Degeneration, Aquaman redux

That's a bold strategy cotton gif from Dodgeball

I figure blogs are also the place to put all the darlings you had to kill in the process of writing—you know—real people stuff. So here is an entire section about human evolution that had to get cut from my post about the role of genetic determinism in Aquaman.


Obviously, the DCU is not contingent on reality. A comparative timeline nevertheless provides insight into the implications of the biological and evolutionary logic the films employ.

Please understand that both “But it’s not real” and “Zeus did it” are considered acceptable explanations of the events and outcomes in the DCU.

This is not intended to be a critique of the accuracy—historical or otherwise—of the DCU.

That the Atlanteans were able to turn into crab people and fish people and, simultaneously, that descendants who retained a more humanoid form were nevertheless able to procreate with H. Sapiens will remain firmly outside the purview of this piece. That would clearly constitute a foolish and unnecessary attempt to apply the limits of scientific knowledge to a work of fantasy. The use of historical and anthropological evidence is, of course, perfectly sensible under these circumstances.

The “First Invasion of Earth” which united Mankind, the Atlanteans, and the Amazons supposedly took place 30,000 years before 2018. (“Invasion of Earth”) That would have been nearly 20,000 years before the emergence of agriculture, and about the same time that H. Sapiens arrived in the Americas. (“Homo Sapiens” “Map of Human Migration”) Quite literally, this puts that original event closer to the epoch where Europe was a Cro-Magnon stomping ground than it would to the emergence of Ancient Egyptian civilization (about 5,000 years ago), which predates Ancient Greece by 2,000 years.

Atlantis is supposed to have fallen into the ocean sometime after that initial conflict, presumably within a few thousand years (at the outside). That would give the various Atlantean kingdoms less than 30,000 years to evolve into distinct species. By contrast, H. Sapiens is believed to have been in Australia as many as 60,000 years ago. (“Map”) Aboriginal Australians are, obviously, hominids of the same species as every other member of H. Sapiens, including the British settlers who colonized their territories less than 500 years ago.

It is unknown whether the kingdoms of Atlantis incorporated technological innovations such as gene editing to enable their “evolution” into different species, but it remains unlikely that they achieved such a level of morphological differentiation and presumed speciation presented in the films in the 30,000 years between the fall of Atlantis and the modern day through natural selection.

Bibliography:

Aquaman. Directed by James Wan. United States: Warner Bros., 2018. Film.

“Atlantis.” DC Extended Universe Wiki. Accessed February 20, 2019. https://dcextendeduniverse.fandom.com/wiki/Atlantis.

“Homo Sapiens | Meaning & Stages of Human Evolution.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 20, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Homo-sapiens.

“Invasion of Earth | DC Extended Universe Wiki | FANDOM Powered by Wikia.” Accessed February 20, 2019. https://dcextendeduniverse.fandom.com/wiki/Invasion_of_Earth.

“Map of Human Migration.” Genographic Project (blog). Accessed February 20, 2019. https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/human-journey/.

Lurking Degeneracy: Aquaman’s Lovecraftian evolutionary theory

Even as Aquaman rejects notions of racial purity and as it celebrates the possibilities inherent in hybridity and change, it still falls back on narratives of genetic determinacy and degeneracy. These ideas are inextricably linked to the eugenic epistemology which defines the supremacism the film is trying to critique.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Aquaman is undeniably a story where hybridity and inclusivity triumph, as both personal characteristics and philosophical approaches to life. This celebration of mixed bloodlines has been hailed as a revocation of the racist ideologies embedded in much of its pulp inspiration, such as the work of H.P. Lovecraft.

While Lovecraft would certainly have been distressed by the moral of Aquaman (as by the teratophilic romance in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water), there is more of the racism associated with the author embedded in the film than is immediately apparent. Lovecraft’s stories utilize – to borrow the term from Brooks E. Hefner – a “eugenic epistemology,” a racist view which holds “that knowledge about character and identity can be gained through the description and taxonomic indexing of bodies.” (652) Or, in other words, that appearance is indicative of an individual’s personal qualities. Even as Aquaman rejects notions of racial purity and as it celebrates the possibilities inherent in hybridity and change, it still falls back on narratives of genetic determinacy and degeneracy. These ideas are inextricably linked to the eugenic epistemology which defines the supremacism the film is trying to critique.

Understanding the racial politics of Aquaman requires a simultaneous acceptance of the biological narrative established within the world of the film and a critical view of the creative decisions which resulted in that reality. First, there is the film’s propagation of a narrative of evolutionary “progress” by willingly classifying the outcomes of natural selection as a degenerate and regressive.

