Archive for May, 2008

Dr. Franklin’s Island

Friday, May 30th, 2008

Dr. Franklin’s Island, a young adult science fiction novel by Ann Halam, is a contemporary rewrite of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. (“Ann Halam” is the pseudonym used by the British SF writer Gwyneth Jones for her YA fiction. There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere recently, initially spurred by John Scalzi, about the virtues and limitations of fiction written for “young adults,” i.e. teenagers. I agree with Scalzi that there is a lot of interesting speculative fiction being written for teens nowadays. I am not sure what the reasons are. But works by Halam, and by Philip Pullman, Scott Westerfeld, M. T. Anderson, and others, are as interesting as any of the adult SF that has been published recently. Writers like China Mieville and Cory Doctorow have also recently published excellent YA books).

Dr. Franklin’s Island tells the story of three teenagers marooned after a plane crash on an island off the coast of Ecuador. At first, the island seems to be uninhabited. But it turns out that the island contains a large research facility, hidden in the middle of the island, in the caldera of an extinct volcano. Here Doctor Franklin secretly pursues transgenic experiments. He has an odd menagerie of animals whose DNA has been altered to give them incongruous and disturbing human traits (bats with human legs, pigs with human faces instead of snouts, and so on). The teenagers are captured and imprisoned by Dr. Franklin, who uses them (without their consent) as test subjects for transgenic experiments in the reverse direction: he grafts them with various animal traits. Semirah, the narrator, is transformed into a fish, something like a manta ray; her friends become, respectively, a bird and a snake. (it’s significant, I think, that Dr. Franklin not only dehumanizes them, but de-mammalizes them as well. Turning the teens into dogs or tigers, or even rats or pigs, would not be alien, and alienating, enough).

There are several noteworthy things about Halam’s treatment of the story. The book expresses the wonder, as well as the horror, of metamorphosis. Semirah is kidnapped, imprisoned, and forced against her will to be the subject of grotesque and dangerous medical experiments. She finds this both horrific and depressing. The psychological and physical stress of the experience creates feelings of abject dependency, and pushes her or tempts her into something like the Stockholm Syndrome. Yet she never fully succumbs to these feelings; she retains a strong desire to escape from her confinement, and to return to her original human form. Yet at the same time, there is something wondrous about her transformation into a fish. Her body has a new form, with new sorts of perceptions, and new powers to affect and to be affected; and she finds a certain joy in discovering all the things that her fish-body can do, and in exercising her new powers to the fullest. She retains her human consciousness and perceptions, alongside her new fishy consciousness and perceptions. These do not become fused, but they also do not line up against each other in any sort of dualistic split. Rather, within limits, she is able to flip back and forth between fish-awareness and human-awareness, translating each into the terms of the other. She cannot speak, as her lungs and larynx have been altered, but the speech centers of her brain are intact, and (thanks to an implanted microchip) she can converse “telepathically” with her friends in the forms of bird and snake. There is always a slippage back and forth between the human and animal poles of the teens’ mentality; but they never slip entirely to the animal pole, despite Dr. Franklin’s expectation that this might happen. Animal genes have been inserted into their bodies’ cells, alongside the human genes they previously possessed; but there is no certainty as to which genes will be expressed, and which will be turned off or blocked from functioning. At the end of the book, the teens escape and regain their human forms; but they return to “normal” life knowing that they are different, that the genetic potential for animal metamorphosis is still present in their bodies, and could be triggered again given the right circumstances (and, hopefully, only when they are willing for this to happen).

