The Biomorphic Horror of Everyday Life

This paper has been written for the Philosophy, Art and Society: Body as Medium event in the Watershed Media Center, Bristol June 16 2018

It explores the idea of the ‘biomorph’ as a perverse ‘non-philosophical’ solution to the aporias of speculative posthumanism through the work of J G Ballard, Hans Bellmer and Gary J Shipley.

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The Posthuman Predicament

The various forms of philosophical posthumanism – speculative, critical, epistemological, etc. – share a rejection of philosophical anthropocentrism – the idea that reality is to be understood from a human-centered perspective. But what is left of embodiment or aesthetics in post-anthropocentric thought? Should it retain a place for the body or for the aesthetic as a distinctive way of accessing reality?

I will argue that speculative portals of posthumanism swing too wide to embrace the lived experience of bodies. Instead of a ‘vital posthumanism’ of intense bodies and ecological ethics, I want to develop one of biomorphic abstraction. The biomorph offers a perverse solution to the conceptual poverty of posthumanism – if not a unique one.

I borrow this term from J G Ballard’s experimental novel, The Atrocity Exhibition – a literary diorama of the mid-20th Century mediascape, recombining images of assassination, car crashes, neuro-surgery, imaginary psychosexual experiments, documents of wars in Japan and Vietnam, in which spectral billboards of Elizabeth Taylor and Sigmund Freud hang like fake constellations over suburban interzones. Its fictive pretext is that these elements are being assembled by a former psychiatrist to help him understanding the traumas of the 20th Century. Yet, as one of his colleague notes insightfully, the cure is the poison:

Travers’s problem is how to come to terms with the violence that has pursued his life – not merely the violence of accident and bereavement, or the horrors of war, but the biomorphic horror of our own bodies. Travers has at last realized that the real significance of these acts of violence lies elsewhere, in what we might term “the death of affect”. Consider our most real and tender pleasures – in the excitements of pain and mutilation; in sex as the perfect arena, like a culture bed of sterile pus, for all the veronicas of our own perversions, in voyeurism and self-disgust, in our moral freedom to pursue our own psychopathologies as a game, and in our ever greater powers of abstraction. What our children have to fear are not the cars on the freeways of tomorrow, but our own pleasure in calculating the most elegant parameters of their deaths.

As one of the sub-headings of the chapter ‘Why I want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ has it, Atrocity realizes an ‘ontology of violence’ in which a vastly expanded technological imaginary supplants our bodily sentiments – a condition, that I will argue, is lucidly anatomized in Ballard’s other great 70s experiment, Crash.

This pre-emption of agency and feeling equates to what I have called ‘the posthuman predicament’: a condition in which life has become captured within its ramifying technical envelope (Roden 2014, 186).

This may result in our replacement by some inhuman successor – the metaphysical schema of speculative posthumanism (SP). However if the future of life is fixed by counter-final technical processes, we suffer transcendental death prior to literal extinction. If the space of history is void, how are we to comprehend it? What is it to participate in a future that longer belongs to anything?

Posthuman Agency

To see how biomorphism responds to this predicament we must consider SP in more detail, for it is its unbinding of transcendental constraints on agency that implies transcendental death.

In Posthuman Life, I argue that a condition for the advent of posthumans is that a human-produced entity acquire independence due to a technological alteration in its powers. This is the ‘Disconnection Thesis’ (DT), the core theoretical construct of SP (Roden 2014, 105-123; Roden 2012).

DT explains posthumanity as feral technology.

DT is intentionally empty: multiply satisfiable by agents with different origins and powers (e.g. artificial intelligences, mind-uploads, cyborgs, synthetic life forms, etc.).

This is as it should be. There are no posthumans and no substantive account of them is possible in their absence.

DT – or this version of it – still requires an account of agency. But agency concepts can be stringent or liberal. A stringent agency concept is ‘bounded’; a more liberal one is ‘unbounded’.

