Mutant Nature

by Dwight Furrow

Mutant natureNature is not disappearing; it's just hiding in your salad bowl.

Throughout most of human history human beings were utterly dependent on nature and everything about human life was determined by it. Adapt or die was the imperative that governed all life and so nature seemed infinite and without measure, a fact recognized by 18th century theories of the sublime. Yet, throughout most of that history, we refused to acknowledge this dependence striving to see ourselves as ultimately separate from nature. The separation of mind and body, of earth and heaven, the opposition of nature and culture, were taken to be simply obvious.

But today we have reversed that equation. Inexorably, we have learned to control nature through technologies which have reached such a critical mass that nature has been reduced to a mere instrument to be carved up and used as we see fit—a “standing reserve” as Heidegger called it. Even our biological make up will soon be subject to fundamental manipulation as gene editing comes online. The result is that nature now seems finite and fragile, disappearing under the deluge of techno-science and mass industrialization.

Paradoxically, as we gain more control over nature we have begun to acknowledge our dependence on it, as the Paris climate talks get underway amidst a deepening sense of crisis. The consequences of ignoring our dependence on nature are all too evident. For us today nature is both an instrument to be used up and a center of independent power, a Janus-faced phenomenon, on the one hand limited and circumscribed by human activity but on the other hand generating effluvia that create a devilishly devious constraint on human activity. The resistance of nature yields to our technology in countless ways but leaves behind a residue of pollution and devastation that threatens to undermine that hard won human control.

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And Another ‘Thing’ : Sci-Fi Truths and Nature’s Errors

by Daniel Rourke

In my last 3quarksdaily article I considered the ability of science-fiction – and the impossible objects it contains – to highlight the gap between us and ‘The Thing Itself’ (the fundamental reality underlying all phenomena). In this follow-up I ask whether the way these fictional ‘Things’ determine their continued existence – by copying, cloning or imitation – can teach us about our conception of nature.

Seth Brundle: What’s there to take? The disease has just revealed its purpose. We don’t have to worry about contagion anymore… I know what the disease wants.

Ronnie: What does the disease want?

Seth Brundle: It wants to… turn me into something else. That’s not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.

Ronnie: Turned into what?

Seth Brundle: Whaddaya think? A fly. Am I becoming a hundred-and-eighty-five-pound fly? No, I’m becoming something that never existed before. I’m becoming… Brundlefly. Don’t you think that’s worth a Nobel Prize or two?

The Fly, 1986

In David Cronenberg’s movie The Fly (1986) we watch through slotted fingers as the body of Seth Brundle is horrifically transformed. Piece by piece Seth becomes Brundlefly: a genetic monster, fused together in a teleportation experiment gone awry. In one tele-pod steps Seth, accompanied by an unwelcome house-fly; from the other pod emerges a single Thing born of their two genetic identities. The computer algorithm designed to deconstruct and reconstruct biology as pure matter cannot distinguish between one entity and another. The parable, as Cronenberg draws it, is simple: if all the world is code then ‘all the world’ is all there is.

Vincent Price in 'The Fly', 1958Science fiction is full of liminal beings. Creatures caught in the phase between animal and human, between alien and Earthly, between the material and the spirit. Flowing directly from the patterns of myth Brundlefly is a modern day Minotaur: a manifestation of our deep yearning to coalesce with natural forces we can’t understand. The searing passions of the bull, its towering stature, are fused in the figure of the Minotaur with those of man. The resultant creature is too fearsome for this world, too Earthly to exist in the other, and so is forced to wander through a labyrinth hovering impossibly between the two. Perhaps Brundlefly’s labyrinth is the computer algorithm winding its path through his genetic code. As a liminal being, Brundlefly is capable of understanding both worlds from a sacred position, between realities. His goal is reached, but at a cost too great for an Earthly being to understand. Seth the scientist sacrifices himself and there is no Ariadne’s thread to lead him back.

In her book on monsters, aliens and Others Elaine L. Graham reminds us of the thresholds these ‘Things’ linger on:

“[H]uman imagination, by giving birth to fantastic, monstrous and alien figures, has… always eschewed the fiction of fixed species. Hybrids and monsters are the vehicles through which it is possible to understand the fabricated character of all things, by virtue of the boundaries they cross and the limits they unsettle.”

Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human

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