Saturday, April 9, 2011

Sapience, Modification, and the Human-Technology Interface

In my mind, one of the biggest subjects broached by Neuromancer concerns what defines humanity or, more broadly, true sapience. These issues obviously factor in when discussing the AIs present in the Novel ("Wintermute" and the titular "Neuromancer") but are also addressed through four of the primary characters: Case, Armitage/Corto, Molly, and McCoy Pauley (The "Dixie Flatline"). Throughout the book, we are constantly questioning what does it mean to be human? What is reality in a world of tangible cyberspace? Where is the line between life and death, man and machine?

The fundamental issue behind these questions of humanity are in the cyberpunk-esque future described by the book. In this future, "Console Cowboys" navigate cyberspace by plugging in and traveling through it as though it were a tangible reality. Furthermore, systems exist such that a "force-feedback" of sorts can be returned the user with the inputs usually either another individuals sensations or a sufficiently advanced AI capable of mimicking true physical reality. These themes are already ones we've touched upon in this course, the former parallels the sockets in Delaney's Nova while the latter is something akin to Mogran possession. However, Neuromancer combines the two via cyberspace and as a result deals with all the problems these books otherwise raised independently.

Megaregions -> Sprawl -> Cyberspace as an Escape

Continuing the individual parallels, Molly, Armitage/Corto, and Dixie all match characters or ideas from the aforementioned works. Molly represents the extent of technological self-modification with her mirrored eyes, razor-tipped fingers, and general physical improvements (similar to the cyborgs of Nova, there being a difference between her modifications and those made by an enterprising Demon). Armitage represents a false personality implanted over an exiting being (like a possessed being from Body Surfing) while conversely Dixie is a disembodied consciousness (paralleling a Mogran). The unique character in the mix though is the protagonist Case himself. Case has the modifications allowing him to connect and navigate the web yet is otherwise in full command of himself. Nonetheless though, he is addicted to plugging in and hacking to the point of becoming detached from reality. He constantly refers to his own body as mere flesh and a limitation and even seems to criticize his relationship with Molly as driven by the corporeal body.

Molly Millions as Imagined by a Web Artist

These relationships, all machinated or influenced by the AI known as Wintermute, show not only the varying levels of man-machine interface but also begs the question of what defines humanity? Is Armitage human because he possesses a true body or is he not because "he" has been forcibly implanted over Willis Corto? Is Case human for a similar reason even though he at times detests the physical world and seeks cyberspace as his true home? Is Molly human despite her extensive modifications to become a living weapon? Is Dixie still human despite lacking a body and existing only as a flash-imprint of his true self on a computer's hard drive? Controlling everyone is Wintermute whose existence and motives encourage us to question the validity of the Turing Police or the AI's own motives.

I don't know the answers to these questions but I do know that worry about the future of our species. All things considered, computer systems are more vulnerable than the physical world. If we are all plugged in come the year 2050+, all it takes is a rogue bit of code to throw everything off. A metaphorical virus turned real which would expand far faster and with a higher "fatality rate" than any disease known. Because of our cyber-humanity, would we be able to or want to live forever? Who are we if we are reduced to a Dixie-like construct? If we all are just effectively computer programs, who is to say that AI's cannot be citizens or people too? The lines will blur and quite frankly, I fear that day.

Leonard Nimoy’s The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins


SF mashup: Spock meets Eloi/Vulcan Hobbits in the 60s.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

'Body Surfing' and the Demonic Within

“Body Surfing” manipulates the traditional constraints of the body in order to make interesting points about identity and sexuality. Its characters often change embodiments so quickly that it is difficult to remember who is who, and who is within whose body. Gender, race and sexual orientation are rendered fluid; at several points, the demons of the novel have sex in bodies that bear no resemblance to the ones that they initially inhabited.

I was intrigued by the possibilities that ‘body surfing’ allowed, but troubled by the ways in which it was executed: most of the sex in the novel is graphic rape, and the consequences of brutal sexual assault are often described in a very depersonalized manner. ‘Body Surfing’ describes a universe where bodies are disposable; this universe produces characters that are easily replaceable and treated in manners so horrific that it is difficult to make any sense of their torment, or of the motives of the demons which inhabit them.

The demons of ‘Body Surfing’ seem to be an extreme look at many of the embodied disciplinary measures that are currently at work in the world, including the structures of institutional racism and sexism. Patriarchy, for instance, seem to operate under the principle that a woman’s body is not her own, but the property of men, to be used and controlled. This symbology is particularly powerful during Ileana’s rape scene, where a Mogran hides among a group of soldiers. The Mogran are the target of the legion, but in this scene, there seems to be no practical difference between the bloodlust of humans and the brutality of demons. This is, in my opinion, the truly horrifying part of the novel. It’s easy to dismiss the actions of the Mogran as aspects of fantasy, but the actions of the soldiers have historical precedent, and are deeply embedded within the fabric of war. Can a member of the Legion really justify hunting the Mogran, when there are aspects of the demonic within us?

