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Daniel Rourke (M, 39)
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All things would be visibly connected if one could discover at a single glance and in its totality the tracings of an Ariadne’s thread leading thought into its own labyrinth.
- Georges Bataille
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    In my last post I considered the ability of science-fiction – and the impossible objects it contains – to highlight the gap between us and ‘The Thing Itself’ (the fundamental reality underlying all phenomena). In this follow-up I ask whether the way these fictional ‘Things’ determine their continued existence – by copying, cloning or imitation – can teach us about our conception of nature.

    Seth Brundle: What's there to take? The disease has just revealed its purpose. We don't have to worry about contagion anymore... I know what the disease wants.

    Ronnie: What does the disease want?

    Seth Brundle: It wants to... turn me into something else. That's not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.

    Ronnie: Turned into what?

    Seth Brundle: Whaddaya think? A fly. Am I becoming a hundred-and-eighty-five-pound fly? No, I'm becoming something that never existed before. I'm becoming... Brundlefly. Don't you think that's worth a Nobel Prize or two?

    The Fly, 1986

    In David Cronenberg’s movie The Fly (1986) we watch through slotted fingers as the body of Seth Brundle is horrifically transformed. Piece by piece Seth becomes Brundlefly: a genetic monster, fused together in a teleportation experiment gone awry. In one tele-pod steps Seth, accompanied by an unwelcome house-fly; from the other pod emerges a single Thing born of their two genetic identities. The computer algorithm designed to deconstruct and reconstruct biology as pure matter cannot distinguish between one entity and another. The parable, as Cronenberg draws it, is simple: if all the world is code then ‘all the world’ is all there is.

    Science fiction is full of liminal beings. Creatures caught in the phase between animal and human, between alien and Earthly, between the material and the spirit. Flowing directly from the patterns of myth Brundlefly is a modern day Minotaur: a manifestation of our deep yearning to coalesce with natural forces we can’t understand. The searing passions of the bull, its towering stature, are fused in the figure of the Minotaur with those of man. The resultant creature is too fearsome for this world, too Earthly to exist in the other, and so is forced to wander through a labyrinth hovering impossibly between the two. Perhaps Brundlefly’s labyrinth is the computer algorithm winding its path through his genetic code. As a liminal being, Brundlefly is capable of understanding both worlds from a sacred position, between realities. His goal is reached, but at a cost too great for an Earthly being to understand. Seth the scientist sacrifices himself and there is no Ariadne’s thread to lead him back.

    In her book on monsters, aliens and Others Elaine L. Graham reminds us of the thresholds these ‘Things’ linger on:

    “[H]uman imagination, by giving birth to fantastic, monstrous and alien figures, has… always eschewed the fiction of fixed species. Hybrids and monsters are the vehicles through which it is possible to understand the fabricated character of all things, by virtue of the boundaries they cross and the limits they unsettle.”

    Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human

    Hybrids such as the Minotaur or Brundlefly are meeting points for disparate categories of representation. They symbolise the tragic limits of human perception. Unable to grasp the world in and of Itself (nature) we colonise it with ever more fabricated representations and imitations (culture) which only result in distancing us yet further from The Thing Itself. One such category of fabrication, a favourite in science fiction, is ‘code’. Brundlefly is a Thing caught on the threshold between, what in geek-terminology we might call, wetware and software. Cronenberg’s parable plays into the hands of every techno-fearing luddite: a monster born from our desire to reduce nature to science; to simplify lumpy, oozing, unpredictable flesh in the patterns of an efficient genetic code.

    We are all the tragic Brundefly because whilst we see beauty and endless creative potential in the natural world around us, we find it impossible to quantify those same categories in the reductive models we have devised to describe them. To describe nature, whether genetic codes unwinding or bees busying around their nest, we gasp at its “creativity”, ascribing its endless variation a human-like attention to detail. But as Richard Dawkins alludes to below, the most creative force in nature is the absolute opposite of perfection: it is in fact error. The world that science has modelled for us is a world riddled with mistakes, failures and run away coding errors. In order to ‘create’ nature must, as Alexander Pope said of the human, err:

    “Think about the two qualities that a virus, or any sort of parasitic replicator, demands of a friendly medium, the two qualities that make cellular machinery so friendly towards parasitic DNA, and that make computers so friendly towards computer viruses. These qualities are, firstly, a readiness to replicate information accurately, perhaps with some mistakes that are subsequently reproduced accurately; and, secondly, a readiness to obey instructions encoded in the information so replicated.”

