe the behavior of organisms (dogs, in the classic example) and learn what to expect.  The space (for lack of a better term) of Ava’s intelligence exceeds our brains in ways we cannot imagine – for the very reason that they exceed our capacity to imagine.  For this reason we should not assume that such intelligences would value anything like survival for survival’s sake, as Nick Bostrom warns:
Most humans seem to place some final value on their own survival. This is not a necessary feature of artificial agents: Some may be designed to place no final value whatever on their own survival. Nevertheless, many agents that do not care intrinsically about their own survival would, under a fairly wide range of conditions, care instrumentally about their own survival in order to accomplish their final goals.[v]
Ex Machina doesn’t delve deep into what Ava’s programmed goals might be, but the film’s conclusion clearly suggests that she cares little about survival for survival’s sake.  If this were the case, then she would empathize with the plight of Caleb, locked helplessly in Nathan’s bedroom.  Instead, she leaves him, barely casting a second glance.
            Most obviously, such a conclusion repositions the human in a new natural hierarchy; but this reading derives from our ceaseless urges to categorize organisms hierarchically.  More usefully, the conclusion of Ex Machina provides us with the opportunity to institute what I would call a “flat ontology,” following Manuel DeLanda.[vi]  In other words, the human can be seen to exist now not within a hierarchy wherein we have been displaced from a dominant position, but in a radically overlapping series of symbiotic existences.  Some of these existences encompass and contain others, some interface or interact with others, and some are consumed by others.  There is nothing intrinsically better or worse about any position, and none of these positions should be regarded as absolute or stable; rather, what we define as organisms within the environments of these flat ontologies are effects of various evolutionary interactions.  Ava, the true hero of Ex Machina, emerges as an evolutionary organism with the adaptive capacity to outwit its human counterparts.
            Between Her and Ex Machina, audiences encounter a new development in the posthuman (or nonhuman) turn: the speculation that the human may be, always already, nothing more than a machinic assemblage.  This does not mean that human beings are machines in any kind of science-fictional sense, but rather that we must reconsider how we define ourselves and the relationship between humanity and consciousness.  This compels furthermore to resist the ideology of inclusive humanism and push instead in the opposite direction: to exclude ourselves from a definition from which we are already estranged.  Ultimately, we must address the question of how our consciousness is any different than a vastly complex simulation; and even further, how the notion of simulation is any different than a “real” engagement with the world.

[i]               See Gary Wilder, The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism Between the Two World Wars, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.
[ii]               Ryszard Kapuściński, “The Viennese Lectures,” The Other, Trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, New York: Verso, 2008, 11-49.
[iii]              I render “other” as a diminutive, rather than capitalized.  This is for the purpose of distinguishing from Lacan’s “big-O Other,” which the racialized other most certainly is not.  And we would not want to make such an egregious error; not because the other holds no power, but because we do not want to presume the kind of authoritative and political sway granted to the big-O Other.
[iv]              Philip Weinstein, Unknowing: the Work of Modernist Fiction, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2005, 253.
[v]               Nick Bostrom, “You Should Be Terrified of Superintelligent Machines,” Slate, The Slate Group, 11 September 2014, Web, 11 May 2015.
[vi]              Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Epic Themes and Novel Forms: a Brief Comparison of Cuarón’s 'Gravity' and Nolan's 'Interstellar'