Second, it is necessary to explore the way the film’s assumptions interact with historical reality, with special attention to the audience’s credulity when presented with a narrative which explicitly uses visual cues—as well as narrative ones—conveying degeneracy and hierarchical taxonomy.

Does evolution make mistakes?

The biological reality in Aquaman is aggressively segregated. Each of the undersea kingdoms of Atlantis is patterned on a drastically different body type, conveying a long evolutionary history of isolation and dramatic speciation. By providing an explanation for the various kingdoms which relies on an evolutionary process, the film implicitly posits that a formerly unified humanoid species (seen briefly in a flashback) with minor variation in gene expression at a surface level (variations in skin tone, eye color, hair color and texture, etc.) would evolve into sexually incompatible species exhibiting massive morphological differences in the course of mere tens of thousands of years. In so doing, Aquaman is unconsciously reinforcing the idea that “race” is a prelude to speciation, an idea which is in no way reflected in the biological record.

Each kingdom that evolved out of the original Atlantis is established as having developed from a sentient, humanoid species into distinct sentient species possessing of differences in culture, political ideology, and physical traits. Their morphological distinctions are seen as correlating with their social development, for example, the crab-like Brine – renown for their prowess in physical conflict – are possessing of powerful bodies and hard carapaces (the better to fight you with, presumably). While, the kingdom of the Fishermen are delicate, polychromatic merpeople noted for being a non-violent, intellectually and artistically motivated society.  The hand-wave-y evolutionary explanation postulates some form of environmental natural selection was involved in the speciation of the different kingdoms.

Taken without its pseudo-scientific evolutionary history, those choices would have remained ambiguous in their allegorical potential. But the inclusion of that history and the decision to characterize the mysterious Kingdom of the Trench as a primitive, evolutionary regression unfortunately cleave closer to the racist semiotics of the pulp era, ultimately undermining the film’s attempt at deconstructing supremacist ideology.

The manifestation of an “animalistic,” “primitive” degeneracy through genetic contamination or evolutionary error is rampant throughout Lovecraft. It is, arguably, the defining feature of Lovecraft’s racial anxieties, encompassing religious, class, and ethnic groups whom he considered inferior. Lovecraft explicitly invokes a eugenicist, genetic determinist vocabulary when describing rural whites in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” and “The Lurking Fear:”

…a primitive colonial peasant stock whose isolation for nearly three centuries in the hilly fastnesses of a little-travelled countryside has caused them to sink to a kind of barbaric degeneracy, rather than advance with their more fortunately placed brethren of the thickly settled districts.
(“Beyond the Wall of Sleep” 28)

Simple animals they were, gently descending the evolutionary scale because of their unfortunate ancestry and stultifying isolation.
(“The Lurking Fear” 285)

Embedded within the ideas of de-evolution and degeneracy is the belief that there is such a thing as evolutionary “error.” This normative, teleological understanding of evolution is a direct continuation of the eugenicist view that social and cultural variance and adherence to Western standards of “development” reflect not only immutable, fundamental differences between groups, but also indicate different stages along the evolutionary path towards a perfected biological organism.

Given that natural selection operates on a non-normative principle of survival, it is illogical to argue that a species which is well-suited to its environment is a product of de-evolution. The Kingdom of the Trench evolved within an environment of limited natural resources. They are swift to respond to new presences in their environment, do not appear to have any defined settlements, and they are able to communicate between themselves insofar as they act as a group.

Unfortunately, given the tendency toward anthropocentrism and specifically to the prioritization of the cognitive and social characteristics which are considered to evidence “sentience,” the Kingdom of the Trench is subjected to evaluation using a set of standards which, in addition to continually being updated, are impossible to ascertain from the evidence presented in the film itself.

For example, the ability to communicate abstract knowledge between individuals is one of the qualities which is considered proof of a high degree of sentience. There is no evidence of audible language in the few scenes where actual denizens of the Trench are present. They are capable of coordinated responses, however, which implies at least the level of sophistication present in social insects (bees, ants, and termites). The possibility of non-verbal communication, through metaphysical or mundane means, is never addressed. It is possible that they have some method of communication equivalent to sign language (which emerges organically in communities with significant rates of congenital deafness just as spoken language does in communities dominated by hearing individuals). And, given that Aquaman, includes a giant telepathic sea monster, the possibility of telepathic communication between individuals of the Kingdom of the Trench cannot be discounted.

