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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Trans-speciation: From Margaret Cavendish to China Miéville

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 04/26/06 at 11:43 AM

The best thing in China Miéville’s The Scar is the character Tanner Sack. Tanner is a prisoner from New Crobuzon (think: London), who is on board the Terpsichoria en route to a slave colony (think: Australia, with apologies to Laura). The ship is hijacked by a particularly terrifying group of pirates from the outlaw city Armada.

Tanner is a Remade, a person who has had involuntary surgery to reconstruct his body in hybrid form. The Remade are either part-animal or part-machine (one character in The Scar has the upper-body of a human woman attached to a coal-powered iron engine, and tank treads instead of legs).

In the anarchic environs of Armada, Tanner Sack learns to use the tentacles that had been implanted on him as a punishment constructively, and comes to think of himself as a water-bound being. Eventually, he comes to the realization that to express himself fully he must in fact have a further operation, and become a true amphibian:

Tanner had thought about it for a long time.

His coming to terms with the sea felt like a long, drawn-out birth. Every day he spent more time below, and the water felt better against him. His new limbs had adapted completely, were as strong and almost as prehensile as his arms and hands.

He had seen with envy how Bastard John the dolphin policed his watch, passing through the brine with unique motion (as he swept in to punish some slacking worker with a brutal butting); and had watched as cray from their half-sunk ships (suspendedat the point of being lost, pickled in time) or the unclear menfish from Bask riding launched themselves into the sea, uncontained by harnessing or chains.

When he left the sea, Tanner felt his tentacles hang heavy and uncomfortable. But when he was below, in his harness, his leather and brass, he felt tethered and constrained. He wanted to swim free, across and up into the light and even, yes, even down, into the cold and silent darkness.

The language here reminds me of memoirs of the transgendered: it’s only as a person of the opposite gender that they can really feel their public identity matches up with a sense of self that is gendered at some deeply unconscious level. In some sense, Miéville’s marvelous (and, I would add, original) interest in the Remade in The Scar is a way of thinking about the liberating possibilities of radical body modification that are speciational rather than gendered.

Tanner’s desire to have his Remade attributes enhanced in order to achieve full amphibian status is also, in the world Miéville has created, an act of radical political subversion. In New Crobuzon, to be Remade is to be branded forever as a criminal by a sadistic polity, effectively condemning one to life as a slave. In Armada, the Remade aren’t strange; they are, in a kind of utopian reversal, encouraged to contribute to the life of the city in whatever way their modifications might allow. There’s clearly a strong line of socialist and Marxist influence in Miéville’s work, and here is one place you see it.

But there is a bit of an ambiguity there, as the Remade who didn’t choose their form remain in some sense fixed by the bodies that were given them as punishment. And as a floating city composed of boats soldered together, wandering nomadically through the open ocean, Armada isn’t a place where personal freedoms in the contemporary liberal sense are necessarily paramount. And indeed, the central plot of The Scar revolves around an attempt by the part of the rulers of Armada to assume absolute authority. At base, there is a tension in Miéville’s novel between what I would call functionalist and expressivist ideas about the Remade. With Tanner Sack, Miéville seems to be favoring the expressivist side. But functionalism (a genre of authoritarianism) remains dominant in Armada, and it’s far from clear that it would be a freer or better place to live than New Crobuzon for a middle-class human with an unmodified body.

* * *

In more specifically biological terms, the trans-speciated status of the Remade reverses the social Darwinism of The Island of Dr. Moreau, where this kind of trans-speciational surgery was an artificial way of forcing animals to climb the evolutionary ladder. In Miéville’s utopic vision, trans-speciation enables human beings to enter into multiple evolutionary lines—and experience life as part octopus or part dolphin (or, in one of the novel’s most disturbing chapters, part mosquito).

If Moreau is biologically modernist in the sense that it promotes a concept of evolution that is strictly linear and teleological, perhaps The Scar is biologically postmodernist in that it aims towards a kind of wild, inter-species multiplicity. (It also calls up the phrase Gilles Deleuze uses—“becoming-animal”—though I will leave it to readers who understand Deleuzian thinking to draw connections between D/G and Miéville.)

An important difference between H.G. Wells and Miéville’s respective novels might be the presence of natural hybrids in Miéville. In Wells, the monstrosities are purely surgical and disciplinary creations that enable the mad Doctor to see himself as a God—that is, a human being who has transcended the terms of his own humanity by taking on the mantle of a Creator. In world of The Scar, where there are also natural hybrids, the artificial hybrids that are the Remade can in some sense escape the circumstances that made them what they are. There is another context available to them.