It is hard to think radical metamorphosis, because once I undergo such an experience, I am no longer the same “I” that I was before the metamorphosis happened. What does it mean to “will” something that changes the very nature of the one who wills? Halam is deeply sensitive to this problem, as she differentiates unequivocally — and on firm ethical grounds — between coercion and consent, while at the same time she shows how slippery and uncertain “consent” can be. The book expresses the preciousness of being human, and of being able to speak as we alone are able to do; but it also expresses the preciousness of fish-being or bird-being, the sense of life-possibilities which need not be confined to the human. Or, to put this in another way: the book takes embodiment seriously. All thought is embodied, and it differs as its embodiment differs. At best, the transgenic is also a transductive and transversal experience: it doesn’t fuse different modes of being, but continually puts one in relation to the other, transports feelings and things from one to the other as it moves back and forth and in between. (Writing of Proust, Deleuze compares transversality to looking out of different windows of a moving train; Halam perhaps creates a more radically apt metaphor for the process). In any case, nothing would be more wrong than to read Dr. Franklin’s Island as a tale of liberating deterritorialization followed by a sad return to all too human reterritorialization. For both becoming-animal and becoming-human-again are simultaneously both re- and de- territorializations; the point is the moving-between. Semirah is glad to escape from confinement, and to return to human form and to her family; but on the very last page she continues to dream about “breathing water and swimming through the music of the ocean… having a skeleton of supple cartilage instead of brittle bone… feeling my whole body as one soaring, gliding, sweeping wing.” This could never be the dream of a manta ray, nor of an entirely territorialized and domesticated human being; but only the dream of a transgenic being, a human-become-fish-become human hybrid entity. Dr. Franklin’s Island expresses this dream and this beauty, at the same time that it recounts the terror of a technoscience that seeks absolute domination, and that instrumentally treats human beings only as “experimental subjects.”

It should also be noted, in this regard, that Dr. Franklin is not portrayed as a maniac, or a raving. megalomaniacal dictator, or a traditional “mad scientist.” It is rather precisely his cold rationality that makes him creepy (and evil). Even when the teens try to escape, or when underlings deceive and even betray him, he never breaks out into a rage. Rather, he sees this behavior as a new source of experimental data, as more useful fodder for his research. He absorbs challenges to his mastery by reasserting that mastery on a meta-level. In a certain sense, this makes him more “inhuman” than any of his victims. Even as a lone experimenter, he is technoscience or bureaucratic, corporate science personified (in much the same way that Marx sees an individual capitalist as Capital personified). Indeed, it turns out, in one of the book’s most brilliant ironies, that Dr. Franklin is utterly devoid of any Nietzschean or extropian fantasies of transcending the human. Rather, he hopes to sell his transgenic formula “to an exotic holiday company… Imagine it. You take a pill, or a couple of injections. Like being vaccinated… You wake up in a five-star underwater hotel, on your ocean safari. Or in some kind of luxury cliffside flying lodge, on the wall of the Grand Canyon. Spend two weeks exploring the deep ocean, or flying like a bird, then go through the same thing in reverse” (170-171). The real opposition in the book isn’t between human and animal, or even between freedom and containment. It’s between desire and technoscience, or between the dream of metamorphosis and the commodification of all possible experience in the form of a business plan.

Proxies

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

Laura Mixon’s SF novel Proxies was published a decade ago, but I only just got around to reading it. It is a compelling book, filled with ideas — mostly about robotics, virtuality, and telepresence — that are played out in a semi-dystopian setting. It is the mid-21st century. Global warming has become catastrophic; but in the US, the affluent adapt to the heat and live their lives much as before, using “canopies” and “cool suits” to reduce the effect of the extreme heat, and fortifying the borders against the global poor from the even hotter countries, who have tried to storm the US as refugees. Technologies involving electronic communications, “syntellects” (artificial intelligence) and “waldos” (robots) continue to be developed, often in secret and with enormous funding from the military and other arms of the government. (There is also an interstellar exploration project underway, which ends up playing an important part in the plot).

The “proxies” of the book’s title are a new breed of robot, nearly indistinguishable from human beings in appearance, but with far greater strength and a wider range of sensory capabilities. They are not autonomous machines, however; a proxy needs to be “piloted” by an actual human being. You lay yourself down in a “creche,” a sort of isolation chamber, a coffin-like enclosure with a nutrient bath, feeding and breathing tubes, and various electronic connections: the sensations of your actual body are pretty much shut down, and instead you operate the proxy body, feeling its physical sensations, moving and acting with its limbs and organs. In effect, you have physical telepresence elsewhere. The technology is a government/military secret; it is extremely expensive. Most people not only lack access to it, they don’t even know it exists. The general population is forced to make do with much cruder, less immersive and less satisfying, sorts of telepresence.

