Future Imaginary and the role of Horror

When considering the “failure of the imagination” which traps people within capitalist realism, the potential in invoking an incoherent – though not necessarily unreal – alternative mode of thought or existence is crucial to breaking out of the bind of capitalist realism. Being able to posit an incoherent alterity is the first step towards being able to move towards a coherent alternate reality. But trying to pull away from the familiar and towards a new paradigm inevitably produces an encounter with Horror.

After reading Capitalist Realism, with its focus on what I have decided to term a “failure of the imagination” – not in the sense that we, the collective political and human consciousness, are exhibiting a personal failing – produced by the peremptory enclosure of possibility inherent in capitalist realism, I have re-committed myself to questions about the Future.

I have a terrible tendency to submit to the logic of “realpolitik” (in itself a form of capitalist realism) when evaluating the possibilities for creating better systems and better outcomes. While I believe it is partially the result of the natural contrarian in me responding to the more daring potentialities imagined by the people whom I choose as friends and compatriots, it nevertheless perpetuates a limited and limiting view of what could be.

On the Always Already Podcast, at the end of December 2018, the hosts contended with Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy. Without having read it, my understanding of it is of an imaginary book. This book is co-written by the description of the other book’s contents as provided by the crew at Always Already and by my own already-developing thoughts on the role of horror (both genre and emotion) and fear (both affect and effect) in philosophy – but philosophy writ large: any mode and means of asking questions.

Horror, according to Thomas Ligotti, is something which exists independent of the human mind. In “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror” he says:

“[O]ne thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them.” (187)

Horror is something with which we must contend, not because it offers us anything in particular, but because it is unavoidable. Horror, whose handmaidens are Pain, Death, and Uncertainty, is, in point of fact, the soil in which the tree of philosophy has taken root.

Listening to Always Already, Thacker seems to be asking that we prepare ourselves to contend with something that cannot ever be perceived, a something which…

“…is that which paradoxically reveals the hiddenness of the world in itself. […] [You] reveal something which is a paradoxical re-hiding of it at the same time…”

One of the big debates around Lovecraft – the conundrum of his rich, descriptive prose and the his narrators’ perpetual encounters with the “indescribable,” – was put to rest (in my mind) by Mark Fisher, who was building on an analysis by China Mieville, in his essay “The Out of Place and the Out of Time: Lovecraft and the Weird” (collected in The Weird and the Eerie):

“After (1) the declaration of indescribability, and (2) the description, comes (3) the unvisualisable. For all their detail, or perhaps because of it, Lovecraft’s descriptions do not allow the reader to synthesize the logorrheic schizophony of adjectives into a mental image…” (23)

In other words, Lovecraft creates a cognitive rupture by providing enough (or so much) information so that a solution – a coherent image, in this case – ought to be possible, while simultaneously frustrating any attempt to generate that solution. This question of a something or somewhere which is perceptible as a logical and/or affective possibility but which, at the same time, cannot be constructed or imagined as a coherent whole is a powerful philosophical tool.

When considering the “failure of the imagination” which traps people within capitalist realism, the potential in invoking an incoherent – though not necessarily unreal – alternative mode of thought or existence is crucial to breaking out of the bind of capitalist realism. Being able to posit an incoherent alterity is the first step towards being able to move towards a coherent alternate reality.

But trying to pull away from the familiar and towards a new paradigm inevitably produces an encounter with Horror. Following from Ligotti’s assertion that Horror exists independent of the human, then perhaps it can be said that, in the way that venomous creatures are able to prolong their existence by disrupting the biological systems of their predators, Horror serves a similar function in the preservation and perpetuation of particular realities; Horror is a defensive tactic of collective existence which disrupts the cognitive systems of those seeking to change it.

Here it is important to distinguish between Horror, horror-as-genre, and horror.

Little-h “horror” is that which can be described as a feeling or emotion. It refers to a strong negative reaction, often literally embodied, which combines characteristics of disgust, pity, revulsion, and an instantaneous rejection which can be a precursor to fear.

