Seal-Humans

What are humans? Humans haven’t changed much in a few million years. We are bipedal, with front-facing eyes and comparatively hairless bodies compared to our ape cousins. We cook our food, create societies, make art and make war. This is humanity, and this is what humanity has been for a very, very, very long time.

The narrator of Galapagos, Leon Trout, posits that a million years in the future (present being 1986), we are closer to seals. So what makes us still human? He refers to seal-humans as humans still, not batting an eye at the giant evolutionary step we took to bring us from hairless bipeds to furry water-dwellers. “As for human beings making a comeback, of starting to use tools and build houses and play musical instruments and so on again: They would have to do it with their beaks this time. Their arms have become flippers in which the hand bones are almost entirely imprisoned and immobilized.” (202)

Another difference, Leon states, between us and modern humans (being the humans of a million years in the future)– is that modern humans have much smaller brains than the humans of 1986. These brains don’t allow them to overthink things, to make mistakes, or to convince their owner’s of untruths. These brains don’t allow them to kill one another, to make war, or to participate in exercises of creativity or the imagination. But isn’t that what humanity is? When we often think of the divide between humans vs. animals, what sets us apart is not our bipedalism or our front-facing eyes, but our brains and what our brains have constructed. We have created vast empires, magnificent works of art, and slaughtered one another thoughtlessly and carelessly. All of this is considered supremely human. This is why the argument exists that humans are the superior species on Earth– because we hold the capacity to create and to imagine and to think. When that is taken away from us, along with most of our signifying traits– are we still human? What is humanity if not our big brains?

Hubris = Humanity = Nature

“Becoming a geophysical force on a planetary scale means that no matter what you think about it, no matter whether you are aware of it or not, there you are, being that… One cannot be hubristic about one’s heartbeat or autonomic nervous system.” (22)

The intersection of happy nihilism and hubris is where, Morton argues, our views of nature have been all along. It’s a strange and deadly combination, where simply the existence or our consciousness translates to inherent goodness. We understand that this is happening now– but that’s enough, right? We now understand, we are conscious, and our importance as humans makes us see our passive consciousness as goodness. This translates to happy nihilism and apathy for the sheer amount of work requires to transcend this nihilism, hubris, and apathy is astronomical. To conceptualize the magnitude of the Earth and the existence of different time scales is a large task for humans, and we have never seemed to grasp the ability to see past ourselves and our bodies and our creations.

Morton brings this back thousands of years, arguing that this passivity and hubris is not a new concept, but one that is finally destroying our world and directly affecting our futures. Even Nature, the ultimate wildness, freedom, was destroyed after the birth of agriculture. We locked Nature into a box and created what it is now, – small “n” nature- partitioning and sectioning and molding it into what we need for our uses.

“The ecological value of the term Nature is dangerously overrated, because Nature isn’t just a term– it’s something that happened to human-built space, demarcating human systems from Earth systems. Nature as such is a twelve-thousand-year-old human product, geological as well as discursive.” (58) We are so constrained by our contemporary thoughts and ways of looking at the world, thousands of years of agriculture and molding our world to the human way of life– the human-flavored world, if you will. That’s all we see. That’s all that nature is to us– a product of us, a commodity utilized by humanity. Not even nature is truly Nature.

Just Bodies, Not People

Oryx and Crake reminds me a lot of The Sea and The Summer. Narrated by a man who grew up in a privileged community because of his parent’s jobs, the Snowman tells of his childhood growing up in a Compound apart from the cities full of pleebands and the poor, the raucous, the “dirty” folk. Separate from these “others”, he grows up in the carefully regulated and modified Compound of OrganInc. In the same way as The Sea and the Summer, we have the clear and harsh separation between the rich and privileged and the poor, the “other”.

I’m especially interested at how bodies are treated in this book. It’s early on, but the treatment of bodies and physicality echoes a society almost completely separated from its humanity. Growing new organs and skin for those who can afford it, carefully regulating and nullifying any diseases (again, only for those who can afford it), there is an emphasis on the preservation of bodies, and the importance of youngness. NooSkin, to make the old look young again by replacing their skin with skin that is smooth and wrinkle-free. This tampering with natural death and natural selection quickly seems to move in the direction of transhumanism and posthumanism. Bodies are things to be grown in labs, and things to be constantly improved upon and kept young, beautiful. At the same time, Jimmy and Crake’s terrifying idea of entertainment is a constant stream of snuff films (both animal and human) and pornography. They would often watch both at once. “If you switched back and forth fast, it all came to look like the same event. Sometimes they’d have both things on at once, each on a different screen.” (86) Bodies are so separate from the humans inside them, that sex and death are almost the same thing, just another depiction of bodies. Replaceable but also immortal if you have enough money, there is a harsh rift between the bodies of the rich and the bodies of the poor. This replaceability, this disposability of human life and the tampering with the very core of humanity leads to a view of humans not as individual entities or souls, but as purely physical bodies. Bodies that are completely separate from the soul inside, bodies that are changed and sold and killed and used at will– this is the posthuman world of Oryx and Crake.