The fantasy of history

I’d like to quickly take note of Body Surfing’s genre, since it pretty clearly lies the farthest from science fiction on its spectrum with fantasy among the books we’ve read thus far. Not only do I not mean to delegitimize the novel in noting this, of course (not being the hardest of hard-sf fans myself); I actually think Peck’s awareness and curiosity about the idea of fantasy presented within the book could go a long way toward convincing any of those who are suspicious of the genre. From Body Surfing’s very first moments in ancient Rome, fantasy begins to look like alternate history, projecting utopia (or at least varieties of embodiment) onto the known past as a way of making its more curious twists comprehensible. By tracking the Mogran through history, mass disasters as disparate as the fall of Rome (186), the slow-motion genocide of witches in medieval Europe (252) and even the Holocaust can be written into a single account. While it may seem peculiar to call this alternate history utopian—since it looks backwards rather than forwards, obsessing over the worst extremes of which people are capable—I think it accomplishes much the same work. By postulating a kind of transhistorical and inhuman (if not posthuman) force for societal disruption, it manages largely to acquit humanity of its own history and reinterpret our own form of life as less imperfect, rather than imagine another as perfect.

Perhaps the best evidence for this reading is the awareness Peck demonstrates of the work fantasy can accomplish, which is actually an awareness on the part of the “Gatherers”: more or less the academics among the Legion, they go about “[r]ounding up the Mogran’s abandoned hosts like stone-age women picking up acorns while their men go out with spears and hunt bears[.]” That’s Lana, the hunter, speaking to the gentle Dr. Thomas—giving some irony to her following aside that “[t]he gender roles might have softened, but the hierarchy hasn’t” (210). Though it might seem a stretch to identify the curiosity of these figures within the plot with that of authors of fantasy within the world—since there are “real” consequences for the Gatherers, and their work heeds the needs of “real” victims—Peck has Thomas align the history of the Gatherers and the Legion with the history of the genre of fantasy. Thus “the so-called Cult of the Child, a literature of symbolic, often surreal stories that evinced an enormous fear of, and fascination with, adult sexuality” is rewritten as the therapeutic fantasy work of three of the Mogran’s most famous victims—Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll, and J.M. Barrie (184). Within the world of the novel, fantasy becomes a personal work of recovery, from trauma and of that trauma’s larger history. The lesson for us in ours might be to listen more closely to fantasy, then, and the truth of the history it fabricates.

Cold War, Hot Bods The Male Gaze

Steffen-Fluhr’s analysis of Invasion of the Body Snatcher productively complicates what I had originally read as a cold-war drama. Steffen-Fluhr, reading Siegel’s commentary about conformity and love, adds an additional layer to this bizarre film. If, as Steffen-Fluhr suggests, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an expression of anxieties about conformity and the collapse of gender roles (Steffen-Fluhr 143) are we to take the film as a description of current affairs or a prophetic warning of what may come?

Like one of the students in Steffen-Fluhr’s class, I too am separated by the social conventions of 1950’s America. Most of what I know about that time period is refracted trough the colorless (sexless and raceless) prism of an American secondary education. The 1950’s, in my social imagination, is a time of distressing conformity. For me, Siegel’s film was a reflection of an already dominant system of conformity: the cast is filled with “respectable looking” white men and women. The film doesn’t present alternative ways of life as viable options for experience the world; there is no message of diversity or expansive understanding so much as a reductive binary. Either you succumb to the forces of alienation (and become an alien) or resist at all costs to keep out the unnamed and unidentifiable other. As a 21st century viewer, however, each of Siegel’s options strikes me as woefully insufficient.

The film suggests no escape, or even alternative to alien domination, I suggest, because Siegel is heavily invested in the patriarchal norms which governed 1950’s America. Reading the film as a reaction to white male anxieties about increasing equality between individuals sexed as male or female, it’s obvious why Siegel might frame the film in terms of a strict binary. Either men run things, or the aliens (women) do. Siegel is ignorant of the possibility that his anxieties are rooted in the loss of his privileged position as a white man. Siegel is not so much warning his fellow men of what will happen so much as announce what has already happened: a weakening of the divisions between men and women, American and Communist and us and them. When a multiplicity of equally valid interpretations erupts from what was once a binary relationship, Siegel and the white hetero-patriarchy that he represents, is visibly threatened. The result is a film “committed resolutely to macho principles-dangerously narrow, only half-human, a world devoid of rest, receptivity, growth, and an empathetic acceptance of otherness” (Steffen-Fluhr 149).

The Ceremony of Innocence is Drowned

    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

- William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"

Bodysurfing offers a disturbing afterlife in the Mogran, one innately tied to human sexuality. In the ultimate irony of the story the Mogran are obsessed with sex, consumed by lust, yet the results of this act consume them to such a degree that it provides their victims with a means of destroying the spirits. Ileana provided an example of a Mogran so engrossed in the act of rape that it did not fight back when it spotted her approaching with a metal pipe. With a lack of a concrete, bound physical association the unsettled psyches of the people become hedonistic pleasure seekers, which is only exacerbated by their former status as "bound" or virginal souls in life.

The Mogran's lot is one of being a free-spirit to such a degree that they can never reap the results of their physical desires– they can only find comfort in perversion and destruction. Unbound from physical bodies they are able to experience a myriad of experiences but they can never find a body that is theirs, that truly belongs to them. There is a tragedy to them that is best embodied in their attempt to beget children, which forms the driving conflict of the novel with Leo coming into conflict with the three products of his life: the child he wanted Jasper, and the two products of his urges Ileana and Q.

The immortality that is offered to the Mogran, those who die "bound" to their physical bodies as people who have not engaged in sex with another, is in sharp contrast to the limited immortality that normal people gain by way of sexual reproduction. The method of creation of new Mogran is actually cast into doubt until the start of the novel's story, and they seem to create a legacy only through their creation of the hunters. Like with normal humans the hunters such as Q. and Ileana are made through sex, they become inhabited once the demons are unbound from their last body and are left changed in the wake of the demon's reaching of orgasm in their body.

