Brian Willems reads a number of fictional and critical texts, from ebr essays to William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, to argue that they all point toward the dissolution of the borders among humans, animals, and machines.
Devoted to Fake
Devoted to Fake
In the 19th century the analysis of the “jellyfish” Physalia was thought by the likes of T.H. Huxley and Louis Agassiz to contain a revolution. There was fierce debate as to whether Physalia (not really a jellyfish but its relative, a siphonophore) was a single organism or a colony. The creature looks a bit like a bladder with neon blue highlights trailing world-record-holding long fingernails below. The bladder bit, or the “float,” is a medusa (and can be thought of as one organism), while the fingernail parts are polyps functioning as tentacles (and can be thought of as separate organisms). All the parts (and there can be many more than just floats and polyps) are, in biological parlance, “persons.” Each develops discretely and has its own life cycle. But they also work together, with some polyps acting as food-gathering organs (dactylozooids) without mouth or digestive organs of their own. In addition, different “persons” can have different nerve systems, and yet some also have a common nerve cord. However, the debate as to whether Physalia is a single organism or a colony is in a sense a moot one: it can be thought to exist on a continuum between the singular and the multiple, simultaneously incorporating aspects of both without leaning too far over the fence to one side or the other. See Stephen Jay Gould, “A Most Ingenious Paradox.” For a more recent development of the topic, see Collins, “Phylogeny of Medusozao and the Evolution of Cnidarian Life Cycles.” Such border cases can also be thought along the terms of the assemblage as set out by Deleuze and Guattari, and perhaps most recently and thoroughly developed in Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity.
One thing that Physalia has to teach is that although nature loves borders, divisions, niches and territories, these dividing lines run on a continuum and the places of mutual infestation between one end and the other can be of great interest. Humans, for example, are usually put on the side of the single organism, but again this is a matter of perspective. As Alphonso Lingis has argued, the human body is much more a part of the world outside it than is perhaps generally acknowledged:
The number of microbes that colonize our bodies exceeds the number of cells in our bodies by up to a hundredfold. Macrophages in our bloodstream hunt and devour trillions of bacteria and viruses entering our porous bodies continually. They replicate with their own DNA and RNA and not ours. They, and not some Aristotelian form, are true agencies of our individuation as organisms. (Lingis 166)
As much of Lingis’ work indicates, humans are much more outside than they are inside: we humans occupy a middling space on a continuum. However, this occupation not only works in an outside-in fashion, but also the obverse, as can be seen in Michel Serres’ description of our relation to animals and plants:
We adore eating veal, lamb, beef, antelope, pheasant, or grouse, but we don’t throw away their “leftovers.” We dress in leather and adorn ourselves with feathers. Like the Chinese, we devour duck without wasting a bit; we eat the whole pig, from head to tail; but we get under these animals’ skins as well, in their plumage or in their hide. Men in clothing live within the animals they devoured. And the same thing for plants. We eat rice, wheat, apples, the divine eggplant, the tender dandelion; but we also weave silk, linen, cotton; we live within the flora as much as we live within the fauna. We are parasites; thus we clothe ourselves. Thus we live within tents of skins like the gods within their tabernacles. Look at him well-dressed and adorned, magnificent; he shows – he showed – the clean carcass of his host. (Serres 10)
Identifying and tracing these midpoints on various continua can provide for rigorous moments of reading ourselves and our culture: it can provide for moments of thought. What is not indicated here is a brand of biological continuism - instead this essay hopes to engender thought more in tune with Derrida’s reading of pharmakon and khōta. For elaboration see Leonard Lawlor, This is Not Sufficient, 24-27. Readings of the keeping open of such midpoints can be seen in a number of ebr essays discussed below: for example in Victor Vitanza’s “awaiting” a “third gesture,” Paola Cavalieri’s resistance to a positive reading of the “insectization” of humanity and Matthew Calarco’s untwining of the “name of man” (via Derrida). Additionally, such thinking of the continuum is also developed through looking at the differences between my death and the death of others, at the technical poetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and at the machine in the heart of the human in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition; in these various locations can be found a commitment, or what I call a devotion to something somewhere along the continuum, to that which is not naturally seen as part of the departure point. In other words, dedication to the fake. While there is no attempt to argue that these essays are in any way the same, the methodology of such multitudinous input is to try and develop the thought of keeping open gestures of interbreeding. As Avital Ronell argues in “Support our Tropes” (recently reissued in The ÜberReader), “it is our task as thinkers to decelerate finitude’s thrust and abide with the inconceivable horizon of an infinite unfinished. What would it mean not to close a deal with transcendence…?” (Ronell 53).
