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Daniel Rourke (M, 37)
London, UK
Immortal since Dec 18, 2007
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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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    Now playing SpaceCollective
    Where forward thinking terrestrials share ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction. Introduction
    Featuring Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, based on an idea by Kees Boeke.

    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.

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    Encoding and decoding appear in contemporary context as a fundamental feature of technology, in our use of language and in our social interactions, from html to language coding and literary symbolism. How, and through what means, do people encode and decode?

    A couple of weeks ago I was invited to take part in a panel discussion on London based, arts radio station, Resonance FM. It was for The Thread, a lively show that aims to use speech and discussion as a tool for research, opening up new and unexpected angles through the unravelling of conversation.

    The Thread's host, London Consortium researcher Seph Rodney, and I were lucky enough to share the discussion with Dr. Lane DeNicola, a lecturer and researcher in Digital Anthropology from University College London. We talked about encoding and decoding, about the politics of ownership and the implications for information technologies. We talked about inscriptions in stone, and the links we saw between the open-source software movement and genome sequencing.

    (Audio of the show has been embedded above)

    An edited transcript of the show can be found here, but I encourage you to visit The Thread's website, where you will find more information about the participants. The website also contains information about upcoming shows, as well as a rich archive of past conversations.

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    An extract from a recent article I wrote for 3quarksdaily.com - Go here for piece in full


    A face to face encounter, devoid of the warm appeal of flesh. The eyes are glass, a cold blue crystal reflects the light in a way real eyes never would. A muzzle of hair, perhaps taken from a barbershop floor or the hind quarters of an animal. The painted scalp peeks through the sparse strands: there is nothing here one might caress with fumbling fingers, or, a millennia ago, pick between to lovingly tease out a louse or mite. The figure balances uneasily on stumps for legs. Its waxen surface bears no resemblance to skin. It is a shade saturated of living colour. In another shortened limb the figure holds a wooden spear, with a plastic point designed to take the place of the authentic stone tip. Under its beaten brow this creature forever stands. He is a spectacle, a museum attraction. He is not human, he is 'other'. He is not man, he is Neanderthal.

    Encounters like this, hashed together from memories that span my childhood and adult years, represent the closest many of us will come to meeting a Neanderthal. Encounters built upon out-dated science and the desire of museums to authenticate experiences which, in reality, are as far away from 'true' anthropology as those glass eyes are from windows on the soul. In a recent Archaeology.org article a question was put forward that made me think again about these encounters:

    Should we Clone Neanderthals? : I could not help but probe the proposition further.

    In my own lifetime our understanding of these absolute 'others' has gone through several revolutions. What once were lumbering apes, incapable of rational thought, speech or the rituals of religious reverence, have become our long lost evolutionary cousins. Research from various quarters has shown that not only were Neanderthals quite capable of vocal expression, but in all likelihood they lived a rich, symbolic life. They had bigger brains than we did, or do, and were probably burying their dead with appeal to an afterlife 50,000 years before our ancestors left Africa. They cared for their young, lived in well established social groups and apart from their prominent brow and less mobile, stocky build, resembled humans in most other aspects. More recent evidence seems to show that far from being a completely separate species, it is quite possible that ancient humans interbred with Neanderthals. This astounding revelation, if it were ever verified, would mean that many of us – if not every one of us – carry within our genetic make-up a living memory of Neanderthal heritage.

    But Neanderthals are more than scientific curiosities. They are the embodiment of the 'other', a reflective surface via which the human race may peer upon themselves. Human myth is filled with lumbering creatures, not quite human but every bit an echo of our deepest fears, our vanities, our failings, our memories prone to fade in time. With Shakespeare's Caliban, the feral beast of Prospero's burden, and William Blake's depiction of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who myth says was reduced to animal madness, being only two in a long list of sub-human characters. Along with these mythic creatures the Neanderthal has achieved the status of a linguistic archetype, carrying the weight of our inhumanity when admitting our limitations is too much to bear. For a very long time after their discovery Neanderthals were named as the very embodiment of our ineptitudes. To be violent, or brutally instinctive was to be Neanderthal Neanderthals stood as a fiendish remnant of the days before language, fire or social grace, before the borders between man and nature had been breached by the gift of free-will – a gift bequeathed to us, and not to them.

    This vague notion of a 'gift' came to me after reading the article about the possibility of cloning Neanderthals At first I read with a certain distance, the same reading I might have given to an article about cloning dodos, mammoths or dinosaurs. Soon though, it was clear that "bringing Neanderthals back from the dead" was a far more metaphysically slippy statement than similar ones about long extinct birds or mammals. [....]

    Originally posted at 3quarksdaily.com - Go here for piece in full
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    Grapholectic Thought and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness
    —- published in full at 3quarksdaily.com —-

    “There are things,” Christoph Martin Wieland... contended, “which by their very nature are so dependent upon human caprice that they either exist or do not exist as soon as we desire that they should or should not exist.”