Capital-H “Horror” by contrast is that philosophical/affective entity which Ligotti described as existing independently from the human consciousness. “Horror” is part of the collective consciousness, it is a fundamental part of both generating and processing reality itself.[1] Here, Horror refers to an affective quality which can be perceived even when it is not accompanied by horror. While some philosophical projects (as well as scientific, religious, and narrative) projects inspire horror in those who encounter them, all philosophical projects and re-imaginings of reality will produce Horror.

(While this is exceptionally true of efforts taking place in the tradition emergent from the Enlightenment and ultimately the Modernist philosophical projects, there is reason to believe that even in non-Western Rationalist reality paradigms Horror is emergent all the same. Regardless of what their precepts may be, collective reality rejects its own re-interpretation.)

This means that “horror-as-genre,” as a collective, wide-ranging aesthetic project dedicated to exploring the production of both horror and Horror, is kin to the philosophical and scientific projects which seek to push the boundaries of what is admissible in reality. But horror-as-genre can be deployed in the service of two outcomes: the first is the exploratory, imaginative function of positing the “outside” of reality, and the second is as an inoculation. Exposure to horror and Horror (especially in the places where they intersect and intensify each other) encourages familiarity with them, and that familiarity introduces the possibility of separating horror and Horror, making it possible to engage with each quality separately.

An inclusive survey of horror-as-genre quickly reveals the variety of emotional impulses present in a seemingly inclusive category. (This is partially a result of the diversity of any given audience. However, it is also because horror-as-genre traffics readily and effortlessly in pity and grief from tragedy,  and a variety of pleasurable sentiments.) So the evocation of mere horror is insufficient as a metric by which to recognize the shared quality which unifies horror-as-genre. What brings the disparate elements of horror-as-genre (a quality which enables a recognition unimpeded by the sometimes confounding confluence between genres) is the evocation of Horror – the affective, philosophical conundrum of the supposedly “unimaginable.”

By transforming the now-cliched Nietzsche quote into its raison d’être, horror-as-genre prepares us for life on the precipice. On one side, the worn-out, inhospitable, hazy terrain of the past, on the other, the abyss of the future, and between the two, the narrow ledge of the present. Capital-H Horror is the cognitive vertigo which comes with a prolonged gazing into the uncertainties of what is not-yet-known and what has not-yet-happened. It is the result of rejecting the materiality of the present and the collectively imagined real in favor of supposing that the void may not be empty after all.

Postmodernism created a Horror in modernism with its fundamental re-imagining of reality as inherently self-contradictory. The capacity of subjects and objects to contain themselves and their opposites generates unmitigated chaos in a modernist reality. The narrative complexity of postmodernism, the constant reproduction through speech and act, can make it impossible for a model of collective imagination which is still bound by the systems of modernism to adapt and respond. Meanwhile, the parts of reality which have embraced and adapted to the postmodernist model are already distant enough from large parts of the collective imagination to be perceived as an already reimagined “future.”

This implicit (though inaccurate) distancing is the result of both an evocation if Horror and the fundamental assumptions of modernism. As a post-Enlightenment ideology, modernism sees all change as progress, any modification, addition, or change constitutes a progressive evolution. This progressive assumption means that postmodernism is – by virtue of being “new” – both more recent and more forward thinking. But it is also disruptive, and that disruption, with its demand of a new paradigm, produces Horror in those attempting to engage it. The alterity of postmodernism to modernism renders it unreadable, especially at the beginning, or, in other words, “indescribable.”

The clash between perceived temporalities or other paradigmatic structures is a perpetual source of Horror. Horror which is very effective at disrupting the processes of the collective imagination. Developing a recognition of the role of Horror in demarcating reality modes and, more importantly, becoming comfortable with Horror as part of the imaginative process is a necessary component of liberating ourselves from the reality systems which have begun to negatively impact the collective imagination.

