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.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Posthuman Manifesto

            My interest in the posthuman provokes a variety of responses, but more often than not I get questioned on what exactly the posthuman is, and how exactly it is useful (i.e. practical).  The posthuman, of course, is not simply a study of what might come after humanity; in fact, it more specifically signals an interest in what exactly the human is.  Taking a posthuman stance means not taking the human, and anything we associate with the human, for granted.  It means making no assumptions on what human beings are or do, even on a general level.  It means trying to assess every situation from not only the human perspective, but from (potentially) all perspectives.  Ultimately, we are all entrenched in our own method of thought and knowing, our own observational strategies and informational paradigms – down to the very way in which our senses perceive the world, we are embodied in a way that conditions our interaction with external reality, what Immanuel Kant labeled the noumenal.  A skeptic of posthuman irrationality (which is what it can often appear as) will likely say: Yes, and that embodiment is as a human body.
            But what really is this body that we so presumptuously call “human”?  What do we really know about it?  Perhaps the assumptions we make about the body are not indicative of the way the body really is, but are only our perceptions of the body.  But then, our perceptions are certainly part of the body since they are generated (to an extent) by it; that is, our perceptivity would not be possible without a body to act as a perceiving agent.  We arrive here at the notion of reflexivity, and it is defined in the following way by N. Katherine Hayles in the first chapter of her book How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics: “Reflexivity is the movement whereby that which has been used to generate a system is made, through a changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates” (Hayles 8).  Our own sensory perceptions allow us to generate a system of the body – to systematize the body, to organize it according to a field of knowledge; but those same perceptions are also a part of the system of the body that they have allowed us to create.  Pursuing this tangent, we can lose ourselves down the proverbial rabbit hole, continually halving our frame of reference, only asymptotically nearing zero-level – Zeno’s Achilles chasing the tortoise.  As Hayles puts it less than a page later: “Reflexivity tends notoriously toward infinite regress” (9).
            The impracticality of this conundrum rings too loud for some.  Humans do in fact engage with their world, often successfully, and they do in fact interact with their surroundings in certain ways.  Can we not then admit that it is practical to make certain assumptions about what the human is and about how it behaves?  For the sake of survival and immediate action, I would agree with the previous rhetorical question.  The danger arrives when we expand our assumptions into universalizations; when we become so entrenched in our assumptions that they become absolute.  I call attention to the posthuman, and to its concerns, because I want to remain vigilant on an expansive, general level.  I want to protect us from ourselves – the selves we take to be so human.  It may be practical, at our moment in history, to view ourselves in a constitutive way, to accept as given the manifest image of humanity, in Wilfred Sellars’s terms.  But practicality can change with the wind, and it can be extremely difficult to alter our cultural attitude toward ourselves and our environment when what conditions this attitude becomes universal.
            In this post, I want to cite Hayles’s opening assumptions regarding the posthuman, and offer them (with some explication) as a kind of posthuman manifesto.  There are four total:
1.      “First, the posthuman view privileges informational pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life” (2).
This first assumption is a bit misleading considering Hayles goes on to challenge the subordination of material embodiment: “It is this materiality/information separation that I want to contest […] My strategy is to complicate the leap from embodied reality to abstract information” (12).  We must understand Hayles to be constructing a heuristic relationship between information and materiality, rather than allowing information to subsist in an idealistic fashion.  Hayles specifies what she means later in the text, in the chapter titled “The Materiality of Informatics”: “Since the body and embodiment, inscription and incorporation, are in constant interaction, the distinctions forming these polarities are heuristic rather than absolute.  They nevertheless play an important role in understanding the connections between an ideology of immateriality and the material conditions that produce the ideology” (193).  An emphasis on immateriality and information is only possible through specific material conditions, including the instantiation of information in a material body.  Thus, rather than pursue information as a kind of Platonic form subsisting beyond materiality, Hayles seeks to ground the ideal within the material.
2.      “Second, the posthuman view considers consciousness, regarded as the seat of human identity in the Western tradition long before Descartes thought he was a mind thinking, as an epiphenomenon, as an evolutionary upstart trying to claim that it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor sideshow” (2-3).