* * *

A colleague who is an 18th century-ist was reading The Scar along with me, and suggested that there might also be a strong parallel between The Scar and the 17th century utopian text by Margaret Cavendish called The Blazing World (1666), which is about a human woman who is kidnapped by a man who loved her, and taken out to sea. The boat is taken across the ocean in a freak storm, and the men on board all freeze to death as the ship is brought towards the North Pole. But the kidnapped woman is rescued by strange bear-men, and brought to see the Emperor, who is so impressed with her that he marries her and makes her Empress. Here is the passage from The Blazing World where the parallels to The Scar seem most apparent:

The rest of the inhabitants of that world, were men of several different sorts, shapes, figures, dispositions, and humors, as I have already made mention heretofore; some were bear-men, some worm-men, som fish- or mear-men, otherwise called sirens; some bird-men, some fly-men, some ant-men, some geese-men, some spider-men, some lice-men, some fox-men, some ape-men, some jackdaw-men, some magpie-men, some parrot-men, some satyrs, some giants, and many more, which I cannot all remember; and of these several sorts of men, each followed such a profession as was most proper for the nature of their species, which the Empress encourage them in, especially those that had applied themselves to the study of several arts and sciences; for they were as ingenious and witty in the invention of profitable and useful arts, as we are in our world, nay, more; and to that end she erected schools, and founded several societies. The bear-men were to be her experimental philosophers, the ape-men her chemists, the satyrs her Galenic physicians, the fox-men her politicans, the spider- and lice-men her mathematicians, the jackdaw-, magpie- and parrot-men her orators and logicians, the giants her architects, etc. But before all things, she having got a sovereign power from the Emperor over all the world, desired to be informed of the manner of their religion and government, and to that end she called the priests and statesmen, to give her an account of either. Of the statesmen she enquired, first, why they had so few laws? To which they answered, that many laws made many divisions, which most commonly did breed factions, and at last break out in open wars. Next, she asked why they preferred the monarchical form of government before any other? They answered, that as it was natural for one body fo have but one head, so it was natural for a politic body to have but one governor; and that a commonwealth, which had many governors was like a monster with many heads

Perhaps you see where this is going. Margaret Cavendish was a supporter of Monarchy during an era when questions about political authority and the divine right of kings was pretty urgent (I would welcome further comments on Cavendish’s politics from those who are in the know). And her interest in the hybrid beings of the Blazing World is in some sense a functionalist one in support of a monarchialist vision: everyone in their place, with the Queen/Empress at the head.

But there is a kind of ambiguity or confusion here too, invoked at the end of the paragraph above. If she’s so insistent on imagining a world where a sane monarch rules rather than the parliamentary “monster with many heads,” why then populate her world with beings who would ordinarily be seen as monstrous? It seems like the hybrid animal/people she proposes are meant to follow their “natural” function, but notice that the jobs she gives them are more or less arbitrarily connected to the real-world personalities of those animals ("lice-men" are mathematicians?). And it can’t escape our notice that a woman who was abducted in a patriarchal system in the real world has, in the Blazing World, been made an Empress—again, defying “nature.”

It’s the reverse of the political ambiguity in Miéville. And yet, since both utopic visions contain contradictions that seem to nullify their primary arguments, they end up looking strangely parallel. (The colleague who introduced this connection to me says she thinks The Scar and The Blazing World are closer to each other than to The Island of Dr. Moreau, and I agree.)

* * *

--An edited excerpt of Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World can be found here. Care to discuss utopian fiction?

--Miéville fans: how would you compare the vision in The Scar to Miéville’s other books (which I haven’t read)? I know the Remade are also present in Perdido Street Station at least. 


I don’t think you mentioned the strong ending pathos in the story of Tanner Sack—at the end, when he’s realized what horrors are in the ocean, he’s afraid of becoming afraid of it, because his change is irreversable.  Although he has attempted to complete the remaking of himself on his own terms, he’ll never be “at home” in the sea as a sea creature would be, and could very well end up being crippled by phobia.  It doesn’t end up being a liberatory story, I think.