An illustration of the keeping open of such deals can be found in some of the poetry of 19th century Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins, although engaged in a search for capturing the “essence” of things (which he called “inscape”), attempted to access this essence through what seems to lie on the other end of the spectrum, through artificiality, through a style of the multitude. This can be seen in his poem “The Bugler’s First Communion” (1879), and an accompanying concretesque diagram from Hopkins scholar W.H. Gardner. A stanza near the end of the poem originally reads:
Those sweet hopes quell whose least me quickenings life
In scarlet or somewhere of some day seeing
That brow and bead of being
An our day’s God’s own Galahad (44)
Gardner’s mapping of the spray of the lines is as follows (302):
This diagram physicalizes a contract that is not allowed to close: the spreading tentacles of the poem acting as unresolved midpoints for the next burst. As such, the poem prophetically addresses a comment Marshall McLuhan makes in his classic Understanding Media, published 15 years after Gardner’s commentary: “How Gerard Manley Hopkins would have loved to have had a typewriter to compose on!” (230).
What Hopkins’ poem is foregrounding here is a fundamental devotion to being-with-artificiality that is open and expansive rather than limiting, “even” before the wide-spread use of the typewriter (although Walter Ong has argued that the style of Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland”  was affected by the telegraph [Ong 48]). Hopkins is being looked at here because his path towards essence was both about zeroing in (in terms of individual diction and syntax) and spreading out. Part of Hopkins’ search for the essence of nature was found in an artificially open style of convoluted defamiliarization and deviance from some of the norms of late 19th-century Victorian England poetry. That Hopkins thought he found nature, even God, in his stylistic convolutions points to a fundamental locale amidst the supposed continuum between art and nature. This locale can be thought of as being-with, meaning a kind of keeping the relationship open. Such an opening stands in critique, along with someone like Maurice Blanchot, to more “traditional” notions of how one can experience that which stands on the other side of the fence, the experience of another. The reason this relationship is being developed here is that a reading of the boarders of my death and another’s will be used as a springboard to questions of what it might mean to think midpoints in relation to human and non-human beings.
The differentiation between human and non-human in terms of death is usually rooted in the thought of Heidegger (although a human-only awareness of one’s own death can also be found in Pascal, for example “But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows nothing of this” (Pascal 95).). For Heidegger, animals die in a different manner than humans. The general manner of biological death is perishing [Verenden] while for humans there is also the possibility of demise [Ableben] (229). In order for a being to demise, it must find itself “faced with the nothingness of the possible impossibility of its existence”(245). Such an awareness of one’s own death is reserved in Heidegger for humans only, and only one-at-a-time. Often in spirited arguments against such singularity social animals are introduced, perhaps because of their seemingly instinctual habit of being-with (similar to the Physalia above), and hence enact a ground-up refutation of Heidegger’s solitary human-only hierarchies.