As some of my readers may know, this is a topic that has been on my radar for a while now.  As usual, I turn to my homeboy Peter Watts: “Do you want to know what consciousness is for?  Do you want to know the only real purpose it serves?  Training wheels.  You can’t see both aspects of the Necker cube at once, so it lets you focus on one and dismiss the other.  That’s a pretty half-assed way to parse reality” (Watts 302).  Watts, of course, is a flagrant anti-humanist.  I don’t get quite the same impression from Hayles, or from most literary critics for that matter.  Despite the dawning revelation that we’re little more than chemicals and electricity (Watts’s own description), there still remains the undeniable fact that something rather miraculous happens when we truly try and think about our consciousness.  Even if it is a minor sideshow, it’s a pretty impressive one.  When we begin to consider the historical implications of consciousness – its contingency, its reflexivity – which is also what Hayles is interested in, tangentially (that is, how consciousness can arise from matter), we begin to notice how splendidly incredible it is.  If in my writings I seem to sideline consciousness, to subordinate it to matter, then I apologize, for I am being misunderstood.  I’m more interested in reveling in the utter unlikelihood of consciousness.  From inside the Cartesian theater, it appears as though consciousness must have been preordained, as though life had to evolve this way.  But Watts reminds us that evolution “has no foresight” (303).  It didn’t have to happen.  It was an evolutionary accident.  Whether or not one believes in a divine being, a creator, or not, we can’t deny the truth of the matter: that consciousness as an accident is the true miracle.  This is what, if we’re going to adopt a posthumanist position, we have to come to terms with.  This doesn’t necessitate an anti-humanist position, although there are some (including Watts) who tend in that direction.  Rather, we simply have to consider that consciousness is not the only way for life – even intelligent life – to exist.
3.      “Third, the posthuman view thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born” (Hayles 3).
I am always struck when people lament or condemn the prospect of technological implants, the use of enhancing drugs, or the swelling of urbanization while at the same time praising artificial limbs or organs, medical marijuana, or the building of a well in Africa.  Hayles’s third assumption allows us to see how part of what the posthuman view allows us to do is to see how “the human” is never exactly what we think it is.  The divide between the natural and the artificial is more prevalent than ever, and one only needs to look as far as advertising to find countless products purporting to be more “natural.”  This divide, however, can be placed right back into the system itself, per Hayles’s invocation of reflexivity: the divide between natural and artificial takes place within the external environment.  Put more explicitly: the division between the natural and the artificial is itself artificial, and must be done away with.
            Life arose from natural inorganic matter, and human beings evolved naturally.  It makes little sense to draw an arbitrary, artificial line in the sand that marks where humanity suddenly started becoming artificial.  Everything we do and make – our earpiece phones, our ADHD medication, our skyscrapers, as well as our prosthetic limbs, life-saving drugs, and water distribution facilities – is just as natural as the first humans that transported wood on a wheel, or struck fire from stone, or used language to communicate.  In this very important sense, we have always been posthuman.  The human is not something static, something that stays the same; it evolves, it reacts, and it absorbs.  John Gray has evocatively written that “considering our bodies as natural and of our technologies as artificial gives too much importance to the accident of our origins,” and that if “we are replaced by machines, it will be in an evolutionary shift no different from that when bacteria combined to create our earliest ancestors” (Gray 16).  What we might think of as the posthuman imaginary – cyborgs, cyberspace, and technological singularities – is little more than the natural development of what we call “the human.”  This is what I take Hayles to mean when she claims that the bodily absorption or replacement of new prostheses, according to the posthuman view, is part of a process that has been going on not simply before we were born, but even before the advent of civilized humanity.
4.      “Fourth, and most important, by these and other means, the posthuman view configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines.  In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals” (Hayles 3).
In the work of Nick Land – which must be some of the most intriguing of recent decades, something between poetry and prose, fiction and philosophy, speculative exploration at its best – we get a glimpse of what machinic posthumanity might look like:
The story goes like this: Earth is captured by a technocapital singularity as renaissance rationalization and oceanic navigation lock into commoditization take-off.  Logistically accelerating techno-economic interactivity crumbles social order in auto-sophisticating machine runaway.  As markets learn to manufacture intelligence, politics modernizes, upgrades paranoia, and tries to get a grip.