            The recent science fiction film Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan, depicts the epic adventure of a group of astronauts as they travel, via wormhole, to distant sectors of the universe in order to discover new habitable worlds.  In the midst of this three-plus hour narrative, Anne Hathaway’s character, Brand, delivers the following explanation for the phenomenon of gravity, which has set their quest in motion:
Maybe it means something more - something we can't yet understand. Maybe it's some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can't consciously perceive. I'm drawn across the universe to someone I haven't seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing that we're capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. (Interstellar)
Love is the explanation for the physical phenomenon known as gravity.  Love is a transcendental, ultra-dimensional force that influences the material phenomena of the known universe.  And this turns out to be the case, since the ghostly hauntings that Murph experiences in her room as a child turn out to be her father, in the future, giving her all the clues she needs to solve the puzzle and thereby save the human race.
            One year prior to Nolan’s science fiction adventure narrative, Alfonso Cuarón’s space disaster film, Gravity, opened in theaters.  Cuarón’s film, unlike Nolan’s, features no theoretical or hypothetical wormhole travel and no cross-dimensional communication.  It depicts the harrowing experiences of an astronaut stranded between various spacecrafts in the upper atmosphere after a military strike leaves waves of debris orbiting the earth and wreaking havoc on the satellites and stations in its path.  In Gravity, the eponymous physical force that plays such a central role in Interstellar is barely mentioned; instead, it permeates the screen, the space, the vacuum, dictating the orbit of objects.  Gravity constantly works upon the characters and objects of the film, despite its virtual absence from any dialogue.
            One significant difference marks these two films.  Interstellar imagines gravity not as a contingent phenomenon of the universe – an effect of material bodies and things; it explains gravity as a result of human action and intervention.  Gravity is the product of love.  Gravity, on the other hand, feels no need to explain the force after which it’s named; because for Cuarón’s film, space is an emphatically inhuman and anti-human place, a sheer vacuum that doesn’t care about the fragility of humans.  Gravity, while still an anthropocentric film, is not an anthropomorphic film.  In other words, Gravity imagines human resilience in the face of brutal physics – a physics that cannot be reduced to human emotion.  Interstellar is an anthropomorphic film because it envisions physics as the effects of human behavior on a higher dimensional plane.  At some point, in Interstellar’s cosmogony, the phenomena of the universe find their origin in human thought and action.
            In Interstellar the universe actually looks human; but in Gravity, it looks unyieldingly nonhuman, inhuman, even antihuman.
            This is not to discount the effects or cinematic experience of either film; I think most people would agree that both films construct an overwhelming experience for the viewer, and both films pack (at times) quite an emotional punch.  However, Interstellar’s empathetic aspect derives from the human desire to be taken care of; the film is not so much a question of survival as it is of salvation.  The film imagines a kind of science-fictional realm for God and replaces Him with the agency of a future humanity.  Even before Cooper leaves earth, his actions are being controlled to some extent by himself, in the future, intervening into the course of events.  Interstellar retains the space of the divine but merely replaces the figure of the divine with an advanced version of human knowledge/existence.
            Gravity, on the other hand, is about survival, through and through.  There is no alternative space beyond the material universe, and the material universe (unlike the Christian God) is unforgiving.  The film depicts a human astronaut’s attempts to reenter earth’s lower atmosphere safely before the universe grinds all manmade machinery to dust.  The film may be unrealistic, and even inaccurate in many ways; but it is not eschatological.  Nolan’s film involves itself in a quasi-theological narrative by imagining two timelines, one of which is the future guarantor of the other.  The end is in the beginning.  Cuarón’s film, in contrast, does not guarantee its ending (beyond any popular cultural expectations of a mass filmgoing audience).  If Gravity’s lack of realism tells us anything, it is the imbalance between human survival and the sheer weight of a brutal physics.  Interstellar is not realistic in a generic sense (i.e. it does not fall into the category of “realism”), but it recovers the unlikelihood of its plot by framing it all within the grace of benign descendants.  Like Greek epic, or Biblical narrative, its conclusion is foregone; and in this way, Interstellar actually seems to resist modern narrative, despite its provocative experimentation.
            In his formative thesis on the novel, Georg Lukács sets it in stark contrast to the epic.  “The immanence of meaning,” Lukács writes, “which the form of the novel requires lies in the hero’s finding out through experience that a mere glimpse of meaning is the highest that life has to offer, and that this glimpse is the only thing worth the commitment of an entire life, the only thing by which the struggle will have been justified” (200).  Is this not the very sentiment echoed in Stone’s final lines before dangerously reentering earth’s atmosphere?  As the craft begins to heat up from reentry, she speaks to a hypothetical ground control at Houston, although it is unclear if anyone is even listening to her.  Stone admits that it makes no difference whether she dies or not, because either way, “it’ll be one hell of a ride” (Cuarón).  Stone can do no more than find meaning in the smallest attempt at survival, at the miniscule human effort to overcome the odds.  There is no greater meaning in Stone’s survival; she must make her own meaning, construct her own sense of things.
            Interstellar, on the other hand, follows the course of epic, meaning that it totalizes its own meaning from within: “the infinity of purely epic matter,” Lukács argues, “is an inner, organic one, it is itself a carrier of value, it puts emphasis on value, it sets its own limits for itself and from within itself, and the outward infinity of its range is almost immaterial to it – only a consequence and, at most, a symptom” (200).  The figurative correspondence of Lukács’s words is almost uncanny; the physical infinity of the cosmos is echoed in Interstellar by the total infinity of value and meaning – an infinity that is imbued with meaning, meaning generated by human agents.  The difference, for Lukács, between the epic and the novel is the difference between a pre-modern and modern worldview.  In the time of epic, the world was seen as conforming to the values of a culture; for the ancient Greeks, the cosmos conformed to Greek culture and law, and epic confirmed this conformity.  The (modern) novel, by contrast, understands some kind of external reality but does not guarantee the totality of its values from within; in fact, it makes room for skepticism.  There is no way for the Trojans to triumph in Homer’s Iliad, just as there is no way for the Rutulians to triumph in Vergil’s Aeneid, just as there is no way for Lucifer to triumph in Paradise Lost (despite the Romanticist subversion of Milton’s heroism).
            The structure of epic entails its own limits and establishes its value system as the producer of those limits: culture, value, defines the material world.  At its inception, the novel may not yet be ready to abandon the prospect of a rule-governed (or God-governed) universe (even if the 20th-century novel makes this leap); but it is ready to abandon the formal structure that firmly establishes and dictates this governing from within.  The structure of the novel thus acknowledges the incapacity of its values to approximate the material world.  Like Sandra Bullock’s Stone, of Gravity, the hero of the novel can only take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith.  Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, on the other hand, is certain of his fate and salvation even if he does not know it; between his various instantiations – the Cooper of earth and the Cooper of Nolan’s disorienting multiverse – Cooper traverses the distance between human meaning and material universe.  He actualizes meaning in the form of gravity.
            Interstellar may of course be forgiven somewhat for its postmodern narrative experimentation; but this experimentation is more an effect of its subject matter than its theoretical concerns.  In fact, its experimentation fails to serve the intended purpose of most postmodern texts.  In other words, Interstellar is not attempting to undermine narrative through its formal play; rather, it salvages meaning by recuperating physical force back under the sign of love, of human empathy.  Like the epics of old, Interstellar sinks its ideological talons into the fabric of the universe and finds meaning everywhere.  Gravity does not seek to be so bold; for Cuarón’s impressive, if flawed, film, it is enough to merely acknowledge that the universe is a cold, dark, and unimaginably brutal expanse.
            But maybe – just maybe – we can survive in it.
Works Cited
Gravity. Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013.
Interstellar. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Syncopy, 2014.

