Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation, and the Creep of Life (2012) by Ben Woodard strikes me as a typical weird philosophy word-salad monograph from Zero Books.
It does, however, brush against some artists I have always found rewarding.
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Introduction: Slime Ascent
[....] As the guiding theme of this text, I propose an odd metaphysical construct opposed to emergence and that is at once a simultaneous resurrection and mutilation of vitalism. Traditionally vitalism does not seem too different from emergentism in that both suggest there is something more to life, something that drives and/or affects life that is not purely reducible to the classifiable components of life itself. The two have been grouped together by critics and proponents alike.
The vitalism we will be pursuing here avoids this connect in that it is not a theory that asserts a vital substance or stuff that propels life forward, but that the vital force is time and its effect on space. This at first may seem not like a vitalism at all but the focus of this project is to prove the effects of the temporal-spatial construction of existence on life as not merely the force of, but a force acting upon life that provides a rigorously deanthropomoprhizing way of thinking. We will show that accounting for time and space does not undo vitalism but pushes it to its logical philosophical conclusion.
[....] vitalism cannot be a thing (since genes are what is passed on, not life itself) and it cannot be a force because it says nothing about life itself as a force, only that it develops but not how. What all the aforementioned critiques leave out is time as something beyond thought which is the force of vitalism (life emerges over time) and the substance of vitalism is not the germ plasm trumping heredity but space as it is filled by life. A spatialization of vitalism simply points to the fact that an organism attempts to extend itself across space through growth, mutation, and reproduction. A temporalization of vitalism likewise can be seen as the fact that life happens with time and that time means the birth as well as the death of all things.
H.P. Lovecraft, whose fiction will occupy much of the third chapter, was also disdainful of vitalism, placing it somewhere between the mythical and the poetic.19 This was mostly due to the vital force being taken as essentially spiritual and not energetic, as a fundamentally non-scientific vitalism thereby opposing Lovecraft's own adamant espousal of mechanism and determinism.
[....] vitalism is a mental shadow of the progression of the universe, from the speculative moment before the Big Bang, as a highly condensed mass, to its extension into time and space and matter, to biological life, and finally to reflective thinking. The above mentioned ontological cascade moves (in philosophical terms) from the Real, to Materiality, to Sense, and finally to Extilligence. Or, put in terms of the levels of the reality it mirrors, from bare existence as only possibility, to the configurations of matter and energy, to the interaction of stimulus and sense, ending with the extension of ontic being via symbols, structures, technologies, et cetera. The degenerate take on vitalism and the Neo-Platonic One will be taken together as a dark vitalism. But what is it about this conceptualization of vitalism that makes it dark exactly?
Part of the work of a dark vitalism is the sickening realization of an inhospitable universe, stating that the production of life as an accidental event in time which is then contorted and bent by the banality of space, of our particular (and just as accidental) universal geometry and then furtbher ravaged by accident, context, feedback and the degradation of wear and age.
The dark of dark vitalism is thus three fold:
1 – It is dark because it is obscured both by nature (who is to say that we can divine and comprehend the details of the universe from our limited brains) and by time (we are at a temporal disadvantage in trying to discern the creation of all things) since the cause of most of the nature we know has fallen back into the deep past. 2 – It is dark because it spells bad news for the human race in terms of our origin (we are just clever monkeys that emerged as a result of a series of biological and cosmological lucky breaks), our meaning (we are just meat puppets based on our construction), and our ultimate fate (Earth will die and we will probably perish if not with it then eventually with the universe). 3 – It is dark on an aesthetic and experiential level our psychological and phenomenological existence is darkened and less friendly to us, and to our perceptions, given the destructiveness of time and space. It is the third claim which this text will work hardest to prove focusing primarily on biological sciences and biological examples within popular culture through a collection of lurid cultural artifacts.