Unfortunately for the Mogran the product of their inhabitations, the hunters, are not grateful for the alterations they had made on the people's bodies and use their enhanced physical attributes to slay their makers. The hunters are the husks of former Mogran inhabitants, an unwanted legacy that follows the demons and seeks their destruction. Otherwise, the Mogran want to create another kind of legacy by creating more of their kind, through inhabiting a "bound" soul before its death in order to create another free-floating and capricious entity that would not be so ungrateful for their attention.

Yet Leo proves incapable of having either of his children, Q. or Jasper, either leave him be or follow directly in his footsteps. This eventual betrayal by his progeny extends even to the progenitors of the Mogran, the Alpha Wave. The roles of the Mogran and their opponents in the Legion in controlling the Mogran presence on Earth changes when taking Dr. Thomas/Foras's agenda into account.

The Alpha Wave of Mogran also controlling their legacy in the Mogran they unwittingly created, seeking to cull their progeny "when it became clear that the proliferation of the Mogran was becoming problematic, both for us as well as humanity" (384). Foras's machinations form the backstory of the novel, as Leo mentions Foras as the one who shared with him the secret of reproduction. Foras even implies a more congenial relationship with his "creator" than that of Leo and Jasper, keeping the sigil of Beleth who he describes as a "friend to me. In the same way that Leo attempted to be a friend to you" (399). This suggests that in becoming "unbound" from their physical bodies the Mogran are additionally unbound from forming lasting bonds of emotion such as friendship, which explains their period of lull and frenzy.

Additionally, the most direct example of progeny-progenitor relationship is Jasper and his father John. They may have had their differences, Jasper may have thought his dad was limiting him and his father may have thought everything he had accomplished in life paled in comparison to making Jasper, but they ultimately put themselves on the line to honor each other's memories. John flings himself down the stairs once Leo tries filling his mind with a "sudden, electric wave of hatred for his own son that flooded into him" (345). John may have failed his son in many different ways throughout his life, but when push came to shove he threw himself down three hundred ninety-two steps to prevent a maligned demon who fancied himself Jasper's father from eradicating all he held dear. That's one way to make up for things.

Jasper returns the message in kind. He outright rejects Leo's claim to paternity or authority over his existence when he says, "'No... He made me" (404).  In this way Jasper is placing his own experiences, the one he had as a mortal during his own lifetime, above those he absorbed from others in the process of his extended metempsychosis. The legacy of his life as a living or "bound" soul is thus more meaningful than his experience as an "unbound" spirit. How telling is it that when a Leo-possessed Q asks Jasper what he would do before he died Jasper responds, "I'd tell my dad I love him" (18). What else is this act of defiance but the ultimate affirmation of filial ties and rejection of a false parenthood?

The wheels of conflict between the Alpha Wave, the remaining Mogran, the secret servants of the Alpha Wave's will through the Legion, and the freshly born Mogran Jasper raise questions about legacy and lineage.

Gothic Teenagers


With all of its talk of demon possession, reality versus superstition, and sexual violence, Body Surfing reminded me strongly of the Gothic literature that could be considered its spiritual predecessor. Because I just read Frankenstein, I initially made connections specifically to that story. There was reanimation by an electrical current (at least that was Q.’s theory) to create human monsters much more powerful than the average person. There was a cat and mouse chase between good and evil, with the roles and the blame for lives lost almost continuously conflated. There were questions of free will and a focus on corporeality. Of course, all of these ideas come up in the Gothic in general, and I think it’s ultimately better to tie Body Surfing to the genre as a whole than to one work within the genre.

This book was written in a much different world than early Gothic literature (which often focused on the idea of rejecting contemporary Catholic superstitions in light of the Protestant Reformation), but it still took up the Gothic game of playing with superstitions we aren’t supposed to believe in any more, and reminding us that sometimes we believe in them anyway. People have talked about the fact that the book was gripping, disgusting, and extremely graphic. I thought it was all of those things too, but my initial classification was that it was scary. Horrifying because possession occurred through violent acts of rape, horrifying because innocent lives were sacrificed in order to save everyone else from demons, but mostly horrifying because it made the idea of a total loss of control seem very real in today’s world. It’s possible that I’m particularly susceptible to scary stories, especially about demons (someone in the Gothic era would probably blame too much Catholic education), but I had to stop reading multiple times because the story was scaring me.

In a way, my own fear extended the metaphor of possession. Reading always involves this process of violation to some extent. Someone else’s story takes over our own consciousness for a little while, and our ability to get out of the story is dependent on its hold on us. And anything worth reading usually leaves some trace behind once we’re done with it. But then we do get be done with it. We get to choose what we read and how much of it we read. I could stop reading when the book, particularly its talk of a lack of choice, got a little overwhelming, and do something else for a while.

Nevertheless, books do have a lasting impact. Ultimately this story was not just a reworking of Gothic themes, but an amalgamation of many genres and styles. To use the body surfing metaphor a little differently now, if Gothic literature was the novel's spiritual predecessor, it was a spirit that traveled around through other genres, picking up what they had to offer as it went – mythology, young adult fiction, modern religious capers. And like the process of the demons within the story, this movement and its connection to humanity sustained the book as a whole, and eventually got me to continue reading, even when I was afraid. Body Surfing was graphic and disgusting and scary, but it also told a story about teenage friends who cared about each other and a boy who almost reconnects with his father, though only after death and tragedy. There is Gothic excess, but there is something human holding together the demons passing through. Whether that's a necessary act of possession or an act of manipulation is something I haven't quite figured out yet.