    Richard Dawkins, Viruses of the Mind

    It is beneficial for life that errors exist and are propagated by biological systems. Too many copying errors and all biological processes would be cancerous, mutating towards oblivion. Too much error management (redundancy) and biological change, and thus evolution, could never occur.

    Simply put, exchange within and between natural systems has no value unless change, and thus error, is possible within the system. What science fiction allows us to do is peek into a world where nature’s love for error is switched off, or allowed to run rampant. What would be the consequence of a truly ‘perfect’ natural process, devoid of error? In John Carpenter’s The Thing we see the result of such a process: a nature perfect by our standards, but terrible in its consequences.

    Blair: You see, what we're talking about here, is an organism that imitates other life forms, and it imitates them perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs, it tried to digest them, absorb them, and in the process shape its own cells to imitate them. This, for instance...That's not dog, it's imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish.

    Norris: Finish what?

    Blair: Finish imitating these dogs.

    The Thing, 1982

    John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) is a claustrophobic sci-fi masterpiece, containing all the hallmarks of a great horror film. As in The Fly, the film depicts a sinister turn for the body, where the chaos of the replicating, cancerous cell is expanded to the human scale and beyond. In The Thing we watch as an alien force terrorises an isolated Antarctic outpost. The creature exhibits the awesome ability to imitate its host, devouring any creature (or human) it comes across before giving birth to an exact copy in a burst of blood and protoplasm. The Thing copies cell by cell and its process is so perfect - at every level of replication - that the resultant simulacrum speaks, acts and even thinks like the original. The Thing is so relentless, its copies so perfect, that the outpost's Doctor is sent mad at the implications:

    Blair: If a cell gets out it could imitate everything on the face of the earth... and it's not gonna stop!!!

    In The Thing it is we, the human race, who are trapped between realities. A twist in the truth that highlights our own liminal nature. If, as Dawkins suggests, evolution is about the imperfect copy, then, like the tragic Brundlefly, or the towering figure of the Minotaur, the characters in The Thing are torn between two equally horrifying worlds. In one, the alien Thing aims for perfection, cloning its hosts cell by cell until, like The Ship of Argo, an entirely new, but identical world remains. In the other, the beauty of nature, in all its intricacy, is the result of a billion years of ugly mutation.

    Which process is closest to the truth? Which result is more hideous? I have not the authority to say. In science fiction every improbable event is balanced by the existence of an equally improbable reality. The Thing Itself, the world beneath phenomenon, and the Things that inhabit it, have always been impossible to comprehend. Where science fiction takes us, kicking and screaming, is right back to the real world, our knuckles a little whiter from the journey.

    If you enjoyed this essay, you may also like:

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    This article was originally published at 3quarksdaily and io9

    Mid-way through H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine, the protagonist stumbles into a sprawling abandoned museum. Sweeping the dust off ancient relics he ponders his machine's ability to hasten their decay. It is at this point that The Time Traveller has an astounding revelation. The museum is filled with artefacts not from his past, but from his own future: The Time Traveller is surrounded by relics whose potential to speak slipped away with the civilisation that created them.

    Having bypassed the normal laws of causality The Time Traveller is doomed to inhabit strands of history plucked from time's grander web. Unable to grasp a people’s history – the conditions that determine them – one will always misunderstand them.

    Archaeology derives from the Greek word arche, which literally means the moment of arising. Aristotle foregrounded the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a Thing, which although indemonstrable and intangible in Itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of that Thing. In a sense, archaeology is as much about the present instant, as it is about the fragmentary past. We work on what remains through the artefacts that make it into our museums, our senses and even our language. But to re-energise those artefacts, to bring them back to life, the tools we have access to do much of the speaking.

    Like the unseen civilisations of H.G.Wells’ museum, these Things in Themselves lurk beyond the veil of our perceptions. It is the world in and of Itself; the Thing as it exists distinct from perceptions, from emotions, sensations, from all phenomenon, that sets the conditions of the world available to those senses. Perceiving the world, sweeping dust away from the objects around us, is a constant act of archaeology.