The body count climbs through a series of globe-wars.  Emergent Planetary Commercium trashes the Holy Roman Empire, the Napoleonic Continental System, the Second and Third Reich, and the Soviet International, cranking-up world disorder through compressing phases.  Deregulation and the state arms-race each other into cyberspace. (“Meltdown” 441)

Land’s apocalyptic writings are at times enticing and attractive, and at times terrifying, but always riveting.  What readers find in his texts are elements of a posthuman technocracy where the act of authorial creation itself becomes absorbed into the system it describes, thus following the theme of reflexivity.  Land purports to compose what he calls hyperstitions: “semiotic productions that make themselves real” (“Origins” 579).  One of the important aspects of hyperstitions is that their creators do not know they are hyperstitions at the moment of their creation; they appear as merely fictions.  Only in retrospect can they be revealed as hyperstitions.  It is important to note that the term is coined in one of Land’s most obviously fictional texts; that is, the term is coined as a fictional term.  Reflexivity works here in the most convoluted way; a fictional term, coined in a fictional text, but describing fictions that become reality.  In a purely representational way, the term – and the text – merely describes a certain system.  Only through a retrospective feedback loop can the term and text appear as part of the system they purport to describe.  We have to view Land’s work as fiction.  No rational person would claim that his texts accurately describe reality.  But we find within them the description of the system by which they become real.  So now we wait.
            In the aftermath, we will not be able to accurately draw the line between fiction and hyperstition.  There is no telling when the fictional becomes real, or when the text is absorbed into the system that it describes.  In much the same way, there can be no final division between the organic and the cybernetic, or between the human and the artificial – a conflation that appears as the subject matter of Land’s own speculative work.  Humanity, which has striven for so long to distance itself from its technologies, to keep them at arm’s length, to claim control and dominance over them, reorients itself in the posthuman.  It no longer sees its technologies and informatics as something separate, but as something at once constituted and constitutive: we, our environment and historical conditions, constitute the technologies that we create, but these technologies in turn constitute what we are as humans, and what it means to be human.  If we do control them, then they control us just as much.
            We can claim that there is something objective about the way human beings are born into the world.  We do not emerge with prosthetic limbs, or cell phones, or computers, or hammers, or even language.  We absorb and take up these things as we develop.  This we can be most certain of; but we can also be certain that this “state of nature,” in a Hobbesian sense, which we so often privilege and take to be pure, is not better or more valuable than any other later developed state.  If our bodies become poisoned (and this word should conjure an intense ambiguity for those familiar with Derrida’s fantastic long essay, “Plato’s Pharmacy”), or less pure as they mature and develop, this is no less natural than the entirely insufficient and helpless child that exits the womb.
            We are slowly embracing the posthuman, even if while doing so we continue to comfort ourselves with hymns to the ideology of the eternal human soul.  We are slowly embracing the posthuman not because a majority of us are actively pursuing this line of thought, but because the continual development of technology is forcing us to do so of its own accord.  Apocalyptic narratives that envision evil robots or technology run amok are merely examples of the popular imagination attempting to reinforce the bastions of the myth of Man (drenched in all its Western, white, European male self-glory) against the inevitable reality that we are just as contingent as the things we create, the things which create us.  It may be that, right up until the end (whatever this “end” may be), we continue to rebel against the tyranny of technology, to scream against the onslaught of an evolutionary motion that does not care about us, mistakenly believing that we had a destined right to soil, planet, and universe.
            Or, it may be that we come to see ourselves not as the creators of technology, but as its inheritors.  It may be that, through enough willing, reconsideration, and repositioning, we can see ourselves as creature and creator, not as part of a destiny that was designed, but as part of a process that is contingent.  The posthuman is not a philosophy of the end of humanity, or a politics that seeks an end of humanity; it is a way of thinking that allows us to understand ourselves in new ways, that allows us to coexist with the impure and the artificial, and that dethrones us from the pinnacle of evolution not to replace us with something more valuable, but to expose the reality that nothing is more or less valuable.  Perhaps, once we come to see ourselves this way, once we shed the rigid and ridiculous notion of the survival of that reified thing we call “the human,” we may actually find that we can continue to survive in new ways, in different ways, and, perhaps, even in more efficient ways.

Works Cited
Gray, John. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. Print.

Land, Nick. “Meltdown.” Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. Eds. Robin MacKay and Ray Brassier. New York: Sequence Press, 2011. 441-459. Print.

-. “Origins of the Cthulhu Club.” Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. Robin MacKay and Ray Brassier. New York: Sequence Press, 2011. 573-581. Print.

Watts, Peter. Blindsight. New York: Tor Books, 2006. Print.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

“That’ll do you for a name”: a Preliminary Thesis on Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren

The text of Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren makes at least one thing about itself hopelessly clear: it is inexhaustible.  It is inexhaustible because it encompasses its own inexhaustibility, mirrors its own limitlessness.  It is a text within a text, and neither one ever appears to begin or end.  The jacket and publication information that bracket the narrative are superfluous.  Nowhere can the text be said to actually start.  As William Gibson writes in his introduction to the Vintage 2001 edition, the novel is a “prose-city, a labyrinth, a vast construct the reader learns to enter by any one of a multiplicity of doors” (Gibson xi).  This enigmatic, circular, reflexive nature has led many readers to speculate on the secret of Dhalgren, the answers to its underlying mystery: what happened in Bellona, who is the first-person narrator/third-person protagonist (are they even the same person?), why is he in Bellona, and what is his damn name?  The novel never says, and there are those who debate whether it has to.  Gibson writes: “Dhalgren is not there to be finally understood.  I believe its ‘riddle’ was never meant to be ‘solved’” (xi).  Many might agree, but I do not, although not in the sense that readers may think.  I do not disagree with Gibson over whether we, as readers, are “meant” to solve the puzzle of Dhalgren.  I disagree that there is a puzzle to be solved at all.
            Assuming the presence of a puzzle implies some order to the chaos.  Dhalgren, much to the contrary, delights in chaos as its basic, most fundamental element, but not an element of essentiality.  Dhalgren rejoices in illimitability.  It celebrates the utopian dream of desire, not the ideological dream of values.  Dhalgren cannot be solved because it is not a mystery, and its author knows this.  Delany knows there is no answer.  The answer does not exist, and yet the bewildered reader will cower before his text in reverential awe, as the nameless first-person narrator (who may or may not be the novel’s nameless protagonist, referred to only as Kid, or Kidd) does before Bellona itself:
I am limited, finite, and fixed.  I am in terror of the infinity before me, having come through the one behind bringing no knowledge I can take on.  I commend myself up to what is greater than I, and try to be good.  That is wrestling with what I have been given.  Do I rage at what I have not? (Is infinity some illusion generated by the way in which time is perceived?)  I try to end this pride and rage and commend myself to what is there, instead of illusion.  But the veil is the juncture of the perceived and perception.  And what in life can rip that?  Is the only prayer, then, to live steadily and dully, doing and doubting what the mind demands?  I am limited, finite, and fixed.  I rage for reasons, cry for pity.  Do with me what way you will. (Delany 583)

This is Delany’s ironic acknowledgement to the reader.  This is his testament to how he knows his readers will approach his novel.  This is Delany laughing.  His text will do with its readers what way it will, but its way will not be Delany’s.  He leaves his text, abandons it upon putting down his pen for revisions (which, as certain students of literature will know, are yet to be completed).  It is no longer his.  Delany is the deistic clockmaker who built the machine, wound it, and sat back to watch while nursing a drink.  Trying to wind Dhalgren back up from within is an exercise in futility, and trying to discuss every aspect of the novel is impossible in the amount of space a blog affords.  I would prefer to discuss the novel’s profound position in the history of American literature and Science fiction, and what it possibly represents for American culture.
I. “A city came to be…”
            In his introduction, Gibson calls Dhalgren a “literary singularity” (xi), and he contextualizes this singularity within an abstract scope of American history: “No one under thirty-five today [the introduction is dated: August 23, 1995] can remember the singularity that overtook America in the nineteen-sixties, and the generation that experienced it most directly seems largely to have opted for amnesia and denial” (xii).  The singularity that Gibson speaks of is the emergence of a city in America, but not a city that could be spatially or geographically located (although temporally/historically, somehow…).  Gibson’s comment is worth quoting in full because of its suggestive and obscure qualities:
But something did happen: a city came to be, in America.  (And I imagine I use America here as shorthand for something else; perhaps for the industrialized nations of the American Century.)  This city had no specific locale, and its internal geography was mainly fluid.  Its inhabitants nonetheless knew, at any given instant, whether they were in the city or in America.  The city was largely invisible to America.  If America was about “home” and “work,” the city was about neither, and that made the city very difficult for American to see.  There may have been those who wished to enter that city, having glimpsed it in the distance, but who found themselves baffled, and turned back.  Many others, myself included, rounded a corner one day and found it spread before them, a territory of inexpressible possibilities, a place remembered from no dream at all. (xii)

