Thursday, April 17, 2008

Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, and current “transhumanist” projects, are comforting, even self-congratulatory, myths

Shriek from The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro
We shouldn’t become accustomed to anything anymore. We are beginning to live in our own future, and it should feel strange” (p. 309). Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword is a lovely rendition of the world’s — which is to say, the future’s — strangeness, and of the ways that people strive either to come to terms with it, or to evade and deny it — and of how people get affected by it, in unforeseen and often unpleasant ways, regardless of their attempts either to embrace it or escape it. VanderMeer’s work, like that of China Mieville and K J Bishop, can be classified under the rubric of the New Weird

Two refrains haunt the novel, repeated throughout its length like leitmotives. One is: there’s no way out, you are going to die. The other is, enigmatically, “there may be a way” (see p. 325). The latter is not a promise of immortality or transcendence; it is rather a giving way, a giving in to metamorphosis, a becoming (not superhuman, but) less-than-human or inhuman. (Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, and current “transhumanist” projects, are comforting, even self-congratulatory, myths: they pretend that a becoming-other, a becoming-inhuman, really means staying the way we are, only better. VanderMeer allows us, or forces us, to see beyond these puerile fantasies; this is one of the many virtues of his book).

Biologists tell us that fungi are neither animals nor plants; they constitute a separate kingdom of life. They stand outside our customary plant/animal binary. They can reproduce both sexually and asexually; but their sexual reproduction involves multiple sexes, rather than the polarized two that we tend to take for granted. They can survive for long periods as spores, suddenly bursting into life when conditions are favorable; since they are not photosynthetic, they come in an array of strange colors unlike the green of plants. For all these reasons, they are uncanny. Shriek is fantasy/horror, rather than science fiction; but it taps into this uncanniness, explores some of its many odd shapes, and creates a powerful fable of what I can only call the materiality of metamorphosis. By this I mean that metamorphosis is not shorn of wonder, but that is rather stripped of its superhuman pretensions, whether these be “rational” or “mythical” ones.

If the 20th century was a time of both mystification (in the fascist exaltation of myth) and demystification (in the humanist exploration of the powers and limits of rationalization), then VanderMeer’s 21st century text refuses both of these gestures. It opposes both the exaltation of myth and unreason, and the exaltation of rationality and demystification. It opposes both Jung and Freud, both myth and science, both the Dionysian and the Apollonian. It gives us, not an ethics of existence, but an aesthetics. While I was reading Shriek, it infiltrated my dreams, something that novels almost never do to me. I would wake up with vague premonitions of fungal extrusions and excresences.

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