Bounded agency involves some humanist idea of an agent – e.g. a rational subject following social norms or using natural language.[1]

We can frame liberal or relatively unbounded agency requirements. The ecological agency concept I introduce in Posthuman Life is one such (Roden 2014: 124-150).  An ecological agent is a self-maintaining system with the functional autonomy to exploit its environment and keep itself going.

However, unboundedness leads the theory into an aporia – an impasse that can no longer be resolved philosophically – by depriving it of any constraints on agency of subjectivity.

Unbinding has epistemic grounds, the first being the dark-phenomenology principle. Dark phenomena are contents or structures of experience such that having them does not confer significant understanding of them (Roden 2013; Roden 2014 76-104).[2] If dark phenomena exist doing phenomenology can’t tell us what consciousness is or, more importantly, what it could become.[3]

The second plank the unbinding argument is aimed at the widely shared post-Hegelian consensus that serious agency is constituted by social practice. If this were true, posthuman agents would have to be social like us (not interestingly weird).

The practical conception of agency needs to explain how certain verbal and non-verbal behaviours get to be evaluable as practices. I’ve argued that the most plausible account, here, is that behaviour are evaluable when a competent interpreter would judge them to be so Roden 2017).

Unfortunately, this doubles subjectivity so as to unbind it further.

  • We have a first order subject accounted for by its participation in social practice.
  • We have a second order interpreter-subject presupposed but not explained by the first. ‘[In] principle interpretability’ as I write ‘is ill-defined unless we have some conception of what is doing the interpreting’ (Roden 2014, 128).

Unbinding deconstructs humanist constraints on subjectivity or agency, invoking untamed ‘wild’ principles which cannot be regimented or reined in (Roden 2018). And as trailed earlier, unbinding leads posthumanism to an impasse. Even its minimal agency concept falls away. After all, what is it to maintain oneself in the most general sense? Is it a tendency to preserve an organic boundary or core temperature? Why assume posthumans should have any such fixed tolerances?[4]

The Disconnection Thesis itself becomes disconnected from principled means of identifying disconnection events, losing empirical content. We thus move from the initial SP – still informed by minimal agency – to a limit where disconnection becomes maximally indeterminate.

A certain indeterminacy already applied to the standard formulation of speculative posthumanism. The only means we could acquire empirical knowledge of posthumans was engineering, not philosophy: making posthumans, becoming posthuman. Unbound disconnection becomes ‘a differential function without an ontological basis’ (Derrida 1984, 16). This de-ontologized disconnection becomes the formal expression of biomorphic atrocity – of Being in thrall to counter-finality, the open void.

Into Doll Space

Nonetheless, bodies remain an exemplary medium for understanding the posthuman void. Bodies are how we explain the human. Posthuman bodies are consequently deformations of the human: bio-morphisms. These are not bodies of flesh – a spiritual totality which places thought in its world. Posthumanism at the limit, has no thought; no flesh (Sachs 2014, 9). It is a conceptual abattoir. In the remainder of this piece, I want to consider the work of three artists: Hans Bellmer, Ballard and Gary J Shipley, who can be read performing this subtraction of life in matter and concept.

The biomorph is an abstraction that supplants life by becoming its equivalent. It is a text, a diagram; perhaps a medical dataset or a machine. For us, its substance is less important than its effects; which are redundant and unlooked for. To borrow Brian Massumi’s description of Stelarc’s work, the biomorph extends ‘no-need into no-utility … no-utility into “art”’ (Massumi 2005, 131; Roden 2014, 189). As Livia Monnet remarks of Bellmer’s surrealist doll sculptures and the accompanying texts produced between the 1930’s and 50’s, these proclivities are the structure of perversion – the strategic proliferation of desire, for nothing (Monnet 2010, 195).

In one of the texts from his 1934 book The Doll (Die Puppe) Bellmer describes the doll sculpture as a ‘poetic stimulator’ – one that subtends antithetic ontological principles (Bellmer 2005, 60). It is inanimate yet given potential for movement by permutation and substitution; by articulation: ‘A mobile, passive and incomplete thing that can be personified’ (60).