[1] Always Already discusses the intellectual crutch of the phrase “something itself” in the Thacker episode, which brings up a lot of very interesting questions. Nevertheless, at this time, the phrase will have to stand.

Bibliography

Aultman, B, et al. “Ep. 60 – Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy.” Always Already Podcast, 27 Dec. 2018, alwaysalreadypodcast.wordpress.com/2018/12/27/thacker/.

Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie. Repeater Books, 2016.

Ligotti, Thomas. Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe. Penguin Books, 2015.

Aztec-Futurism, Mental Monster Movies, and Chinese Speculative Fiction

Quick fiction recommendations featuring Latine fiction, mesoamerican mythology in a variety of configurations, Chinese history and politics, and a variety of possible futures.

Lords of the Earth

Rating: ★★★★★

The high concept movie pitch for this book is: Mesoamerican myth meets Godzilla. But Hollywood would never make this movie, and not only because they’re afraid of having a predominantly Latine cast. (Although now I’m imagining Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo Del Toro teaming up to bring this to the big screen … It would be amazing.) The real reason Hollywood could never bring this majestic adventure to the screen is that it would require a fundamental reconfiguration of the archetypes they rely on to make up the difference between “high concept” movie pitches and “great stories.”

This book has, at its core, the very thing that made the original Japanese Godzilla movies so good (and that which has been largely absent from any Western remakes) – there is no singular epistemology which will account for everything humanity is set to encounter. Just as in Mothra it is necessary to return to the folk stories to save Japan, so in Lords of the Earth must Western science meet and meld with indigenous knowledge to save Mexico and the world from the creatures awakened in the Earth’s mantle.

Bowles does a wonderful job fleshing out his characters in unexpected (though nevertheless natural) ways. He manages that nigh impossible feat of presenting genuinely complex – and at times irritating – characters in a way that lets them be fully human. We get to know them in the way you know old friends, full of faults and genius and particularities that make someone we can love.

The form of the novel shifts between points of view (always in the third person) and carefully unfolds the tangled history binding the different voices of the novel together. The famous physicist and TV host, the decorated general, and the Indigenous archeologist form the core of the story, with a shared, semi-public history spanning decades. Now, trapped together by the apocalyptic events set in motion by the emergence of huge, unknown creatures from Mexico’s volcanoes, that history is determined to meet its denoument.

In many ways, reading this book is more like being along for the ride than the slow unspooling and discovery of the narrative which can be said to characterize other SF/F stories. Despite its conglomoration of mysteries (What happened to bind Elena and General Marcos? Where did these monsters come from? How does an upstate New York transplant to Texas in the 1930s factor into all this? How did Elena and Alfonso end up so at odds with one another?) the action never abates.

So, if you like giant monsters, science, mythology, and adorable, kind of fucked up people trying to save the world, you should definitely take this one for a spin.

High Aztech

Rating: ★★★★★

Another book from the Latine SF/F Story bundle curated by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and another unadulterated triumph. I’ve already described it elsewhere as “The book American Gods wishes it was,” but that feels like a diminishment of what High Aztech achieves. (No insult intended to Neil Gaiman.)

High Aztech has all the best parts of cyberpunk/futurepunk speculative and science fiction. It makes me want to convince you of the potential for Aztec-Futurism as a mesoamerican corralary to Afro-Futurism. The novel has mind altering viruses, weird technologies, and a new world order following a global cataclysm (never fully explained). Hogan grabs you, the reader, and immerses you without remorse in the vibrant, familiar unknown world of Tenochtitlan – a new Mexico City undergoing a cultural revolution oriented toward bringing back Aztec beliefs.

The novel overflows with the mid-80s to early-90s hallucinogenic perpetual reconfiguration, like The Invisibles, Transmetropolitan, and Repo Man, except that to survive this story you had better get familiar with Nahuatl and the Aztec pantheon. It’s all worth it.

