Bloodnation / Fleshland

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

Colourful forms gleam in the dim sunlight, half crystalline, half organic shapes that intimate a posthuman world growing from our leftovers. Man's presence in this landscape inevitably signifies his own demise. The painting doesn't tell us whether they are perfectly still, cliff-like, or whether they pulsate and move. We are in Europe after the Rain, Max Ernst's depiction of a world regenerating from mass destruction, sprouting new life forms from decaying bodies and weapons, and we know that the goo has always been with us, even if it may not have always been grey. Landscape painting often evokes the Romantic horror of a violent nature that threatens to overshadow the man made world. Surrounded by a nature that is too big to comprehend, whose interplay of moonlight and tide dictates the logic of the composition, the tiny black boats in Turner's stormy landscapes are completely overwhelmed by this untamed monster. Ernst's Europe, by contrast is a world in which a peaceful balance between culture and nature has been restored through the dialectic of destruction and growth. Here, there is no room for the Romantic sublime. Adapting Dominguez’ Declomania technique, the application of paper or glass to a painted surface and pulling it away, Ernst "revealed hidden mutations of human and animal forms, jungles, cities and forests" (Nolan). The resulting horizon is constructed entirely from within the human psyche, like pieces of reality that drift to the hazy shore of dreams. When there is no longer any need to differentiate between artifice and nature, inside the human body and the outside or even between dreams and wakefulness, everything becomes simply an endlessly complex chain of atoms, proteins fused with minerals, all equivalent and interchangeable. A landscape covered with the leftovers of human intervention, both organic and technological, haunts the modern imagination, a final destabalising of the antithesis between culture and nature.

In Grey World, Green Heart, Robert L. Thayer suggests that the landscape has always functioned as an arena of compromise between nature and artifice, the site wherein the balance of factories and trees could be measured. But as both our perception of nature and our technologies grow increasingly abstract and become less visible – from string theory to nanotechnology – its role as mediator declines. Greg Bear's fictional account of a nanotechnological catastrophe in his 1985 novel Blood Music attempts to bridge this visual gap by bringing the threat of the dissolution of the landscape to its most extreme conclusion. In the book, lab researcher Vergil Ulam is instructed to terminate a pioneering experiment, just as he is on the verge of developing intelligent DNA processing biochips. Rather than destroy his work, he decides to inject himself with the modified cellular material, which at first enhances his physical abilities in a typical Jake 2.0-style superhero scenario. Of course, these intelligent 'noocytes' don't stop there – having mastered the complexities of the human body, they proceed to encompass the brain, and as soon as they realise that Vergil Ulam is not the limit of the universe, it's only a matter of time until they decide to venture out, at first sending scouts, thin white ridges forming on the skin, finally merging several bodies and asserting the superiority of their consciousness over the human mind, the ultimate selfish gene finally disposing of mamalian codependency. But where most conventional science fiction would choose to end the story, Blood Music continues, the latter half of the novel describing the transformation of the world's populace into the world's surface, a thin film of pinkish brown flesh spread over the American continent, threatening to leak out, connecting everyone in a shared consciousness, a kind of cyberspace – or 'Noosphere' – made physical through a complex nervous system. This is K. Eric Drexler's grey goo nightmare taken to the extreme: the landscape is not just destroyed or abused by mankind, it is turned into mankind, or vice versa – the distinction collapses, humanity embarks on its next evolutionary stage.

However, there is more to the grey goo scenario than this type of body horror. In The Reproductive System, science fiction writer envisages a much clunkier version of the notion that the world's resources could be absorbed through the limitless growth of a useless piece of technology run amok. His little grey metal boxes built simply to reproduce for no reason other than to obtain a government research grant, are designed to communicate with each other, learn, defend themselves against potential dangers and ultimately use any resources in their immediate environment to grow exponentially. Despite obvious similarities, Bear and Sladek's books present ultimately two different visions of grey goo as a cultural metaphor. Bear's biological catastrophe signifies the end of society as a construct based on individual thought, where "nothing is lost, nothing is forgotten. It was in the blood, in the flesh, and now it is forever". In Sladek's post hippie novel (written almost 20 years before Bear's or Drexler's, in 1968), the globally spreading menace of thinking metal boxes is like a perfect Marxist formulation of how Capitalism works: capital whose only purpose is to produce surplus, a regulated system of expansion whose only goal is growth. Interestingly, by the end of the book, The Reproductive System brings to an end the cold war, a prophetic realisation that the logic of surplus capital is mightier than any ideology.

But grey goo is not just futurology, a post catastrophic science fiction scenario – it is also prefigured in the recent past. Taking into consideration its two aspects as explored by Bear and Sladek, post-subjectivity ("What you think of as INDIVIDUAL may be spread throughout the 'totality'", explain Bear's intelligent cells) and exponential surplus production, grey goo theory is alarmingly similar to certain portrayals of European Fascism in the 20th century, especially the writing of Herbert Read and in Hannah Arendt's brilliant analysis of Nazism in "The Origins of Totalitarianism". Fascism has often been imagined as a biological entity, a cancerous cell spreading through the healthy body of the nation state, a viral threat to the idea of the autonomous individual in liberal democratic societies. Indeed fascists themselves were always fond of organic metaphors of growth and expansion. Herbert Read’s study of the subject in "The Cult of the Leader" proposes that at the heart of the attraction of Fascism lies a craving for "relatedness, for union…" and that man has always betrayed his freedom for "Religion and nationalism, as well as any custom and any belief, however absurd and degrading, if it only connects the individual with others…", as long as they offer temporary "refuges from what man most dreads: isolation" (53). Read seems to suggest that the Fascist leader is merely a projection of mass hysteria onto a hollow image of authority and power.

