December 08, 2014

#3 A Few Words about Extinction Culture, Nightmares of the Anthropocene, and the Horror of the Real

Or more than a few words as it turns out, so...

GOOD OLD FASHIONED "ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE" / SPOILER WARNING: discussions of the plots of Transcendence, Knights of Sidonia, the Planet of the Apes reboot, Firefall series of books by Peter Watts and Trees comic by Warren Ellis are contained in this message.

Hi how are you? Are you well? How's the kids/pets/digital persona/partial mind upload/shadow self/tulpas and mysterious visitations by outside agencies of possibly interdimensional or extra terrestrial origin? In fine health I trust.

I'm in the process of moving house, may vanish from the net for long to short periods. Not that you'd notice. Its that time of year. That and the wildly variant weather here got me thinking about our ancestors, the so-called cave dwellers. Did they just move in there because the climate got crazy? Did we only find traces of them there because its so easy to look - like the old keys under the street light cliche. Were they in quite elaborate tree houses or something before that? All trace of which vanished. What was life like exactly at the end of the Ice Age and the beginning of the great deluge that serves as the beginning of recorded time? I think we're going to find out.

Hello and welcome to another issue of the (De)Extinction Club Newsletter.

In my latest post on Daily Grail I perform a deep reading of the film TRANSCENDENCE, perhaps giving it far more attention that it deserves, using it as vehicle to talk about the Neanderthal Dilemma (do you kill a superior species when it emerges and in doing so kill the future?) and Gray Goo (nanotech run wild over the planet) as two examples of existential threats to the (baseline) human condition; as the Nightmares of the Anthropocene Age.

"However, the most instructive examples come from classical horror film, in particular the “creature features” of Hollywood film studios such as Universal or RKO. The proliferation of living contradictions in horror film constitutes our modern bestiary. Let us consider a hagiography of life in the relation between theology and horror: the living dead, the undead, the demon, and the phantasm." ~ In The Dust Of This Planet

This being part of my ongoing online public digestion of Eugene Thacker's book In The Dust Of This Planet (see also of course the (De)Extinction Club bookclub posts), and an attempt to begin to construct a twenty first century update on the 'creature feature set' that blends fiction and the fast-changing nature of living embedded in the science-fictional condition. Because that sounded like fun.

I ended that first entry bemoaning the current state of SF in Pop Culture; in film and on TV. Saying “there's very little in the way of brain busting, mind twisting speculation beyond the occasional neat time travel flick.” So it was with much interest that I saw this article pop up repeatedly in my twitter feed, “When Science Fiction Stopped Caring About the Future” posted on The Atlantic by Noah Berlatsky. Here, I thought, is something that will bolster my argument. Activate confirmation bias! Instead, I found myself reading it and quickly mentally arguing with both the author and my past self. And not just about the elevated position of the Star Wars franchise in our society.

Its that argument I care to elaborate now, and in doing so broaden the scope of our inquiry to include a wider range of mediums and countries of origin beyond the Hollywood mainstream. To begin to sketch in the process something like an Extinction Fiction, or... Extinction Culture. Elaborating on this an "emergent part of the zeitgeist" I keep talking about by mining pop culture with a wider lens, then folding in some philosophy and horror. Stir, repeat. To demonstrate that there's plenty of work being done that's a critical commentary on the present. Existing outside the “progress presented in timeless vacuum” setting written about by this Atlantean cultural critic; much as I agree with the rest of the argument presented.

"American capitalism is dedicated to the cult of growth, expansion, and the new boss ever bigger, better, and cooler than the old. It's an ideology of eternal improvement, and pop sci-fi fits that presumption neatly. Technology advances and humans mutate into X-Men without ever prompting a consideration of "alternatives to how we live now." The future, outside of time, brings empowerment but no change."

The “Myth of Progress”, as its known especially amongst the allied factions of anarcho-primitivists and Dark Mountainers, is considered our secular item of faith and reigns unquestioned. Eugene Thacker's book of philosophy is precisely about seeking to find a change in consciousness in how we see and categorise reality.

I've got four main examples that do this, each in different mediums, with plots that threaten or examine the extinction or at very least existential foundation, of humanity. All by their very definition being “alternatives to how we live” now.