    ...We are, at the very least, reminded that seeing is a talent that needs to be cultivated, as John Berger saliently argued in his popular Ways of Seeing (1972) “…perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world.”

    - John A. Mccarthy, Remapping Reality

    From the Greco-Roman period onwards humans have perceived themselves at the centre of a grand circle:

    • The circle is physical: a heliocentric vision of the cosmos, where the Earth travels around the sun.
    • The circle is biological: an order of nature, perhaps orchestrated by a benign creator, where the animals and plants exist to satisfy the needs of mankind.
    • And according to Sigmund Freud, in his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, the circle is psychological: where a central engine of reason rules over the chaos of passion and emotion.

    The history of science maintains that progress – should one be comfortable in using such a term – contracted these perceptual loops. Indeed it was Freud himself, (the modest pivot of his own solar-system) who suggested that through the Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian “revolutions” mankind had transcended these “three great discontinuities” of thought and, “[uttered a] call to introspection”.

    If one were to speculate on the “great discontinuities” that followed, one might consider Albert Einstein’s relativistic model of space-time, or perhaps the work carried out by many “introspective” minds on quantum theory. Our position at the centre of the cosmos was offset by Copernicus; our position as a special kind of creature was demolished by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. From Freud we inherited the capacity to see beneath the freedom of the individual; from Einstein and quantum theory we learnt to mistrust the mechanistic clock of space and time. From all we learnt, as John Berger so succinctly put it, that “…perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world.”

    Of course my mini-history of scientific revolution should not be taken itself as a “truth”. I draw it as a parable of progress, as one silken thread leading back through time’s circular labyrinth to my very own Ariadne. What I do maintain though, is that all great moves in human thought have come at the expense of a perceptual circle. That, if science, sociology, economics - or any modern system of knowledge - is to move beyond the constraints of its circle it must first decentre the “single eye”.

    Scientific rational inquiry has revelled in the overturning of these “great discontinuities”, positioning each of them as a plotted point on the graph we understand as “progress”. We maintain, without any hint of irony, that we exist at the pinnacle of this irreversible line of diachronic time, that the further up the line we climb, the closer to “truth” we ascend.

    “...Reason is statistically distributed everywhere; no one can claim exclusive rights to it. [A] division... is [thus] echoed in the image, in the imaginary picture that one makes of time. Instead of condemning or excluding, one consigns a certain thing to antiquity, to archaism. One no longer says "false" but, rather, "out of date," or "obsolete." In earlier times people dreamed; now we think. Once people sang poetry; today we experiment efficiently. History is thus the projection of this very real exclusion into an imaginary, even imperialistic time. The temporal rupture is the equivalent of a dogmatic expulsion.”

    - Michel Serres, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time

    According to Michel Serres “time” is the common misconception that pollutes all our models. In the scientific tradition knowledge is located at the present: a summation of all inquiry that has lead up to this point. This notion is extraordinarily powerful in its reasoning power, bringing all previous data together in one great cataclysm of meaning. It has spawned its own species of cliché, the type where science ‘landed us on the moon’ or ‘was responsible for the extinction of smallpox’ or ‘increased the life expectancy of the third world’. These types of truths are necessary – you will not find me arguing against that – but they are also only one notion of what “truth” amounts to. And it is here perhaps where the circumference of yet another perceptual circle materialises from out of the mist.....

    —- Read the rest of this article at 3quarksdaily.com —-
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    When we think of minds we think of intentions. Intentions that lie behind acts, acts that unfold at the recourse of agents: agents with minds. In short, when we look out at the world we see objects that are acted upon and entities that do the acting. This clear cut distinction between the 'done upon' and the 'doer' appears stable, but it hides one of the mightiest constraints of our world view. A logical stand-off that threatens to undermine the logical systems upon which it is based.

    In Another city all matter pulses like a living organ, where time imposes significance upon the most dilapidated dwelling or murky gutter.

    Take this article, for example. It is an unwinding spring of phonic sounds, encoded into a series of arbitrary symbols, stretching from left to right within an imaginary frame projected onto the surface of your computer screen. Here lies the perfect example of an artefact with intention behind it. A series of artefacts in fact, positioned by my mind and placed within a certain context (i.e. 3QD: a fascinating and widely read blog). As a collection, as an article, its intention is easy to distinguish. I wanted to say something, so I wrote an article, which I hoped would be read by a certain audience. But what of the intention of each individual object within the whole? What was the original intention of the letter 'A' for example? Do we decide that the intention is connected to all speakers of the English language, perhaps? Or maybe all literate members of the human race? Or maybe the human race as a whole?

    Another city begins at the out-stretched tip of a human finger and ends as artefacts gathered from the dust. It is a spider-web, a precious ball of dung, a bare and crimson backside glinting in the jungle sun.........

    Continue reading In Another city another me is writing...

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