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1: The Nightmarish Microbial
[....] Given the competitive violence of life's productivity it seems ridiculous to assume that there would be any sort of deep down harmony between life forms (whether psychic or not) across the globe as all creatures are all battling for limited space and resources in their individual biospheres. The interconnectedness of various life forms on the earth is a tenuous intermeshing based on opportunity and luck and not due to any artificially imposed harmony. From the disrupted familiarity of mitochondria we move to the more externalized, (at least in terms of the biological boundaries of the human, of our normal functioning) yet still internal virus to explore the horror of the network and of internality, the virus being an object which pushes the nightmarish capacity of networked life to its limits.
The virus, the viroid, the deadly bacterium, all crept into center stage prior to the turn of the twentieth to the twentieth first century. The vague swarming of the deadly microbial and the subsequent paranoia emerged alongside the rise of a globalized and interconnected world, where proximity and speed elevated the potency and spread of contagion. The political correlative to this is that the dissemination of nation states and rise of globalization exacerbated worries over security, of the permeability of one's borders. That is, while the microbial raises worries of internal biological damage, fears of the viral place human beings in a biological ecology full of unfriendly entities.
Media episodes of epidemic outbreak point to the magnitude of viral voraciousness but often only indirectly as the real object in the spotlight is the capacities of governmental infrastructure, what is being done or not done, to respond to the biological threat. Thus the attention is shifted from the potential horror of viewing the collective biomass of the human race as only viral food, to the demands of our external capabilities found in technology government and reason. Endless speculative scenarios have paraded across various fictional stages exemplifying the apocalyptic capacities of infection: The Scarlet Plague, The Masque of the Red Death, The Andromeda Strain, 28 Days Later, Cabin Fever et cetera. Such mental exercises however do little justice to the realities of AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria, and Influenza to only name a few forms of viral life which consistently evade eradication.
[....] The difference between life (as a force, as a propensity towards the formation of organisms) and individual forms of life indexes the larger problems of life and being which, as Thacker suggests are related by negation.50 In other words the problem is what is non-being in relation to life, is there something in life that is living but is not yet classifiable?51 As Thacker sums up nicely, Life has been used conceptually yet the conception of life has no discernible definition.52
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1.2 Fungoid Horror and The Creep of Life
[....] On the theme of inhalation and the senses, some fungi use a malodorous stench to attract insects. These fungi, in the family Phallaceae, can smell like dung or carrion to attract vectors of fungal spread (such as flies), again tying the specter of death to the germinal spread of life as well as binding the miasmic life-of-death to the demonic evidenced in the names of some fungus such as Devil's Snuff Box and Devil's Stink-pot.77 Furthermore, of the minority of fungus which attack warm blooded animals, the majority infiltrate through the inhalations of the lungs adding a realistic sense of wariness to the rotten smell of the fungus.
The aforementioned dark (bio) vitalism of Ligotti's creeping nature is anticipated by some of the fungoid creatures of Lovecraft's pantheon as well as William Hope Hodgson's short tales "The Derelict" and especially his well known "The Voice in the Night."
Hodgson's "The Voice in the Night" tells the story of a shipwrecked crew that becomes infected and slowly transmogrified by a gray fungus leaving them nodding lumps. Beyond the creeping horror of the fungus – it also fills the victims with an "inhuman desire" to consume the sweet tasting matter, to consume the long dead corpses of others that have been slowly grown over. Hodgson describes the miserable island of fungus thusly: "In places it rose into horrible, fantastic mounds, which seemed almost to quiver, as with a quiet life, when the wind blew across them. Here and there it took on the forms of vast fingers, and in others it just spread out flat and smooth and treacherous. Odd places, it appeared as grotesque stunted trees, seeming extraordinarily kinked and gnarled – the whole quaking vilely at times."78
In "The Derelict" the encounter is far more rapid and terrifying. A ship of men aboard an abandoned vessel find themselves barely able to escape with their lives as a brown squelching fungus attempts to consume them. The active/passive divide of the fungoid horror is replicated in fictional fields as a form of trap and an assailant, a trap in its psychedelic spore launching form and an assailant in its aggressively consumptive modality.