Capgras Syndrome

It seems interesting to note that the idea of others being inhabited by or replaced by impostors is based on an actual psychological syndrome: The Capgras Syndrome. What happens to an individual with Capgras is that they suddenly believe that their loved ones and friends (usually just focused on one in particular) are no longer themselves, and have been replaced by an imposter. Despite their loved one's exact appearance and behavior, they do not recognize them as the same person and insist that they are a fraud. The person afflicted with Capgras even recognizes that the 'imposter' looks the same and acts in familiar ways, but cannot recognize them as the person they love.
As Shelina points out in her post, one excellent interpretation of the doubles in the film replacing their originals, is that of 1950's Americans losing themselves to McCarthyism. Further, the idea of communism infiltrating American society as these pod people and living among originals as normal. This relates to the Capgras Syndrome quite well. However, it is mental illness on the side of the people who perceive these pod people to be imposters. This seems to complicate Shelina's idea that it is the people who are losing themselves to ideas like McCarthyism and Communism. Could it be that this is a comment on McCarthy himself and the people surrounding him who had the idea that Soviet spies were replacing Americans? It seems that he and his committees are the ones who are being afflicted, as Capgras affects the beholder.
With this idea, it is interesting that the Capgras Syndrome can be spread with force. Indeed, McCarthy would compel people to list suspect people. In many ways, the fact that he and the committee forced people to inform on their friends, relates to this idea of the Capgras Syndrome.

Nancy Steffen-Fluhr vs. Roland Barthes

Women and The Inner game of Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the body Snatcher” troubled me on several levels. At the most profound, however, it seemed to be a reductive attempt at analysis of the motivations of a screenwriter, rather than an argument about a text.

While there is some interesting parsing of the text in the context of a gendered interpretation of the film, much of the argument is framed around the authors of the film and the book from which it was adapted. For example: “Against these rosy new-dawn colors, the black misogyny of Siegel's ending emerges all the more clearly. In Mainwaring's screenplay, Becky becomes, not a savior, but a Judas who betrays her lord with a kiss. ‘I never really knew what fear was until I kissed Becky.’ And yet, although Becky gets the blame, it is Miles's fearful faithlessness which sets up her fall,” (148) writes Steffen-Fluhr. She only makes her argument in terms of an imagined agenda on Mainwaring’s part, and in doing so I believe she misses many of the nuances available to a reading of the work.

In The Death of The Author, Roland Barthes states “To assign an Author to a text is to impose a brake on it, to furnish it with a final signified, to close writing,” and I believe that is what Steffen-Fluhr is doing in this essay. For example, she simply dismisses any in depth analysis of Jack as a character, discriminating against him because he is fictional: “(After all, Jack is a fictional construct, not a person, and therefore not subject to psychoanalysis.) He is the vehicle through which Siegel and his script-writer, the late Daniel Mainwaring, first begin to assert their resolute rejection of womanish passivity.” (144) In doing so, Steffen Fluhr does impose a brake on her argument, closing off entire avenues of analysis simply because of a prejudice towards the “non-personhood” of an imagined character.

The fallacy of attempting to “discover” the author’s intentions rather than simply look at a text is made all the more stark by the fact that Body Snatchers is a film, moreover, it is a film adapted from a book. An adaptation has several authors, making an author-based interpretation of the work not simply an analysis of the author’s “intentions,” but also of his interpretation of his reading of the original work, and of the intentions of the original work’s author as well. The reductive vision of an author’s master plan becomes muddled in adaptation. Then, apply this fact to a film, which, by virtue of the intensely collaborative process of filmmaking, could be said to have dozens of authors. Steffen-Fluhr searches for Mainwaring’s agenda, but what about the cinematographer, the director, the actors, the editor or any number of other agent’s agendas? A film adaptation of a book seems not only to be ripe ground for the death of the author, but a pit into which the author disappears entirely.

In his rejection of the author as a source of meaning, Barthes provides the reader as an alternative: “A text consists of multiple writings, proceeding from several cultures and entering into dialogue, into parody, into contestation; but there is a site where this multiplicity is collected, and this site is not the author, as has hitherto been claimed, but the reader.” Steffen-Fluhr even introduces the text in a manner that agrees with Barthes: with the reaction of a group of young students to the work, and how this reaction informed her own reading. However, her oversight is to consider this reaction only as an indicator of an intention of the author that she overlooked, rather than the source of the work’s meaning. Maybe if she looked again to her students’ own reactions to the work as an argument in and of themselves, rather than simply a framing narrative for her argument proper, she could take the brakes off of her essay.

The Leftovers

Angst, Sex, Waste, Demon, Emotion
I had a lot of strong reactions to Body Surfing, which definitely stood apart from the other SF literature we've read in a number of ways. Although I don't think it is the single best book we read it was certainly the most compelling in terms of my desire to keep turning pages. The prose was straight forward and the plot moved at such a pace that I never felt bogged down anywhere in the 400 pages. There was no "characters get lost in the woods to explore themselves" section (as seen in Harry Potter 7 and a surprising number of other books). I enjoyed the book immensely, but despite the graphic nature (which I'll discuss later) it also felt very teen-focused. The book read a lot like Twilight to me. Much better prose but still very focused on angsty issues.