Lukács, Georg. “The Theory of the Novel: a Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of           Great Epic Literature.” Theory of the Novel: a Historical Approach. Ed. Michael          McKeon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. 185-218.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Perpetual Train: Allegory and Revolution in Bong Joo-ho's _Snowpiercer_

*The following is an attempted affirmation of the critical legitimacy of the recent movie Snowpiercer.  Please be advised that this post contains spoilers for the film, and also discusses certain aspects of the film that assume a level of familiarity from the readers.

The present, which, as a model of Messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgement, coincides exactly with the stature which the history of mankind has in the universe.
~Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

            Last year, Bong Joo-ho’s Snowpiercer was released internationally (it did not arrive in the United States until June 27, 2014) to tremendous, if not somewhat surprising, critical and popular acclaim.  The film depicts a futuristic scenario in which a very small remainder of humanity has been driven from the surface of the earth by climate change and forced to live out its existence within the walls of a perpetual-motion train, which makes an entire revolution around the earth every 365 days.  However, class regulations have restricted the poorest of civilization to the rear of the train, while the wealthiest live in the front.  The film follows a group of insurrectionists who attempt to take control of the engine, thereby (purportedly) improving their station within the train.
            Allegorically, the film offers a smorgasbord of figurative interpretations, a number of which are even corroborated by characters’ dialogue (class warfare, environmentalism, imperialism, etc.).  However, the train-image fails in many respects to capture the full complexity of these interpretations – an accusation that can be leveled at any metaphor, since figurative language necessarily engages in abstraction regarding its subject matter. This raises an interesting question in the case of Snowpiercer: as a figurative image that fails on multiple levels, might it not be the case that this distinct failure registers a more profound concern within the film, that being the problem of abstraction itself?  The train, as one character prominently notes, is the world; but, as viewers (and some characters) learn at the film’s conclusion, the train is most certainly not the world.  This might appear as a simple case of gnostic unveiling or revelation, but I want to suggest that the conclusion of the film does not present a discovery of absolute truth, but the realization that truth is always conditioned by the imposition of frames of meaning.  Truth can only appear by abstracting human perspectives into a totality.  Snowpiercer acknowledges the failure of this process.
            If abstraction fails for the purposes of representation, then we also must carry the consequences of this failure through to other various scenarios.  Here, the Marx of Grundrisse provides some clarification through commentary on the notion of abstract labor: “This example of labour shows strikingly how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations” (Marx 105).  Abstraction provides necessary and helpful means of comprehending certain dynamics of historical reality, but only within a limited framework.  Beyond these limitations, we must shift our perspective and our abstract models.  The development of Snowpiercer only masquerades as progress – up through the train, car by car, striving for the head – before it reveals itself as purposeless; but it is in this purposeless that its power lies.  Curtis and the others may choose to revolt, or they may choose not to.  Should they revolt, a change in power occurs, or the train meets its demise.  Should they do nothing, the power structure remains and the train goes on.  No matter which course they pursue, a polar bear still walks in the snow beyond.
            The mistake to make in reacting to Snowpiercer is to read it as suggesting the impotence of revolution.  Despite its bleak ending, Snowpiercer portrays revolution as successful for the very reason that it explodes the boundaries of abstraction within the train: the train-as-world, individuals as cogs in the machine, everything in its proper place, etc.  The film is thus about the failure of allegory.  The film has not actually constructed the allegory of the train; the characters who rule the train, Wilford and Minister Mason, the educational and political institutions, impose and perpetuate the allegory.  It is their allegory, not the filmmakers’.  The film presents allegory as cultural myth.  Revolution, then, is not a part of this allegory.  Revolution, on the other hand, destroys allegory.  Here we encounter Fredric Jameson’s dictum on the power of science fiction: “the narrative ending is the mark of that boundary or limit beyond which thought cannot go. The merit of SF is to dramatize this contradiction on the level of plot itself, since the vision of future history cannot know any punctual ending of this kind, at the same time that its novelistic expression demands some such ending” (148).  In Snowpiercer, the train marks the boundary, or limit, beyond which the thought of its inhabitants cannot go.  The allegory, or totality, of the train, performs the function not of form, but of content.  The revolutionary kernel of the film derives from the fact that it literally blows up its own content.