The city that Gibson describes is not real in a geographic sense, but rather symbolic of a larger cultural phenomenon.  This phenomenon is not readily accessible to representation, and remains semi-impervious even to the perception of typical America, or Americans.  In my reading, it is something countercultural, but even this may be too structural.  It is an elusive flow of energy, a release of pressure that escapes measure.
            The historical moment of the 1960s will most immediately be recognized through appeals to Vietnam, the Cold War, the hippie movement, free love, Woodstock, LSD, and other various ‘60s tropes.  However, Fredric Jameson identifies another important development, along with the poststructuralist movement in French theory: the “emergence, in the [artistic] work’s temporality, of an aesthetic of textuality or what is often described as schizophrenic time; the eclipse, finally, of all depth, especially historicity itself” (Jameson 500).  Jameson acknowledges here the theoretical emphasis on surface, and its subsequent erasure of any previously considered substantial content.  That is, he claims that the 1960s inaugurates the full-fledged theoretical moment in which culture comes to be composed of simulacra masquerading as signs for something beyond them; but here, even the term “masquerade” is problematic since it suggests something behind the mask.  In contrast, Jameson declares, the 1960s revealed that the surface had subsumed its purported content.  Furthermore, history, as a (traditionally) teleological study of progress and development, and as a declaration of origins and purposes, is exposed as a narrative laid over an impossibly intricate network of cultural interaction and upheaval.  The narrative no longer explains history in some scientific or objective sense; it betrays itself as artificial.  This is the textual trick that Dhalgren plays on its audience.  It invites speculation as to the true nature of its contents, the secret it conceals; but it conceals nothing.  Everything we need to know is on the surface, presented in the infinite circulation of the narrative.
            The city that comes to be – the city that Gibson claims emerges in the 1960s, and that Delany will represent in his 1974 novel – is a city so complex that it appears it must house some secret, some core that readers yearn to find.  The joke is on us, as far as Delany is concerned, and this is what remains “invisible to America”: that the textual knot is insoluble because it is not a knot.  Delany’s city is a burst of unharnessed Deleuzian energy that evades the territorializing of Western culture, a radical representation of what lurks beyond the limits of Western democratic capitalism (Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus was published only three years or so before Delany’s novel):
Capitalism therefore liberates the flows of desire, but under the social conditions that define its limit and the possibility of its own dissolution, so that it is constantly opposing with all its strength the movement that drives it toward its limit.  At capitalism’s limit the deterritorialized socius gives way to the body without organs, and the decoded flows throw themselves into desiring-production. (Deleuze and Guattari 139-140)

Despite D & G’s difficult terminology, the basic import of their argument can be deduced: beyond the limits of institutional capitalism, the flows of productive energy are no longer coded and begin to feed into desire itself.  We find something similar in Dhalgren.  In Delany’s Bellona – a place where the police are absent, and the closest thing to any semblance of Law are roaming bands of thieves and thugs known as Scorpions – and beyond the structures and strictures of America, capitalist labor is almost entirely absent.  The only instance of it appears when the unnamed protagonist gets a temporary job moving furniture for the Richards, a typical middle-class family desperately clinging to the remnants of the American dream.  In one scene, Mrs. Richards describes the difficulty of creating a traditional American home:
“That’s something that a woman does from inside herself.  You do it in the face of all sorts of opposition […] You must make it your own world.  And everyone must be able to feel it.  I want a home, here, that looks like my home, feels like my home, is a place where my family can be safe, where my friends – psychologists, engineers, ordinary people… poets – can feel comfortable.” (Delany 226)