There’s a specific moment in _Iron Council_ in which the socially constructed category of Remade appears to be a cognate for the American socially constructed category of race.  _Iron Council_ appears to be strongly located in time, as a metaphor for real history—the city revolt has strong similarities to the Paris Commune of 1871, and the railroad has strong similarities to the First Transcontinental Railroad across the U.S., finished in 1869.  (In addition to the straightforward mentions of the attempt to make the rails transcontinental in _IC_, the first attempted organizer of the First Transcontinental Railroad, Asa Whitney, and its “father”, Theodore Judah, have names similar to characters in the book.) Therefore a good deal of the subtext of the book is like an alternate-history political fantasy that goes back to a time in which the socialist revolution might have succeeded, with the U.S. symbolically rushing to rejoin and support Europe.  The critical moment in the railroad revolt, which makes the “runaway train” and therefore the joining of revolutions possible later in the book, is a moment of sex-worker-mediated class solidarity between the Remade and non-Remade railroad workers.

By on 04/26/06 at 01:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t really know anything about her politics, but I can offer what seems like a relevant piece of trivia: Hobbes was her brother-in-law’s tutor.

By on 04/26/06 at 03:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I think I was reading the part at the end with Shekel as ‘plot’. It’s not so much tied to the basic sense of the difference between the Armadan and the New Crobuzon systems, which is mostly set up for us in the first 200 pages. And indeed, the fact that Tanner Sack comes to life at the end against the Lovers suggests that he’s found his calling. He ends strong—as befits the one of the larger themes of the novel, both his emotional and his physical scars only make him more powerful. 

This summer I’m going to read the rest of these books; I’m hooked. So thanks for the opening on ‘Iron Council’. I think I still have to go to PSS before reading that, though.

And Mike, I have no idea what to do with that bit of trivia. I suppose it might be useful if I’m ever at a dinner party with hardcore Margaret Cavendish scholars and need something interesting to say. (I’ll probably have to remember not to call her “Mad Meg,” which is too bad, because it’s kind of a cool name for a philosopher.)

By Amardeep Singh on 04/26/06 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Fascinating little historical connection there, Amardeep. When my brain recovers, I’ll try to comment more substantively.

By John Holbo on 04/26/06 at 04:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was thinking that Hobbes had argued against the separation of powers in a similar way.  Here’s a bit from chapter 29 in Leviathan where he compares the division of authority to conjoined triplets:

“Sometimes also in the merely civil government there be more than one soul: as when the power of levying money, which is the nutritive faculty, has depended on a general assembly; the power of conduct and command, which is the motive faculty, on one man; and the power of making laws, which is the rational faculty, on the accidental consent, not only of those two, but also of a third: this endangereth the Commonwealth, sometimes for want of consent to good laws, but most often for want of such nourishment as is necessary to life and motion. For although few perceive that such government is not government, but division of the Commonwealth into three factions, and call it mixed monarchy; yet the truth is that it is not one independent Commonwealth, but three independent factions; nor one representative person, but three. . .

To what disease in the natural body of man I may exactly compare this irregularity of a Commonwealth, I know not. But I have seen a man that had another man growing out of his side, with a head, arms, breast, and stomach of his own: if he had had another man growing out of his other side, the comparison might then have been exact.”

By on 04/26/06 at 04:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve not read Scar, but have read both PPS and IC, and liked them both. I don’t know what to make of the retro-future mise en scène nor of the mix-and-match creatures, the Remades.

I note that the retro-future gambit is rampant in manga and anime, which is also strong on cyborgs. But those Remades seem to be Miéville’s special creation.

What seems to be going on is a thorough reconsideration of the nature of the cosmos, from brute matter on up the Great Chain of Being.

By Bill Benzon on 04/26/06 at 06:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The language here reminds me of memoirs of the transgendered: it’s only as a person of the opposite gender that they can really feel their public identity matches up with a sense of self that is gendered at some deeply unconscious level. In some sense, Miéville’s marvelous (and, I would add, original) interest in the Remade in The Scar is a way of thinking about the liberating possibilities of radical body modification that are speciational rather than gendered.

Vonda McIntyre’s story “Fireflood” visits similar territory - two modified species, Diggers (reconstructed from ‘deformed’ humans) and Flyers (virus-changed): both were created for planetary colonisation projects since abandoned; now the ‘ugly’ Diggers (feminine) are barren, vilified and ghettoised, and the fine-boned, ‘graceful’ sexualised masculine flyers, while similarly segregated, are valued by humans.  Both are confined in ways that go against the strange but natural-feeling urges of their new bodies.  The story ends with escape.

By on 04/26/06 at 09:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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