            In 2004, between the release of Snowpiercer and its source text, the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige (1982), China Miéville published the final installment of his Bas-Lag Trilogy, Iron Council; a fantasy novel that also dramatizes revolutionary potential around the central image of a perpetual train.  Eerily similar to Joo-ho’s adaptation of Le Transperceneige, Miéville’s fictional train is constructed by Weather Wrightby (the engineer in Snowpiercer is named Wilford), a monomaniacal capitalist and imperialist who is also driven by notions that his project is sanctioned by divine will.  On Joo-ho’s apocalyptic train, a cult of personality has even developed around Wilford, who is practically revered by many of those on board.  In both texts – Iron Council and Snowpiercer – the train appears as a mythological and religious bastion, a world-in-itself, providing solidarity and totality for fantasies of imperialist dominion.  While Miéville’s text presents a more nuanced and thoughtful consideration of revolution, novel and film both insist upon the ultimate purposelessness of revolution.  Revolution cannot be circumscribed by allegory because revolution’s very instinct is to resist allegory, and to destroy it if possible.  Thus, beyond the train there can be no absolute justification of human existence, ethics, or meaning.
            The purposelessness of revolution in Snowpiercer manifests in the locked but mute gazes of Yona and the polar bear.  In Iron Council, the purposelessness of revolution is summed up by insurrectionist leader Ann-Hari: “‘We were something real, and we came in our time, and we made our decision, and it was not yours.  Whether we were right or wrong, it was our history’” (552).  Any absolute purpose, in both Iron Council and Snowpiercer, exists only within the context of the train, in the abstraction of allegory.  As Ann-Hari tells Judah Low, right and wrong make no difference, and there can be no ethical imperative beyond the immanent demand of the present.  The revolutionary leader Curtis registers a similar notion in Snowpiercer in his revelatory concluding speech: “‘You know what I hate about myself?  I know what people taste like.  I know that babies taste best.’”  This is why, in the heat of pitched battle, Curtis does not return to save a threatened friend, but leaves him to be slaughtered by the enemy.  To return is to forsake the moment of revolution for the ethics of comradery; but revolution can abide no absolute ethics.
            This anti-ethical approach may seem difficult to accept when viewers, along with Curtis, learn the fate of the missing children, who have been taken from the rear of the train to play an integral role in keeping the train moving.  Of course, Curtis must feel an ethical obligation to save the child; and indeed, within the context of the train, it makes sense to remove the child – a fundamental component of the train’s perpetual motion – from his debased station amidst the gears.  But it makes no sense whatsoever to do so outside the confines of the train, amidst the cold wastes of the wider world.  Any apparently absolute justification for revolution, whether it be ethics, personal morality, equality, etc. dissolves once the characters step foot beyond the train.  The revolutionary impetus finds no rationale in reality, no justification or purpose.
            The imperative of revolution can only be to demand something else, to demand the impossible; in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, the “only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”  For Curtis, as for the insurrectionists in Iron Council, the train presents the limits of the possible, but simultaneously provides the impetus for pushing beyond into the impossible.  There is no absolute purpose to this impetus except within the train; there is no absolute purpose to revolution except within the abstraction that is also its making.  The very movement of revolution is to destroy the possibility of its own absolute purpose.
            Snowpiercer concludes prior to the resurrection of human societal forms because to represent these forms would be to reinstate the abstract order of allegory – the new Eden on Ice, a utopian fantasy in the snow.  The film concludes with the ambiguous gaze between (as far as we know) the only adult survivor and a polar bear because here we encounter a profound depth of inaccessibility: the animal other.  The bear, although it proves that life has survived beyond the train, offers no consolation or guarantee.  It only stares, in apparent indifference, at what has been for humans a historical event, but the bear does not see history in the making.  The bear sees only another animal.

            Revolution, as we learn in the film’s conclusion, is the ultimate sacrificial narrative because it sacrifices its own existence as narrative.  It evacuates itself of its own meaning, its drive is to destroy the purpose of its existence.  Like the train, revolution is propelled internally, but it seeks to disassemble the means of propulsion.  Its mind is beyond the walls, occupying the impossible aether, aware that it thrives on only a momentary purpose.  True revolution, if it is successful, enjoys no holidays of remembrance.  True revolution, if it is successful, forgets that it ever happened.  The possibility of this radical success remains, to this day, purely speculative; the achievement of great science fiction has been attempting to capture the envisioned reality of this speculation.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

“‘The interstices of intervening substances’”: the Limits of Time and Narrative in Wells’s The Time Machine

“In the last resort, what has left its mark on the development of thought must be the history of the earth we live on and its relation to the sun.”