The living death of the doll is a recombinant afterlife. By disturbing the principle of life, the doll acquires a transverse, cosmological dimension that cannot be reduced to its pornographic image.

For Bellmer, this is allegorized by the ball joint of his celebrated second doll. In a surrealist conceit, he suggests that this mechanical coupling reconciles concentric motion (since the joint’s inner ball moves around its center) with eccentric motion; which may be transferred from the outside, causing it to orbit around an alien center (Bellmer 2005, 60-61). This interchangeability of frames, for Bellmer, encodes the instability of body image and of the boundaries between self and non-self.

Hans-Bellmer.-La-Poupee-261x395

Desire and the gaze, as Monnet observes, are extroverted in Bellmer’s art and writing – pulled inside-out. This process is illustrated in a later essay where he writes of a man who takes pornographic photos of his female lover, as Bellmer did with his collaborator, Unica Zürn. The man comes to identify with the beloved’s buttocks, deifying them in fantasy until fetishized body part absorbs him in turn, a simulation of his notional body (Monnet 2010, 289).[5] Bellmer later remarks that this unstable, permutable body ‘resembles a sentence that seems to invite us to dismantle it into its component letters, so that its true meanings may be revealed anew through an endless stream of anagrams’ (133). Anagrammatic desire is not a subjective fullness or intensity, but generated in deformations, perspectival crossings and, as in Ballard, juxtapositions and collisions (Thacker 1997; 60).[6]

In a brilliant take on the work of French philosopher, Alain Badiou, Tracy McNulty has argued that the philosophical ‘passion’ for the nonhuman absolute, as we find it in Badiou’s mathematical ontology or Plato’s transcendent idealism, can be understood as formalist perversion.

Like Monnet, McNulty analyzes philosophical perversion as a kind of ‘counter-ethics’[7] – an implacable emptying or subtraction from subjective sense, entirely convertible with the void of unbound posthumanism. This subtractive passion is not for anything and must therefore produce the thing in order to think it (McNulty 2013, 33; 2015).[8]

The perverse desire to empty the world pre-empts philosophy without leaving it. To speak of this impulse, we must use occult language and inscription; as if appealing to one of Lovecraft’s non-anthropomorphic gods: invoking the ‘death drive’; ‘the purposeless that compels all purpose’ (Brassier 2007, 236)); repetition that destroys itself; ‘modernity’ – our planetary engine voiding itself without having been an ‘itself’ (Roden 2014, 150-165).[9]

Bellmer’s art provides a lucid model for this non-being, but one still too domestic; too sexualized (Deleuze 1989, 116). The space of the Posthuman doll is an expanse in which biomorphs are extroverted in vast technical systems: a hyper-necrosis; erasing not just the agent but the conceit of having once being alive.

Crash – Total Extroversion

In Ballard’s Crash, Vaughan – sexual shaman of outer-London car parks and airport termini – dreams of dying in a car crash with Elizabeth Taylor; remarking that this “unique vehicle collision … would transform all our dreams and fantasies” (Ballard 1995: 130).

The actual collision with which the novel opens, is bathetically, Vaughan’s ‘one true accident’ (Ibid., p. 7). His car misses Taylor’s limousine, careening into an airline bus below the London Airport Flyover.

Vaughan’s errant driving, however, fuels the novel’s fatal metaphor. Its narrative is replete with wounds formed by the meeting of soft bodies, hard machine parts and metalized carapaces. Early in the novel its central protagonist ‘James Ballard’ observes Gabrielle, a recovering crash victim, find affinities between her damaged body – in its enticing orthopaedic exoskeleton – and the display vehicles at the Earls Court Motor show (Crash 1995). When Ballard arouses his wife with fantasized sexual acts between himself and Vaughan, he remarks his desire is purely structural; Vaughan’s body ‘ceased to hold any interest’ when detached from its shell, ‘his … emblem-filled highway cruiser’ (Ballard 1995: 117).[10]

elias koteas vaughan crash

Later in the novel these conjunctions form a savage inventory of overkill bodies: ‘ruptured genitalia, luminous drifts of safety glass, copulating bodies sheathed in “glass, metal and vinyl”, skin incised by underwear, or chromium manufacturers’ medallions’ – elements of an anagram more illimitable than Bellmer’s nightmares. This biomorph is utterly subtractive; without any unity or sense beyond its multiple symbolic ties to the ‘unique event’ that we know, from the novel’s outset, cannot occur. Ballard’s cyborgian sexuality doesn’t just puncture our skin-bag in the style of the contemporary ‘Posthumanities’.[11] It questions its agency as such; extroverting the body into the limitless multiple of technological systems.