The first example given in the article is the single-gendered hermaphrodites of Ursula K. Le Guin's fiction. In her work, The Left Hand of Darkness, all humans are such. In the extremely popular anime series, Knights of Sidonia, this is one of the options that can be chosen for a child. There are three available genders; male, female and asexual. Additionally, everyone has been genetically engineered to possess photosynthesis, to solve a food shortage. And cloning is prevalent. Quite a radical depiction for the future of the human race.

The show's setting is as far outside atemporal vacuum of Western consumer culture as one can get – the Sidonia is a ship built from one of the remnants of Planet Earth, thousands of years after its destruction by shape-shifting aliens. By something larger and incomprehensible to humanity. By the alien Other shattering the hubris of the species that thought themselves unquestioned masters of the universe. Bubble burst, Earth destroyed. Humanity scattered across the galaxy, on the run.

But not just humans. Knights of Sidonia also casually features an Uplifted Bear as one its principal characters with little other explanation offered. Uplifting – bringing another, client, species into sentience, coined by David Brin in his series of the same name – is quickly becoming the latest addition to the science-fictional, futurepresent, postcyberpunk dystopian condition. Most recently with experiments involving injecting mouse pups with brain cells from human fetuses:

"A battery of standard tests for mouse memory and cognition showed that the mice with human astrocytes are much smarter than their mousy peers.

In one test that measures ability to remember a sound associated with a mild electric shock, for example, the humanised mice froze for four times as long as other mice when they heard the sound, suggesting their memory was about four times better. "These were whopping effects," says Goldman. "We can say they were statistically and significantly smarter than control mice."

The scientists involved may be okay with electroshocking mice, but they stopped short of injecting monkeys with the same tissue, citing ethical issues. One saying, "If you make animals more human-like, where do you stop?"
This is precisely the classic thought experiment territory of science-fiction, and what's explored rather well in the recent reboot of the Planet of the Apes series. Which I really, really like. A lot. A franchise quickly and quietly dismissed in Noah Berlatsky's article. One that I would argue is another excellent example of this genre we're sketching, that deftly handles a number of issues involved in the nature of Uplift. In the process questioning human dominance of the planet and by doing so reminding us that there being a single dominant member of the hominid line has been rarity in the full lifetime of the genus.

In the first film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the crucial acts of agency are left to the apes themselves, after the initial incident that triggers the rise in intelligence. It is Caesar, first of the uplifted apes, that chooses to release the nootropic agent – an experimental Alzheimer's cure – amongst the population of apes he's been previously imprisoned with, to free them from cages built of iron and ignorance. And lead them to freedom, away from human intervention and interference.

Director Matt Reeves speaking about Caesar in the sequel says:

You have to keep in mind that he is such a unique character and the world he comes from is a human background. He was raised by humans and in a way he sort of thought he was human, yet an outsider, but he is also an ape. And when he was thrown in with the apes who he later led to a revolution, he was quite different than they were because he hadn’t been brought up as an ape. He was both ape and human and also neither. That made him a unique character to be a bridge between these two worlds in the story.

The second film, Dawn of the Planet of Apes, teases the audience with the possibility that these two worlds could join into one larger, multi-special society. It ends up being both anti-human and unhuman: in its portrayal of humanity as an ultimately violent species that instinctively tries to destroy what it can't understand - sharing the Neanderthal Dilemma with Transcendence here – and in focusing largely on the tale of the accelerated cultural evolution of the ape society.

It opens with them hunting as Homo sapiens did at the dawn of history as know it, herding their prey towards waiting hunters, a mere ten years after their great cognitive leap. This is Accelerationism, Ape Edition. A parallel to the creative destructive of Capitalism sought by many Marxists today. The Ape Scientist recapitulation of the Industrial Revolution Future awaits and perhaps their own version of the Singularity after that? Who knows...

Meanwhile the former apex predator and top of the food chain is in decline by the very act that caused their cousin primates' rise; a “simian flu”, the result of the release of the Alzeihemer cure, having decimated humanity. More Anthropocene Horror. We tried to cure everything, conquer death and found only near term human extinction waiting. The real tragedy of the film is that immune survivors choose to go to war against the ape population that has been living peacefully apart from them. When the alternative could have a richer, more pluralistic, multi-special group society. Which is what you get in the Uplift series, btw. Whales captaining star ships. It's pretty cool. But no, humans gonna human. Or hooman. Just like the baselines of Transcendence, all they had to loose was their Platonic ideals of what they categorised as people worth living; what constitutes a threat and what an opportunity. I've got a whole separate riff on how this stems from our formative development in the Pleistocene Savannah, that you can read the notes for here - that our pattern recognition and fear centres are entwined in our brain meat. Anyway... it will be supremely interesting to see what direction the forthcoming third film in the series takes - assuming we all live to see 2016. I would really like to be pleasantly surprised.

