Sunday, July 21, 2013

Hide and Seek, Part 1: All Those Years They Were Here First

Hide and seek.
Trains and sewing machines.
All those years they were here first.

Oily marks appear on walls
Where pleasure moments hung before.
The takeover, the sweeping insensitivity of this still life.

- Imogen Heap, "Hide and Seek"

As the editors of the collection for which I'm writing prepare their final comments and suggestions for my essay, I've been thinking about some of the possible trajectories of the "posthuman determinism" I propose; specifically, the ethical ones.  Since I used hoarding as an ongoing example in the piece, one of my editors sent along a talk by Jane Bennett.  The subject of her talk was hoarding, and its relationship to the "vibrant materialism" about which Bennett writes.  I was taken by her statement that hoarders are "preternaturally attuned to the call of things," as well as her theory that hoarders are under a kind of "animistic taboo" in their attachment to things.  Very loosely, Bennett's idea is that despite a prevalent consumerism in our culture, too much or too strong of an attachment becomes a taboo of sorts.

This made me realize that her overall approach generally skews toward artifacts rather than objects. That is to say, manufactured or made objects, rather than more natural objects.  Interestingly, however, although there is the occasional hoarder who hoards rocks or leaves, for the most part people are aghast at the hoard as a series of artifacts:  of what use is the stuff? Why are you holding onto this (useless) piece of junk?

But if we stand back and put all phenomenal objects (i.e. objects that have extension, and can be physically apprehended), on a level playing field, we find that we have a very culturally constructed -- even politicized -- hierarchy of objects.  The environmentalist values the object of the tree, the river, the field as higher than the artifact of the iPhone, the refrigerator, or the shards of lead paint.  And that, in specific circles, is desirable, right, and just.  Whereas the person who finds comfort surrounding him or herself with artifacts is "shallow," "superficial," or, in the least philosophical sense of the term, "materialistic."  Obviously, an obsession with artifacts can have detrimental effects, not the least of which are the very philosophical ones which Heidegger outlines in The Question Concerning Technology. Indeed, falling prey to a predatory consumerism can have terrible effects on us psychologically and culturally.

Now, putting all phenomenal objects on an equal conceptual footing as objects -- making no distinction between "object" and "artifact" or "natural" and "artificial" -- we can, perhaps, alter our approach.  Why is feeling a sense of well-being from one group of objects better, or even more "normal" than feeling a sense of well-being from another group of objects?  Is there something inherently better in one group than another?  Why, exactly, is it better to feel comfort from trees, rocks, and grass than it is from a big-screen TV, a warm blanket, and soft, fuzzy socks?  Is it because we have deemed one "natural" and the other "artificial"?  Because one is made of certain materials which are safer than another?  Or because one group has come into existence apparently without the aid of human intervention, whereas the other has come into existence at the cost of human health and dignity?  Fair assessments, absolutely.  However, even a cursory investigation of the "natural" scenario can transform those objects into instruments of death and destruction:  natural bacteria in the water can make a person gravely ill.  The tree can fall over and crush whoever's under it, etc.

These are reductionist, broad-stroke examples, of course.  I use them as points of departure.  Because if we simply view objects as "other," then we will always fall into a myriad of binary systems by which such objects are classified, or worse, an endless Marxist exercise in subjugation and valuation.  As a posthumanist, I see the subject-object/self-other dichotomy as the product of an obsolete worldview.  Denigrating the value of ANY objects to our well-being as humans can have negative consequences as well.

There are times when an object, for whatever reason, can, psychologically make us feel good, or give us a sense of place and well-being.  A comfortable room, a soft blanket, a childhood teddy-bear, or even a cell phone or tablet that does all we need it to do, can -- albeit momentarily -- "complete" us.  I've written repeatedly that, from a posthuman standpoint, an artifact "works" for us when we feel no boundary between it and us.  We are in union with it.  Immediately disqualifying a physical artifact as a source of an existential moment simply because it is physical,  is to cut off an entire field of study.