    Kant called this veiled reality the noumenon, a label he interchanged with The-Thing-Itself (Ding an Sich). That which truly underlies what one may only infer through the senses. For Kant, and many philosophers that followed, The Thing Itself is impossible to grasp directly. The senses we use to search the world also wrap that world in a cloudy haze of perceptions, misconceptions and untrustworthy phenomena.

    In another science fiction classic, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem considered the problem of The Thing Itself as one of communication. His Master’s Voice (HMV), written at the height of The Cold War, tells the story of a team of scientists and their attempts to decipher an ancient, alien message transmitted on the neutrino static streaming from a distant star. The protagonist of this tale, one Peter Hogarth, recounts the failed attempts at translation with a knowing, deeply considered cynicism. To Peter, and to Stanislaw Lem himself, true contact with an alien intelligence is an absolute impossibility:

    “In the course of my work... I began to suspect that the ‘letter from the stars’ was, for us who attempted to decipher it, a kind of psychological association test, a particularly complex Rorschach test. For as a subject, believing he sees in the coloured blotches angels or birds of ill omen, in reality fills in the vagueness of the thing shown with what is ‘on his mind’, so did we attempt, behind the veil of incomprehensible signs, to discern the presence of what lay, first and foremost, within ourselves.”

    Stanislaw Lem, His Master's Voice

    In HMV and Lem’s better known novel, Solaris, the conviction that an absolute true reality exists under the dust of perception leads humanity down ever more winding labyrinths of its own psyche. For Stanislaw Lem the human mind exists in a perpetual state of archaeology, turning away from Itself in search of truth, but time and again finding Itself confronted as the very Thing that underlies the reality it is trying to decipher.

    To transcend phenomena, to clear away the dust, one must, according to Kant, think. Thus his Thing Itself, derives from the Greek for 'thought-of' (nooúmenon) and further implies the concept of the mind (nous). Kant’s Thing Itself is accessed through pure thought. A clear enough mind, devoid of the bodily shackles of pain, pleasure or emotion, might see without seeing, sweeping away the perceptual cobwebs by guile alone. What Plato referred to as the only immortal part of the human soul, reason, becomes through Kant the dominant principle by which The Thing Itself may be reached.

    In the short space I have allotted myself here, I have not the time, or the guile, to fully analyse the Kantian noumenon. Needles to say, countless thinkers, from Nietzsche to Wittgenstein, Hegel to Agamben, have grappled with the suppositions and presuppositions made to cohere and then crumble by Kant’s addiction to reason. What interests me about science fiction, and most readily about the works of Wells and Lem, is the attempt made to search for 'The Thing Itself' beyond the mind; beyond the human altogether.

    Science fiction allows the creation of an imaginary set of conditions by which the human being may break their most burdonsome shackle: their own mind. Human timescales, bodies, forms of thinking and perception: each of these must be circumvented if one is ever able to grasp The Thing Itself. Kant’s principle of noumenon embodies a discourse on the limits of perception that has remained relevant to philosophy for millenia. The paradox of the archaeology – the arising – of an underlying reality is the defining principle of a thousand sci-fi tales.

    For Stanislaw Lem our limitations become obvious once we are confronted with the existence of an intelligence which is not human. Lem’s novels seek to connect us with the absolute ‘other’: that most alien of Things, ourselves. Reality, for Lem at least, is composed in an indecipherable language. Humanity lives in an eternal stasis, unable to circum-navigate the new realities it constantly 'discovers' for itself. And in the end we find ourselves limited by the brains that think us, unable to distinguish the twinkle-twinkle from the little star:

    “There exist, speaking in the most general way, two kinds of language known to us. There are ordinary languages, which man makes use of – and the languages not made by man. In such language organisms speak to organisms. I have in mind the so called genetic code. This code is not a variety of natural language, because it not only contains information about the structure of the organism, but also is able, by itself, to transform that information into the very organism. The code, then, is acultural...

    Now to go straight to the heart of the matter, we begin to suspect that an ‘acultural language’ is something more or less like Kant’s ‘Thing-in-itself’. One can fully grasp neither the code nor the thing.”

    Stanislaw Lem, His Master's Voice

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