The most tragic characters of the novel, the Richards embody the pressures of the American lifestyle in a place that, while in the country of America, is not American.  Bellona is a fictional city, and its relationship to the remainder of the country is ambiguous.  It stands for something that America cannot internalize or categorize, and those who survive in it practice behavior at odds with the traditional patriarchal, heterosexual, hegemonic structure.
            In Bellona, sexual restraint is virtually nonexistent, a space where characters can not only engage in homoerotic behavior, but can openly discuss it.  Many of the characters sleep with multiple partners, and Kid even participates in ménage à trois on several occasions.  In Bellona, the “tenebrous city, city without time, the generous, saprophytic city,” that which America codes as unnatural, or abnormal, can be practiced without reservation or fear (382).  Rather, it is the traditional that becomes fragile, as Mrs. Richards demonstrates through her admission of fear: “‘Why do you think we moved into the Labry [apartments]?  Do you know how I thought of this moving?  As a space, a gap, a crack in which some terrible thing might get in and destroy it, us, my home.  You have to take it apart, then put it back together.  I really felt as if some dirt, or filth, or horrible rot might get in while it was being reassembled and start a terrible decay’” (227).  Despite Mrs. Richards’s acceptance of Kid, she fears much of what he stands for.  Her hesitance to allow poets under her rubric of “ordinary people” testifies to this.  Ultimately, the Richards appear as an anomaly in Bellona, and tragedy befalls appropriately; not because the Richards are morally deserving of punishment, but because Delany presents their fragile values as inviting tragedy.  In this obscure place beyond traditional societal borders, only tradition can be tragic.
            Bellona – the city that came to be, the autumnal city – is a city of exiles.  This basic paradox informs the contradictory pressures that occupy the novel’s majestic prose.  A place of urban desolation, it allows for unrestrained sexuality and violence; but Delany saturates everything in an unnerving surrealism that suggests some underlying anticipation or tension.  Bellona, the city of exiles and free love, is also the city of madmen and brutality.  Delany does not pretend that his fictional city is a utopian paradise of a libertarian variety.  Rather, it is a difficult anarchism, an anarchism still coated in the residue of Western values, and it is only through the presence of these lingering values that discussions on race and sexuality are able to take place.  George Harrison, accused of rape and blessed (or cursed) with the namesake of a second moon that mysteriously appears in the sky, explains his controversial view of the “interesting kind of rape,” in which, he insists, the women enjoy it: “‘It’s the kind they always have in the movies.  It’s the kind your lawyer friend was trying to make this other thing into.  And when it gets to the law courts, it’s a pretty rare kind.  But it’s the one they all afraid of – especially between little-bitty white girls and big, black niggers’” (210).  This description sounds only too familiar and revolting to readers today, but in Dhalgren it dissipates with little objection, even from Lanya, the novel’s most energetic female character and Kid’s occasional lover.
            Similar discussions occur regarding race and homosexuality, such as the conversation between Tak and Fenster.  When Tak claims to have a “black soul,” Fenster objects: “‘You can’t have one,’ Fenster said.  ‘I’m black.  You’re white.  You can’t have a black soul.  I say so’” (294).  When Tak says that Fenster “‘[comes] on pretty white,’” Fenster retaliates: “‘Scares you I can imitate you that well’” (294).  Recalling Homi Bhabha’s notion of colonial mimicry, Fenster calls the essences of black and white into question.  The two characters then proceed to argue over who holds a greater claim to alienation: Fenster because he is black, or Tak because he is gay.  An exercise in futility, the entire argument concludes with Tak admitting that in his “relentless battle for white supremacy,” he has again been bested (294-295).  Again, the presence of American values – lingering though they are like cobwebs in an abandoned cellar – affords the possibility of political debate; but conclusions are uncertain, and they are often dismissed with relative apathy among the characters.
            Dhalgren translates a historical moment into a topographic abstraction; an interrelation of city and cosmos that is separated from the real America by a kind of prism, or lens (perhaps a further clue to the title of Dhalgren’s first section, ‘Prism, Mirror, Lens’), refracting sunlight into apocalyptic swaths of nuclear explosions and multiplying the number of moons in the sky.  Yet all its invocations of typical Science fiction tropes are not what make Dhalgren a work of Science fiction.  Its science-fictionality, rather, is achieved by what Gibson calls its “territory of inexpressible possibilities,” which I liken to the world of “infinite possibilities” described by the unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s American classic, Invisible Man.  In many ways, Dhalgren is a successor to Ellison’s canonic text, conceptually and thematically (both novels explore issues of race and American culture, and both authors conceive of their narratives as somewhat circular).  The utopianism of Dhalgren, like the utopianism of Invisible Man, does not manifest as the representation of an ideal society.  Bellona cannot be described as an ideal state, a place where human beings might willingly go.  It is, as I have already said, a city of exiles; it is a place where people are forced to go.  Although this might contradict the rather dismissive attitude with which some characters decide to visit the city, I claim that Bellona functions as a structural necessity.  It is the invisible city described by Gibson, the topographic symbol of a historical mentality – the revolutionary capacity produced by the political unconscious.
II. “Science fiction.  Only real…”
            In a scene from the section titled ‘In Time of Plague,’ Kid and Tak discuss possible explanations for why Bellona has come to be as it is.  Why the desolation, the abandonment, the isolation?  After suggestion that it might be some kind of government experiment or ecological catastrophe, Tak offers a fresh take: “‘Actually […] I suspect the whole thing is science fiction’” (372).  Kid immediately jumps to the conclusion that Tak means it has something to do with time travel and alternate realities, but Tak denies this: “‘No, just… well, science fiction.  Only real.  It follows all the conventions’” (372).  In the dialogue that follows, Tak distinguishes Kid’s notion of Science fiction from “‘the new, good stuff’”; new Science fiction (good Science fiction) follows three specific conventions that do not necessitate laser guns and spaceships:
“First: A single man can change the course of a whole world: Look at Calkins, look at George – look at you!  Second: The only measure of intelligence or genius is its linear and practical application: In a landscape like this, what other kind do we even allow to visit?  Three: The Universe is an essentially hospitable place, full of earth-type planets where you can crash-land your spaceship and survive long enough to have an adventure.  Here in Bellona […] you can have anything you want, as long as you can carry it by yourself, or get your friends to.” (372)