Shipley’s Warewolff – Necroconceptuality

Gary Shipley work is often compared to Ballard for its single-minded estrangement of sense. Yet it refuses even more, the satisfactions of setting and psychology. It is sometimes marketed as ‘concept horror’ – which is accurate insofar as it is the concept which does most of the hurting here – remarked, disjointed, its grammatical lifelines sliced and diced. In a sense it is one of the purest expressions of a formal disconnection of thought from thought.

With a nod to the conventions of earlier horror, Shipley’s 2017 novel Warewolff has a first person prologue redolent of Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. Its narrator claims that what we are about to read are media transcripts documenting an alien influence that can only be understood through its deformation of our bodies and speech. Ten thematic sections follow: buildings, eyes, families, sky, air, holes, rooms, distortion, screens, ghosts.

These include terse vignettes like ‘Russian Dog Fail’ (57) and longer sequences of finely-tuned incoherence. Their piquant titles include ‘Nice Gumbo’ (112), ‘Reptile Christ’ (70) or ‘Instagramming Lana Del Rey’s Brain’ (40).

‘Nice Gumbo’ nicely exhibits Shipley’s technique, in which bodily decomposition always the instrument of grammatical violence.

It begins:

We were stale the whole day and miniature in our cut-off legs. This was us christened as invalids.

Implied mutilation – leg severing – disavowed by two incongruous adjectives: ‘stale’ and ‘miniature’. Nothing has happened. Just a christening, it seems; or a change of aspect:

This was us flushing cramps with a bone saw. Look at us, we’re the first of the year.

Deliberate category errors upheap the indeterminacy: cramps are not flushable if we understand the verb properly. But can we? If it is improper, what of the bone saw’s inscrutable efficacy?

Over the bed, beside the crucifix, Kafka’s prostate sealed in a freezer bag. The last of Brod’s salvage so the legend goes. It looks like the Eraserhead baby shrunk in an oven. We love like mad from opposite corners of the room. K is that sweet gangrene in our celibacy in glass.

The reference to Kafka’s unfaithful literary executor and the vivid comparison with the mutant offspring in David Lynch’s debut movie is a sensory shot; but it is offset by the abstraction of the last sentence where the logic of inclusion falters. If K is ‘sweet gangrene’ what is it to be ‘in’ celibacy. What is it for ‘sweet gangrene’, in turn, to be in glass? Can K merit a prostate?

Is inclusion, here, transitive? If K is in our celibacy –  and celibacy is in glass – is K too in glass?

One recalls Badiou’s claim that the notions of set and set inclusion cannot be explicitly defined outside of set-theoretical axioms. [12] For example, those in ZF excluding self-membership. There can be an implicit mastery of set without a concept of set.

But this is not possible here. Like Bellmer’s anagrammatic doll, Warewolff has no axioms or rules beyond the hazards of dispersal. It’s its own entirely misleading portrait.[13] It has no people or worlds; only disjointed clones, plucky carcasses and scripts we mistook as our lives.

Yet despite this ontological poverty, we can read Warewolff. Something happens, even if we do not understand what. Its dispersal is the horror of biomorphism: a condition somewhat akin to life that, like Shipley’s alien, ‘discloses its arrangements’ through our language centers. And this is the condition of unbinding: we are spoken by something; we pass into something without the assurance that our hunger is our own.

 

References:

Badiou, A. 2006. Being and Event. Oliver Feltham (tr). London: Continuum.

