Oken, District 9, and Lovecraft

The following is my contribution to the cross blog event as well an excerpt from the final chapter of the forthcoming Slime Dynamics.

The question becomes what of ethics – a concern which too often than not is the center of contemporary philosophy at the cost of analytical or speculative breadth and depth. An ethics which must take the productivity and product being of nature seriously.

In “Being and Slime” Grant points out that, following Oken, an ethics without a philosophy of nature is a contradiction, a non-thing (Collapse 4, 287-289). The fundamental challenge of Kantian ethics and of subsequent post-modern ethics (following from thinkers such as Emanuel Levinas) is that they set themselves as groundless, as not following from any sort of nature or material substance. This groundlessness is only half -hearted however, as the dominant form of ethics bases itself on an unacknowledged (or celebrated) positing of the importance of human beings.

The obvious problem of connecting ethics to any sort of materiality immediately suggests the possibility of ethics, or more generally human action, determining life. This problem is only legitimate, however, if life is always taken to be life as such and not life itself. That is, a material ethics immediately summons the specters of eugenics, selective breeding racism et cetera because the concept of a natural ethics is construed as coming from a particular form of human (a particular race, religion, etc) and not from humans as a slimy animal. Contemporary ethical configurations then would see a material basis for an ethics following from nature as coming from a particular human subject (Nazi, Fascist et cetera) and never humanity as a form of animal.

Where an Okenian ethics should be viewed as an ethics open to forms-of-life regardless of their material appearance, form or function, the philosophically dominant ethics of the day would see such an ethics as determining a particular form of human life as such (that is, s secretly western, eastern, Christian and so forth) and never following from biology or the base slime of life it self.

The film District 9 takes the alien, the outsider and the concept of disease thereby unifying two of our previously discussed adventures (the microbial and the supra organic) with the fungal remaining to feast on the remains. The film follows, in faux documentary style, an aspiring employee of a multinational corporation who leads an eviction of a shanty town of aliens in Johannesburg who, twenty years earlier, came to Earth in a barely functioning ship without any leadership hierarchy, starving and helpless. During the eviction the employee, Wikus, is exposed to a biological agent which slowly begins to transform his body but not before causing his teeth and fingernails to fall out, his skin to deform, and features to change and so on.

These body horror or gross-out aspects of District 9 may be forgiven if the question of the biological itself is in question in relation to life, the question of how biological is our humanity? The ease at which the body is nullified by seen and unseen agents suggests that it is the gestures of living creatures which creates material difference – even if in a material sense the gestures are ‘just rubbish’ in a material sense. Wikus, after his transformation continues to make presents of rubbish, such as a metal flower, for his wife. Connecting back to the introduction, meaning is not inherent but retroactive, caused by the interrconectedness and effects of rubbish, of dumb biology. Scenes throughout the film which run becoming-the-xeno-subject and sickness together (when the deplorable protagonist Wikus pulls out his dead finger nails, dead teeth and so forth) tie the danger of a material based ethics to the tenuousness of the material itself due to death, disease rot and so on.

Negarestani’s already mentioned radical openness comes into play and, in particular, his depiction of it as being open to being butchered. As Negarestani writes: “The blade of radical openness thirsts to butcher economical openness or any openness contructed on the affordability of both the subject and its environment.” (Cyclonopedia, p 197) Or put another way: “Openness emerges as radical butchery from within and without” (Cyclonopedia, 199).

The treatment of Wikus’ body by himself, by the alien infection and by others illustrates the butchering aspect of openness, and can be seen in particular in the amputation logic which often appears in horror films surrounding alien infection whether parasitic or viral. This amputation logic is in full effect in the film the Ruins where the part must be sacrified for the whole. For quite some time in the film Wikus’ body is a piece of future biotechnology, ready for scrapping and extraction and he himself contemplates ridding himself of his alien arm. Again, thinking back to our viroid chapter, we are reminded of the withering of the body by the alien life forms in Dead Space.

Returning to the ethical, the fact that the reason that the aliens stopped on earth is left open suggests that what they needed itself was open or obfuscated – fuel, food, general care etc. Something that could not be provided by their advanced technology – something possibly as the result of an accident. This fact is compounded by the aliens’ biotechnology, the fact that the biological is wired to the technological and yet what is missing is the odd ethical gesture. Again, regardless of the base material, what is lacking, what is needed by the aliens, is gesture which overlooks both the need for their technology and the difference of their biology.