Not intended as a full-scale re-interpretation of the Aquaman cinematic canon, these questions are intended to encourage a critical response to the paucity of information provided by the characters and, therefore, the audience. Even the hybrid champion of the narrative is unable to eschew the rampant hierarchical taxonomy which dominates Atlantean culture. The relative “inhumanity” of the Kingdom of the Trench is accepted at face value and its people are dealt with accordingly; they are invaded and slaughtered in the name of personal and political expediency.

Looking for ourselves

The reduction of an entire branch of Atlantean evolution to an undifferentiated, expendable Other is part and parcel of a eugenic semiotics which strips groups of their potential as subjects and, simultaneously, relieves the audience of any moral or emotional responsibility to them.

It is imperative to recognize the way that physiognomic indicators (the lack of humanoid features, the absence of spoken language, inclusion of claws and teeth, etc.) are still used in fantasy media to demarcate the “human” (or “analogously human”) from the “in-human” and “non-human.”

Acceptance by authors and audiences of this sort of physiognomic shorthand is an implicit acceptance of the eugenic epistemology employed by Lovecraft and others who shared his limitations. It actively transforms bodies into texts which can be perused for information about the emotional and intellectual capacities of other beings and propagates the idea that it is possible to intuit the presence of subjectivity by observing an entity’s physical form. In addition to the racist underpinnings of this logic, it closes the door on the possibilities—narrative and philosophical—provided by intelligences or beings which fail to conform to categories with which we are already comfortable.

Human history is a litany of failure to recognize subjectivity. Inclusion and exclusion from “the human” has been the primary method of instituting power relations and enacting political and social subjugation. Consider the way Black people were reduced to chattel under American slavery, the belief that women are dominated by their biological functions (and thereby cognitively and emotionally deficient), or the assertion that life begins at conception, and it is possible to see how, in defining what constitutes a “human being,” we have determined not only which people are allowed to engage in self-determination, but which entities are entitled to consideration and empathy.

Lovecraft failed to appreciate that the human experience is multifarious, and that variety in ways of life in no way diminishes the humanity of those who live it. He could more easily imagine vast unknown and unknowable alien intelligences capable of dwarfing mankind in their considerations, than he could imagine that working class immigrants might contribute intellectually and culturally to the human experience. Continuing the Lovecraftian tradition which can imagine previously unknown sentience and intelligence existing only at a scale greater than humanity’s would be a mistake. We should be able to imagine that such unexplored ways of being exist on Earth concurrent with humanity, not only as intrusions from beyond the stars.

Ultimately, by endowing a comprehensible—if unknowable—consciousness to the Cthulhoid horror at the bottom of the trench and banishing an entire branch of the Atlantean evolutionary line to mute unrecognizable collectivism, Aquaman may have become truly Lovecraftian.


Bibliography:

Brooks E. Hefner. “Weird Investigations and Nativist Semiotics in H.P. Lovecraft and Dashiell Hammett.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 60, no. 4 (2014): 651-676. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed January 23, 2019).

Aquaman. Directed by James Wan. United States: Warner Bros., 2018. Film.

Lovecraft, H.P. “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” In The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Ruth Tillman, 28–40. CthulhuChick.com, 2011. http://arkhamarchivist.com/free-complete-lovecraft-ebook-nook-kindle/.

Lovecraft, H.P. “The Lurking Fear.” In The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Ruth Tillman, 277–301. CthulhuChick.com, 2011. http://arkhamarchivist.com/free-complete-lovecraft-ebook-nook-kindle/.

Week in Review 2019: 004

And none of this even begins to touch on the issue, “Nic Cage is a meme.” Because once you have been transformed into a hollow vector for self-replicating situational humor, you cease to be able to generate meaning for yourself.

I’ve been bedridden for the last three days. A fever, a nice wet cough, moments where I could have sworn I was going to die… The works.

Thankfully, the fever broke mid-way through Saturday and now I only sound awful. All this to say: I have watched an astounding number of movies and a fair bit of television over the last 72 hours:

Movies:

• Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
• Mandy (2018)
• Summer of 84 (2018)
• Mayhem (2017)
• Duck Butter (2018)
• Toc Toc (2017)
• A Most Wanted Man (2014) (partial)
• Snowden (2016) (partial)

TV:

  • Supergirl: Season 3, episodes 22 and 23
  • The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: Season 1, episodes 1 through 5.
  • Red Oaks: Season 2, episodes 2 and 3.
  • Travelers: Season 3, episode 2.

Before it got to be as Bad As All That, I…

…watched:

  • Signature Move (2017)
  • The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

…read:

  • The Mobius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone
  • finished the parts of The Nightmare Factory that I’d not read before.