Social animals provide a fulcrum for a thought of the continuum in Paola Cavalieri’s “A Critical Notice on a Book on Primates and Philosophers.” The book in question is Frans de Waal’s Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Cavalieri’s critical review centers the book around de Waals’ claim “that all the social animals, humans included, are ‘good natured,’” and that the traits of “empathy, sympathy, a sense of fairness and an appreciation of right and wrong” (Cavalieri) are taken from and shared with the animals around us. Cavalieri is critical both of this “Veneer” theory of ethics and of de Waal’s apparent lack of boldness regarding both his claims and his willingness to look at empirical data provided by comparative psychology or cognitive ethology. Springing from this criticism is a questioning of one of the book’s arguments which is an assumed ethical strain seen running between humans and social animals, such as ants and termites. This “continuous” ethical strain can be seen in the impulse of both humans and animals to build great and large societies, seemingly debunking claims towards animals’ limited social skills leading to their limited group sizes. In contrast, for Cavalieri, the “insectization” of humankind has resulted in overpopulation, megalopolis slums and lack of food, and therefore something else is coming through humanity’s animal nature rather than just good wholesome togetherness. In the words of Cavalieri: “just like insect societies, human societies have produced impressive authoritarian structures, rigid hierarchical organization, castes, non-voluntary distinctions of roles, and mass wars.” For Cavalieri, building a positive case of animal-human ethical gifting is not as straight-forward as de Waal claims. However, the notion of the continuum developed throughout this essay is a bit different. It does not mean to map the similarities between poles, but rather the mutual infestation between sides that makes such claims of “from” the animal “to” the human more difficult to sustain.
Perhaps this difference is in need of fleshing out. Cavalieri’s critique centers around the comparison of social animals, such as insects and humans. While Cavalieri questions de Waal’s positive reading of the feedback between human and animal, such a “feedback” relationship might be in question altogether. An alternative reading of relation can be seen in a discussion of ants. Ants, for one, do not fare well in Serres’ The Parasite (recently republished as the first volume in Cary Wolfe’s Posthumanities series at the University of Minnesota Press). Serres provides a provocative reading of Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” where the grasshopper goes hungry because it has wasted its summer singing, while the industrious ant has satisfactorily laid away food for winter. Serres calls for the time of the grasshopper: “Now the time has come that the grasshoppers win” (83). Ants are order and regiment: “the ant hill is a system proper…the ant is at home, is rational and works. It works by chasing out disorder. It constituted order, classifying its seeds, flies, worms; chasing away the singers and dancers; building the collective city through its collections; well-run large cities, perfectly controlled” (91). The ants’ attention to noiseless hygiene can be seen in the manner in which they remove dead nestmates (“necrophoresis”) and other unwanted material. As reported by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson in their classic work on the subject, The Ants: “The interiors of the nests of ants, and particularly the broad chambers are kept meticulously clean. Workers drag alien objects, including particles of waste material and defeated enemies out of the nest and drag them nearby…They respond to disagreeable but unmovable objects by covering them with pieces of soil and nest material” (296).
This behavior is most noticeable in necrophoresis, which was narrowed down by Hölldobler and Wilson to being dependent on the ants sensing oleic acid. When such acid was placed on live members of the nest they were carried “unprotesting” to the refuse area. The removed ants then cleaned themselves and returned to the nest. This process was repeated until the amount of acid was sufficiently reduced on the offending creature. Even ants close to dying were found to remove themselves from the nest or bivouac (297).
The ant, then, is cleanliness and order, making sure the borderline is swept clean each morning, while the grasshopper sings, disturbs the farmer’s meal, creates disorder and havoc among the crops. The grasshopper messes things up; it is noisy. Noise, for Serres, is that which creates complexity, allows the system to grow, and should be welcomed as a guest at dinner. For example, if you are having a meal with your romantic partner and you receive a phone call from your ex, the phone call is noise, interruption. When you go back to having dinner with your current flame, assuming you do, the situation is more complex, each word loaded, each gesture probed: the interruption has complexified the system. The grasshopper is such an interruption in Serres, because of its song: the ant is that which works to shut the grasshopper out (although the ants’ work can then turn into a disrupting noise itself… [Serres 92]). This is a different (and not necessarily disproving or even disapproving) reading from both de Waal’s ethical line from human to animal and Cavalieri’s unrosy reading of insectization: instead what is offered is a noisy being-with instead of a neat necrophoresis.
