Posthuman Metamorphosis: Narrative and Systems.
In his Allegories of Writing: The Subject of Metamorphosis (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), Bruce Clarke examined metamorphosis narratives as allegories of narrative transformations inspired by new writing technologies. Clarke's most recent book builds on this work by similarly examining metamorphosis narratives in contemporary science fiction. As with his previous book, Posthuman Metamorphosis argues that changes in narratives ate linked to changes in media, yet it also employs narrative transformations as a metaphor for transformations of the human: "Modern technological developments have driven the assembly of new stories that rewrite the boundaries between ourselves, animals, and machines" (2). Clarke's primary argument, therefore, is that there is an inherent connection between media ecology and the ecology of living systems.
Clarke explores this connection using second-order cybernetics to understand both narrative structures and the nature of posthuman subjectivity, and the first chapter of the book outlines the fundamental similarities between second-order cybernetics and narrative theory. Using Mieke Bal's approach to narratology, Clarke distinguishes between two aspects of narrative: narrative presenting, or narration, and narrative perception, or focalization. According to Clarke, the distinction between narration and focalization reflects the interpenetration of social and psychic systems, and "maintaining that distinction ... reinforces the posthumanist understanding that 'persons' are always already social as well as psychic constructions constituted in and by an assemblage of autonomous systems embedding them in complex nonhuman environments" (31). While this theory could ostensibly be applied to any narrative structure, Clarke suggests that it is particularly useful in analyzing science fiction narratives that represent posthumanism asa hybrid identity formed by the interpenetration of systems. Clarke demonstrates this idea by examining several alien contact narratives, such as H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, and Carl Sagan's Contact. Clarke refers to these texts as narratives of "cosmic focalization" because the aliens possess knowledge that is beyond human cognition. Communication with aliens thus serves as an allegory for the interaction between systems and environments.
While the first chapter provides an overview of the book's primary argument, the second chapter looks at the human itself as a medial construction. Because human subjectivity is formed through social communication, Clarke argues that it is a medial construction maintained by narrative systems. Narratives of posthuman metamorphosis also serve as allegories for this condition because they represent subjectivity as a linguistic construct. Clarke explains this idea using Bruno Latour's concept of "quasi-objects" (a term borrowed from Michel Serres), which refers to both "the objecthood of subjects" as well as "the subjecthood of objects" (44). This term serves as a useful description of posthuman subjectivity because posthumanism similarly recognizes that there is no fundamental essence to the human; rather, subjectivity is a product of communication itself and it is thus composed of human and non-human components. Clarke illustrates this idea using H. G. Wells's 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which a scientist employs vivisection to transform animals into human beings. The half-human/ half-animal people generated through these experiments struggle to maintain their humanity by reciting a litany called "the Law" that involves prohibitions against various forms of animalistic behavior. This scenario appears to mirror the formation of subjectivity, as the creatures represent the merging of social and psychic systems, and their humanity is solely maintained through communication and narrative.
In the third chapter Clarke approaches narratology and second-order cybernetics from a different angle by examining the function of narrative frames. In order to explain this connection, Clarke employs Niklas Luhmann's concept of the "two-sided form." According to Luhmann, form is not the opposite of "nonform," but rather it represents the boundary line between two opposing forces. The paradox of form, therefore, is that it simultaneously occupies both sides of a distinction. Posthuman subjectivity similarly represents a "two-sided form," as it results from the interpenetration of opposites: "When two-sided forms are personified, the metamorphs so created open up and dramatize the form of self-referential paradoxes. The unities created by holding the inside and outside of distinctions together produce ... metamorphic chimeras fated to equivocate because the simultaneous observation of both sides of a distinction generates a paradox" (88). Clarke illustrates this idea using Damon Knight's 1964 science fiction novel Beyond the Barrier, in which a character who believes he is human turns out to be the carrier of an alien intelligence. This nesting of minds within minds clearly illustrates the interpenetration of systems, yet the human and the non-human still remain distinct: "The decisive revelation of posthuman metamorphosis is realized in the figural narrative situation of a mind beyond the human that yet retains its human traces" (93). The posthuman is a "two-sided form," in other words, because it paradoxically represents the blurring of a distinction while still maintaining both sides of the distinction.
Clarke's discussion of narrative frames continues in the fourth chapter, yet here he employs Gregory Bateson's concept of metacommunicative and metalinguistic frames to discuss the ways in which embedded narratives allow for the observation of a system to be incorporated into the system itself. Clarke argues that embedded narratives--stories within stories--are fundamentally self-referential because they enact "the narrating of narration" (96). Narratives of posthuman metamorphosis also mirror the structure of embedded narratives because they represent reframings of narrative identities: just as embedded narratives shift between narrative levels, posthumans shift between various identities. Like the posthuman body, in other words, the body of the text similarly represents a symbiotic merging of systems and environments. Clarke illustrates this idea using Stanislaw Lem's 1967 collection The Cyberiad. While this book was informed by the work of Norbert Wiener and reflects the hardware-software dualism of first-order cybernetics, Clarke argues that it also critiques the concept of "cybernetic perfection," which anticipates the development of second-order cybernetics. Clarke is particularly interested in Lem's representation of storytelling machines, which allow for the embedding of multiple narrative levels. The stories told by these machines also involve other storytelling machines, which incorporate additional levels of embedded narratives. This Use of embedded narratives provides an ideal illustration of the self-construction of autopoietic systems through the creation of narrative frames. Embedded narratives serve as a metaphor for autopoietic systems, according to Clarke, because they incorporate observation of the system into the system itself.
In his last two chapters Clarke contrasts two very different narratives of posthuman metamorphosis. In the fifth chapter he examines various versions of The Fly, including George Langelaan's 1957 short story, Kurt Neumann's 1958 film adaptation, and David Cronenberg's 1986 film version, and in the final chapter he turns to Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, which includes the novels Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). Both of these chapters are based on the representation of the posthuman as a form of noise of interference in a system. In The Fly, for example, noise is embodied in the insect that enters the teleporter and merges with the main character to become a half-human/half-animal hybrid. It thus represents a form of "infection--a threat to, rather than a condition of, the bounded autonomy of systems" (131). In Butler's work, on the other hand, mutation results in the symbiotic merging of humans and aliens to form a new and more adaptable posthuman species. Clarke thus concludes that "the flip side of every monster propagated by the noisy corruption of signals is the promise of a viable mutation--an increase in systemic complexity." In order to draw a connection between the representation of posthuman metamorphosis in these works and the structure of the narratives, Clarke argues that noise also represents the "self-reference of the medium" (131). As with embedded narratives, in other words, the incorporation of noise similarly illustrates how the observation of a system can be incorporated back into the system itself. This connection between posthuman metamorphosis and narrative is most clearly illustrated in the various versions of The Fly. Langelaan's story and Neumann's film employ a narrative framing device, for example, while Cronenberg's film employs screens within screens to dramatize the hybrid nature of the narrative. Although The Fly demonizes noise within the narrative, therefore, it also enacts the productive aspects of noise at the structural level by linking the embedding of narratives to the embedding of biological systems.