[....] Historically, fungus played an important geophysical role as an early formation of slime corroded the dull rocky surface of the earth leading to the creation of soil. In popular culture fungus shows up as sprouting patches of mushrooms from the black earth alongside the bleakness of gravestones, catacombs, and within cracked arcane tunnels. Fungus is ancient and always in the orbit of death, decay, and dampness.
[....] Beyond the organic, fungus dissolves inorganic structures and is vilified for its damage to manmade ones in particular. As Rolfe and Rolfe show, stories such as Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" are replete with descriptions of rot and fungi.58 This de-structuring of fungus can be spread to the faltering spatial dimension of ancient history in general, of the deterioration of old texts, of faded ruins, to the stretch of all civilized space which crumbles indefinitely in time.
[....] The fungoid, the fundamental creepiness of life, displays the unhinged spatiality of life as well as its rampant ungrounding, of the very surface which seems necessary in order to sustain it and all other life forms. Evident in the above epigraph, Thomas Ligotti's tales are replete with fungus as a simultaneous operative of gross life and perpetual decay. In the "Bungalow House" the narrator becomes obsessed with an odd local artist who describes an old bungalow house, with a "threadbare carpet" of "verminous bodies," and filled with "naturally revolting forms."60
Furthermore, in Ligotti's "Severini" the narrator discusses the odd artist Severini and the works of his followers which are classified under the unofficial name "the nightmare of the organism"61 The most relevant title of these fictional works being "The Descent into the Fungal."62
Severini himself lives in a small shack out in the jungle, described as a "tropical sewer"63 sitting amidst trees and vines where there were "giant flowers that smelled like rotting meat" in the fungus and muck.64 The followers of Severini dream of a temple amidst a fetid landscape with "the walls seeping with slime and soft with mold."65
The sight of Severini's shack is unbearable to the narrator as he states that "I never looked directly into the pools of oozing life" and that, unlike the others, he did not "wish to exist as a fungus exists or as a form of multi-colored slime mold exists."66 Ligotti's narrator promptly burns the place to the ground. The characters of "Severini" dangerously short-circuit the generative slime of unbound growth and the slime as the morass of the decayed linked together as "that great black life from which we have all emerged and of which we are all made."67
[....] Stanley Weinbaum's protoplasmic monsters of an impossible Venus, located in tropical jungles in his stories "Parasite Planet" and "The Lotus Eaters" expand on the inherently disgusting nature of plant life and particularly of fungus. The atmosphere of Weinbaum's Venus is filled with "uncounted millions of the spores of those fierce Venusian molds" capable of sprouting "in furry and nauseating masses."68 The Venusian jungles contain a terrible scene as "avid and greedy life was emerging, wriggling mud grass and the bulbous fungi called "walking balls. And all around a million little slimy creatures slithered across the mud, eating each other rapaciously, being torn to bits, and each fragment re-forming to a complete creature."69 The oddest of Weinbaum's creatures is the doughpot which Weinbaum descibes as "a nauseous creature. It's a mass of white, dough-like protoplasm, ranging in size from a single cell to perhaps twenty tons of mushy filth. It has no fixed form; in fact, it's merely a mass of de Proust cells—in effect, a disembodied, crawling, hungry cancer."70 In the sequel Weinbaum's protagonist encounters the lotus eaters, strange veined and bulbous creatures which state that they do not need or desire to survive but only must reproduce with spores – growing tumor-like on one another. One of the lotus eaters says life has no meaning, life is not something to fight for.71
Weinbaum's alien fungi are part of a larger tradition of fictional strangeness of fungal forms. Again following Rolfe and Rolfe, this strangeness is found in HG Wells' The First Men in the Moon72 and Jules Verne's The Journey to the Center of the Earth.73 In this vein, but also by pointing towards actually fungi, Weinbaum's extraterrestial extension of the sporaceous function of the fungal uncomfortably warps the internal in order to pollute the external.