Ballard, J.G. 1993. The Atrocity Exhibition (annotated). London: Flamingo.

Ballard, J.G. 1995. Crash. London: Vintage.

Barthes, Roland. 1987. ‘The Metaphor of the Eye’, in Story of the Eye,

Harmondsworth: Penguin, 119-127.

Bataille, Georges. 1987. Story of the Eye, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Bataille, Georges. 1985. Visions of excess: Selected writings 1927-1939. Vol. 14. Manchester University Press.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1993. Symbolic Exchange and Death, tr. Iain Grant, London: Sage.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. ‘Crash’, in Simulacra and Simulations, tr. Sheila Faria Glaser, Anne Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 111-119

Bellmer, Hans. 2005. The Doll, tr. Malcom Green. London: Atlas Press.

Brassier, R., 2007. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Colebrook, C. 2012. “A Globe of One’s Own: In Praise of the Flat Earth”. Substance: A Review of Theory & Literary Criticism 41(1): 30–9.

Derrida, Jacques. 1984. ‘My Chances/Mes Chances: A Rendez-vous with Some Epicurean Stereophonies’, I.E. Harvey and Avital Ronell (trans.), in J.H. Smith and W. Kerrigan (eds.) Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis and Literature (Baltimore MD).

Derrida, Jacques. 1987. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and

Beyond, Alan Bass (trans). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, M. and Blanchot, M., 1987. Foucault/Blanchot: Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside and Michel Foucault As I Imagine Him. New York: zone Books.

McNulty, T., 2013. ‘The New Man’s Fetish’. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 51(S1), pp.17-39.

McNulty, T., 2015. ‘Speculative Fetishism’. Konturen, 8, pp.99-132.

Monnet, L., 2010. ‘Anatomy of Permutational Desire: Perversion in Hans Bellmer and Oshii Mamoru’. Mechademia, 5(1), pp.285-309.

Parisi, Luciana. 2004. Abstract sex: philosophy, biotechnology and the mutations of desire. London: Continuum.

Roden, David. (2012), “The Disconnection Thesis”. In A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, London: Springer.

Roden, David 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.

Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.

Roden, David. 2015. ‘Reduction, Elimination and Radical Uninterpretability’, www.academia.edu/15054582/Reduction_Elimination_and_Radical_Uninterpretability.

Roden. 2016. ‘Letters from the Ocean Terminus’, Dis Magazine. http://dismagazine.com/discussion/81950/letters-from-the-ocean-terminus-david-roden/

Roden, David. 2017. ‘On Reason and Spectral Machines: Robert Brandom and Bounded Posthumanism’, in Philosophy After Nature edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn, London: Roman and Littlefield, pp. 99-119.

Roden, D., 2018. ‘Disconnection at the limit: posthumanism, deconstruction and non-philosophy’, Symposia Melitensia, 14, pp.19-34.

Sachs, C.B., 2014. ‘Discursive and Somatic Intentionality: Merleau-Ponty Contra McDowell or Sellars’. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 22(2), pp.199-227.

Shaviro, S., 2012. Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics. MIT press.

Shipley, Gary J. 2017. Warewolff. London: Hexus Press

Schellenberg, Susanna, 2006. ‘Sellarsian perspectives on perception and non-conceptual content’. In Mark Lance & Michael P. Wolf (eds.), Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities. 173-196.

Thacker, Eugene. 1997. “Bataille/Body/Noise: Notes Towards a Techno-Erotics.” Merzbook: The Pleasuredome of Noise. Preston Vic.: Extreme, 57-65.

[1] For example, in Posthuman Personhood Daryl Wennemann adopts a Kantian, rationalist conception of agency as personhood. A person means is answerable to reasons or is positioned in the space of reasons: a reflective subject capable of belonging to a moral community, bound by norms of action, etc.  A vitalist conception of agency, which stresses the affectivity or intensity of life is, as Quentin Meillassoux has observed, also an anthropocentric throwback.