However, what would the world look like overrun by such noise-excluding creatures as the ant? This is the imagined future of John Wyndham’s 1933 novelette “Wanderers of Time,” originally published under the name John Benyon Harris (Wyndham is perhaps best known for The Day of the Triffids  and The Kraken Wakes ). In this story, first published in the Sci-Fi pulp magazine Wonder Stories, a group of humans have time-traveled into an unknown future year towards which all the time travel machines that have ever been invented and that have malfunctioned in some way are gravitated (the year is unknown, but is guessed to be around 13000). The stranded travelers find themselves in a land where humans are no longer the dominant species. First they witness some sort of rock-throwing machines, and then they find themselves confronted by a different kind of mechanism which “stood some seven feet to the highest point of the rounded back, and their egg-shaped hulls progressed with a scurrying motion upon six-jointed legs. Four waving metal tentacles protruded from the extreme front and, above them, two lenses were set flush in the smooth case work” (18).
Once the machine casing is cracked, it is found that the mechanical monsters are inhabited by real-sized live ants which, now that their mechanical casing is gone, revert to their “instinctual ways” and go blindly, in column formation, straight into the brunt of the laser a time traveler is aiming at them (31). In the language of Giorgio Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal, the machine now cracked and removed from the animal’s world was the disinhibitor allowing the animals access to the world “as such,” to participate in a Heideggerian “world-formation” in which a being can shape and respond to the world rather than simply react to it. For a criticism of the respond and react division, especially in relation to Jacques Lacan, see Derrida’s “And Say the Animal Responded.” In short, the animal would then have access to a human-only death because of its involvement with the machine: the machine allowed the ants a participation in the continuum of the human. What is interesting in the Wyndham story is that once the animal in the machine is discovered, the ants are seen to be just like humans once were. The only problem ants had in terms of evolution was their size, which they overcame by technology, in the same manner humans overcame their own deficiencies in the course of their evolution (35). Here Wyndham foreshadows Bernard Stiegler’s reading of the Epimetheus myth of technology (there being no traits left for mankind at the creation of the world, so fire, or technology, is stolen and given to them as their defining feature). Stiegler argues that a relationship to technology has been present since the start of human kind, and was not something just added on at a later date (183-4). Wyndham’s story shows a level of comfort with the intrusion of the fake at the heart of being. When the truth is discovered it all becomes clear: “There’s no magic about it” (Wyndham 32). It is just us. Such a paring down of the human is put forth by Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds in “Merely Extraordinary Beings,” her ebr piece on Andrew Miller’s incredible novel Ingenious Pain. What is interesting here is that the removal from the human in the novel is both located via contact with a woman (it is a relationship with a woman that takes away what is special from the main character) and also that the reduction is one into mere “humanity”: “it is only after his transformation – perhaps effected by a woman after all – that the least touch by or connection with a woman reduces him to humanity” (Wall Hinds).
The fake at the heart of humans (thus making the human/non-human continuum noisy) can also be seen in William Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition. Part of the central plot of the novel is a search for the maker of “the footage,” cinematic clips which have mysteriously appeared on the internet, and which have gathered a substantial underground fan base. The cinematic sequences seem to be completely random until a number is found coded into a white expanse of sky using steganography (concealing information in other information). Eventually the number is found to be a part of a larger map. Using an image-searching bot, the shape is eventually traced to “one specific part in the manual arming mechanism of the US Army’s M18A1 Claymore mine” (274) which was used to kill the makers’ parents, and from which a piece lodged in Nora’s (the maker’s) brain. Due to a quirk based in her neurological injury, Nora is only conscious while making the footage. Then somehow in the mash-up of the mine fragment and soft brain tissue, the pattern made by the stills of the footage takes on the shape of the Claymore mine fragment in her brain. “The boy [appearing in the footage] whose life, it seems, is bounded by the T-shaped city, the city Nora is mapping through the footage she generates. Her consciousness, Cayce understands, somehow bounded by or bound to the T-shaped fragment in her brain: part of the arming mechanism of the Claymore mine that killed her parents, balanced too deeply, too precariously within her skull, to ever be removed” (305). This is a literal transmission of the fake to the screen, but also a devotion of life to the fake, for the only way for Nora to be “alive” is to keep the fake awake: both Nora and the mine fragment are in a co-dependent, parasitic relationship with each other. They are truly being-with each other.
