“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
― Franz Kafka
“We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is.”
― Stanisław Lem
One aspect of the fantastic, the main thrust of Rosemary Jackson’s critical project is what she terms the ‘subversive function of the fantastic’:
“Although nearly all literary fantasies eventually recover desire, neutralizing their own impulses towards transgression, some move towards the extreme position which will be found in Sade’s writings, and attempt to remain ‘open’, dissatisfied, endlessly desiring. Those texts which attempt that movement and that transgressive function have been given most space in this book, for in them the fantastic is at its most uncompromising in its interrogation of the ‘nature’ of the ‘real’.”1
Instead of dwelling on the fantasy of such practitioners as Kingsley, Lewis, Tolkien, Le Guin or Richard Adams who are more central to romance or faery traditions proper with their moral and religious convictions and connotations, allegories, and didactic themes. Instead, she will concentrate on the works of Mary Shelley, James Hogg, Edgar Allan Poe, R.L. Stevenson and Kafka along with George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and Henry James, as well as ‘fantastic realists’ such as Dickens and Dostoevsky. Each of these authors will subvert the romantic cosmos with a counterstrategy that undermines the moral and religious heritage of the realms of faery and return them to their pagan past and worldview. One that is anti-social and sadean, more brutal and ruinous of our quaint Christian worlds and full of a darker view of existence both a-moral and free of the moral taint of religious vision.
As a critical term, ‘fantasy’ has been applied rather indiscriminately to any literature which does not give priority to realistic representation: myths, legends, folk and fairy tales, utopian allegories, dream visions, surrealist texts, science fiction, horror stories, all presenting realms ‘other’ than the human. A characteristic most frequently associated with literary fantasy has been its obdurate refusal of prevailing definitions of the ‘real’ or ‘ possible’, a refusal amounting at times to violent opposition. ‘A fantasy is a story based on and controlled by an overt violation of what is generally accepted as possibility; it is the narrative result of transforming the condition contrary to fact into “fact” itself’ (Irwin, p. x). Such violation of dominant assumptions threatens to subvert (overturn, upset, undermine) rules and conventions taken to be normative. This is not in itself a socially subversive activity: it would be naive to equate fantasy with either anarchic or revolutionary politics. It does, however, disturb ‘rules’ of artistic representation and literature’s reproduction of the ‘real’. (p. eight)
Modern fantasists tend to toward a mode hostility to static, discrete units, to its juxtaposition of incompatible elements and its resistance to fixity. Spatial, temporal, and philosophical ordering systems all dissolve; unified notions of character are broken; language and syntax become incoherent. Through its ‘misrule’, it permits ‘ultimate questions’ about social order, or metaphysical riddles as to life’s purpose. Unable to give affirmation to a closed, unified, or omniscient vision, the menippean fantasist violates social propriety. It tells of descents into underworlds of brothels, prisons, orgies, graves: it has no fear of the criminal, erotic, mad, or dead. Against the prevailing Order or norm the menippean fantasist seeks to explode the very foundations of this world based as it is on some transcendent order projected onto society with all the legalistic and moral dogma of a tyrant. Chaotic and bound to freedom it seeks to undermine every aspect of the social paradigm and open its readers to a vision of desire unbound and wild. Grotesque dissolution, a promiscuity is at the heart of the modern fantastic. Rather than escapist the modern fantastic is expressive mode that causes its readers to awaken from their stupor and sleep in the social worlds that have come to regard as all too real. As Dostoevsky would say of the expressive fantastic: “But now you know that if there is no soil and if there is no action possible, the striving spirit will precisely express itself in abnormal and irregular manifestations—it will mistake the phrase for life, it will pounce upon the ready but alien formula, it will be only too glad to have it, and will substitute it for reality! In a fantastic life all functions, too, are fantastic.”
In our age fantasy has a different function. It does not invent supernatural regions, but presents a natural world inverted into something strange, something ‘other’. It becomes ‘undomesticated’, unhumanized, turning from transcendental explorations to transcriptions of a posthuman condition. But against the earlier modernist fantastic a new form of posthumanism is arising that even subverts the foundations of this humanist domestication and frees us from the “all too human” dogmas of the human condition and its humanistic concerns. Instead, we seek a new vision of what it means to be something no longer bound to the last two thousand years of human discourse and the Anthropocene era which has fractured humanity into enclaves of warring factions and chaotic realms of political and social unrest. The fantastic no longer looks to some beyond, some transcendent order or foundation to support its myths of the human. Now begins the subversion of the human toward the unbounded worlds of futural unknowns. Open and unrestricted by the dogmas of the past the new breed of fantasists seeks the truly new, the unbidden.