Furthermore, ignoring the very real materialism around us through haphazardly elevating any object -- including a natural one -- can have serious consequences.  Heidegger maintains that applying a "setting-in-order" to nature sets us on a path to the "standing reserve," or a blind objectification of the world around us.  I agree.  However, I also believe that the variables in this equation can be flipped: bracketing "nature" as something that is other than a materialism is to actually miss out on the authentic vitality of those objects.  To plant, to harvest, to conserve are all manipulations of the physical materiality of the objects of nature.  Weeds don't commit suicide because they are choking our our tomatoes.  Rainwater does not gather magically in the right place and irrigate our terraced garden.  Non-native vegetables, fruits, and legumes do not plant themselves.  Furthermore, the "natural" enzymes in the manure we spread over the soil will just as easily make us ill if we don't wash our hands (with soap) after handling it.  Walking barefoot, not bathing, eschewing vaccines, only myopically represent humanity's "natural" state.

Objects are objects.  They always already precede us in the world (or even the lifeworld).  This is where Bennett's work comes in really handy. In her characterization of objects as having a "vital materiality," she's not referring to a kind anthropomorphic animus; instead, she's pointing to the unique materialisms of each, and how the material character of objects affect us.  She does so without using an existential, subjective conceit: those objects are already in the world we occupy.  We do not "bring them forth." They are already there.

As for me, I take this a step further.  The "I" is manifested in a world of objects -- not the least of which is the physical body.  But that self-aware I, that Dasein, is composed by and through the physical objects around us at any given moment.  And as I write through this idea, I'm starting to understand more clearly Bennett's contention that a heightened awareness of the objects around us could be linked in some way to Freud's death-drive, or even Sartre's "being-in-itself" vs. "being-for-itself."  Perhaps we don't want the objects to be part of us as much as we want to fall back into the world of objects.

More of that in Part 2 ...

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Posthuman Superman: The Passion of the Kent

"How changed Zarathustra is! Zarathustra has become a child, an
awakened one. What do you plan to do in the land of the sleepers? You
have been floating in a sea of solitude, and the sea has borne you up. At
long last, are you ready for dry land? Are you ready to drag yourself

Zarathustra answered: "I love mankind."

                                  - Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

I have to admit, I am somewhat conflicted writing a post about Superman -- specifically the newest incarnation by Zack Snyder, Man of Steel.  Superman has always been my favorite superhero for a lot of reasons, and I find that when I'm faced with a really good Superman story (which I think Man of Steel was), it's hard for me to separate the awestruck fanboy in me from the academic.  The good part about that, though, is that the conflict gives me a justification for multiple viewings.  So for the first viewing of Man of Steel, I let my inner child dominate, and watched, often with mouth agape, as this latest iteration of Superman came to grips with his humanity.  But I did make some mental notes of a few things to look for when I watched the film again, with a more theoretical eye.

My first review of Man of Steel can be found on both my Google+ and Facebook pages.  That's a good place to start.  But here I want to get into some deeper issues that the film covers, specifically those that cross into posthuman territory.  But I do want to make it clear that there is a bias in my analysis, only because I enjoyed the film immensely, and it only reinforced my admiration of Superman as a character and archetype.  This is also my first attempt at applying a kind of a "posthuman read" to it, so it's a bit rough around the edges.  Finally, turn back now if you don't want potential spoilers. 

So, how can we view Man of Steel through a posthuman lens?  It came to me during my second screening of the film ... more specifically, in its final five minutes.  I realized then that -- despite the, at times, over the top action -- I felt a more palpable suspense at the "reveal" of Clark Kent than I felt when Kal-El first dons the iconic suit and learns how to fly.  It became clear that this film was not about introducing Superman as much as it was about introducing Clark Kent.  And this is why I thought the film was brilliant.  The climax of the film was not the final conflict between Zod and Superman.  It was seeing the elevator doors open to reveal Clark Kent, glasses and all.  And that's when it all clicked to me as a viable "posthuman" story: Kal-El wishes to be human, and he creates Clark Kent in a (futile) attempt to achieve that humanity.  And in our portrayal of all manner of android and tin men, we need that character to want to be human.  But we feel safe and happy, because just like the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Roy Batty from Blade Runner, Agent Smith from The Matrix, or David the android from Prometheus and/or A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, the character works because he/it isn't human and never can be.  Thus, we, as humans, are privileged in that we are born into a humanity that other beings can never achieve.  The messianic aspects to this are clear, and we can easily apply this narrative to the Christian mythos:  God, an omnipotent, omniscient, and lonely figure wishes to be closer to his human creations:  he re-creates himself into a human, so that he too can experience suffering and death, and thus allow his creations salvation in an everlasting union with him.  Humanity creates a character which is all-powerful, but still desires (to be human).  This is an aspect of the "posthuman suffering" I've written about in the past:  we project our humanity onto objects so that they may "suffer with us."  We wish to disembody our pain -- or lack -- and place it upon the shoulders of an other.  I customarily characterize that "other" as technological, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. Regardless, it follows a messianic pattern.  