Speaking of graphic the book has more graphic sex than I've read in any other novel. However, the most disturbing aspect was the specific effect it had on me as a reader was in how I would anticipate the coming sex scenes. I began to think of them simply as "the next time they jump bodies" rather than "the next time they brutally rape two people and destroy their psyches." Along with that I also stopped caring halfway through the book about the problems of ordinary people, because there are very few written in such a way that you become attached to them.

Everyone that matters is either a demon or a hunter and the fact that their struggle devastates the landscape they fight upon (humanity) I have as much trouble getting emotionally bothered by that as I do by environmental concerns in the real world. I intellectually understand that we are killing the planet by living here the way we do, and I take steps to curb my impact, but it is a forced concern, not an emotional one. In the same way, Body Surfing leaves me with the knowledge that humanity is being raped and tortured for the sake of this struggle, but I can't seem to care. Although as I write this I do think the parallels between the Body Surfing mograns and the effect we are having on the planet to be worth exploring in more detail.

The Pod People of Cinematic Imagery

tags: reality, cinema, cinematic doubles, emotionalism, cinematic imagery

It has been a few years since I saw the most recent interpretation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the notorious box-office flop The Invasion, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. But as a result of having seen the 2007 remake, what struck me while I was watching the original film was the way in which the residents of the town were replaced by the pod people. In the recent version, humans are converted to pod people through alien life forms that resemble a disease or an infection – the main character is infected at one point when a pod person spits on her (luckily she doesn’t fall asleep).  This difference, while acting as an interesting observation on current paranoia about disease and infection, also serves to emphasize the fact that in the 1956 version, humans are literally replaced by their pod people doubles.

He’s climbing in your windows

Jokes of bedside manner aside, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was troubling in several ways. The first problem is that the feature character Dr. Bennell was a curious choice in his role as the active defender of free human will and patriarchy (“They’re after all of us… Our wives, our children, everybody!”). One problem was that he was a doctor, so that the privacy of physician-patient privilege only added to the covert aspect of the story. Not that it stopped Dr. Bennell from blabbering about his patients’ troubles with Becky or Dr. Kaufman, which of course is perfectly within legal bounds, but it automatically put the police in an antagonistic position throughout the film, even before evidence of their infiltration by the pods. I suppose the broader idea here is that of “secret knowledge,” something that Dr. Bennell alone possesses as his ticket out of Santa Mira (and which Steffen-Fluhr would say is another misogynistic reference of the film). Dr. Bennell is forced to consider doubt about his knowledge, notably by Dr. Kaufman, but his stubborn support for his own totalized interpretation of the small secrets of town, and his ultimate vindication, support the notion of an absolute knowledge about the other, whether it be the neighbor across the street or from the sky. Furthermore, medicine has never historically been about truth as much as amelioration.

The second problem is the dual uplifting of and disregard for science. Dr. Bennell remarks somewhat nonchalantly that the pod was a genuine possibility given the tremendous strides of science in his time. So while it may technically be alien proper, the pod may equally be considered an inevitable product of human knowledge. Of course, the destructive relationship between pod and person doesn’t really glorify the role of science in society (shameless plug). All sorts of technology, even agriculture, are literally sapping away our feelings from under the rug. Dr. Bennell and Becky have to retreat to the (prehistoric) cave to survive, albeit temporarily. Kaufman’s (semi-)rigorous psychiatric analysis suffers a similar setback. Like Bennell, Kaufman is a doctor and voice of authority, but as a voice of science he cannot be trusted! Bennell’s intuition proves superior to Kaufman’ psychologic, just as Bennell’s irrational faith in the necessity of emotion as an identifying part of humanity triumphs the cold argument for removing emotion as a less “complicated” way of life.

The third problem is Bennell’s activism, which is unusual given his oath to elevate life above ego. Somewhat in the spirit of generalizing over all premeds, I’d say Dr. Bennell might have better kept to his degree by allowing life to continue emotionless rather than using his special knowledge to resist. To him, the human shapes incubating in the pods were not fully human and therefore not fully qualified as life, giving him the right to equip the pitchfork and do them in—a rather sage presage of the future conflict for legalizing abortion. It’s suggested that he gets so emotionally invested because he sees a developing body of Becky, but the fear of these humans of artificial, scientific origin goes around Bennell, Becky, Jack, and Wendy. For the same suggested love, Bennell also breaks into Becky’s house and just sweeps her away out of the sanctity of the home. He is a doctor, as he constantly reminds Becky, and apart from passively accepting patients he is very willing to intervene even when it nullifies their privacy. (House, anyone?)

Taken together, these three problems about the portrayal of science and Dr. Bennell, the Scientific Man, suggest that there is something unnatural about science and the scientific thought behind modern medicine. The relationship between human and science is not limited to that of user and tool but one encompassing reverence, fear, skepticism, and the loss of free will. It is not really a rejection of science, since educated skepticism may be scientific, but Science, with its promise of absolute knowledge and its own academic hive mind, looks like a really scary thing and is perhaps essentially other to us, its practitioners, because of our own innate irrationality, i.e. our emotions. It may also be a revival of Frankenstein; do the products of science have rights beyond their creation by mere humans? Do we look at the pods in horror because they are absolutely and irrevocably alien (like the planet in Solaris), or because like the doctor we cannot be driven to concede our obsolescence, some feature of our human identity which we hold as unique despite a scientific novelty?