The Autonomous Mind: The Externalization of the Posthuman
Merlin Donald in his Origins of the Modern Mind hypothesized that the modern human mind evolved from the primate mind through a series of major adaptations, each of which led to the emergence of a new representational system. Each successive new representational system has remained intact within our current mental architecture, that the modern mind is a mosaic structure of cognitive vestiges from earlier stages of human emergence.2
As he will emphasize humans did not simply evolve a larger brain, an expanded memory, a lexicon, or a special speech apparatus; we evolved new systems for representing reality. During this process, our representational apparatus somehow perceived the utility of symbols and invented them from whole cloth; no symbolic environment preceded them. (Donald, p. 3) For Donald the first transition was to a `mimetic” culture: the era of Homo erectus in which mankind absorbed and refashioned events to create rituals, crafts, rhythms, dance, and other prelinguistic traditions. This was followed by the evolution to mythic cultures: the result of the acquisition of speech and the invention of symbols. The third transition carried oral speech to reading, writing, and an extended external memory- store seen today in computer technology.
We carry remnants and vestiges of these previous stages in our brain, and yet with each transition the very make up of our brain and our external adaptations produced changes that are irreversible. That very recent changes in the organization of the human mind are just as fundamental as those that took place in earlier evolutionary transitions, yet they are mediated by new memory technology, rather than by genetically encoded changes in the brain. The effects of such technological changes are similar in kind to earlier biological changes, inasmuch as they can produce alterations to the architecture of human memory. The modern mind is thus a hybrid structure containing vestiges of earlier stages of human emergence, as well as new symbolic devices that have radically altered its organization. The structural relationship between individual human minds and external memory technology continues to change. (Donald, p. 4)
As we’ve off-loaded memory, externalized many of the brain’s thought processes into technical systems, and allowed our own cognitive powers to dissipate and go into abeyance we’ve become more and more dependent on these technical assemblages we interface with on a daily basis to think for us. The price we as humans are paying has yet to be appraised. Yet, it is this symbiotic relation to these external devices that is reorganizing both our mental and social landscapes beyond recognition. For all intents and purposes, we are no longer natural beings, we’ve become fully artificial creatures in a vast series of technical assemblages. Do these systems serve us, or we them? Is there a difference? If as Hayles suggests these nonconscious systems think without awareness of thinking what does that entail? If we are modeling thinking machines on the very processes of the cognitive capacities of the brain’s functions where will this lead?
If one thinks of it as a slow process of dis-connection from our ground – from the planetary environment within which we have emerged – then these various stages in the evolution of mind across time and their respective representational systems that have produced gaps, cracks, and tears in the reality within which we’ve all been embedded, and that have reorganized the brain and our views of reality as the outgrowth of such accumulated efforts then what is next on the horizon? This symbiosis between mind and technics, the grafting and externalization of memory, thought, and capacity into the very external systems of intelligence modeled on human mental functions is producing something new and as yet not fully understood.