The messianic imagery in Man of Steel is too obvious to be metaphorical, and although I've seen all of Zack Snyder's films, I don't know enough about his artistic temperament to judge whether or not his "sledgehammer symbolism" was an intentional or accidental red herring.  Regardless, it was a red herring.  Despite Clark's "Gethsemane moment" in a church, complete with a stained-glass representation of Jesus in the garden behind him; and despite the cross-like position in which Superman falls to earth to save humanity, we were not seeing a representation of a Judeo-Christian messiah. This was, without question, an iteration of the Nietzschean √úbermensch -- with a bit of a posthuman twist.  So much so, that I actually find myself hoping that Snyder purposely put the messianic references in there as a wink to the audience. 

In the film, we are introduced to Kal-El literally at the moment of his birth.  Jor-El and Lara have broken Kryptonian tradition and law by having a natural childbirth (as opposed to having a child via a matrix-like birthing process, in which every Kryptonian citizen is genetically hard-wired for a specific role in society).  Kal-El's birth is only partially natural, since he is later encoded with the genetic makeup of every potential Kryptonian in his blood.  If he is to be a savior, it is to his own race, not humanity.  And it is this alien nature which is emphasized throughout the film.  After Kal-El's ship crashes near the Kent farm, Snyder quickly cuts to an adult Clark Kent who has been traveling the earth under false names, attempting to find his place in the world, all the while helping people.  It is implied that after any show of his true strength and abilities, he disappears and assumes another life.  So, while serving aboard a fishing boat, Clark comes to the rescue of some workers on an oil rig.  He saves the men in the open, not making a secret of his strength.  But he disappears after and assumes another life.  He is not actually Clark Kent, nor is he Superman.  

What is interesting is the fact that we see his childhood framed through his moments of heroism as the anonymous, unnamed stranger: every time he shows a glimmer of what he can do as Clark Kent, he suffers for it.  In a poignant moment that will affect every 8 year old ADD sufferer who sees the film, a young Clark's senses seem to shift into their heightened mode:  he hears sounds from miles away, he sees through people, and he eventually flees to a closet to close out the world, because, in his words, "the world's too big, Mom."  A few years later, when Clark's school bus plummets into a river, he saves everyone.  One mother is convinced that it was an act of God, which is quite literally laughed off by a savvy Martha Kent.  But the interesting moment comes when Jonathan Kent chastises Clark for using his powers.  "What was I supposed to do?  Let them die?" asks Clark.  "Maybe," replies Jonathan.  

For Clark, his strength, his senses, and his super-human abilities are the very things that alienate him from humanity itself.  He is not human.  As Nietzsche tells us, the ideal of the "individual" to which Western Philosophy says we should aspire is eventually cast out and destroyed by society.  We hold the individual up, and then, in countless iterations of messianic mythology, turn on the individual and destroy it.  Snyder may be setting this up in this installment for later sequels.  After all, the final battle between Superman and Zod is on a planetary level, and leaves large swaths of destruction behind.  Zod's intention is to terraform earth into a new Krypton -- not have humanity serve him.  Humanity, for Zod, is necessarily expendable in order for Krypton to be reborn.  This is why the level of destruction that Snyder presents in the film is as massive as it is.  This is a planetary threat that would mean the destruction of the human race. Not to be cynical or callous,  but if a "planet killing" asteroid or some other threat like that showed up, and somehow we were able to deflect it with a missile or something so that it flattened several city blocks (and perhaps tens of thousands of people), we could consider that an incredible success -- tens of thousands dead rather than 7 billion and the extinction of the species. But I digress.