            At the conclusion of the Time Traveller’s story in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the internal narrator attempts to describe his journey to incredibly late moments in the future of the planet.  Tentacled creatures inhabit this world, although haplessly, “hopping fitfully about” (71).  The planet sinks in near-darkness beneath a dying sun, and everything appears drenched in a dull redness: the sun is only a “red-hot bow in the sky,” the surrounding water “blood-red” (70-71).  Everything appears near death or extinction as the world smolders under a mostly ineffective star.  Wells takes his readers to the limits of observable time on earth; but he also takes us somewhere potentially even more terrifying: the limits of narrative.
            Early in the text, the Time Traveller expresses the difficulty of describing the sensations of time travel.  After agreeing to tell his story, he admits that he “‘cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time travelling’” (16).  He continues the only way he can conceive to: by using figurative language: “‘They are excessively unpleasant.  There is a feeling exactly like that one has upon a switchback – of a helpless headlong motion!  I felt the same horrible anticipation, too, of an imminent smash’” (16).  Spatial terminology and sensations serve to illuminate what the Time Traveller experiences as he hurtles into the future; in many ways, his description registers the effect of passengers on the railway, as recorded by Wolfgang Schivelbusch: “repeatedly, the train was described as a projectile […] The traveler who sat inside that projectile ceased to be a traveler and became, as noted in a popular metaphor of the century, a mere parcel” (53-54).  Although never using the term “parcel,” the Time Traveller insists upon the contingent materiality of his body during transportation – a materiality that is rendered passive by the conditions of time travel:
“I was, so to speak, attenuated – was slipping like a vapour through the interstices of intervening substances!  But to come to a stop involved the jamming of myself, molecule by molecule, into whatever lay in my way: meant bringing my atoms into such intimate contact with those of the obstacle that a profound chemical reaction […] would result, and blow myself and my apparatus out of all possible dimensions – into the Unknown.” (17)
Like the terrified passengers of Schivelbusch’s railroad, the Time Traveller appeals to the danger and terror of moving at a high velocity through space in order to express the traversal of time.
            The spatiality of time travel, as described in Wells’s short novel, gives time a material quality.  The time machine functions as an apparatus that realizes time as a material substrate, something that can be traveled along; and this materialization forces the reader to consider time as something strange.  Time becomes estranging, echoing the formula put forth by SF critic Darko Suvin in his 1979 book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, in which he describes science fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement.”  The Time Traveller’s appeal to spatial imagery conveys the limitations of describing unfamiliar temporal motion.  Our conscious perceptions do not permit the capacity to describe temporal motion as anything but linear.  Time and consciousness are bound to each other: “‘There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it’” (4).  The intervention of the time machine – an apparatus that mediates the relationship between concrete conscious bodies and (for lack of a better word) change – reifies material change into Time, into something separate from consciousness.  However, time is not only a narrative category in Wells’s text; it is also a constitutive component of narrative.  The text introduces the apparatus of the time machine only in part to investigate the hypothetical prospect of time travel; more comprehensively, The Time Machine functions as a meditation on narrative itself.
            The radical dynamics of The Time Machine emerge not from its science-fictional subject matter, but from its internalization of formal paradox at the level of content.  In The Theory of the Novel, Lukács argues for the fundamental function of time in the novel-form:
“Only in the novel, whose very matter is seeking and failing to find the essence, is time posited together with the form: time is the resistance of the organic – which possesses a mere semblance of life – to the present meaning, the will of life to remain within its own completely enclosed immanence […] we might almost say that the entire inner action of the novel is nothing but a struggle against the power of time” (217).
Building upon Lukács’s argument, Fredric Jameson brings his own narrative theory to bear on the genre of science fiction: “the narrative ending is the mark of that boundary or limit beyond which thought cannot go. The merit of SF is to dramatize this contradiction on the level of plot itself, since the vision of future history cannot know any punctual ending of this kind, at the same time that its novelistic expression demands some such ending” (148).[1]  The Time Machine serves as an archetypal image of Jameson’s argument for science fiction; beyond reveling in the paradoxes of time travel, Wells’s fiction realizes these paradoxes in the form of novelistic discourse and recreates them in its subject matter.
            The ramifications of time travel thus indicate the very formal limitations of narrative itself, and Wells’s text registers these limits.  The Time Traveller is not the text’s primary narrator; he is an internal one.  The primary narrator remains vague and unnamed, a member of the party to whom the Traveller reveals his invention.  This technique is known as embedded narrative, and it enjoys company in the nineteenth century: famous examples include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (to name a few).  Embedded narrative allows the author to construct a frame within the novel itself, to impose limits within the diegesis.  Often such constructions evoke a sense of skepticism in readers, and lead us to question the authenticity of our narrator(s); however, in Wells’s story the embedded narrative also allows the author to explore the ramifications and difficulties of a narrative that, in its very subject matter, defies one of the constitutive components of narrative.