"Utopias Never Work"

In both Body Surfing and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, I noticed several similarities between the stated goals of the Mogran and the Body Snatchers. Both sets of antagonists seek to seduce their targets with the ideal of peace and harmony, and the creation of a world where humans set aside their extremes of emotion in favor of a sort of passive subordination. In Body Surfing, Thomas/Foras explains to Michaela/Jasper that “with the Mogran assuming their rightful place at the head of the species, we can create an era of peace and prosperity and universal harmony” (388). In “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, Dr. Kauffman glorifies a world taken over by the Body Snatchers, calling it an “untroubled world” in which “there is no pain… Love. Desire. Ambition. Faith. Without them, life is so simple, believe me”.

Their reflexive rejection of such a vision gives the protagonists of both works a much-needed edge in pivotal scenes—and, in doing so, lends both works their moral tone. Both Miles and Jasper come to appreciate not only the inevitability, but the value of conflict in defining humanity—not conflict between individuals or groups, necessarily, but rather the conflict inherent in the extremes of passion contained in even one single human being. These passions don’t exist for the Mogran and the Body Snatchers… and never have those two species seemed so alien as when their inability to understand the reasoning of their targets throws them for a loop.

According to my interpretation, this internal conflict of passions is what allows the human characters in these works (and many others in stories with similar themes) to maintain moral codes**. Caught in a perpetual sort of cognitive dissonance, they (we) constantly question both our own motives and those we infer in others. There is one scene in Body Surfing that I feel is particularly explicit in this regard: After Leo explains his plans to Jasper (plans which are strikingly in line with Foras’s, despite the lack of alliance between them), Jasper responds as follows:

There were two questions Jasper could have asked. One was human, the other immortal. One implied causality and morality, while the other was merely an inquiry into process, an accumulation of data. Jasper, human still—at least in his mind—did not ask how. He only asked:


And Leo, immortal to the core, was caught off guard (270).

Only a human, this passage suggests, would struggle with the question of “why”. Only a human routinely allows opposing values and theories to share a space within his mind, and therefore, only a human is equipped to challenge the ideas presented by an outside force with honest evaluation. This concept is one that, in my admittedly limited experience, occurs relatively frequently within the science fiction genre—the idea that, as humans, we are both characterized by and gain our biggest advantage from the traits and experiences that we often think of as our weakest or most trying: our uncertainties (which beget fair judgment), our encounters with grief, loneliness, and pain (which beget the capacity to empathize), and the conflicts born of our stubborn allegiances to ourselves, our loved ones, our ideals, and our history.

** That isn't to say that the "moral codes" that emerge don't take some serious hits-- see Arlyn's post

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Rape in Body Surfing

To say that there’s a lot of sex in Dale Peck's Body Surfing is a vast understatement. I’ll be honest — I found myself struggling to read about the graphic violent sex from the very first page, but I continued reading, accusing myself of being too narrow-minded, pushing (forcing) my mind to open… but no matter how much I read, I couldn’t stop thinking about rape.

I think it’s safe to say that sex is very rarely consensual when it involves Mogran possession. It's possible that a Mogran could inhabit a body for long enough to seduce someone without hypnotizing them, and it's also possible that the body that they are possessing could have enough free will to truly desire the person that the Mogran is seducing. Although I can see the potential of a consensual sex act occurring while someone is possessed by a Mogran, this possibility is absent from the actual narrative. Legal and philosophical definitions of what constitutes sexual assault vary. People who define rape as “forced” sex would not consider the nonviolent acts where Mogran hypnotize their sexual targets to be rape (How does this sexual hypnosis work? “It’s all in the eyes” —Leo teaches Jasper to rapidly expand and contract his pupils (214)). I, however, consider sex via hypnosis to be sexual assault. It seems, then, that most of the sex we read about in the novel is sexual assault — the most graphic example is Illeana's gang rape at the command of an officer who Leo possessed, but Jasper also rapes multiple times. At first, Leo promises him that if he has sex, he can move onto heaven. So he seduces a woman in Jarhead’s body who he knows is not interested in Jarhead: “She didn’t have any desire for this body at all,” Jasper acknowledges, but “He was dead, after all. He was hardly accountable for his actions” (80-81). Soon, Jasper realizes that his sexual urges seem uncontrollable. So he finds himself sexually assaulting Jarhead’s roommate’s girlfriend: “Jasper stood their swaying, stunned by the primacy of his feelings. His need. The way it linked up with Jarhead’s feelings about Sandra,running around his trailer with her ass hanging out. She was practically asking for it. Really, he’d just be giving her what she wanted. What she deserved” (154). So, Sandra was asking to be assaulted — hello, standard rapist mindset! Eventually, Leo teaches him to hypnotize women to make it easier to sleep with them (and less violent for whoever he’s “seducing”).

I think we’re supposed to feel sorry for Jasper, to identify with him, to sympathize with him. He’s a sex-crazed teenaged virgin who just wanted to have sex with his girlfriend who he was madly in love with (whenever she was ready, of course), but instead he’s become a helpless victim of a Mogran-generating plot. He still acts “human,” which Leo finds repulsive. But even though he initially feels guilty about his sexual compulsions, I found it nearly impossible to empathize with him. Especially after he didn’t seem to question whether it was alright to hypnotize Shawna — “It’s not like she was going to jump on this particular body…. He was going to have to work a little harder to make this happen…. He opened his eyes wide, tried to imagine his pupils expanding, contracting” (214). The guilt that accompanied knowing she wouldn’t want to have sex with Jarhead’s body isn’t there anymore — he just thinks she’s hot. Alright, so Jasper’s Mogran, and he’s not bound to the same ideas of “right” and “wrong” as humans are supposed to be. But if he’s supposed to be a sympathetic character, how do I reconcile that aim with his “sexual compulsions”? I couldn’t. (And I wonder if anyone else did?)

