‘The Thing Itself’ : A Sci-Fi Archaeology

by Daniel Rourke

Mid-way through H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine, the protagonist stumbles into a sprawling abandoned museum. Sweeping the dust off ancient relics he ponders his machine’s ability to hasten their decay. It is at this point that The Time Traveller has an astounding revelation. The museum is filled with artefacts not from his past, but from his own future: The Time Traveller is surrounded by relics whose potential to speak slipped away with the civilisation that created them.

Having bypassed the normal laws of causality The Time Traveller is doomed to inhabit strands of history plucked from time’s grander web. Unable to grasp a people’s history – the conditions that determine them – one will always misunderstand them.

Archaeology derives from the Greek word arche, which literally means the moment of arising. Aristotle foregrounded the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a Thing, which although indemonstrable and intangible in Itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of that Thing. In a sense, archaeology is as much about the present instant, as it is about the fragmentary past. We work on what remains through the artefacts that make it into our museums, our senses and even our language. But to re-energise those artefacts, to bring them back to life, the tools we have access to do much of the speaking.

The Things ThemselvesLike the unseen civilisations of H.G.Wells’ museum, these Things in Themselves lurk beyond the veil of our perceptions. It is the world in and of Itself; the Thing as it exists distinct from perceptions, from emotions, sensations, from all phenomenon, that sets the conditions of the world available to those senses. Perceiving the world, sweeping dust away from the objects around us, is a constant act of archaeology.

Kant called this veiled reality the noumenon, a label he interchanged with The-Thing-Itself (Ding an Sich). That which truly underlies what one may only infer through the senses. For Kant, and many philosophers that followed, The Thing Itself is impossible to grasp directly. The senses we use to search the world also wrap that world in a cloudy haze of perceptions, misconceptions and untrustworthy phenomena.

In another science fiction classic, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem considered the problem of The Thing Itself as one of communication. His Master’s Voice (HMV), written at the height of The Cold War, tells the story of a team of scientists and their attempts to decipher an ancient, alien message transmitted on the neutrino static streaming from a distant star. The protagonist of this tale, one Peter Hogarth, recounts the failed attempts at translation with a knowing, deeply considered cynicism. To Peter, and to Stanislaw Lem himself, true contact with an alien intelligence is an absolute impossibility:

“In the course of my work… I began to suspect that the ‘letter from the stars’ was, for us who attempted to decipher it, a kind of psychological association test, a particularly complex Rorschach test. For as a subject, believing he sees in the coloured blotches angels or birds of ill omen, in reality fills in the vagueness of the thing shown with what is ‘on his mind’, so did we attempt, behind the veil of incomprehensible signs, to discern the presence of what lay, first and foremost, within ourselves.”

Stanislaw Lem, His Master’s Voice

In HMV and Lem’s better known novel, Solaris, the conviction that an absolute true reality exists under the dust of perception leads humanity down ever more winding labyrinths of its own psyche. For Stanislaw Lem the human mind exists in a perpetual state of archaeology, turning away from Itself in search of truth, but time and again finding Itself confronted as the very Thing that underlies the reality it is trying to decipher.

To transcend phenomena, to clear away the dust, one must, according to Kant, think. Thus his Thing Itself, derives from the Greek for ‘thought-of’ (nooúmenon) and further implies the concept of the mind (nous). Kant’s Thing Itself is accessed through pure thought. A clear enough mind, devoid of the bodily shackles of pain, pleasure or emotion, might see without seeing, sweeping away the perceptual cobwebs by guile alone. What Plato referred to as the only immortal part of the human soul, reason, becomes through Kant the dominant principle by which The Thing Itself may be reached.

In the short space I have allotted myself here, I have not the time, or the guile, to fully analyse the Kantian noumenon. Needles to say, countless thinkers, from Nietzsche to Wittgenstein, Hegel to Agamben, have grappled with the suppositions and presuppositions made to cohere and then crumble by Kant’s addiction to reason. What interests me about science fiction, and most readily about the works of Wells and Lem, is the attempt made to search for ‘The Thing Itself’ beyond the mind; beyond the human altogether.

Science fiction allows the creation of an imaginary set of conditions by which the human being may break their most burdonsome shackle: their own mind. Human timescales, bodies, forms of thinking and perception: each of these must be circumvented if one is ever able to grasp The Thing Itself. Kant’s principle of noumenon embodies a discourse on the limits of perception that has remained relevant to philosophy for millenia. The paradox of the archaeology – the arising – of an underlying reality is the defining principle of a thousand sci-fi tales.

For Stanislaw Lem our limitations become obvious once we are confronted with the existence of an intelligence which is not human. Lem’s novels seek to connect us with the absolute ‘other’: that most alien of Things, ourselves. Reality, for Lem at least, is composed in an indecipherable language. Humanity lives in an eternal stasis, unable to circum-navigate the new realities it constantly ‘discovers’ for itself. And in the end we find ourselves limited by the brains that think us, unable to distinguish the twinkle-twinkle from the little star:

“There exist, speaking in the most general way, two kinds of language known to us. There are ordinary languages, which man makes use of – and the languages not made by man. In such language organisms speak to organisms. I have in mind the so called genetic code. This code is not a variety of natural language, because it not only contains information about the structure of the organism, but also is able, by itself, to transform that information into the very organism. The code, then, is acultural…

Now to go straight to the heart of the matter, we begin to suspect that an ‘acultural language’ is something more or less like Kant’s ‘Thing-in-itself’. One can fully grasp neither the code nor the thing.”

Stanislaw Lem, His Master’s Voice

by Daniel Rourke

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