[2] For example, we seem to experience time as an open flow into the future. Many philosophers have thought that this flow is a condition (technically a ‘transcendental condition’) of experiencing objects and worlds. Phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty have argued that we can grasp this structure in experience and thus understand of the structure of objectivity in any world.

If temporality is dark, experiencing it is philosophically overrated. For example, although this flow seems continuous we cannot know it is continuous without analysing it at ever finer grains. This seems to be as much beyond our powers of attention and memory as remembering very fine differences in colour.

So, if lived time has the features it needs to give access to a world, its structure must elude us much as the fine structure of matter does. If so, how can we know it gives us worlds. How can we even know what a world is?

[3] This it is naturalistically plausible that, as Scott Bakker has argued, our ‘brains our blind to their own nature’ – that consciousness is a biomorphic cartoon without any place in the real.

[4] The metaphysical fiction of the ‘hyperplastic agent’ suggests otherwise. Hyperplastics would be entirely protean – lacking structural invariances beyond hyperplasticity. They would not be self-maintaining in any sense that connects with the biology we know see Roden 2014, 100-102; Roden 2015; Roden 2016; Roden 2017.

On the one hand, hyperplasticity is maximal agency– the limit of functional autonomy. Yet, I have argued, they could not be attributed intentions, beliefs or desire. They would uninterpretable abominations outside the space of reasons. Extreme agency is something we could not recognize as agent.

[5] ‘Eventually they resembled her fleeting facial expressions, the blind smile of the two enormous, rounded eyes of that face, which opened like two hemispheres over her rectum. His desire was concentrated solely on that point and he exchanged the male Self with the female Other in order to sodomise his Self in the Other’ (Bellmer 2005, 125).

[6] ‘In common circumstances, time appears locked-and practically annulled-in each permanent form and in each succession that can be grasped as permanence. Each movement susceptible of being inscribed in an order annuls time, which is absorbed in a system of measure and equivalence-thus time, having become virtually reversible, withers, and with time all existence.

However, burning love-consuming the existence exhaled with great screams-has no other horizon than a catastrophe, a scene of horror that releases time from its bonds.

Catastrophe-lived time-must be represented ecstatically not in the form of an old man, but as a skeleton armed with a scythe: a glacial and gleaming skeleton, to teeth adhere the lips of a severed head. As skeleton it is completed destruction, but armed destruction amounting to imperative purity (Bataille 1985, 134).

[7] See Colebrook 2012, 38.

[8] This ‘passion for the real’ – or ‘thought of the outside’ as Foucault refers to it, is not aimed a specific reality in an intentional or dialectical fashion. If it were, it would not be a thought of the outside. As Derrida observes a propos the Death Drive, this would be another expression of human mastery (McNulty 2015, 108; Derrida 1987, 317-18; Foucault and Blanchot 1987, 15-16).

[9] As McNulty puts it in her commentary on Deleuze’s account of masochism – speculative philosophy is ‘an attempt to locate a “real” that is not given empirically, and that therefore demands to be constructed’ (McNulty 2013, 22). Like all speculative philosophy, unbound posthumanism is in revolt against philosophy’s own prerogatives. It ‘thinks’ the posthuman by deconstructing its capacity to reflect what it thinks

[10] ‘His attraction lay not so much in a complex of familiar anatomical triggers – a curve of exposed breast, the soft cushion of a buttock, the hairline arch of a damp perineum – but in the stylization of posture achieved between Vaughan and the car. Detached from his automobile, particularly his own emblem-filled highway cruiser, Vaughan ceased to hold any interest’ (Ballard 1995: 117).

[11] A distributed or collective agent might be no less rational or or agent-like, after all (Roden 2014, 44-45).

[12] ‘It is of the very essence of set theory to only possess an implicit mastery of its “objects” (multiplicities, sets): these multiplicities are deployed in an axiom-system in which the property ‘to be a set’ does not figure’ (Badiou 2006, 43)

[13] In the prologue Shipley’s narrator writes that the alien force he is soliciting learned to talk by ‘shaping the stories of its victims and, in so doing, created ‘a portrait of itself – of itself made up with other things’ (9).

 

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