Also, in the rewriting of history as largely motivated by Mogran, it seems that famous children’s lit authors are “excused” as pedophiles because they were possessed by the same female demon who motivated their fear of “normal” sex with adults. This speculative historical turn frightened me — what if every person I labelled as a rapist was really just possessed by some demon? Where does that leave questions of “consent” and punishment for sexual assaults if the Mogran could be behind everything? Sadly, sexual assaults have often been rationalized by ridiculous claims that men have uncontrollable sexual impulses - which seems to be exactly what Mogran-induced sex causes. The scariest part of the novel (for me) occurred when Thomas presented an excellent argument for the need to discover technological advancements for containing the Mogran — “We would no longer have to force our hosts to do things they don’t want to do, things they spend the rest of their lives puzzling over…. Perhaps we can become a pure electronic intelligence, a true living computer, or be able to go back and forth between flesh and machine” (387). This was intriguing until the following page, where Thomas asserts that “It is time to forge a new relationship between mortals and Mogran, one based on cooperation and a recognition of our mutual interests.With the Mogran assuming their rightful place at the head of the species, we can create an era of peace and prosperity and universal harmony” (388). At that moment, when I should have been thinking about the implications of this sort of “Utopia,” all I could think about was the fact that the ruling class would be the world’s most prolific rapists, and I realized that any reaction I could have had for the novel as a whole was tainted by my gut revulsion from the overwhelming presence of sexual assault themes. At some point, I gave up on broadening my mind to the new sexual possibilities it opens, and the novel morphed into a gigantic trigger warning. Obviously, my reaction to this lesser theme in the novel is verrrry strong, but I think it’s impossible to read this book without asking what readers are supposed to glean from the recurring scenes of sexual assault and nonconsensual sex. I also can’t figure out what I’m supposed to be “thinking” about it — I just felt an inescapable repulsion that impacted all of my other thoughts on the novel.


In the book I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History, Walter Mirisch writes: "Neither Walter Wanger nor Don Siegel, who directed it, nor Dan Mainwaring, who wrote the script nor the original author Jack Finney" saw Invasion of the Body Snatchers as an allegory for McCarthyism. The film's star, Kevin McCarthy, also dismissed this analogy in an interview with the Bangor Daily News in 1997, saying, "There was no assignment of political points of view when we were making the film." These denials raise two interesting questions about the movie. If it was only intended to be a sci-fi thriller, why are viewers and critics so eager to read allegory into it? And if it was intended as an allegory, why would the creators deny this?

I wonder if The Invasion of the Body Snatchers can be read as a practical joke on the viewers who are eager to read allegory into everything. One of the movie's major themes in paranoia, experienced not only by the characters on screen, but also by the audience, who must also wonder at every moment who is real, and who has become a copy. In fact, this paranoia appears to summarize reactions to the movie as a whole, both in the immediate viewing experience, and in the criticism regarding it. "Think about it, and then you'll know that the trouble is inside you," Miles tells Wilma, after she tells him that her uncle isn't really her uncle, and the line suggests a new way of looking at the movie: that the problem is inside the viewer. The "trouble" is their own fear and paranoia that others are not who they appear to be, that their community has been infiltrated, that something indistinct and almost inexpressible is wrong with the people around them. If the film can be read as an indictment of McCarthyism or as fear of a Communist infiltration of America (and the fact that critics have read it as both suggests the weakness of the supposed allegory), it can also be read as a teasing attack on paranoia itself. Although this analysis could be used to support either side of this debate ("It's an attack on McCarthyism because it mocks the fear of infiltration!" "It's in support of McCarthyism, mocking the fear that it is dangerous to Americans!"), it could also be said to mock both camps by invoking their mutually exclusive fears simultaneously. The same movie has been considered an allegory for two perspectives that are, by their very nature, utterly contradictory. At least one group of critics must be paranoid, projecting their own political concerns onto this fantastical horror movie.

The film leaves many questions about the pod people unanswered, bringing their very nature into question. If they can take on any form they like, why would the pod people need to copy bodies? Why do they need to replace the original? Why does the replacement have all of the original's memories? What happens to the original bodies? The transformation of Becky was particularly troubling, as it was unclear (at least to me) when the replacement took place. On first viewing, it looked as though Becky fell asleep on screen and was replaced as Miles kissed her. However, this does not make sense if the originals are actually replaced by the pod bodies. I was also troubled by the scene immediately preceding this, when Miles discovered that the pods were capable of beautiful singing. Becky says that the singing "means we're not the only ones left to know what love is," assuming that only someone human, someone with emotions, could produce such a sound. When they discover that the "inhuman" and "unfeeling" pod people produced the singing, does it therefore suggest that they are not as "inhuman" as Miles has believed? Could it in fact suggest that the whole idea of the pod people was paranoia on the part of Miles, a paranoia that the audience then fed upon, bringing it to reflect political problems they saw in their own lives?

To Live is to Leave Traces

This book is a mess. The Publishers Weekly review quoted on the back cover declares it “Gleefully gory” but it is more than just gore that overflows in Body Surfing. In addition to blood and copious amounts of other bodily fluids, dirt, grime, and grit simply abound. It is a filthy, filthy book. The novel opens with Ileana in a grimy bar, wearing a “sweat-stained tank top” (9). The smell of Jasper’s room, with its piles and piles of dirty clothes, is easy to imagine (30-31) and the slug in his sneaker, oozing around his toes, is just fantastic (33, 57). In more extreme situations, the filth level escalates. After her night of revenge, Ileana is “caked with blood and gore. Ash and blood painted her face like a minstrel” (127).