I haven’t been so moved or so convinced by a transcendental, spiritual apotheosis since I finished Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. Finally, at a moment when the U.S. and Mexico are poised to alientate themselves even further than already provided for by history, this is a story about perspective, and has more than enough political allegory for those not won over by awesome futuristic polyphonic insanity.

Broken Stars

Rating: ★★★★☆

The English-speaking world owes Ken Liu an enormous thank you. With 2017’s Invisible Planets and now with Broken Stars, Liu is bringing some of the best contemporary science fiction to audiences who cannot read Chinese.

Trying to compress my gushing praise and enthusiasm for Invisible Stars to comply with the limitations of coherent English is essentially impossible. Thus far it has most effectively been conveyed through immediate purchase and distribution of Invisible Planets to friends and loved ones, as well as fractured sentences, hand waving, and pleas for people to believe me when I say they must read it, if they wish to experience the full spectrum of what this life has to offer. In short: It’s amazing. Waste no time. Go read it immediately.

But that’s not Broken Planets. Broken Planets is also a requirement for anyone who wishes to experience the totality of human experience. It also requires slightly more patience and is possibly best considered as a more advanced continuation of what Ken Liu started with Invisible Planets.

The stories in Broken Stars are longer and combined with Liu’s push to include both more material from authors featured in the original collection as well as new authors, the editor freely admits the limitations this introduced on how many stories he could present from each author. Hopefully, galvanized by the response of Western audiences to the initial collection, Liu also chose to include some stories which draw more heavily on Chinese history, culture, and genre forms (such as wuxia novels). So while Invisible Planets could readily be given to someone with limited knowledge about Chinese politics, Broken Stars is best appreciated by readers with a little more experience. (For example, Baoshu’s “That which has already passed will in a kinder light appear” is entirely contingent on the reader being able to track events between existing history and a new one.) Footnotes are included throughout, but Liu and his fellow translators work hard to keep them minimal to avoid interrupting the flow of the stories.

Ultimately, I hope everyone has the opportunity to enjoy the work of Xia Jia. Her work has been as a sunbeam cutting through the winter gloom for me. Every single story of hers I’ve read has made me cry, and every one has been worth those tears. (It is not hard to make me cry, but it can be difficult to make me not resent it.)

DRM, the Designated Regret Model for ebook readers

Some people prefer to read on vacation, some prefer to do it while listening to music, some prefer silence, some prefer to do it upside down or in the bath or only between the hours of 4 and 6 in the afternoon. With physical books, we are at the mercy of the publishers and designers for the format of the book, but it is only with ebooks that we are at the mercy of international digital conglomerates about the exact manner in which we can access an object for which we have paid.

The need to ensure the profitability of people’s work, especially for small and/or independent publishers and authors is obvious. Digital media formats have absolutely changed the game in terms of ease of “unauthorized” redistribution of materials. (The very concept of redistribution of intellectual property being “un/authorized” poses a number of significant philosophical questions.) At the same time, there is something very wrong with the way in which DRM software has been implemented.

The metaphysics of intellectual “property” – do you really own the ideas? can anyone be said to own an idea once it has been put out into the world? where do we draw the line between influence, extrapolation, and plagiarism? can two people spontaneously produce the same ideas? how do you litigate such a case? – are impossible to cover here, if onlyb because there are so few good answers. (And even fewer which are acceptable to the Disney corporation, Bono, and, presumably, the entity or entities which make up the romance novelist “Nora Roberts”.)

One of my issues with ebooks, like many others, is the way in which they destroy the materiality of books. In this case, I don’t mean the way they feel, or smell, or sound, or taste, or whatever sensory aspect people usually invoke. I mean that almost every book I own, and certainly the ones I love, are the means with which I discourse with the author.

Unlike the sterile overprotectiveness which causes such divisions amongst “Booktubers” – the collective reader/writer community of YouTube – my books are heavily marked up. I have usually extensively highlighted, annotated, dog-eared, and sticky-noted any book I found worth my while, in addition to having dropped, sat and spilled and slept on it. I like to lend my books out, and get them back with a little additional wear showing that the other person enjoyed it enough to carry it around with them. (Obviously, I’d prefer that my books come back in a form where they are still legible and mostly intact, but I’m never particularly concerned about their physical status beyond those basics.)