I’ve been chatting with folks who come into the store about the decision to cast Nicholas Cage in “The Colour out of Space” movie adaptation. And, having now seen Mandy, I feel confident in my opinion that Nic Cage is a difficult choice. His sudden appearance in Snowden is actually why I stopped it and switched to something else. (Well, that and the aggressive levels of American Patriotism.)

I think the big danger with Nic Cage is encouraging him to act unhinged. That is usually when his performance goes off the rails in terms of believability. He seemed mostly sane and O.K. in the scene that introduced him in Snowden.

He’s also one of those actors you can’t help but see when they’re acting; Nic Cage, Jack Nicholson, Keanu Reeves, Oprah Winfrey… And it doesn’t have to do with recognizability, either. Sam Rockwell, Domhnall Gleeson, Tom Hardy, Zoe Saldaña always surprise me because, despite their familiarity, they don’t get in the way of the presence of the character they’re playing.

To come at it another way: Lovecraft’s stories aren’t really about people. They rely on a sense of atmosphere and the creeping realization of what lurks beyond the human experience. It seems strange to me, then, to cast some one with an undeniable presence, someone who cannot fade into the background, on whom the audience cannot project themselves.

Lovecraft is very much a writer of un-characters. None of the people he writes, protagonists or otherwise, do substantially more than progress the plot. Whatever friends they have are utilitarian pieces of the narrative to open doorways into other, horrific worlds. Even incidental characters (other tenants, housekeepers, etc) serve some function of necessity, if only as racialized foils for the characters with whom the narrator chooses to associate.

And none of this even begins to touch on the issue, “Nic Cage is a meme.” Because once you have been transformed into a hollow vector for self-replicating situational humor, you cease to be able to generate meaning for yourself.

(Which is exactly why Nicholas Cage hates memes about himself, presumably.)

Week in Review 2019: 003

Read:

Books:

  • When I Grow up I want to be a Futurist. Badminton, N.
  • The Only Harmless Great Thing. Bolano, B.
  • “Prodigy of Dreams,” “Ms. Rinaldi’s Angel,” “The Tsalal,” and “Mad Night of Atonement” in The Nightmare Factory. Ligotti, T.
  • “Protestant and Catholics.” HPL to Frank Belknap Long, collected in Against Religion: the atheist writings of H. P. Lovecraft. 2010.

Articles:

  • “Lovecraft, Witch Cults, and Philosophers.” W. Scott Poole in The Age of Lovecraft. 2016.
  • “Weird Investigations and Nativist Semiotics in H.P. Lovecraft and Dashiell Hammett.” Brooks. E. Hefner in MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 60, Number 4. 2014.
  • Jason Colavito’s blog.

This week has been a little scattered. Whatever terrible thing I did to my wrist some time before Christmas continues apace and has vastly limited my manual dexterity and completely undermined my comfort. At least it has had the good grace to put my non-dominant hand out of commission so that I can continue to scribble. (Should I be typing? Probably not.)


Hefner’s article about Hammett and Lovecraft is really quite remarkable. It examines how Hammett’s novel, The Dain Curse, dismantles the racist ideological underpinnings of the classic ’20s detective story and/or Weird fiction tale, and how those ideas are metamorphosed into the narrative mechanics of nativist fiction.

He sees Hammett’s novel as “a broader critique of a cultural phenomenon in which bodies are seen as legible text where corporeal difference and criminal degeneracy go hand in hand.” (654)

Somewhat predictably, Hefner focuses on Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hood” and “The Call of Cthulhu”.

His analysis of “Call” and Arthur Machen’s influence on Lovecraft’s views on cultural and racial “evolution” in Europe would have benefited from a greater familiarity with Lovecraft’s correspondence around Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Hefner mistakenly credits Lovecraft with developing Machen’s theories of a degenerate pre-Aryan European race into the atavistic cult in “Call”. W. Scott Poole’s article in The Age of Lovecraft clearly shows the link between Murray’s description of the persistent prehistoric witch-cult and Lovecraft’s “global atavistic conspiracy” (Poole, xx). I mentioned Bobby Derie’s article Conan and the Little People last week, which provides a detailed primary source examination of Murray’s influence on Lovecraft.

(Aaand I just realized last week’s link to Derie’s article was busted… It should all be fixed now.)

Personally, I am interested in how Lovecraft’s knowledge and study of history impacted his racial views. Without contesting the assertion that his views were aggressively racist and that they profoundly shaped his literary output, I nonetheless contend that he displays a nuanced (and at times inherently contradictory) view of the different “races.”