Even in this relatively simple language, the meaning of each of these conventions proves elusive; but Tak outlines something important for understanding Dhalgren’s relationship to Science fiction literature.  The novel follows only one character – Kid – who has a profound impact on Bellona after his arrival.  Although the novel is certainly non-linear, the reader can only approach its subject matter in a linear fashion.  The application of knowledge proceeds in a linear manner in an attempt to make sense of the shifting realities and topographies of the city.  Finally, when all is said and done, Bellona appears to be a very hospitable place.  Most of the characters welcome Kid, some even accepting him as their leader.  All these conventions present themselves in Dhalgren, but Delany transplants them into a scenario that exposes the critical core of good Science fiction: an abstraction that communicates something very real, a blight in the mind of middle America, an apocalyptic wasteland that reveals the underbelly of cultural repression.  Bellona is not real in any topographical sense, but it is real in a historical sense, and this is the revolutionary power of the novel that Gibson identifies in his introduction.
            Bellona, the unreal city, possesses the utopian potential that Fredric Jameson theorizes in Archaeologies of the Future: the Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions.  In this monumental text, Jameson deploys the notion of utopia not as a material unit of societal production, but as an exception to the rule: “The ‘moment of truth’ is thus not a substantive one, not some conceptual nugget we can extract and store away, with a view towards using it as a building block of some future system.  Rather its function lies not in itself, but in its capability radically to negate its alternative” (Jameson 175).  Bellona cannot function as a contender for a possible utopia.  It presents itself as a space where utopian attitudes and practices can take place without punishment or condemnation.  Its continually shifting topography reflects its ability to relentlessly negate any and every alternative that presents itself.  Race, gender, sex… these things all still exist; but their discussion and exploration is abstracted from the cultural fear that surrounds them and drowns them in real America.  Bellona is not only a hospitable place for adventure, but also for political discussion.
            If Bellona is not a physically attractive place, even to the most liberal-minded reader, that is because it does not attempt to realize a utopian society.  It is purely and completely an abstract rendering of the utopian attitude, for those willing to indulge it (the Richards, especially Mr. and Mrs. Richards, are most clearly the characters who refuse to indulge it).  The prospect of actually living in Bellona would no doubt frighten most readers, but this is Delany’s challenge.  If we wish to truly pursue utopian ideals, then we must brave the consistently changing landscape of the utopian attitude, which is always making room for new perspectives and alternatives.
            No law sanctions the violence that ensues from the vicissitudes of utopianism, but this does not mean that Bellona has no rules.  Kid learns this early in the novel, after attempting to scale the wall of the estate wherein lives the mysterious Roger Calkins.  After being beaten up by Scorpions for no apparent reason, Kid admits to his friends that he was trying to look over the wall of Calkins’s place.  This evokes an explanation from Tak: “‘It’s a strange place, maybe stranger than any you’ve ever been.  But it still has its rules.  You just have to find them out’” (87).  Tak’s statement suggests that the rules to Bellonian society cannot be explained or codified; they must be discovered on a case-by-case basis.  Occasionally, certain unspoken rules must be reinforced through violence.  This kind of post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque scenario appears unnerving and unattractive at first, but an appealing innocence underlies the novel’s violence, even in its most tragic instances.  Following Tak’s third convention, even Bellona’s most violent moments are succeeded by a sense of hospitality.
            Reverend Amy Taylor, a minor character, gives voice to Bellona’s further hospitality, proclaiming in her sermon, delivered in the section titled ‘Creatures of Light and Darkness,’ that logicians love Bellona (472).  Reverend Amy’s sermon occurs intermittently over a space of about ten pages, but her subject matter continually returns to a kind of metaphysics of Bellona, recalling Tak’s second convention about linear reason and logic.  In the same section as cited above, Reverend Amy explains: “‘Here you can cleave space with a distinction, mark, or token, and not have it bleed all over you.  What we need is not a calculus of form but an analytics of attention, which renders form on the indifferent and undifferentiated pleroma’” (472).  Reverend Amy’s speech is largely indecipherable, being composed of an odd but poetic mixture of theological mysticism, philosophy, and physics:
“Is God a sow who devours Her young and gets heartburn?  Is God the garter-snake Ouroborus, gagging on the tip of His own tail?  Or is God just a category-concept mistake, like Ryle’s mind, a process the materia of the universe performs, indulges, or inflicts on itself, through necessity of chance, for arcane reasons you and I will never discover?  Being is a function of time, ‘ey Martin?  Well, now, where does that get us?  Now seems pretty specious to me… for it’s just a hole, a little hole on whose rim we’ve been allowed, for an eye’s blink, to perch, watching that flow, terrible for all of us, tragic for some of us, in which the future hisses through to heap the potter’s field of the past.” (470)