Now it doesn't get much more pluralistic, post-Singular and straight up mind-bending than Peter Watts' recent alien contact duology, Blindsight and Echopraxia; now collected as Firefall. This is humanity in the final stages of its Acceleration through the cultural and technological wormhole of the Singularity, interrupted by the sudden arrival of alien probes raining down upon the Earth in a brief, but reality shattering moment. In an instant humanity's, and its rapidly speciating posthuman child species (and a resurrected Pleistocene era hominid line of vampires, to boot) position in the cosmos is re-centred. Everyone is united in looking up in a sense of wonder. For a time they act together like never before, build the greatest spaceship, assemble the finest crew of cutting edge posthumanity, embark on the greatest quest the planet has known. And so they wait for answers. And fall, naturally, back to their old ways in the interim.

To try to summarise the plots of these excellent hard sf books any more is to do them an injustice; beyond mentioning that they feature mediations on the nature of consciousness and perception, as well as our place in the universe. And that Peter Watts writes about the truer, darker side of life like no one else I've read before. (But I'm open to suggestions - reply at will). Just like his Rifter's series before it, humanity is threatened with extinction. These are books purpose built to break open minds before the end comes for us all. Or so I read them.

*Also, pretty sure Stephen Hawking may have had his consciousness, or rather, public persona, hijacked by the AI that's allegedly just running his voice translation software. I mean, are you listening to the crap he spins? And he's got a seat at the
The Centre for Study of Existential Risk It's an elaborate front for the Agenda of the STACKS. A world wide cultural engineering program being run through his meat, while inside his mind he's screaming, blinking furiously, while everyone looks on at him smiling. Probably. Maybe not. Who knows?! And so it goes...

"The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent." - Carl Sagan

OK, so finally, to conclude the tour; TREES. Written by Warren Ellis, art by Jason Howard, published by Image. Super difficult to talk about, if only because the first arc isn't even complete. You can read a preview of the first issue here. Mentioned because this is an examination of a near-future in which humanity's dominance is loudly, emphatically challenged, in a manner far more permanent and unignorable than Fireball's brief light display. With menacing, gigantic towering structures of alien purpose and ominous portent.

"Ten years after they landed. All over the world. And they did nothing, standing on the surface of the Earth like trees, exerting their silent pressure on the world, as if there were no-one here and nothing under foot. Ten years since we learned that there is intelligent life in the universe, but that they did not recognize us as intelligent or alive."

Existentially disturbing edifices. They could stand for centuries, for a thousand years, or kill everyone in an instant. Nobody knows. Everybody lives with dread. Imagine opening your door each morning to see a gigantic reminder that the universe is far stranger than you could ever conjure. What would the next generation be like to grow up in such a profoundly shaken world. A hauntological planet. An example of the markers of “Zones of Alienation”, where previous notions of reality begin to break down. Something examined in other works: from late 1970s Soviet SF art film Stalker to recent anime series Darker Than Black, and Jeff VandeerMeer's Southern Reach books released earlier this year. An area of inquiry to be further explored in greater detail at a later stage, when I've got time to finish reading and watching them all and process it. FUN!

For now though we return to Thacker's “cosmic pessimism”, as he comes to name his philosophy, via Lovecraft:

“What do we know … of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have.” ~ H.P Lovecraft, From Beyond

OK I've you made it this far you clearly committed and ready to get serious. WELCOME TO THE CAUSE. So... Eugene Thacker begins his book on “the Horror of Philosophy” by defining three aspects of the world in terms of our relation to it, to “offer a new terminology for thinking about this problem of the non-human world” as a methodology attempt to think about the chief problems, challenges, of the Anthropocene Age – climate change and extinction:

Let us call the world in which we live the world-for-us. This is the world that we, as human beings, interpret and give meaning to, the world that we relate to or feel alienated from, the world that we are at once a part of and that is also separate from the human. But this world-for-us is not, of course, totally within the ambit of human wants and desires; the world often “bites back,” resists, or ignores our attempts to mold it into the world-for-us. Let us call this the world-in-itself. This is the world in some inaccessible, already-given state, which we then turn into the world-for-us. The world-in-itself is a paradoxical concept; the moment we think it and attempt to act on it, it ceases to be the world-in-itself and becomes the world-for-us...