Mixon imagines life via proxy with great care and detail. Most importantly, she insists upon the glitches in the process: all those things that prevent the technology from being altogether seamless. For instance, sensation in your actual body is never entirely cut off; in moments of stress or high emotion you are especially prone to feeling things in your creche body rather than your proxy one: you cry, or breathe fast, or are shaken with spasms of fear. Also there is a certain degree of lag in the actions and responses of the proxy: you are never quite as fast and coordinated as you are in your own flesh. This is partly because of transmission delays (net latency), and partly because of the way our neurons are wired (we’ve “learned” from early childhood how to make our own limbs move; but making the proxy’s limbs move involve slightly different connections that we aren’t as accustomed to, so they aren’t as smoothly and thoroughly automatic). The lag is only a matter of milliseconds, but there are times when this is enough to be significant. The difference from primary physical reality becomes disorienting and disturbing in the long run. A pilot may stay in his or her proxy for a number of days, or weeks; but eventually there’s a need for some psychological and physical rehab in one’s own actual flesh. Excessive piloting can lead to a psychotic breakdown.

Proxies are used to accomplish tasks in the real world — often tasks beyond the physical capacities of unenhanced human beings. But they are also open to various sorts of play, as when you pilot a proxy with a different gender than your own “actual” one. (I wish there had been more of this in the novel; as it stands, Mixon just teases us with the prospect). The remote physicality of the proxy allows for an intensity that merely virtual presence cannot quite match (full-immersion virtuality is itself a commonplace in the world of the novel, but it is more limited, more evanescent, and less satisfying than proxy telepresence).

However, the drama of the novel turns upon a still further, and more extreme, technological twist. Proxies are a secret technology; but there is another level of experimentation, a secret within the secret. The scientist in charge of the project recruits, or adopts, small children to be the ideal proxy pilots. The ethics of doing this are questionable, and are debated at great length throughout the novel. The scientist justifies her experiments on the grounds that the recruits are young children with severely damaged immune systems, who could not expect to live very long in the ordinary world. Instead, they spend their entire physical lives in the sterile and low-gravity environment of creches in an orbital space station. Their bodies atrophy, or never grow to normal adult dimensions, but their isolation and chemical treatment keeps them free from infection; and their entire lived experience is through their proxies. The scientist theorizes that, growing up in this way, without any direct physical experience to contradict their virtual lives, these pilots’ neurons will be wired optimally for their proxy bodies, and they will not suffer from the disorientation and deprivation that adult proxy pilots are always in danger of.

The scientist turns out to be only partially correct. The child-pilots do turn out to optimize their neural organization for life by proxy, and they are able to achieve precision tasks with their proxies that adult pilots are incapable of. Growing up in so highly prosthetic an environment, they also develop computer programming skills far beyond those of adult programmers. And they do not develop the sorts of depressive psychoses that adult pilots with overly extensive exposure do. They are attuned to the prosthetic, and to multiplicity — the ability to switch between several proxy bodies — in a way that people who grow up with their “own” bodies can never be.

But, of course, there turns out to be a price to pay for all this. The creche children somehow never become “mature” (I am using the quotes just in order not to be pinned down to too explicit a definition of just what “mature” might mean). They exist in a permanent state of emotional dependency upon “Mother” (as they think of, and call, the scientist who has “adopted” them). They look to her desperately for approval, carry out her commands, endure her erratic mood swings and violent outbursts of anger, and accept the punishments she burdens them with when they have not properly fulfilled her orders. All this could be thought of as pre-Oedipal regression (or as never having reached an Oedipal state at all); though I don’t think the novel necessarily enforces so psychoanalytic a reading (psychoanalytic theorists may argue that the absence of the father has much to do with the failure of the children to attain autonomy, but the novel never thematizes such a reading, either positively or negatively. One of the “normal” human protagonists does have a strained relationship with her father, however). One of the most emotionally telling moments in the novel — it’s an image that absolutely haunted me — comes when Pablo, the creche child who is one of the book’s protagonists, sits (via proxy, of course) in Mother’s lap (she is also in proxy), and immediately, unthinkingly, starts to suck his thumb (his proxy is adult-sized, and he is 15 or 16 years old). The creche/proxy children are intellectually advanced, but emotionally crippled and blocked.

