Paul Di Filippo, “Phylogenesis” (1988)

“Life is tenacious, life is ingenious, life is mutable, life is fecund.” To consider what it means for us to live on — to survive, and to reproduce our social existence — as parasites on the monstrous body of Capital, we must turn from Lovecraft to Paul Di Filippo, a more recent writer of the fantastic, who also hails (as Lovecraft did) from Providence, Rhode Island. Di Filippo’s story “Phylogenesis” might be thought of as an account of what happens after Cthulhu arrives and devastates the Earth. The story does not explicitly refer to Lovecraft’s mythos; but it follows Lovecraft in giving its horror a biological-materialist basis, rather than a supernatural one. And if Di Filippo’s prose is as dry and understated as Lovecraft’s is florid and inflated, this follows from the way that our very understanding of life changed over the course of the twentieth century. Lovecraft’s early-twentieth-century teratological wonderment is a sort of inverse vitalism: it posits the monstrous proliferation of slithering tentacles, oozing, viscous fluids, and misshapen membranes as the underside, and the deliberate undoing, of the common assumptions of organic unity and integrity. In contrast, Di Filippo’s late-twentieth-century cool, efficient prose reflects the contemporary situation in which “a feeling for the organism” (Evelyn Fox Keller) has been entirely abandoned, and replaced by a view of life in terms of “biotic components,” about which “one must not think in terms of essential properties, but in terms of design, boundary constraints, rates of flows, systems logics, costs of lowering constraints” (Donna Haraway).

The premise of “Phylogenesis” is that an alien species of enormous “invaders came to Earth from space without warning… In blind fulfillment of their life cycle, they sought biomass for conversion to more of their kind.” As a result, “the ecosphere had been fundamentally disrupted, damaged beyond repair.” The invaders’ massive predation leaves the earth a barren, ruined mass: “the planet, once green and blue, now resembled a white featureless ball, exactly the texture and composition of the [invaders].” Human beings are reluctant to accept the hard truth that they cannot repel the invasion: “only in the final days of the plague, when the remnants of mankind huddled in a few last redoubts, did anyone admit that extermination of the invaders and reclamation of the planet was impossible.” The human agenda is reset at the last possible moment: with victory unattainable, survival — bare life — becomes the only remaining goal. There is no longer any environment capable of sustaining humanity; it is necessary, instead, “to adapt a new man to the alien conditions.”

And so the “chromosartors” get to work, genetically refashioning Homo sapiens into a new species. We are reborn as viral parasites, within the bodies of the spacefaring invaders. Most of the text of “Phylogenesis” lovingly recounts the physiology, psychology, and overall life cycle of this new parasitic humanity. The bioengineering is precise and efficient. Everything is optimized in accordance with the physiology and metabolism of the host, and in the interest of flexibility. Anything deemed superfluous to survival is unsentimentally jettisoned. The “neohumans”mate quickly, reproduce in great numbers (in “litters” of five or more), and mature rapidly. They exhibit both swarm behavior — ganging up together when necessary to overwhelm the host’s defenses — and nomadic distribution — “scattering themselves throughout the interior of the gargantuan alien” to reduce the chances of being all wiped out at once by the host’s counterattacks. Once they have killed their host, they go into hibernation within “protective vesicles,” in order to survive the vacuum of deep space until they can encounter another host. In this way, they are able to perpetuate both their genes and their cultural heritage. Since they unavoidably “possess a basically nonmaterial culture,” they only use light-weight technologies that have been interiorized within their bodies. They are especially gifted with “mathematical skill,” including a genetically-instilled “predisposition toward solving… abstruse functions in their heads.” Aesthetically, they are all masters and lovers of song, “the only art form left to the artifact-free neohumans.” Mathematics and music are the sole “legacy of six thousand years of civilization” that has been bequeathed to them. The lives of the neohumans are short and intermittent; they are “mayflies, fast-fading blooms, the little creatures of a short hour. Yet to themselves, their lives still tasted sweet as of old.”

China Miéville insists upon the radical novelty of Lovecraft’s “Weird fiction”: its “unprecedented forms, and its insistence upon a chaotic, amoral, anthropoperipheral universe, stresses the implacable alterity of its aesthetic and concerns.” In Lovecraft’s own time, this alterity was (among other things) a response to the dislocations of World War I. Today, Lovecraft’s Weird vision remains relevant because, as Miéville says, “with the advent of the neoliberal There Is No Alternative, the universe [i]s an ineluctable, inhuman, implacable, Weird place.” Di Filippo’s story, with its decidedly non-Weird rhetoric, figures a further step in the same process. It narrates the naturalization of Lovecraft’s inhuman implacability. It does this precisely by devising a brilliant strategy for adapting to catastrophic monstrosity. When There Is No Alternative — when it no longer seems possible for us to defeat the monstrous invasion, or even to imagine things otherwise — Di Filippo’s parasitic inversion is the best that we can do. The neohumans of “Phylogenesis” evade extinction at the hands of the monstrous aliens, by devising a situation in which their own survival absolutely depends upon the continuing survival of the monstrosities as well. The parasitic neohumans end up killing whatever host they have invaded; but their continuing proliferation is always contingent upon encountering another host. The extinction of the invaders would mean their own definitive extinction as well.

As far as I can determine, Di Filippo never intended “Phylogenesis” to be read as an allegory of Capital. Yet the traces are there, in every aspect of the story. The downsizing of the neohumans (adults are “four feet tall, with limbs rather gracile than muscular”), the rationalization of their design in the interest of mobility and flexibility, their uncanny coordination and ability to “monitor the passage of time with unerring precision, thanks to long-ago modifications in the suprachiasmatic nuclei of their brains, which provided them with accurate biological clocks,” the “inbuilt determinism” by means of which their sexual drives are canalized “for a particular purpose,” their severely streamlined cultural heritage, and the ways that even their nonproductive activities (singing and nonprocreative sex) serve a purpose as “supreme weapons in the neohumans’ armory of spirit”: all these are recognizable variations of familiar management techniques in the contemporary post-Fordist regime of flexible accumulation. The neohumans make use of the only tools that they find at hand. They parasitize and mimic the very mechanisms that have dispossessed them. And their emotional lives are effectively streamlined in a post-Fordist manner as well. Feeling an overwhelming sense of loss, and aware of all the ways that their potential has been constrained, they nonetheless conclude that “we just have to make the most of the life we have.” Both socially and affectively, Di Filippo’s neohumans are the very image of the multitude invoked by Hardt and Negri, and by Paolo Virno. They exercise a genuine creativity under extremely straightened circumstances, and produce, and themselves enjoy, an experience of the common. But Di Filippo recognizes, more clearly than Hardt and Negri and Virno do, the limitations of any “mobilization of the common” in a situation of “actually existing” capitalism.

4 Responses to “Paul Di Filippo, “Phylogenesis” (1988)”

  1. [...] Shaviro discusses Paul di Filippo’s [...]

  2. [...] Paul Di Filippo, “Phylogenesis” (1988) “Life is tenacious, life is ingenious, life is mutable, life is fecund.” To consider what it means for us to live on — to survive, and to reproduce our social existence — as parasites on the monstrous body of Capital, we must turn from Lovecraft to Paul Di Filippo, a more recent writer of the fantastic, who also hails (as Lovecraft did) from Providence, Rhode Island… [...]

  3. [...] Paul Di Filippo, “Phylogenesis” (1988) [...]

  4. [...] by Steven Shaviro for The Pinocchio Theory [...]

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