In other words, I’m exceedingly particular about the ways in which I’m allowed to interact with my books. Ereaders, such as the Kindle Paperwhite (and certainly its predecessors), were never going to work for me, because highlighting and annotating are low-priority functions. For now, the ebook app which works best for me is Google Play Books. This is largely thanks to the automatic syncing of highlights/notes to a Google Doc.

Other apps have attempted similar features, but Google has done a remarkable job of making it easy to annotate your reading and make those annotations accessible and usable. Four highlight colors, which are all imported along with their content to the annotations document (It shouldn’t be necessary to remind developers that exporting the color of the highlight is as important as exporting its content but here we are. I’m looking at you, Xodo), allow a range of different active reading methods, and any notes added to a given highlight are exported as a related annotation along with the highlighted text (Again, I didn’t think we needed to remind people of this, but…). It isn’t fully customizable, but it is remarkably flexible.

This isn’t to say that Amazon’s Kindle app can’t or doesn’t do some or all of these things. I merely happen to like Google’s material design. But I’m not actually here to extoll the virtues of one ereader or ebook app over another.

I’m here to talk about personal preference. Almost everyone has had an experience where the format, layout, or design of a book has negatively impacted their experience of it. Some people have almost certainly found themselves unwilling, unable, or at great pains to continue reading a book based on one of those factors, be it font choice, page gutter, or book size. Ebooks are intended to be less susceptible to those types of user experience failures thanks to flowing text, which allows the reader to resize and reformat the text to their liking, making it easier to read purely in terms of eyeball mechanics. (Obviously, format contingent works, such as House of Leaves, are unable to benefit from this kind of malleability.)

When the use multiple and/or variable devices – in a range of sizes and weights – is factored in, the portability and maneuverability made available to readers is unparalleled. (Consider the difference between reading something like David Graeber’s Debt, the first 5,000 years (534 pages), Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (641 pages) or K-punk: the collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (891 pages) in a physical format versus a digital one. It’s the difference between being able to read them in bed and needing a table.) Additionally, for people who like to annotate as they read, the digital space is without limitation, because comments and ideas are liberated from the confines of the margin.

This kind of flexibility should make ebooks vastly appealing to people. In so many other parts of our lives, we have been converted by the adaptability, convenience, immediacy, and shareability of the digital world. Newspapers, magazines, videos, television, etc…. And yet, not so with ebooks. This is not down merely to the fact that “book people” are all luddites who prefer the “physicality” of the book.

It’s because publishers have done next to nothing to make the ebook an appealing alternative to its physical counterpart.

The real advantages of the physical book over the ebook are as follows: anything with the prefix “re-”. Re-selling. Re-gifting. Re-mixing. Re-using. Re-reading. Books, unlike most other commodities, are rarely entirely personal. Cars, underwear, and plates of nachos are all things we acquire with the understanding that they are not intended to be shared. I don’t offer to give you my car or a perfect nacho just because I enjoyed it. Books, on the other hand, are regularly swapped, lent, borrowed, entrusted, assigned, given, and gifted.

Adam Driver and the perfect nachos in What If? (2013)

The treatment of a book like a single-use, limited-use, or personal commodity is to fundamentally misconstrue the social use and function of “the book” as a cultural object. Intellectual property may cover the ideas embedded within a book’s pages and may need protecting. But books, in general, exist and proliferate explicitly because those ideas are intended to be distributed.

Why, specifically, am I so mad about this? How does DRM software specifically tie into this screed about the nature of books and ebooks?

The issue moved from the theoretical (intellectual property management in the digital age) to the personal. In the capitalist fashion, this was through financial investment and subsequent “buyer’s remorse”.