What brings Man of Steel into the posthuman age is the fact Superman's saving of humanity is incidental to his establishment of his human persona.  I think that this might be, subconsciously, why many were turned off by the massive destruction portrayed in the film.  To a lesser extent, that's where my own critique comes in: there did need to be a few more moments of danger on the micro-level.  The moment of danger with Perry White and Jenny Olsen, coupled with the "moment of truth" toward the end of the film when Zod is about to incinerate a family with his heat vision, were almost enough.  But on a deeper, less apparent, psychological level, Snyder inverts the usual, more casual, Superman formula.  Some enjoy the Superman  story because they see it as a metaphor for overcoming human weakness.  The stumbling, stammering Clark Kent in us all hides the true power within.  But this is a Superman who longs to be human.  This plot-line is okay for cyborgs and errant A.I.s, but not for an established superhero. If one is looking for Jesus, but finds Zarathustra instead, there's bound to be disappointment. Imagine a Jesus forfeiting his divinity and refusing to resurrect. Then again, I've always been more inspired by Zarathustra than Jesus.

I used to say in my Philosophy of Communication classes that there are certain "essential" elements of various mythologies that must be there in order for them to be accepted as that specific mythology:  Vampires must have some weakness (either to the sun, wooden stakes, or silver); zombies must crave flesh; there must be the iconic Spider-Man swinging pose; Batman's origin story must involve a scene containing the slaying of his parents, complete with Martha Wayne's pearls falling to the pavement.  For Superman, I used to say that there had to be at least one scene where Clark Kent rips his shirt open revealing the iconic S shield underneath.  When I screened Man of Steel the second time, I realized that I was partially wrong.  The closest thing to the classic "S reveal" in this film was the first time we see Clark Kent at the daily planet.  He pulls on his blazer; he straightens his tie, an then he puts on his glasses. And he does so milking as much suspense and anticipation as possible.  This was the actual "hero reveal."

Manifestations of posthumanity don't necessarily have to revolve around artifactual technology.  Although we could say that Kal-El was escaping a Krypton that had destroyed itself by exhausting its environment (in this iteration, Kryptonians have tapped into -- and spent -- the core of their planet for fuel, causing the planet to become unstable and eventually implode).  They had also "overtaxed" themselves via genetic manipulation.  But that's not really what constitutes the posthuman aspects of the film.  If we think about characters like HAL, Roy Batty, David, and even the Judeo-Christian God, they all have in common abilities that clearly make them superior to humans in every way; but each of them desires, and thus, each is aware of a lack.  What they desire is irrelevant (although many times they actually desire a human flaw -- old age; fear of death; or the capacity to love):  it's their capacity to desire which points to their origins as human cultural constructions.  And it's our capacity to desire (to self-reflexively be aware of a lack in ourselves) that characterizes our humanity.  We reinforce our humanity be creating characters who aren't human, but have a human awareness of a lack in themselves.  We want those constructions to "suffer with" us.  If the character has incredible mental and/or physical strength, it shows that their own (human) lack/suffering cannot be satisfied with those qualities alone.  Thus, if something more physically/mentally powerful than us cannot overcome itself, then how can we -- as mere humans -- be expected to do so?  In a Nietzschean fashion, we re-center our humanity around the striving for an ideal, rather than the Apollonian conclusion.  The point is to always be striving.  Death comes no matter what; it is neither a goal nor an impediment to overcome.  We must strive, and our human desire allows us to do that.

So, the most posthuman aspect of this film is nothing technological:  it is very much that Superman -- the god, the alien, the other -- strives and aspires to be Clark Kent.  And since Kal-El was raised on earth, Clark Kent is our (human) creation.  In Man of Steel, Superman is a hero because he unceasingly and unapologetically strives for an ideal that is, for him, ultimately impossible to achieve: humanity.  This is the posthuman Superman.