District 9 underscores the lack of this gesture in its portrayal of the inability of capitalist/multinational entities to understand the ethical (as if this was anything new) since the ethical fails as soon as it tries to become formalized into law. The ethical remains the unformalizable aspect of the connection of two networks. Similarly, the question remains of the exact circumstances of how the aliens ended up on earth, was it accident or some other exterior force? The accident, or string of unfortunate circumstances being the counterpart to the unpredictable ethical gesture.

Here we could make an odd connection to the racial paranoia of HP Lovecraft.

Lovecraft has a striking passage in one of his letters from when he was living in New York. He writes:

“The organic things—Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid–inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be called human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption […] the degenerate gelatinous fermentation of which they were composed—seem’d to ooze, seep and trickle thro’ the gaping cracks in the horrible houses…and I thought of some avenue of Cyclopean and unwholesome vats, crammed to the vomiting-point with gangrenous vileness” (quoted in Against the World, p 106-107).

As Michel Houellebecq points out, the particular race Lovecraft was talking about is an impossible one – Lovecraft was generally disgusted by what he saw as non-western modes of life. Lovecraft incorrectly assumed that one form of civilization could save humanity from itself and this was his mistake. Here Lovecraft’s indifferentism betrays itself as he cannot be open to the sliminess of life in his existence while his fiction was rife with them, with the interpentrating encounter between odd materials and and purportedly familiar ones. Compare to the following from Lovecraft’s tale “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”:

“Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species — if separate species we be — for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world.” (Lovecraft, 102).

The question is that of the human and the non-human, not the European and its other.

In Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia he proposes the possibility, following from Lovecraft’s creations, of a Cthulhoid ethics which he defines as “A polytical ethics necessary for replacing or undermining existing planetary politico-economical and religious systems. Cthulhoid Ethics is essential for accelerating the emergence and encounter with the radical Outside. Cthulhoid Ethics can be characterized by the question ‘what happens next?’ when it is posed by the other side or the radical outsider rather than the human and its faculties” (Cyclonopedia, p. 238). It is important to note as well that Negarestani’s spelling of polytics is indicative of an alternate meaning to the common politics, that of a schizoid, hyperactive forming of strategies to degrade and undue its target by opening it to the untenable Outside (Cyclonopedia, p 242).

While openness as an political ethical category is no new creation (going back fifty years at least) Negarestani’s formulation, as has been previously suggested, makes an important distinction. As we have been deploying openness so far it should be all too clear that Negarestani’s openness is one in which invites hacking and butchering or worse. It is one not of being open to X but being open, making oneself fully susceptible to invasion, corruption, contagion and death. It is an ethics that refuses to let an unacknowledged and subjectively human designation of the ethical over-determine life in itself with life as such.

Humans, like any other polyp of living matter, are nothing but heaps of slime slapped together and shaped by the accidents of time and the context of space. The fact that we have evolved self-consciousness should not guarantee nor maintain meaning. Meaning is only ever the final gloss on being which when removed does not then dictate mass suicide nor pure apathy. Such a suggestion would ignore the pathology of human existence, of the mind as a ball of time, that being permeated by space and time we form particular attachments and drives, things that we pursue, construct and so forth without reason or meaning – only as a result of being aware and yet unaware of our own tenuous formation. Tonnesson’s that ‘Life isn’t even Meaningless’ is not merely sardonic or misanthropic, but is a critically existential and even ontological imperative.

Life is merely life, not to say that it is less meaningful than meaning itself (outside life) but that meaning itself must be negated, rendered in acid. Meaning is additive and here we have set out to subtract it. This may seem to welcome the horrors of bio-metric government aptly considered and critiqued by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, of being reduced to a genome, a finger print, a retinal scan. But subtracting meaning, reducing ontological life to biological life is only to unbind pathology which seems like a far more useful weapon in combating a structure then meaning, then a meaningful existence or subjectivity in terms of Agamben’s form-of-life. Pathology is far harder to measure, dress and maintain then the concept of a meaningful or true life.


2 thoughts on “Oken, District 9, and Lovecraft

  1. Pingback: No Humans Allowed « Hyper tiling

  2. “Humans, like any other polyp of living matter, are nothing but heaps of slime slapped together and shaped by the accidents of time and the context of space.”

    Pardon me for asking, but isn’t this a contradiction in terms? Unless, of course, you are presuming a Kantian notion of “time” and “space” given that “time” and “space” are utterly “human” ( that is to say, a particular expression of life-as-such) impressions and/ or constructions,?

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