The T-shape of the mine fragment is turned into a map of the unfolding film of the footage in Gibson’s novel. The domain of cartography can also be seen as a location of being-with the fake. David Gugerli argues that changes from 19th to 20th century mapping techniques mainly involved an attempt at the “erasure” of individual traces of mapmakers and a move toward the collective nature of the scientific survey in an attempt at arguing for the validity of cartographic representation. As Jean Baudrillard has taught that the map proceeds and in fact tatters the territory, Gugerli argues that “the map of a national survey could stand and mediate the deictic gesture both of an individual and a collective readership. Pointing to the map simultaneously produced indicated presence and absence, difference and identity, specificity and relatedness. Thus, the map reassured individual and collective origins, it showed present positions, and it declared the range of possible future movements” (213). The map at the heart (or in the head) of Nora in Pattern Recognition is such a declaration of future movements: the unfolding of the footage is lodged in the interplay between brain synapses and the mine fragment. The map of the piece of an arming mechanism, a collective effort of World War II American Army engineers, becomes the locus for an enigmatic piece of art produced in Moscow, a piece of art which acts as Nora’s only means to have contact with “the world.” Technology and the human are with each other in a life-sustaining artistic outreach.
In the Wyndham story there are ants at the heart of the machine: in Gibson’s novel there is a machine at the heart of mankind. Both indicate the fuzziness between human and non-human; both attempt to keep open the deal of the continuum. Such openness is at the forefront of the thought of Peter Sloterdijk, who argues for the dissolution of the distinction between human and artificial (or subject and object). One of the focal points of his argument is that through the mapping of the human genome, it has been found that information is what is at the heart of the human body, therefore the human/machine distinction becomes doubtful “because both sides of the distinction are only regional states of information and its processing” (41). Concomitant regional states is also at the center of Life Extreme: An Illustrated Guide to New Life, an interaction of art and words between Eduardo Kac (perhaps most famous for his genetically altered florescent green bunny Alba) and Avital Ronell who dialogically trace the history of transgenetic animals from the 17th century to the present.
The prominence of the question of the animal in relation to questions of a non-biological nature should not be surprising, as Matthew Calarco has stated in his ebr contribution “The Question of the Animal”: “the question of the animal cannot be restricted to animals alone… [it] is part of a larger issue dealing with what Derrida in Of Grammatology calls ‘the name of man,’ and how man gives himself this name by delimiting himself from all non-human others: the animal, the natural world, the non-living, etc.” Both the animals of Wyndham and the humans of Gibson point toward an unnatural relationship to artifice in which intimacy produces openness. What is being posited here is a relationship to the fake following Theodor Adorno’s theses on “Natural Beauty” in Aesthetic Theory, where through his dual reading of negative dialectics, nature is to be found in the artificiality of art, and the artistic in the natural beauty of the landscape: “Art is not nature, a belief that idealism hoped to inculcate, but art does want to keep nature’s promise. It is capable of this only by breaking that promise; by taking it back into itself” (65).
Alternatively stated, the core of this open relationship to the other to the non-human can be illustrated in how Jaron Lanier, who helped popularize the term “virtual reality” in the early 1980s, decided one of his first virtual experiences would be as a lobster. He wanted to see if people could adapt to controlling a larger number of limbs than they naturally have. People took to it just fine, just as they have few problems normalizing themselves to the multi-lever functions of automobiles and videogame control pads. Lanier’s current obsessions include cephalopods and their strong ability to be with others in an advanced state of camouflage. Such a natural affinity for the multitude is also at the center of Hopkins’ poetry, as illustrated by Gardner’s diagram, which looks like a cacophony of grasshoppers spreading out into the night, or like the multi-polyped fingernails of Physalia. Hopkins meant his poetry to be a means to access the essence of what we are; as a priest he was hoping to find God, but what he gave humanity was an openness to a continuum with the fake.
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