Rituals

For this post I want to focus a poem from part II of Xenotext: Colony Collapse Disorder.  The sections sets up an intricate view into the lives of bees, first humanizing them by calling them serfs and stewards, then blending seamlessly into a telling of Aristaeus’ mythic journey to save his bees ravaged by famine and plague. The flourishing, fantastical story of his mission provides a harsh counterpart to contemporary life.

Aristaeus’ embarks on a mission to capture the seer Proteus- “knower of all that is, all that hath been” (59)- and find out what has destroyed his bees, and subsequently has to provide a grandiose show of sacrifice. Poem 48 “The Ritual of the Altar” describes what Aristaeus must do to bring the bees back : “Thou must surrender four of thy peerless / bullocks that graze upon Lycaean heights, / with as many heifers, unyoked, to match. / then, upon bright altars in the highest / shrines of a goddess, thou must sacrifice / thy offerings, cutting each bloody throat..” (71) This echoes an earlier statement connecting the sacrifice of cows to the arrival of bees, who are most likely attracted to the blood and the decay. It’s interesting that amidst such a magical and mythical journey, Aristaeus is greeted with a commonplace, logical solution. To be fair, on the next page Aristaeus is asked to meditate for nine mornings and then sacrifice his blackest calf. But even that is rooted in the same idea– the logic of science. There is this intersection between spirituality and science, between myth and logic. While the bee blight was caused by evil magic: “bedamning” ailments and nymphs who have “[vexed] thee with their fatal banes”, it can be solved with a more concrete, scientific solution. This sequence of events juxtaposes the myth with the logic, and in a larger sense, Aristaeus’ duty is juxtaposed with our duty as humans.

Embarking on a journey of great labor and sacrifice, Aristaeus will stop at naught to save his bees. Yet, nothing is being done for our modern bees, which are dying by the millions. We are in the midst of a mass extinction, our bees are dying– and while the story of Aristaeus depicts an optimism and an unrelenting drive to save his bees even amidst great sacrifice and effort, it exposes the carelessness of our world as it is now. To save our bees, we need not travel to the divine oracle to find out why they are dying– we know this. To save our bees, we need not make a blood sacrifice. We just have to do it.

What is Now?

In A Tale for the Time Being, Nao comments on the fleetingness of “now”, of the present, alive only in theory, for once it’s spoken it disappears. As I type “now”, this nowness has been lost. The present exists only in theory, time consisting of future and past more than the present. There is no now, only before and after, the beginning and the end. While beating a drum at the temple, Nao contemplates the present, the line between silence and noise, the moment of the drumbeat, the presence of sound. “Finally I achieved my goal and resolved my childhood obsession with now because that’s what a drum does. When you beat a drum, you create now, when silence becomes a sound so enormous and alive it feels like you’re breathing in the clouds and the sky, and your heart is the rain and the thunder. Jiko says that this is an example of the time being. Sound and no-sound. Thunder and silence.” (289) Because the concept of now is so difficult to grasp, it’s simpler to see now in the context of it’s opposite “then”. Teetering on the edge between sound and silence, now exists as a qualifier of time rather than a moment in time. The moment now is acknowledged, it vanishes, as quickly as a single beat of a drum. Dōgen Zenji’s views on time materialize here: all moments are interconnected, time is forever changing and existence is as fleeting as the now.

For both Nao and Ruth, moving away from nowness provides a necessary escape. Both women have experienced displacement, a sense of being the “other” in their own life. Both were uprooted, Nao moving from California to Japan, and Ruth moving from the city to a secluded rural island. Nao’s diary exists in a vacuum of sorts, the age of her writings unclear, her words occupying space that is neither past nor future, but a theoretical now, a theoretical space in time. The space of now provides an escape and a seclusion, a spot where Ruth and Nao can meet, and their ideas can converge. Despite the separation between the two women in terms of timelines, their experiences and thoughts align, transcending time and reaching for the ultimate presence, the ultimate interconnectedness. Moving past the concreteness of time, the novel aims towards a more flexible view of time, one that is frustrating if contemplated too deeply. Suffice it to say, time works in deeply mysterious ways in the novel, connecting the disparate and providing a space for interconnectedness that transcends all typical notions of time.