Hannah Arendt similarly describes how Nazi officials operated without direct or even indirect orders, simply in anticipation of what they thought the Fuerer would have liked them to do. "The hierarchy is absolute... but it’s not a dictatorship. I think they effectively have more freedom than we do. They vary in different ways than we do" (79), says Blood Music’s mad scientist Vergil Ulam of his intelligent cells. "The point is that none of the organs of power was ever deprived of its right to pretend that it embodied the will of the leader. But not only was the will of the Leader so unstable that compared with it the whims of Oriental despots are a shining example of steadfastness... the members of the ruling clique themselves could never be absolutely sure of their own position in the secret power hierarchy." (400). In other words, the Fascist leader is like the elusive brain functions. ultimately devoid of any real power, of the host body that Bear’s 'noocytes' go to such pains to try to understand, "a supreme command cluster" (173). This is also why these two systems, the ideological and the post-biological, are so effective: "The body politic of the country is shock-proof because of its shapelessness", concludes Arendt.

In terms of its unrestrained tendency towards expansion, the second determining quality of the grey goo scenario, the Fascist analogy is almost self evident. In Arendt’s formulation, since Totalitarian regimes base their foreign policy on the assumption that there are ‘natural’ principals that precede international law and the boundaries of the nation-state, the entire world is becomes no more than matter waiting to be converted into part of their shapeless system. "Evidence that totalitarian governments aspire to conquer the globe and bring all countries on earth under their domination can be found repeatedly in Nazi and Bolshevik literature... they consider no country as permanently foreign, but, on the contrary, every country as their potential territory." (415) Vergil loses control over his lab creations once they realise the ‘outside’ (of his body) is made of the same matter as the inside, or that "OUTSIDE *share body structure* alike" (83), in their own terms. For Totalitarian regimes the distinction between ‘inside’ (Germany, for example) and ‘outside’ is non-existent. Arendt writes that the Nazis "in case of victory... intended to extend their extermination policy to the ranks of ‘racially unfit’ Germans" (416).

If the noocytes ever did enter the totalitarian body politic as formulated by Arendt, it is not unlikely that something like Star Trek’s Borg would emerge. This alien race, governed by a collective hive mind, is actually comprised of various species assimilated with the aid of ‘nanoprobes’, molecular machines of the type described by Bear and Drexler. The Borg consciousness is itself a kind of viral parasite, invading the host bodies of various humanoids. The Nazis are actually mentioned in the series is "the Borg of their time", and on several occasions the Borg prompt the series protagonists to abandon their precious protocol and disobey the prime directive, which dictates that all life forms must be respected and no culture must be tampered with. The Borg obviously manifest the traditional red threat era B-movie fear of de-individuation, but they are more than just technofascist commies. Their ryzomatic empire’s pursuit of perfection – a desire to accumulate as much technology as possible and rely on biology as little as possible – suggests that they fulfil an even more frightening role in relation to star fleet’s centralised hierarchy. The Borg have no ranks or special tasks that can only be carried out by individuals, instead they have only designations, a relative placement aboard one of their perfectly de-centralised cube space ships: changing "the central requirement from preserving function to preserving structure" as Drexler describes his cellular repair machines. While the Borg’s humanoid bodies provide a tangible anchor, an anthropomorphic visual that the viewer can latch onto, their attempts to overcome the mortal coil brings them closer to Bear’s invisible heirs of mankind. Assimilation is more than a threat to liberal democratic notion’s of the self or a mirror of the way its globalising tactics merge cultures into thoughtless sameness, it the end of ideology, a final fusion of nature and technology that does away with the conflicted human consciousness responsible for the distinction in the first place.

J.G. Ballard has often claimed that science fiction is simply a fictional projection of things that are already happening onto another time. Can we therefore be certain that grey goo lies safely in the past, part of the primordial ooze, a nightmare we have already awoken from, or that it only exists in a distant fantastical future? The fusion of technology and biology, a technological catastrophe that spreads like a virus, is a virus, the collapse of boundaries of individuals and communities are all already here, growing vertically like a jungle beneath our high rises and bypasses, a Max Ernst landscape crystallising under our feet that we are too slow to comprehend before noticing our feet have been subsumed by it. Evidence is be found everywhere. In the past few years, inspired by D.I.Y. shows, thousands of suburban home owners have transformed their back gardens into fashionable little retreats, sealing them with thick layers of concrete. This mass phenomena, which prevents water from soaking into the ground, was partly blamed for the recent floods in low areas in Britain – a natural catastrophe caused by nature’s alteration through the continuum of a shared psyche, a symbolic virus of communication that spreads through the suburbs and psychically shapes this emergent blend of man and nature. Resistance, as the Borg would say, is futile – we have already been assimilated.