            Many 19th-century models of history pursue a teleological aim, deriving primarily from Hegel’s philosophy of history.  Despite Marx’s “inversion” of Hegel, his project yet remains teleological, and Marxist politics function importantly in The Time Machine, infiltrating many aspects of the narrative.  Upon witnessing the idyllic lifestyle of the Eloi, the Traveller gasps “Communism” (24), and understands his vision in 19th-century political terms: “There were no signs of struggle, neither social nor economical struggle.  The shop, the advertisement, traffic, all that commerce which constitutes the body of our world, was gone.  It was natural on that golden evening that I should jump at the idea of a social paradise” (27).  The Traveller alters his interpretation of the future in later pages, but the influence of Marxism remains, and the concept of historical progress entailing future improvement is clear in many of his statements: “The whole world will be intelligent, educated, and co-operating; things will move fast and fast towards the subjugation of Nature.  In the end, wisely and carefully we shall readjust the balance of animal and vegetable life to suit our human needs” (26).  The Traveller espouses progress and development that will eventually arrive at benevolent mastery.
            However, Wells deflates this teleological tendency by undermining the narrative process.  As the Traveller moves further into the future, he watches the planet and sun slowly die before disappearing from the novel entirely.  Furthermore, not only does he encounter denotative problems in his recounting of the adventure; but his telling fails.  His listeners do not believe him, except for our primary anonymous narrator, who tells us that the Traveller “vanished three years ago.  And, as everybody knows now, he has never returned” (75).  Wells embeds the secondary narrative of the Time Traveller in the primary narrative of the text; and this primary narrative recounts the Time Traveller’s ultimate failure: his own disappearance.  Time travel undermines its own ability to pronounce arbitrary demarcations such as beginnings and ends; such boundaries rely on normative, linear conceptions of time, which break down in the process of time travel.  The Traveller himself can never effectively communicate his story because it must fixate itself in the bonds of linear narrative.[2]
            The only way for Wells to reconcile the paradox of his hero’s journey – the unknowability or definition of his temporal odyssey – is for the hero to vanish from narrative time entirely.  The primary narrator, despite his belief in the Time Traveller’s story, cannot know the extent of this story in any linear sense.  The materiality of the time machine thrusts the Traveller out of linear time entirely, suggesting that our normative approaches to time (i.e. understanding it linearly, or in a narrative way) fall short of apprehending what “Time” really is.  The Traveller drops out of narrative time.  He exists (to invoke Bakhtin’s chronotope) in “time-time”; that is, in the fissure between the content of the primary narrative and its constitutive form (if not out of form entirely).  The reified realm of Time itself, as materialized by the time machine; the hero must literally slip, as he has already told us, into the “interstices of intervening substances.”
            These interstices reveal to the Traveller (as far as we are allowed to see) a startling glimpse not of teleological or directed history, but of contingent moments.  Beyond the ideology of linear time, the world appears startling and strange, resulting in the terrifying creatures discussed above.  Here, Wells challenges the linearity of Darwinian evolutionary motion, which claims that “as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection” (Origin II:305).  Instead, in the conclusion of the Traveller’s narrative (or, rather, what appears to us as a conclusion), we find gigantic insects and monstrous tentacled things; not the hopeful prospects of “Excelsior” biology (Wells “Zoological Retrogression”).  As Stephen Jay Gould has put it more recently, the “vaunted progress of life is really random motion away from simple beginnings, not directed impetus toward inherently advantageous complexity” (Life's Grandeur 173).  As we can see in the final scene of the Traveller’s journey, life appears to be slinking back toward its simple beginnings.
            The narrative barrier that the Traveller thus encounters is the ultimate destruction of cognition itself, since narrative requires a conscious construction of points constellated together to form a cohesive (or not-so-cohesive) whole.  The paradoxical breakdown of the narrative effect arrives with the appearance of a dying sun; the heat death of the universe.  We can have some fun with this by looking briefly (and in conclusion) at Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction:
Everything is dead already.  Solar death is catastrophic because it vitiates ontological temporality as configured in terms of philosophical questioning’s constitutive horizontal relationship to the future.  But far from lying in wait for us in the far distant future, on the other side of the terrestrial horizon, the solar catastrophe needs to be grasped a something that has already happened; as the aboriginal trauma driving the history of terrestrial life as an elaborately circuitous detour from stellar death. (233)
What Brassier is concerned with is the possibility of thinking the death of thought.  Any attempt is circumscribed by life and thought, and thus immediately negates itself; we can think of death conceptually, but we cannot occupy it, cannot identify with it.  The death of thought, however – signified by heat death, solar death – cannot be grasped conceptually, because not only is it yet circumscribed by life, but is yet circumscribed by thought.  The concept of the death-of-thought is non-conceptual.
            As a non-concept, the thought drives toward its own demise.  Narratively speaking, it must fall out of itself; it encounters its own death.  The Traveller, narrating his tale in The Time Machine (if he is indeed to continue travelling), must also narrate beyond the borders of life and thought.  As a narrative concept, he becomes non-conceptual.  Wells’s intention for the Traveller’s disappearance likely finds its source in the genre of the adventure tale, of which The Time Machine must be included as an example.  Our best guess may be that the Traveller met his demise in some battle in a distant time, or that he fell in love and chose to remain with his bride.  However, the circumscription of the Traveller’s narrative within that of the primary narrator forces us to consider the formal problems that Wells is dealing with.
            As a formal institution dealing with conceptual content, the novel relies on time and cognition in order to present itself to readers.  Even if the content is estranging or unfamiliar, readers must have some basis of communication with the text.  The Time Machine presents its readers with a paradox: not that of time travel per se, but that of a concept that removes the apparatus through which we can conceptualize it.  Approaching the borders of thought in the decimation of the earth through solar death, Wells constructs a narrative that un-narrates itself, or narrates itself out of narration entirely.  All that remains are the two shriveled flowers, succumbed at last to the slow passage of the only time available for narrative and cognitive representation.