Imagining Reality/Unreality

“The Lathe of Heaven” contemplates humanity on many levels: the subconscious mind, morality, and human utility. What does humanity entail? Are we innately bad or good? Or neither? How much can one justify to achieve an end? It also explores perception– both how we see the world and how we understand and deal with reality (and unreality). Are our minds equipped to understand more than one way of perception, more than one reality existing at that moment? It is assumed that this is the endpoint of human consciousness, the farthest that our minds can go– this is when the doctor enters the void that is the dream, and never exits, because he cannot understand or conceptualize unreality. “He was looking at the world as misunderstood by the mind: the bad dream… A man can endure the entire weight of the universe for eighty years. It is unreality that he cannot bear.” (171) There is a disconnect between our mind and our reality; our minds construct unrealities, but we only have to encounter them while asleep, while oblivious to the outside world and inside our own. It’s when the two come to a head that things start to get tricky, and why the doctor enters the void. Human minds cannot understand dreams that leak out into the real world.

In this novel, aliens understand and utilize dreaming in every aspect of their lives– “They’re a lot more experienced than we are at all this… At dreaming- at what dreaming is an aspect of… They are of the dream time. I don’t understand it, I can’t say it in words. Everything dreams. The play of form, of being, is the dreaming of substance. Rocks have their dreams, and the earth changes…” (161) It gives a new meaning to the phrase “if you can dream it, you can do it.” They are the counterparts to humans, our antithesis if you will. Where our minds cannot go, theirs roam freely. Where our minds are constrained and narrow, theirs actively change the world. This brings up a greater question: when multiple realities are dreamed and constructed, which one is the true one? What is real? What is not real? Is it all real?

The quote at the beginning of chapter 7 by V. Hugo- “The dream is the aquarium of the Night”- makes an appearance at the very end of the novel. An alien watches Heather and George leave the shop, “as a sea creature might watch from an aquarium, seeing them pass and disappear into the mist.” (175) An aquarium, a house for all kind of water-dwellers, is like a glimpse into another world– a world commonly teeming with brightly colored, tropical fish. The aquarium separates two realities: the dream and the real. The aliens embody both, being able to live in this aquarium– the aquarium of the dream, while we look in on the bright colors. It’s not a coincidence that the aliens are housed in their own little aquariums, wearing suits that obscure almost every aspect of their identities. While still remaining securely in their aquariums, they walk upon the earth. They embody the dualism that we cannot.

Privilege and Sharing Sadness

While reading “Blue” I was reminded of the scene in Turner’s book where Nick, Teddy and co. infiltrate a tower, and Teddy sees the truth of the Swill life for the first time. The Swill are not individuals; they are one being defined by that name, each person being as disposable and unimportant as the next. They are stripped of their individuality and their humanity and are come to be known as their collective body. In her essay Joy emphasizes the important of collective mourning, and collective emotion-sharing in order to better understand each other and our environment.

The Swill are forced to become that collective, forced to live in a bind that Joy calls blue ecology; a meshwork of “humans, nonhumans, and stormy weather” (213).  When stormy weather is all that there is, when individuality is lost and most of humankind becomes one great collective– can this still be a helpful way to look at things, despite the apocalyptic setting? In the novel, the towers are  great meshworks of humanity and the sea, meeting points where you cannot separate body from water at times. The transcorporeal blue ecology she describes can exist in that world– if only as a bloated, diseased version of its former self. It’s our predicament, Joy stresses (216); indeed, 90% of Australia does share in the predicament, shares in the disaster and the sadness.

To come together and experience pain does not cast a shining light on the unknown– a shared sadness means nothing if it’s shrouded with sickness and squalor and unimaginable poverty. Sadness as a means of understanding is a privilege that is not extended to many, certainly not many in the novel. The privilege comes from not having to experience the sadness, the weather disasters, being able to belong to the top 10%– being sheltered from everyday news crises because the pain of others is not important to the Sweet. Watery sadness and collectivism fills the towers of Swill, but their fate doesn’t provide a better way to understand and exist in our own ecology. To me, the essay reeks of privilege (which translates nicely into the world of Swill vs. Sweet)– the stance is one that seems unattainable to many and treats depression and sadness rather flippantly.