Reverend Amy prostrates herself before the yawning chasm of Bellona, similar to those readers who balk before the monstrosity of the novel itself.  Instead, she turns her listeners’ attention toward their impending doom: “‘How long did the light last?  Oh, my poor, sick, doomed, and soon to be obliterated children, ask instead how long is the darkness that follows it’” (470).  Her sermon exhibits a certain hopelessness in applying logic to the phenomenology of Bellona, but she finally persists in what might be a certain faith in logic: “‘Pray that this city is the one, pure, logical space from which, without being a poet or a god, we can all actually leave if –’” (481).  The line ends abruptly, but the impact remains.  All one can do, Reverend Amy suggests, is pursue existence in Bellona and pray that logic somehow conforms to reality, just as the narrator (see citation from p. 583 above) claims that his only prayer is to go on “doing and doubting what the mind demands.”
            Reverend Amy’s sermon, however, plays out largely in the background, and assumes no identifiably influential role in the action of the narrative.  Kid continues on his obscure mission, oblivious to the impending doom that the Reverend warns about.  Upon finishing the novel, one might conclude that the Reverend’s fears were in vain; but this only holds if one ignores the possibility that Kid is the impending doom, the apocalypse, the revelation.  And he is only ever impending because he never truly begins or ends, if one buys the novel’s circularity; he has “come to to wound the autumnal city” (801-1).  But his coming is never complete; it is always becoming.  Kid may change the course of an entire world, but he can only do so by becoming caught in a process where he is eternally evanescing.  The repetition of “to” between the novel’s first and last pages is worthy of consideration.  At first it seems to be nothing more than a repetition whose intended meaning is simply: “I have come to wound the autumnal city.”  But this ignores the possible alternative meaning if each “to” is given its own syntactical weight: “I have come to to wound the autumnal city.”  That is, he has come into being, into creation, in order to wound the autumnal city.  His becoming is one of eternal trauma, eternal return, forever circling the center that would perhaps grant him identity and meaning.  The Science fiction hero, the man who changes the world, thus emerges in Dhalgren as a vacant subject, a subject whose most important feature – the identity, the I, the name – is subtracted from him.  His name is never hinted at, but I would venture one definitive claim: his name is not Dhalgren.
III. “Grendalgrendalgrendal…”
            So who the hell is William Dhalgren?  The name occasionally appears on a list of names in the notebook that Kid acquires.  We first see this list when Lanya asks if any of the names belong to Kid; in the right column, four names from the bottom, appears “William Dhalgren” (63).  The name never sticks with Kid.  The name might belong to the interviewer who appears in the novel’s sixth section, titled ‘Palimpsest’; but readers are only told his first name, which is William.  His last is never verified.  Dhalgren’s most important appearance certainly comes in the novel’s final section, when Kid hears a monotonous sound while he participates in a sexual encounter with several other characters: “‘Grendal, Grendal, Grendal…’” (678).  Kid later realizes he was attributing inception to the wrong syllable, and that the speaker was actually saying, “Dhalgren” (679).  The misinterpretation also calls to mind the name of the monster from the Old English epic, Beowulf; but application of the mythic cycle to Delany’s novel seems fruitless.  Dhalgren is assigned to no one, a floating signifier without any content or actor.  What function does the name play?  Is it a name at all?
            Following the concept of Dhalgren itself, we must end where we began.  “Dhalgren” means nothing.  Even if the text contains a code that unlocks the secret of Dhalgren and the unnamed protagonist, this is secondary.  The narrator’s realization that he misheard Dhalgren as Grendal reveals no hidden essence; all it reveals is that misinterpretation is the only certainty.  Grendal, Dhalgren, Kid, Kidd, William… begin where you choose.  Dhalgren does not mind, because it does not contain the key to the code.  This is its true literary and revolutionary potential.  It invites its readers to experience the sheer Science fiction of chaos, and to encounter there limitless utopian possibilities.  Dhalgren cannot give any answers because answers would only obscure the radical nature of the “ganglial city” (219).  Bellona is not for 20th-century scholars of American history, or the politicians of liberal democracy, or the economists of global capitalism.  Bellona is the shadowy space that these institutions create.  It is the dark aperture that even the most radical of us have difficulty perceiving.  It is that which cannot be coded into the structures of society, yet which makes those structures possible, and appears among them as an absence, an omission – something exiled.  In the nation of television and Hollywood, Bellona – the powerless city – appears only as a blank space: “Neither television cameras nor on-the-spot broadcasts function: that such a catastrophe as this should be opaque, and therefore dull, to the electric nation” (14).  It is the unconscious city, the “vague, vague city,” the city “‘struck out of time,’” that accompanies the cultural consciousness (382, 469).  The repressed and invisible city.  The city that America does not want to see.

Works Cited
Delany, Samuel. Dhalgren. New York: Vintage, 2001. Print.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert     Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print.
Gibson, William. “The Recombinant City: a Foreword.” Dhalgren. New York: Vintage, 2001.      xi-xiii. Print.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: the Desire Called Utopia and Other Science           Fictions. London: Verso, 2007. Print.

–. “Periodizing the 60s.” The Ideologies of Theory. London: Verso, 2008. 483-515. Print.