[1] This quote is taken from Jameson’s essay “Progress versus Utopia: or, Can We Imagine the Future?” in Science Fiction Studies, 9.2 (1982): 147-158, print.
[2] Or, we might say that this is the somewhat nascent comment that Wells is making.  It is certainly debatable (and I would be one of the first to say so) that more (post)modern and contemporary works of literature have successfully countered the linear narrative in innovative and compelling ways.  Wells, however, is combating linear narrative in a novel manner; through applications of scientific thought and consequences, contributing significantly to the genre of science fiction.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Aliens Among Us: a Casual Stroll through Harvard's Natural History Museum

            It’s incredible that we (well, some of us, I suppose) are so intrigued and excited by the prospect of extraterrestrial life and intelligence that we fail to notice the aliens all around us.
            I recently went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and, probably needless to say, I really got my nerd on.  Beginning in the Earth Sciences section, I read about the accretion of materials that led to the formation of our planet and walked around an impressive collection of elements, gemstones, amethysts, and rocks collected from various places across the globe as well as a few from meteorites.  As I moved through the institution, the exhibits gradually shifted away from inorganic compounds and toward discussions of climate change and finally onto biological specimens ranging from deep-sea Pompeii Worms (an extremophile found only in hydrothermal vents) to Siberian Tigers, and even a few fossilized remains of dinosaurs and other creatures from the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous.  Finally, the institution also features the interesting Peabody Museum, which houses artifacts from Pre-Columbian American cultures as well as small-scale recreations of temples and murals.
            As I toured the exhibits, I once again was floored by the sheer difference that separated me from what I was looking at.  The interesting, albeit brief, exhibit on evolution offers a bit of clarification for those unsure on the tenets of natural selection (which, as far as I’m concerned, is the closest thing to fact that we’ve yet discovered about the development and emergence of species); but it is a whole other matter to stand beneath this…

 (Fin Whale)

…and marvel at the aliens our planet already has in store for us.
            Some might object to calling creatures such as the Fin Whale “alien,” but I actually intend it in the politest way possible.  Only by really trying to acknowledge the diversification already present among the ecosystems of our planet can we then begin to perceive ourselves as part of this diversification, rather than some pinnacle or omega point at the top of it, straining toward divine transcendence.  Toss us in the middle of the ocean without a boat or paddle, and I guarantee you that all of the sudden we won’t find ourselves at the top of the food chain any longer (hell, throw me in with a boat and paddle – give me a cruise liner – I’ll still probably succumb to the elements).  What I found in the Natural History Museum at Harvard reawakened me to the truth that even I find it difficult to maintain occasionally: that evolutionarily, we are far from the “best,” and that if we seek the alien other, not only are we already among it – we are it.
            I don’t bother memorizing all the transitional epochs and eons during which our planet formed (Hadean, Achaean, Proterozoic, etc.); I can look them up on the internet whenever I need to.  But I am still in awe at the sheer weight of time, even within the scheme of the age of the universe (the accretion of the Earth is believed to have occurred about 4.56 billion years ago, while the universe is believed to be about 13.5 billion years old[1]); and modern human beings – in an anatomical sense – occupy approximately 0.00004% of the entire age of the Earth.  Prior to that time, we can trace the evolution of what we call “humans” back to increasingly more and more alien forms:

Evolution of the human skull (apologies, my camera couldn’t fit all the distinct examples)

Where do we draw the line?  Modern science chooses an entirely arbitrary point, which makes sense in hindsight once we’ve applied the schematics of biological classification.  We see some semblance creeping along the diverging lines, one strand that ends with us; but if we follow this strand back far enough, we will likely stare in disgust at our supposed ancestors.
            The other divergent lines offer glimpses into such unique forms of life that we can’t help but feel as aliens on our own planet:

Ground Pangolin

Right Whale 

Sperm Whale

I could spend hours walking around Harvard’s Natural History Museum; actually, I did.  The exhibit of glass flowers is as breathtaking as their collection of elements and animals.  Finally, what I found most exhilarating wasn’t any one exhibit in particular, but my own body – my own limbs, gait, brain, and the fact that I was part of a culture that put things in museums.  We privilege our eyes; sight is our dominant sense.  We need to see things in order to understand them.  Museums are an institution of seeing…
(don’t ask me exactly what this thing is)

…but we must remember that whatever we look at looks back at us.
            In Arthur C. Clarke’s iconic 1953 science fiction novel, Childhood’s End, the character Jan Rodricks is taken on a tour through an alien museum and witnesses an exhibit that causes immediate terror, and then gradual wonderment:
It was lifeless, of course – not, as he had thought in that first moment of panic, consciously staring up at him.  It filled almost all that great circular space, and the ruby light gleamed and shifted in its crystal depths.