Moreover, his eugenic epistemology (to borrow Hefner’s term) engages a racist semiotics which goes beyond the simplistic “Brown people are scary” logic which is often used as a short-hand for his views on the Other. In stories such as “The Lurking Fear” and “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” he uses a genetic determinist framework to define a degenerate or inferior class of people who, in contemporary terms, would be considered “white.” This classist dimension to his racism is particularly important, in a large part, because it continues to persist in contemporary fiction and ideology.

More on this to folllow…


Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (CATHR) continues to trouble me. Bridging the gap between my instinctive and wholehearted agreement with his fundamental premises (the universe is meaningless, the self is a construct of consciousness, we turn away from this fundamental truth, clinical depression provides a clear view of this inherent meaninglessness, etc) with my equally strong reaction to the tone of his argument.

I’ve described it variably as: “Yeah, the universe is meaningless. It’s not about you, so why are you taking it personally?”; “No shit.”; and, “Judith Butler says, ‘Everything you believe to be true is an imaginary construct, including the notion that you have an essential internal identity which can be expressed in such a way that it will be seen and recognized by others.’ Ligotti says, ‘EVerYthINg yOu tHoUGHt WAs tRUe is A cONstRUcT, IncLUDiNg YouR PerCEPtIoN Of A FUndAMEntAl sELf!!!'”

This has lead me to consider CATHR through feminist and post-colonial critical lenses – drawing on Butler and W.E.B. DuBois, primarily – particularly around the question of identity and the “Self.”

This week I took an unfortunate detour when I Googled “female pessimists,” and had the priviledge(?) to encounter a thread on the official Ligotti forum. It posited a number of reasons why women might be ill-suited to True Philosophical Pessimism. A few voices defended the possibility of feminine pessimism, but overall there was a marked failure to consider the female experience as one wherein even a purported Human subjectivity plays any role.

I hope to be able to contribute something organized and coherent on this subject in the future. For the moment, I offer instead this quote from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:

The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?

(52) Harcourt Paperback.

Isherwood on Writing

Very important advice:

“…thinking about writing and getting excited about the wonderful writing that you are going to do is the most dangerous occupational vice of a writer. The thing to do is to get something down on the paper, and then you have something to work on.”

Isherwood on Writing. p. 135

“On the level of human suffering and struggle the novelist obviously has to be involved, engaged. He has to mind that people suffer, he has to condemn the bad and rejoice in the good. … He has to have a moral code. Every writer who really has any kind of vitality has some sort of moral code. … What matters is the intensity with which this struggle on the human level is realized. […]

“He is also the eternal, who looks down upon everything and enjoys it. Because, of course, in the world of art if something is well done it is enjoyable. One has to face the fact that the most dreadful descriptions of agonizing death are, artistically speaking, just as enjoyable as great love scenes or charming scenes of domestic happiness with children. … This sense of joy, of contact with life, of the vitality of life, can be related to any set of circumstances or characters you choose to name. […]

“He has to have, I suppose one can say, compassion. He has to see the just and the unjust as being all his children.

What is the nerve of interest in the novel?, 66.

If the writer has managed to meld human passion and divine compassion, the result is, as he said of Hemingway’s “The Capital of the World”:

… not in the least depressing. It is in fact full of this strange joy in the experience of all these people. (79)


The theater is a box, a place of imprisonment in which the audience is shut up with the actors. The effects are created by means of claustrophobia: you can’t get out. […]

Remembering that the whole point of the play is that the people are in the theater and cannot leave until they have been dismissed by the working out of the play itself, remembering this, think of Beckett’s extraordinary use of pauses.

A writer and the theater, 91 & 93.

The theater is for speech, and the theater is also for character. … What is the film for? The film is primarily for image and for movement. This thing about image, about the actual, visual effect of something on the screen, can sometimes be very disconcerting.

A writer and the films, 101.

The sound in the film should always be, as it were, balanced against the image and not go with it.

p. 106

In addition, Isherwood outlines the role of the writer as a consumate and socially engaged outsider.

He [the writer] must always hold them [shared beliefs] with the possibility of dissent. Without the freedom to dissent, he is just that much less valuable to the community.
…the truly cooperative and social outsider is one of the most valuable members of the community, and a writer should strive to be such an outsider, sometimes assenting, sometimes dissenting, but always, one hopes, in some way illuminating the problem under discussion.

p. 131 & p. 132

Which reminded me….

Trying to understand other people means destroying the stereotype without denying or ignoring the otherness.

But let us be realistic. These ways of understanding the enemy are the prerogative of poets, saints, or traitors.

Umberto Eco, “Inventing the Enemy.” 2008.

From Isherwood on Writing, 2007.