Spores allow fungal life, as an amorphous creep, to extend itself into the vertical and to survive unfavorable conditions as thick walled spheres or as more parasitic entities which germinate inside host creatures or spread from the infected host to further spread again either as an interiority or extended externality. Whereas flowering plants are considered higher life forms working in conjunction with nature, cryptogams (fungus) appear to feed on nature itself and are considered a lower or simpler form of organism.74
As Negarestani puts it "The spore, or endo-bacterial dust, is a relic with untraceable zones of migration and traversal, a swarm-particle creeping off the radar screen; a speck of dust you never know whether you have inhaled or not."75
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1.3 Extra-Galactic Terror
[....] The hybridization of the viroid and fungoid (creating a life that transmogrifies and creeps) can be tied to the theory of exogenesis. The theory of exogenesis holds that life has always already existed and that life on earth has come from elsewhere. At some point in the distance past a gaia spore, or object carrying early forms of, or the necessary ingredients for creating life, would have reached the early earth seeding it.
Concepts of panspermia have been suggested for hundreds of years: the theoretical biologist Frederick Kielmeyer suggested such a concept in the 1800s.95 While romantic notions of cosmic ancestry can be taken from such a concept the more troubling suggestion is the possible age of certain forms of life and the rampancy of any particular form of extremophile, of a creature which can exist in seemingly impossible conditions. The fungal spores of last chapter and the viroids of the first being examples of such lifeforms.
[....] Anxiety about the bounds of a biological life and the fragility of any one form of species-being is unearthed by the extinct traces of animals and exacerbated by the science fictive particularly in terms of an array of insectoid superorganisms; a tradition begun by the endoparasitoidic (parasitic to the point of death) xenomorph of the Aliens series.
The xenomorph has a distinctly Lovecraftian genealogy as the creature's design came from a work by the surrealist artist HR Giger titled Necromicon, named after the central fictional text of strange demonological lore by the invented mad Arab Abdul Alhazred which describes the Cthulu mythos, the grimoire of strange ancient monstrousities which populate the universe as well as dimensions outside of it, entities such as the Great Old Ones. The xenomorphs imitate hive-minded insects as they mindlessly follow the orders of their queen and act only to propagate their vile species. The Lovecraftian influence comes from the weird and amorphousness of alien life which he created; aliens with almost imperceptible forms and near god-like powers. The result of Lovecraft's mythos is the minimization of the human race, a depressive expansion of the Great Chain of Being where instead of an omnipotent god at one end with humans not far beneath, there is only an ever stretching stream of entities with humanity lost in its perilous contortion. Or, as Gould points out via Freud, each scientific advance means the further existential dethronement of homosapiens in the universe.96
This lostness and dethronement is redoubled temporally following the natural history of Carl Friedrich Kielmeyer who through his focus on extinction events revealed a nature in which humanity's place is not only tenuous due to other possible organisms but due to the small span of time we have occupied.97 For Kielmeyer a species' ability to reproduce, to fill time, is what might guarantee its future survival.98
As Michel Houellebecq writes in HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life: "It is possible, in fact, that beyond the narrow range of our perception, other entities exist. Other creatures, other races, other concepts and other minds. Amongst these entities some are probably far superior to us in intelligence and in knowledge. But this is not necessarily good news."99
Lovecraft contorts the very concept of a taxonomy to its temporal and spatial limits submitting to us that organic life itself barely gets in the way of the cosmic course of time (and space) when he writes "we imagine that the welfare of our race is the paramount consideration, when as a matter of fact the very existence of the race may be an obstacle to the predestined course of the aggregated universes of infinity!"100