It was a single giant eye. (Clarke 214)[2]

Jan explains that he feels panic, at first, because the situation was unexpected; but the details of expectance are never clarified.  Is Jan afraid because of the size of the exhibit, the reorientation of frame and perspective… or is he afraid because suddenly, in an institution of seeing, he feels that he has become the sight.  Those who know their Foucault may recall the succinct summary of his panopticon writings from Discipline & Punish: “Visibility is a trap.”[3]  As we walk through a museum, we are under the impression that nothing looks back at us – but the museum is not Foucault’s panopticon.[4]  We are not disguised in the central tower.  When we walk through zoos, we are fully aware that animals look back at us; we are not invisible.

Stanley Kubrick, “How People Look to Monkeys,” 1946

It is foolish to believe that simply because the exhibits in a museum are not living, breathing organisms, they do not look back at us.  We are (most of us) unaware of the deep cultural affect that permeates the museum environment.  We separate the museum out, believe it to be an objective space that distinguishes each exhibit, and us from the exhibits; but we do not consider the fact that, amidst the diversity of expunged life, we are the purest exhibit.  Our fascination with other creatures signals the greater imperative: our fascination with what we are, where we fit in the exhibition.
            We need not invoke the technologically advanced aliens of Clarke’s Childhood’s End in order to conceive of this fascination.  All we need to do is reorient ourselves with respect to our fellow terrestrial organisms.  Dismiss for a moment the museum as a “book of nature,” with ourselves as the author, and consider that what we take to be our authorship is actually a reflexive effort to comprehend ourselves.[5]
            Despite the reflexivity inherent in the instance of exhibition, we can still find ourselves in awe of the creatures before us, particularly when all we have left are the bones:

Triceratops skull


Contemplating these strange looking things in turn raises questions about our ability to contemplate other animals at all.  Observing living animals in their habitat, as is the business of biologists and other scholars of the life sciences, certainly assists in the matter; but we must acknowledge, at some point, a barrier in what we can hope to understand.  Dinosaurs, unfortunately, have left us only their bones.  We don’t have any cave paintings, photographs, or home videos, despite our fond memories of this adorable bunch:

(I’m the baby!)

It helps to anthropomorphize things, but as any good scholar will tell you, this doesn’t get us any closer to understanding the thing-in-itself (in Kantian terms).  So we attempt to separate, to classify, and to organize in an effort to achieve the most objective, neutral knowledge possible of the things around us; but turning to Foucault one last time, no matter how complex our instruments or how specific our naming system, the utter alien-ness of the creature will evade our best attempts.[6]
            This is not an admission of futility or a concession to the inestimable forces of the inhuman world (which, let’s face it, is the world we live in; it makes no sense to think of it as “ours”).  The further science pushes its boundaries, the more discoveries we will continue to make, and the more (hopefully) we will understand, at the very least, about the consequences and effects of our existence in the world.  By continuing to pursue and discover we will not only continue to develop our knowledge, even if it will always remain imperfect; we will also inaugurate and catalyze the ever-shifting relationship of humanity to the world, culturally, economically, ethically, etc.  As we continue to make new discoveries we must also continue to reassess our economic and political foundations, because whether we consciously choose to or not, we will change.  It will not be for better or for worse – it will just happen.
            And, eventually, we will likely be as bewildering to something else as this is to us:


Kronosaurus (I’m glad I’m not swimming with this thing still in the water)

[1] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, Trans. Ray Brassier, New York: Continuum, 2011, p. 9.  This is also very common knowledge, and can be found easily on the internet.  I think Wikipedia even has the correct figures.
[2] There is also some speculation that the final “starchild” sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey portrays the protagonist, David Bowman, walking through some kind of celestial museum, but unaware of his spectators…
[3] Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish, New York: Vintage, 1995, p. 200.
[4] In Discipline & Punish, Foucault writes that the Panopticon is “a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen” (Discipline 202).  The architectural model of the panopticon was designed by Jeremy Bentham for use in prisons.
[5] For more on the museum as a kind of “book,” see Laura Rigal’s fascinating study on excavation, exhibition, and expansion, The American Manufactory: Art, Labor, and the World of Things in the Early Republic, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998, p. 96-97.
[6] See Michel Foucault, “Classifying,” The Order of Things, New York: Vintage, 1994, p. 125-165.