Tragically, we are most reminded of the world-in-itself when the world-in-itself is manifest in the form of natural disasters. The discussions on the long-term impact of climate change also evoke this reminder of the world-in-itself, as the specter of extinction furtively looms over such discussions. Using advanced predictive models, we have even imagined what would happen to the world if we as human beings were to become extinct. So, while we can never experience the world-in-itself, we seem to be almost fatalistically drawn to it, perhaps as a limit that defines who we are as human beings.

Let us call this spectral and speculative world the world-without-us. In a sense, the world-without-us allows us to think the world-in-itself, without getting caught up in a vicious circle of logical paradox. The world-in-itself may co-exist with the world-for-us – indeed the human being is defined by its impressive capacity for not recognizing this distinction. By contrast, the world-without-us cannot co-exist with the human world-for-us; the world-without-us is the subtraction of the human from the world. To say that the world-without-us is antagonistic to the human is to attempt to put things in human terms, in the terms of the world-for-us. To say that the world-without-us is neutral with respect to the human, is to attempt to put things in the terms of the world-in-itself. The world-without-us lies somewhere in between, in a nebulous zone that is at once impersonal and horrific. The world-without-us is as much a cultural concept as it is a scientific one, and, as this book attempts to show, it is in the genres of supernatural horror and science fiction that we most frequently find attempts to think about, and to confront the difficult thought of, the world-without-us.

Are you nodding your head knowingly, good? That concludes our tour. And this is already far longer than I intended, and not even addressing the subjects sitting in my notes folder. Expect another long, ponderous newsletter soon. Ish. Depending on the vagaries of the muse and life in everyday reality of the slow apocalypse.

In conclusion: the four works we've examined in our brief tour serve as exemplars of this Extinction Culture as I seek to define it – various attempts to glimpse the-world-without-us, or at least try to extend the concept of the-world-for-us to be closer to the-world-in-itself. To negate humanity's predominant position, to mediate upon its extinction and the ongoing cost of its existence. How rethinking our role in the ecology might allow us to truly progress.

This resituation of our place in the world scales up to the galaxy. Something I attempted elsewhere in a post on Panspermia for (De)Extinction Club, citing it as:

one of the very core ideas of Dark Extropianism; that we are inextricably bound to the cosmos, on a grand scale that at the very least is inter-planetary. That our fate lies there as much as our origins do. That we are more than just star dust, but part of a living system that spans billions of years, who’s distance is measured by the speed of light. That ecology is something that spans the galaxy. That we are not meant to stay here, that our destiny lies amongst the stars.

Which is the kind of thing I like to say. Also stuff like "Saving the world as penance for the sins our fathers, building a life worth being near immortal in, then exploring the galaxy. It's a plan.”"

The point is to put humanity in an other worldly, alien setting even if we never do manage to go anywhere. Expanding the breadth of our reality and identity; extending categories and shattering boundaries. Necessary work for, as I originally said on Daily Grail our

"culture at large is in denial, or retreat, about the nature of change under way, and those of us most interested in what's actually happening are arguing in the very margins of history. Which is the role genre has always played, and why I am wont to make much of otherwise dismissed films like this. Even if they only serve as a vehicle to discuss these issues in public."

Ultimately coming in a complete circle in every way, to both contradict and confirm what I've been saying all along. That in fact speculative fiction's role has never been more important. That there is plenty of critical examination of the future and re-examination of the human condition. Extending our idea of identity to include an alien situation, our idea of personhood to include other species, our idea of reality to include the horror of the real and the breakdown of all previously rigid categories. Just that we need to look outside the fantastical billion dollar distraction industry and pick up a book or comic, a weird series or movie.

Right now I'm reading The Martian initially published for free on Andy Weir's website. There are invaluable ideas out there waiting to be found for next to nothing. Hell, are you paying for this right now? No. Now pay it forward. It's not too late. We're still alive and are quietly having perhaps the most important cultural conversation ever.


You made it to the end. Good job! You deserve a prize. Here's a few things to open in your browser before I vanish from the public net for a while. They're each further examples of Extinction Culture to keep you occupied:

  • The currently extinct thylacine is central in Tony Black’s story, ‘The Last Tiger' - here's a review and a brief interview
OK, bye for now. Be kind to one another.