What’s more, although the creche children do not suffer from the alienating effects of the gap between telepresence and “immediate” presence, they are also (or thereby?) unable to deal with any sort of ambivalence — and this creates gaps of its own. Although the creche children do not suffer from the psychotic disintegration (or dephasing between physical body and proxy) to which adult pilots are prone, they tend to develop, instead, something like Multiple Personality Syndrome. Pablo shares his body with Buddy, who hates Mother as desperately as Pablo loves her; further splits occur in the course of the narrative; and by the end we get to meet Pablito, the little boy who was separated from his birth mother and placed in the creche to begin with, and who is the initial “personality” whose primordial trauma is at the base of the split (as is generally the case in MPS narratives). Pablo and Buddy are sometimes together piloting a single proxy, but at other times they pilot separately. Since they are both ultimately driven by raw pulsions (as the French call them) rather than integrated or “sublimated” emotions, they are unable to compromise or to deflect conflict.

I am perhaps putting the “psychology” of the novel in more Freudian terms than the author would necessarily wish. The originality of the novel has to do, however, with the way that these “pre-Oedipal” conflicts are, precisely, symptoms of technology. Mixon does not suggest any such thing as a “natural,” pre-prosthetic, unalienated state. Like Donna Haraway, she evidently prefers the status of the cyborg to that of the goddess. Prosthetics are a matter of degree, and nobody is entirely free of them. The sense, therefore, is less that of a regression in development, in the Freudian sense, than it is one of psychotechnology, of the ways in which our prosthetic technologies (of any sort, because these technologies are themselve constitutive of what we mean by “humanity”), together with their political and economic circumstances, shape and affect our psyches. The novel ends, not by trying to restore “symbolic efficacy” or to push the creche children onto a more “normal” or “complete” developmental path, but precisely by suggesting that their “line of flight” needs to be pushed to its own extreme, to become whatever it is capable of being — and this is left deliberately open. Such a (literal and metaphorical) flight can only take place, however, if the creche children can be removed, or liberated, from the economy of the military-industrial complex in which they were initially produced — and the novel literalizes this removal, as well, as the children end up on a flight into deep space with no prospect of return to our own solar system.

In short, Proxies displays the contradictions that lie at the heart of our relation with new technologies, without pretending to resolve them. Telepresence or virtual presence has often been seen, in SF as in philosophy, through the lens of an inveterate dualism. For William Gibson’s Case (in Neuromancer), as for Descartes, the mental is a different order of being from the physical. Indeed, Case pushes Cartesian dualism further than Descartes ever did, since he hates his body and sees the exultation of cyberspace as an escape from that body. Much has been written on this dualism, and on the need to overcome it by understtanding the embodiedness of even the most abstract and virtual technologies. But Mixon gives this whole problem a different inflection. The creche children have a strange misunderstanding, grounded in their own always-proxied experience, of dualism. They cannot think of their proxy embodiments as anything but physical, for it is the very way that they function and participate in the physical world. But they distinguish between bodies (which they understand as finite and limited, as capable of being injured or destroyed) and “flesh” (which means their degree-zero locatedness in the creche, and which they imagine as the indubitable way in which they always exist (like the sense of myself as a “thinking thing” in Descartes). This creche “flesh” is in fact extremely vulnerable and weak — we can see this when we look inside a creche and see the child’s crippled, vestigal form — but the children imagine it as being invulnerable and eternal, that which they will never be without, and to which they will never be merely reduced. They don’t understand death, even (or especially) the death of others: because they imagine it as something that happens only to “bodies” (which can always be replaced; if one is injured or destroyed, all you need to do is move your awareness into a different one), and not to the underlying “flesh.” In this sense, they are not denying embodiment, so much as they are taking it too much for granted.