It is now abundantly clear to me that the primary way of ensuring that an ebook is not wildly proliferated across the web is to tie the file (in my case, an epub) to a specific reader application (in my case, Adobe Digital Editions). If you do or cannot buy your ebook through one of the combo purchasing/reading ebook ecosystems in accordance with your personal preference (Amazon → Kindle, Google Play Store → Google Books, Barnes & Noble → Nook, Kobo → Kobo, etc.), you may make the mistake of attempting to purchase a DRM protected ebook from somewhere else.

I made the mistake of not reading the fine print.

Always read the fine print. Even if you have to search for it, always, always read it.

Ebooks.com was, I thought, an oasis in the desert. It seemed I would be able to purchase an epub of K-punk: the collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (which is not available through Google Play Books) from them. In my unbridled enthusiasm to dig into the writing of Mark Fisher, I did so.

Don’t want to download the ebooks.com app? Click this link and download an epub, instead. (This was were reading the fine print comes in.) But I didn’t get to download an epub, actually.

What I could download is an acsm file. ACSM stands for “Adobe Content Server Message” and it is a file format which Adobe uses to pull content protected by Adobe’s DRM software to your computer. My unmitigated irritation does not permit me the patience to dig into the technical details of how Adobe uses this method to enable permissions across devices through Adobe Digital Editions to access the ebook. Suffice to say, you create or use an account associated with Adobe products and are able to sync that account’s library.

Just to add insult to injury, once you have opened the ACSM file with Adobe Digital Editions, a copy of the epub (as in, an actual booktitle.epub file) does come to live on your device. Forget opening it, though. It is impossible to open with any software other than an Adobe product. (While someone has undoubtedly designed software specifically designed to crack the DRM code embedded in the file, but I’m not actually interested in stealing anything today.)

The end result of all this is that I cannot read a book I paid $13 to access using the ebook reader of my choice.

Reading is an incredibly personal, intimate experience. Some people prefer to read on vacation, some prefer to do it while listening to music, some prefer silence, some prefer to do it upside down or in the bath or only between the hours of 4 and 6 in the afternoon. With physical books, we are at the mercy of the publishers and designers for the format of the book, but it is only with ebooks that we are at the mercy of international digital conglomerates about the exact manner in which we can access an object for which we have paid.

You know what I found really galling, though? The thing that finally pushed me over the edge, after paying to be digitally inconvenienced?

Ebooks.com says they cannot accept returns, because they have not handed over a physical object. Therefore, there is nothing to return, according to them. Given how many times I had to feed my email address into Adobe Digital Editions and ebooks.com, I find it exceedingly improbable that they would not be able to revoke my access to any DRM encoded file which requires the usage of their proprietary software to be read.

This isn’t Schrödinger’s epub. The file can’t both exist enough to be monitored and secured with proprietary software and simultaneously be so immaterial that I can’t have my access to it revoked in return for my $13.

It is probable that neither publishers nor the wider “book people” community care very much about how ebooks are managed. The publishers are probably happy to conform to the digital mediocrity produced by proprietary DRM software, as it does the work of securing their IP and therefore their profits, while “book people” are happy to take it as proof that the physical book is still preferable to the digital one, and everyone else is more interested in audiobook integration than anything else.

So this is my rallying cry into the void:

We all deserve better ebooks. Authors and publishers deserve DRM software that limit the amount of mass, “unauthorized” distribution of the material that produces their livelihood, and readers deserve DRM software that doesn’t completely incapacitate their engagement and enjoyment of that same material.

Whether this means cutting out the middle man, so I can buy my ebooks directly from the publisher, or if it means an aggressive diversification of the distribution channels so that more books are available across more services, I neither know nor care. Ideally, it would involve a practice of building new DRM code which enables transfer of the files without copying them, in addition to non-proprietary or locked formats.

Whatever publishers and authors decide, at the moment, the only ones with any respect for their audience are the ones brave enough to distribute their ebooks DRM free.

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/.