The overwhelming tactility of this mess lends a certain sense of realness and tangibility to scenes that are otherwise hard to swallow. No matter how atrocious, terrifying, or disturbing the events that take place, and how much we might want to distance ourselves from them, those gritty little details are vivid reminders of how real and concrete these happenings can actually be. When Ileana notices the flour on the uniform of the soldier that approaches her, it is not just a visual detail of the scene, but a clue to what has already transpired, a trace of the events that have gone on before. Ileana recalls that her grandmother had been baking bread that morning, and it becomes painfully clear where the flour came from.

This leaving behind of traces—flour in this case, but more often in Body Surfing a trail of blood and bodies—is echoed in how the Mogran possess their hosts. Despite the fact that the Mogran are strong enough to be in complete control, they can also choose to release or augment “certain urges already present in their host’s psyche”—“Mogran loved to do that” (46). Even while possessed, the host’s personality may still be present, a residue of their former self.

When the Mogran are explained in a bit more detail, they are defined as mortals who have somehow shed their skins and become beings “of pure spirit” (141). I had envisioned this process of possession as a purely spiritual interaction, and therefore as being far cleaner. One might expect there to be no traces left at all—a spirit enters a new body, and that’s that. Instead, the amount of dirt and grime is almost overwhelming. Traces are left everywhere, blood and sweat stains every possible surface. There is no getting away from the sheer uncleanness of life.

As I was thinking about this idea of leaving traces, I saw online (thanks, Flavorpill!) that the Wellcome Collection in London has an exhibition entitled “Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life.” A few excerpts from the exhibition website: “'Dirt' will reveal the fascinating world of filth that remains one of the very last taboos. Our major new exhibition takes a closer look at something that surrounds us but that we are often reluctant to confront…the exhibition uncovers a rich history of disgust and delight in the grimy truths and dirty secrets of our past, and points to the uncertain future of filth, which poses a significant risk to our health but is also vital to our existence."

The topics mentioned here—the conflation of disgust and delight, dirty secrets, our uncertain future—are all themes in the book (field trip to London, please?).

Perhaps this idea of dirt and residue appealed to me so much this week because of the time of year. It is that magical time when piles begin to appear in libraries and computer clusters across campus. Stacks of books, puddles of papers, collections of empty food containers, half-eaten sandwiches, entire desks covered in empty Red Bull bottles. The amount of stuff and residue we manage to generate just writing papers is pretty incredible.

Modern Society and Pessimism

“For what is a world without pods but a world committed resolutely to macho principles – dangerously narrow, only half-human, a world devoid of rest, receptivity, growth, and an empathetic acceptance of otherness?”

So Nancy Steffen-Fluhr states in the pessimistic conclusion of her article. In this post, I’d like to show how the Invasion of the Body Snatchers suggests an outlook not quite as bleak as the one she indicates.

Steffen-Fluhr suggests that a world without pods is “devoid of rest”, implying that this restlessness is somehow intrinsically bad. Certainly, it seems that Becky's succumbing to sleep after struggling to stay awake for nearly two days suggests that such a condition is inherently unsustainable. But it is only because of the threat of being assimilated by the pod people in their sleep that Becky and Miles are forced to stay awake for an unsustainably long period of time, so the condition of being devoid of rest is not one naturally present in our world. Moreover, even if such a condition were present, is it necessarily undesirable in and of itself? Miles certainly would not have escaped from the pod people if he had chosen to rest instead of flee, and more generally, progress and change have only ever occurred in dynamic, restless societies such as ours, not the restful, stagnating one of the pod people.

Next, the suggestion that a world without pods lacks “acceptance of otherness” conversely implies that the pod people do exhibit such an acceptance. But is this really the case? If the pod people were indeed empathetically accepting of otherness, then they would not want to assimilate Becky and Miles, or for that matter the rest of Earth's population, for they would empathize with their fears about the loss of personality and individuality. Yet Kaufman and Jack continually urge to Becky and Miles to give in and join the pod people, and the pods are intent on spreading their influence across America and presumably the rest of the world as well. Such colonialist ambitions certainly do not reflect acceptance or even tolerance of otherness. Granted, Steffen-Fluhr’s claim that a "world without pods" can be xenophobic and unaccepting is borne out by the initial reactions of horror, fear and revulsion which Miles, Becky, Jack and Teddy display when discovering the truth about the bodies growing from the pods, but given that the pod people are hardly any more accepting than we are, it seems somewhat unfair to level such a criticism at our society.

In relation to the acceptance of otherness, the article also suggests that our society is an unreceptive one, unsympathetic and unresponsive to views unlike our own. However, the ending of the film provides us with some evidence otherwise, as although Miles’ account of what has happened in Santa Mira is initially met with skepticism, his interviewers are quickly convinced once another policeman corroborates Miles’ story, and they agree with Miles that the pod people do pose a threat to national security. Thus their initial lack of receptiveness is overcome once presented with appropriate evidence and convinced of the urgency of the matter, suggesting that even if we aren’t quite as accepting of unusual, different opinions as the ideally receptive society might be, we aren’t entirely unreceptive and unresponsive either. For this and the other reasons I’ve outlined above, I find that Invasion of the Body Snatchers suggests a worldview not quite as pessimistic Steffen-Fluhr makes it out to be.