(Is this not also the error of singularity enthusiasts like Ray Kurzweil, who assume that, once they can upload their minds onto the network, they will live forever? Even if “I” am only software, I still need some hardware, somewhere and somehow, in order to instantiate the program that I am; Kurzweil may hope to distribute copies of his intellect in multiple nodes all over the network, but he will still need the physical presence of the network as a “body” within which alone he can survive. Isn’t Kurzweil more naive than the creche children of Proxies, who at least have some awareness of the physical basis — involving both the creches, and the medications with which they are continually being supplied– for virtual and distant presence, even if they overestimate the security and stability of this physical basis?)

I will cease here, even though I think there is more to be said about this novel, which is often classifed as “cyberpunk” (or perhaps as a feminist revision of cyberpunk) but which actually goes off in new — and still insufficiently theorized — directions.

Whitehead conclusions

Monday, May 19th, 2008
Sorry to have written so little recently. Been very busy.

A conclusion, of sorts, to my Whitehead book can be found here (pdf).

Teeth

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008

Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth is actually a delightful movie — to the extent that a horror film about the vagina dentata and castration can be delightful. It might be more accurate to say that it’s gruesome, campy, and affecting in more or less equal measure — though the affectingness ultimately wins out, I think. Although it was made in 2007, and is set in the present, Teeth has a real 1980s-horror feel to it — which is a good thing, since the 80s were the great decade for horror films with smart socio-politico-sexual subtexts. Indeed, a horror-comedy about the vagina dentata is such a rich and clever idea that it’s surprising nobody has ever done it before. Sure, there are lots of misogynistic movies where women are (metaphorically, and sometimes literally) castrating bitches from hell, or where alien monsters are devouring vaginas; and in the 1980s in particular there was the rape/revenge subgenre (most notable example: I Spit On Your Grave) in which a sometimes literal castration was the punishment meted out to the scumbag rapists. (Carol Clover wrote the book on those movies). But Teeth is rather different, both because the vagina dentata is literalized as the point of the “horror,” and because of the way the film focuses on the ambivalent feelings of the female protagonist who does not realize what she has within her. Conceptually, Teeth is body horror on a level with early Cronenberg (think especially of The Brood), but affectively it eschews Cronenberg’s extremity and anguish in favor of something much gentler and lighter (and I do not mean these words as veiled criticisms). (Mitchell Lichtenstein is the son of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, and he contrasts to Cronenberg much in the way that his father contrasts to, say, Jackson Pollock).

[WARNING: WHAT FOLLOWS CONTAINS SPOILERS]

Teeth centers on the figure of Dawn (brilliantly played by Jess Weixler, who is actually in her 20s but manages to convey the look and feel of a teenager, and the affective confusions and ambivalences that people of such an age are prone to), a young high-school-age woman made anxious by her burgeoning sexuality. She is unable to manage the rush of feelings and desires that seem to take possession of her. In addition, at home she has to deal with the fact that her mother is dying, as well as with her obnoxious stepbrother, who apparently has the hots for her, and who is always playing loud heavy metal music while he abuses his girlfriend and trains his killer Rottweiler. Not to mention that the family house is virtually next door to a power plant continually spewing noxious fumes.

Initially, Dawn is an enthusiastic member, and indeed organizer, of the teenage “abstinence” movement; she addresses pep rallies in which (mostly white) clean-cut teems take vows of chastity until marriage. To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t take any cheap shots at this; it rather views it as a symptom, both of Dawn’s confusion at her own surging hormones, and at our society’s overall difficulties with sexual expression. (If anything, the Christians, although creepy, don’t come off in the film as badly as the heavy-metal stepbrother does). Anyway, Dawn feels a mutual attraction with a boy who is also an enthusiastic abstinence-pledger. As their relationship develops, they continually both arouse each other and hold each other back; it’s like trying to see how close to the edge they can get without actually having sex. (Not that either of them thinks of it this way; they are both confused, scared, and experimenting, and the actors are totally convincing as they convey the characters’ inchoate desires, fears, and fumbling confusions). Finally (and inevitably) they get too caught up in the moment; the boy goes too far, Dawn objects, but not strongly and convincingly enough, and… she loses her virginity and he loses his cock.