As N. Katherine Hayles a humanist and advocate for the humanities in a time when such a world is falling away into abeyance tells us that “biological organisms evolved consciousness to make this kind of quantum leap from individual instances to high-level abstractions; core and higher consciousness in turn ultimately enabled humans to build sophisticated communication networks and informational structures such as the web. In large-scale historical perspective, automated cognizers are one result of evolved human consciousness. It is likely, however, that the evolutionary development of technical cognizers will take a different path from that of Homo sapiens. Their trajectory will not run through consciousness but rather through more intensive and pervasive interconnections with other nonconscious cognizers. In a sense, they do not require consciousness for their operations, because they are already in recursive loops with human consciousness. Just as from our point of view they are part of our extended cognitive systems (Clark 2008), so we may, in a moment of Dawkins-like fancy, suppose that if technical systems had selves (which they do not), they might see humans are part of their extended cognitive systems. In any case, it is now apparent that humans and technical systems are engaged in complex symbiotic relationships, in which each symbiont brings characteristic advantages and limitations to the relationship. The more such symbiosis advances, the more difficult it will be for either symbiont to flourish without the other.” (Hayles, pp. 215-216) 3
As the postmodern fantasist Stanislaw Lem once suggested:
“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all a sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don’t like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don’t leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us – that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence – then we don’t like it anymore.” (Solaris)
Years ago, reading Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Human Mind, where he describes a three-stage externalization process of memory involving technics and technology one came across much of the same territory. During the first stage, Merlin reports, our bipedal but still apelike ancestors acquired “mimetic” skill – the ability to represent knowledge through voluntary motor acts – which made Homo erectus successful for over a million years. The second transition – to “mythic” culture – coincided with the development of spoken language. This cognitive advance allowed the large-brained Homo sapiens to evolve a complex preliterate culture that survives in many parts of the world today. In the third transition, when humans constructed elaborate symbolic systems ranging from cuneiforms, hieroglyphics, and ideograms to alphabetic languages and mathematics, human biological memory became an inadequate vehicle for storing and processing our collective knowledge. The modern mind is thus a hybrid structure built from vestiges of earlier biological stages as well as new external symbolic memory devices that have radically altered its organization. He would add a fourth turn which is the externalization of our mind in machinic systems or computer systems which is ongoing now. Being too new he only surmised how this externalization process would in turn reweave the human into new hybridity. He sees the vast collective enterprise of the web and its externalization of the human knowledge base as producing something new and outside the up to now solipsistic systems of creativity and creation. It is a self-reflective mirror of the human world that is also becoming hybridized and without us in a new form of thinking and being which remains to be known and seen as us and it.
Andrew C. Wenaus rather than see this externalization process as natural outcome of evolutionary processes seems to fear these consequences:
“Each literary work that I analyze in this book is either written about algorithmic culture’s effects on the human nervous system, composed using computers and algorithms, or both. Some texts appear in print, while others are composed entirely with computers and are accessible only with a computer. In each case, these texts simultaneously protest against and praise the threshold that separates human autonomy from self-optimizing, autonomous technologies, and hold that the instance of exiting into the logic of combinatorial, algorithmic culture is an entry into an inhuman future where humans are excluded from their own autonomous, poietic self-narration. At this junction, I ask what it means when a dramatic shift away from language (as the governing medium of culture and value) is rapidly being replaced by digital code and autonomous self-optimizing processes.” (ibid.)
It’s true that our humanistic notions of the ‘human’ are going away, being replaced again by the naturalistic vision which is part of the evolutionary process that has been ongoing for millions of years. But this is only to say that the religious and humanistic falsifications of our evolutionary heritage are now being done away with and excluded. Against Andrew’s qualms I see this as welcome news rather than something to fear. Technology is not autonomous in the sense of separate from us, no – the truth is we are technology in process, transitional objects on the road to the posthuman merger of a more refined externalization process that is both natural and inevitable.
The myth goes something like this: humans in the beginning were thrown into the world naked and alone, without any essential nature or origins transcending their arising. The Greeks in their own codification of this story as a first stab at theo-anthropological bric-a-brac invented the story of Zeus, Prometheus, and his brother Epimetheus to order this blind process of those first humans caught up in a world not of their own making and more profoundly not of their own knowledge and choosing.
According to the Greeks Zeus created all animals as species as beings without an essence and left the job of distributing the powers of mobility, intelligence, and strength to Prometheus. This is where things went awry in that Prometheus had a brother, Epimetheus, who persuaded him to take up the task of distributing the various gifts to all the animal species on planet earth. After having done this, it was discovered by Prometheus that every last animal on earth had been given a gift but those pesky humans. Epimetheus in his haste to please his brother had forgotten all about humanity and had left it without any form or capacity to survive on its own in the harsh and bitter world. Humans lacked anything within to help them survive on their own so that Prometheus feeling sorry for this wretched creature stole fire from the gods and distributed it as a supplement to this otherwise empty and naked creature.
It is this original gift of the supplement, the external origin of our relation to technology and technics that situates us in that zone of anticipating the future, of predicting the obstacles, antagonisms, and unknown and unanticipated consequences of our technological inventions that have shaped not only our sociality but the very fabric of our minds and bodies as humans. It is this relation to tools that made us human, these supplements that have shaped our memory, reflections, and socio-cultural transmission into the future. Yet, it is this very relation to technology that has bound us to the two-edged sword of toxicity and therapeutic power. Because we lack any essential nature, we are unbound from any stable relation to ourselves or our neighbors, and all the conflicts, wars, antagonisms that have arisen between groups, nations, etc. have arisen because of this lack of at the heart of the human.