Under Lovecraft's indifferentism humans become just another form of matter in the universe, simply another form of entropic fodder in a mechanistic cosmos. Lovecraft's indifference is deeply connected, as ST Joshi has shown, to his commitment to the work of Ernst Haeckel.101 Haeckel was a zoologist in Germany at the turn of the 20th century known widely for his recapitulation theory which states that an organism in development went through the developments of the particular species on the whole. Haeckel, in at least partial agreement with Weissmann, states that individual life is generally sacrificial, as only a small fragment of life at large. Lovecraft's materialism, again following Joshi, becomes after some time, far more obscured than Haeckel's.102 Yet Haeckel's germ plasm maintains a Lovecraftian flavor in that life in general is a force that cannot be reduced to particular organisms with organisms only being an excrescence, a bud a sprout.103
The important point of Lovecraft's bestiary is not he designated his creatures as not supernatural, but as supernormal, keeping nature in in all its monstrous capacity.104 Lovecraft speaks of the tension between the natural and the unnatural is his short story "The Unnameable." He writes: "[...] if the psychic emanations of human creatures be grotesque distortions, what coherent representation could express or portray so gibbous and infamous a nebulousity as the spectre of a malign, chaotic perversion, itself a morbid blasphemy against Nature?"105 Lovecraft explores exactly the tension outlined at the beginning of this chapter, between life and thought. At the end of his short tale Lovecraft compounds the problem as the unnameable is described as "a gelatin—a slime—yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory."106
[....] Okenian biological existence then, is merely one of the results of this explosion of filth, as a generative mucus or Urschleim, a collection of slime points (a primordial form of life similar but not analogous to Freud's vesicle) which combine to form different constructions of life.188 Clark Ashton Smith, a sympathetic organism of H.P. Lovecraft, created a horrific manifestation of such slime being with his Ubbo-Sathla:
"Ubbo-Sathla dwelt in the steaming fens of the newmade Earth: a mass without head or members, spawning the grey, formless efts of the prime and the grisly prototypes of terrene life . . . And all earthly life, it is told, shall go back at last through the great circle of time to Ubbo-Sathla."189
Smith further ties this great mother slime to the evolutionary action of life on Earth:
"There, in the grey beginning of Earth, the formless mass that was Ubbo-Sathla reposed amid the slime and the vapors. Headless, without organs or members, it sloughed from its oozy sides, in a slow, ceaseless wave, the amoebic forms that were the archetypes of earthly life. Horrible it was, if there had been aught to apprehend the horror; and loathsome, if there had been any to feel loathing."190 The aforementioned Frederich Kielmeyer suggested that there were five forces of the organism and that one increased as the others decreased – one of which was the secretive – one can imagine Clark's Ubbo-Sathla as a beast with its secretive power beyond all measure.191
Here, against Henry's purely affective life, one can see life as a pool of feculence, as that which has been and will be without inherent feeling (without horror and loathing in Clark's quote). The question becomes does the base materialism of life relate to the problem 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.
[....] 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 interconnectedness 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 constructed on the affordability of both the subject and its environment."193 Or put another way: "Openness emerges as radical butchery from within and without."194
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 sacrificed 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.
[....] We must remain open to the pathological and to life itself (to make possible a Cthuloid ethics). In the epigraph above Ligotti suggests, through negation, that we are subject to a nightmarish obscenity, namely, as I have argued, in that life is drawn and quartered by spatio-temporality. As Lovecraft was known for saying we are merely atoms drifting in a void but following Oken and Grant these formal points, these zeros, are not without their slime just as the human experience of nothingness is not without its slovenly matter, not without the accidental collision of matter that supplants meaning as its birthright.
The material being of humans, and of all life is a slimy one. Slime is the smudge of reality, the remainder and reminder of the fact that things fall apart. The shining path of humanity is only ever the verminous-like trail of our own oozing across time and space – the trace and proof of our complete sliminess through and through. Human existence then is composed of the slime of being conjoined with the mindless and dysfunctional repetitions of pathology.
Slime, in the end, is the proof of cohesion and the hint of its undoing, the evidence that something disgusting happened, some foul thing called life. Something that will fill space till the cosmos burns too low for anything to again cohere, ending only with an ocean of putrescence spilling over into the boundless void of extinction.
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1 November 2022