This scene is brilliant because of the way it shows the teens’ mixed emotions as they are caught up in the moment; also because of the way it shows how the conventional and stereotypical, unequal gender relations come into play — the boy is the one who insists, the girl is the one who first challenges and allures, and then holds back — without them being specifically rooted in the psychology of these particular characters: the gender roles are typologies that they can’t resist, but yet things that aren’t specifically theirs; they conform to them not just unthinkingly, but even unpsychologically, because they are simply the only roles or categories they know. In this sense, the film conveys a powerful feminist sense of how gender coding is not a personal or moral stance, but rather a socially produced, and socially diffused, framework within which we act and understand without even being aware that we are doing so.

Anyway, one of the great things about Teeth is that it views the effects of the vagina dentata’s actions, that is to say the castrations, entirely from Dawn’s point of view, rather than from that of the “victims.” After the first incident, she is baffled and upset; she doesn’t understand why this has happened, which means that she doesn’t really understand her own emotions. She is in control neither of her own pleasures, nor of her own sense of violation. She goes to ses a rather smarmy male gynecologist, who is no help with either psychology or physiology; she is creeped out by his bedside manner, and he loses his fingers (rather than his genital organ) to the vagina dentata. Gradually Dawn realizes, at least, that the chastity movement is no longer adequate to her own sense of sexual awakening. She willingly has sex with a (seemingly) much nicer boy, who at least goes out of his way to properly seduce her. She has an orgasm, feels refreshed, and the vagina dentata doesn’t manifest itself… at least until she learns that the boy had made a wager with another dude that he would be able to bed her.

As the film progresses, the mutilations of men that result from Dawn’s vagina dentata are increasingly played for comedy. This is the campy part of the film, but it is also the most affecting part. Dawn starts coming to terms with her body and with her turbulent emotions; as she does so, she learns to accept the vagina dentata as part of her, and to use it knowingly, as a weapon. The day of reckoning arrives for the obnoxious, sexist stepbrother, in the film’s most deliriously gruesome and campy scene. By the end of the movie, Dawn has left the family (dead mother, pathetic and ineffective stepfather, odious stepbrother) behind, and gone on the road as a hitchhiker — but one who has the self-awareness, and the means of protection, to fend for herself.

Teeth is reminiscent of 1980s horror both in its ambivalently open ending, and in various other features. For instance, all those 80s films have a masculine would-be rescuing figure, who initally seems bound to defeat the monster and save the woman, thus reaffirming patriarchy at the same time as curbing its hyperbolic abuses. Yet, of course, in every one of those films, the male savior figure turns out to be a dud — he is killed by the monster, and is thus unable to save and protect the girl or woman, who must finally take matters into her own hands and kill the patriarchal monster herself. Teeth is, of course, a bit different, since the “monster” is not a patriarchal force threatening the female protagonist, but rather an aspect of herself. But in the course of the narrative, Dawn researches “vagina dentata” on the Internet, and learns of its mythic resonances and how, in the myth, a male hero is supposed to conquer it, thus restoring the woman to her proper (subordinated) place in the “natural” (i.e. patriarchal) order. For a while, she yearns to find such a hero, who (she hopes) will save her from herself. But part of what she learns in the course of the film is that this hero does not exist, and would not provide a desirable resolution if he did.

What’s great about Teeth, finally, is how cogent and affectively convincing it is, as a narrative of a girl’s passage through puberty; and the way that, in the course of this narrative, it embodies and literalizes Dawn’s affective experience, while at the same time insisting upon the social or more-than-psychological aspects of these affects, and of their embodiment. It’s not a narrative of liberation, exactly, since at the end of the film Dawn still finds herself in a patriarchal world where her options as a teenage girl are limited, and where she is still forced to put on the masquerade of femininity in order to do anything or get anywhere. In this sense, the vagina dentata is still a symptom of female dependency and unliberation. In a non-gender-biased world, one more open and tender to the multifarious metamorphoses of sexual desire, it wouldn’t be necessary. But, reactive as it is, the vagina dentata offers Dawn the only sort of freedom that is accessible to her.

All that, and also just the general sense that it is about fucking time somebody made a movie in which the lopping off of a penis is played for laughs.