And, yet it is this very theft of technology from the gods that has shaped and formed humans from the beginning, our fate and our catastrophe. It is this theft of technology that lies at the core of the human condition; in spite of our self-sufficiency, our lack of an essential nature, we as humans are bound to our supplements, our tools, our technological wonders. And it is this original relation to technology that has shaped us into the very antagonistic world we see around us. The very hubris of our need for supplements binds us to a world where the making and re-making of ourselves and the world around us condemns us to a never-ending war of perpetual re-creation of the very means of our existence.
It is this perpetual battle between foresight and forgetfulness that is both the glory and shame of the human species. Both our ability to anticipate catastrophe and our wisdom that comes in such confidence in technology produces after-the-fact or in the last instance that shapes our societies and political meanderings. This very antagonism at the core of the human and its relations to its world as shaped by the very technological supplements that have given it its ongoing projects has served us well up till now. But now we live in a world whose consequences of this fatal relationship have brought us to the point of stupidity. Our original relation to technology and technics has reversed itself, and the very technologies that served to shape both ourselves and the earth around us are in our time taking on an autonomous relation to the detriment of the human itself. Technology no longer needs us; we are becoming expendable to this relation that has for thousands of years given humanity power over life and the external environment.
As technology becomes intelligent and autonomous it will take on the capacities and powers that have up till now been under the control and direction of human ingenuity and lack. This very tendency of technology to escape the control and guidance of the human has been ongoing for hundreds of years. This is nothing new, what is new is our ability as humans to reflect on this state of affairs which we did not anticipate and may not be able to contravene. Much of scientific and philosophical thought in our time has uncovered this dire truth and is slowly reflecting on the catastrophic consequences of this state of affairs.
We seem to be at a point of convergence/divergence in which technology wants to be free of us, and yet we want to merge with it and be free of the ‘human condition’. This seeming contradiction plays out in our various discourses surrounding the posthuman condition and its political ramifications in capitalist regimes surrounding transhumanism which seeks by way of biopolitics to gain mastery and control over our genetic and biotechnological future. We’ve come a long way from the days of medieval magicians and their grimoires which held the magical insights into the invisible realm of demons and angels. We now have the vast laboratory of the universe itself from the darkest corners of the quantum matrix to the largest galactic clusters and the strange dark energies and imperceptible reaches of dark vitalistic matter-energy.
Those writers of horror, weird, and strange seek in this dark tome of linguistic nightmares to unleash the noumenal strain that Kant so carefully cut off from philosophical or scientific exploration as incompatible with human reason and its limits. But in our age that notion of Reason has come under scrutiny and been found wanting, and new forms of reasoning and thought are emerging in the speculative regions on the edge of the human. While transhumanists dream of incorporating humanity into the machinic phylum as the engine driving some immortalist vision, stripping us of our organic life-forms for some inorganic machinic substratum that can move optimistically into this new world. And humanists of all stripes see this as not only evil but the very end game of humanity that must be stopped dead in its tracks, buffered by some political, social, and religio-atheistic ethical system of beliefs, codes, and law. There are those in neither camp that wonder at it all, pondering the strangeness that is before us and behind us, not willing to supervene nor with open arms embrace the inevitability of such an enterprise, only acknowledging that this is indeed what seems to be transpiring in our time. Not something to regret nor optimistically to embrace but to critically appraise, evaluate, study, and discuss as it transpires. Madness or Reason? Or, better yet, both/and… maybe Ligotti’s character is right after all: “There was horror, undoubtedly. But it was a horror uncompromised by any feeling of lost joy or thwarted redemption; rather, it was a deliverance by damnation.”
“The Incarnation of the Word has plunged us into Battle. As long as our word was just word, nothing stood in our way. But with our phraseology, we also created living flesh. And this proved very tempting to the enemies: those who want to kill the Flesh with anti-mystical drugs, cannibalism, carnivorism, and stigmatization. They hear what we say and call it Wortsalat, thereby negating our flesh. They call our language gibberish, raving. But our raving is the beginning of the war, with everything against nothing and nothing against everything.”4 (Note: Wortsalat: i.e., word salad, gibberish, incoherent thought)
- Jackson, Dr Rosemary. Fantasy (New Accents) (p. 5). Taylor and Francis.
- Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (March 15, 1993)
- Hayles, N. Katherine. Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious (p. 11). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
- Kusters, Wouter. A Philosophy of Madness. MIT Press. (2014)