The Last People On Earth

Reading Z for Zachariah started out great for me, then went downhill fast. I was so excited for a cool female protagonist living on her own in the apocalyptic wasteland wracked with radiation, and then Mr. Loomis comes along. There’s a lot we can think about regarding gender, and the gross “last woman and man on Earth” concept that Mr. Loomis is pushing. If I think about the book in really general terms, and separate a female Nature and a male Man (synonymous for human), it reads as the invasion of Nature by Man. The female protagonist is living in her oasis of sorts, tending to a garden and animals, and then an older man comes along and assaults her, shoots her, and drives her out of her home. Again and again after being hurt, Ann still wants to care for Mr. Loomis. He shoots her, and still she thinks “I can not let him starve, no matter what he had done.” (196)

He completely takes advantage of Ann’s kindness, possessions, and food– not to mention trying to take advantage of her body. There is a child / adult relationship inherent here; he calls her by her first name and she calls him Mr. Loomis. He is aware of the relationship they have and he distorts it for his own gains. He deliberately mistakes her nurturing handholding for a lustful embrace, creating excuses and reasons why they should be together– a.k.a. “the last two people on Earth” concept. They are the last two people alive, so they must have an obligation to have children. Not keeping in mind ideas of consent, the ages of both parties, Mr. Loomis only cares to further himself and his ideas.

It’s almost hard to look at this book objectively, because I’m so angry at Mr. Loomis’ character. I can’t get over his evilness, the fact that he assaulted someone who saved his life, the fact that he uses his strength and age to take advantage of a young girl, the fact that he forced her out of her little oasis and out into the land of radiation. I’m seeing red and it sort of colors the entire book.

When Time is Unreliable

While memory can be unreliable, photographs capture moments perfectly. They do not change, they preserve moments as they were, keeping those moments forever. Photographs are what memory can not be: reliable, static, material. La Jetée tells a tale of time travel through only photographs (the deviation from this is something to think about, the only point where there is video is the woman lying in bed). The movie plays out like a photo album, the man bringing up memories and inserting himself into them, the passage of time twisted and manipulated.

He ends up in a memory from his childhood, where he saw a man die, and has a sudden realization that he is that man. In that moment, time does not work as it should. This memory from his childhood loops around and suddenly becomes his reality. By playing with time travel, he disturbs all concepts of time. Is his memory unreliable? We know that photographs don’t lie. How, then did he witness his own death? The photographic mode of storytelling makes it seem like everything is existing in one time period, in one static moment where the photo is captured. There doesn’t feel like there is much movement, only a series of jumps back and forth to unknown, nonlinear times. As much as the storyline and events distort time, the mode of storytelling does as well, creating a quite confusing film for the viewer.

Keeping the Wild

“Almost every day, I hike up the hill out my back door. Within a hundred yards the woods swallows me up, and there is nothing to remind me of human society…But once in a while someone will be cutting wood farther down the valley, and the snarl of a chain saw will fill the woods. It is harder on those days to get caught up in the timeless meaning of the forest, for man is nearby” (40). As McKibben laments the imminent “end of nature” as we know it, I am simultaneously lonely for that wilderness he describes and irked by the way he treats it. “The idea in this case is “nature”, the separate and wild province, the world apart from man…” By creating this deep rift between Man and Wilderness he defies (or ignores) the idea that they can ever coexist. It is not news that humans have left our imprint on nature, plowing and cutting and leveling land until it fits our parameters, pumping CO2 into the atmosphere like there’s no tomorrow.

This difference that McKibben emphasizes– maybe that is why we are so at odds with the world, killing ourselves while we kill the nature around us. If we start to view humanity as a part of nature, to strengthen our relationship to it, to study how to better interact with our environment– maybe that will save us. If nature goes, we go too. McKibben says, “We may well be able to create a world that can support our numbers and our habits, but it will be an artificial world, a space station” (144). I don’t think that’s true. We have to realize that if “nature” dies, there is a good chance that we will die too. How condescending and careless can you be to think that humans can recreate an entire world, an entire ecosystem that preceded us by millions of years?

I spent my whole childhood growing up in a rural town in the Berkshires of New England. My backyard was a forest; some of my fondest memories include hiking, exploring, and spending time in the woods. I can’t imagine never growing up without those experiences, without seeing the great wildness and beauty of the forest. I would like to think there are ways for humans and nature to coexist; there doesn’t have to be such a boundary between the two. At the same time, I love the wilderness, and if there needs to be a boundary because humans cannot understand how to form a complex and symbiotic relationship with nature, then so it must be. I want my children and grandchildren to stand in the forest and see green in every direction, as far as they can see. I want them to grow up in a world not destroyed and an environment not so poisoned by manmade chemicals and gases. I share the same sentiment with McKibben in that I love nature and want it to stay wild and free, but I think a different point of view may be in order.