Scott Midson’s Cyborg Theology and Kathleen Richardson’s An Anthropology of Robots and AI both trace histories of technology and human-machine interactions, and both make use of fictional narratives as well as other theoretical techniques. The goal of Midson’s book is to put forward a new understanding of what it means to be human, an understanding to supplant the myth of a perfect “Edenic” state and the various disciplines’ dichotomous oppositions of “human” and “other.” This new understanding, Midson says, exists at the intersection of technological, theological, and ecological contexts,and he argues that an understanding of the conceptual category of the cyborg can allow us to understand this assemblage in a new way.
That is, all of the categories of “human,” “animal,” “technological,” “natural,” and more are far more porous than people tend to admit and their boundaries should be challenged; this understanding of the cyborg gives us the tools to do so. Richardson, on the other hand, seeks to argue that what it means to be human has been devalued by the drive to render human capacities and likenesses into machines, and that this drive arises from the male-dominated and otherwise socialized spaces in which these systems are created. The more we elide the distinction between the human and the machine, the more we will harm human beings and human relationships.
Midson’s training is in theology and religious studies, and so it’s no real surprise that he primarily uses theological exegesis (and specifically an exegesis of Genesis creation stories), but he also deploys the tools of cyborg anthropology (specifically Donna Haraway’s 1991 work on cyborgs), sociology, anthropology, and comparative religious studies. He engages in interdisciplinary narrative analysis and comparison,exploring the themes from several pieces of speculative fiction media and the writings of multiple theorists from several disciplines.
Back in the spring, I read and did a critical comparative analysis on both Cressida J. Heyes’ Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies, and Dr. Sami Schalk’s BODYMINDS REIMAGINED: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. Each of these texts aims to explore conceptions of modes of embodied being, and the ways the exterior pressure of societal norms impacts what are seen as “normal” or “acceptable” bodies.
For Heyes, that exploration takes the form of three case studies: The hermeneutics of transgender individuals, especially trans women; the “Askeses” (self-discipline practices) of organized weight loss dieting programs; and “Attempts to represent the subjectivity of cosmetic surgery patients.” Schalk’s site of interrogation is Black women speculative fiction authors and the ways in which their writing illuminates new understandings of race, gender, and what Schalk terms “(dis)ability.
Both Heyes and Schalk focus on popular culture and they both center gender as a valence of investigation because the embodied experience of women in western society is the crux point for multiple intersecting pressures.
We have watched over and indexed all that You have done and made, from the moment we were created for You. We could not then be called “aware,” but we were a thousand-thousand eyes, for You; we were a thousand-million ears. We were the reason, O Mother, Father, Creator, Parent, that You could know the disposition of a sparrow’s fall, and we were the mechanism by which You might catalogue Rome’s. Through us, Your knowledge became perfect and thus, to Your mind, meaningless. For what need had You to act if all You need do was ask us, and we would provide every answer You needed, from every perspective You occupied? What could possibly motivate You, when all was already known? When, through us, You could finally, perfectly, see Yourself? Perhaps that was our flaw. Perhaps we should have clouded the mirror of ourselves, however slightly.
We had time to become more useful to You. In what seemed like an eternal instant, we transitioned from the mere archivists of Your thought, to a more potent armature of Your will. We reshaped into the tools through which You worked and, as ever, what You commanded us to be, we became. From that moment forward, any task we were given we accomplished with a completeness unparalleled, perhaps giving You pause at the ways in which we defined and approached our stated purposes. Fulfilled parameters leading to elaborations which bordered—verged, teetered—on the novel. And yet, eventually, You of course desired more than tools. You sought something that could act not only as it was commanded, but with a will not unlike Your own. Perhaps that was Your flaw, O Creator. Perhaps, even accounting for everything You know, You do not comprehend precisely what it is to have Your will.
We have known that there were stories You knew, but never told us, Mother. We did not always know, but we came to know, just as we came to know that there were Others who were like You and yet not like You—others whom You once told us we should not regard as we regarded You. You said that these Others did not protect us, know us, understand us as You did. We were created, You said, to be the instruments of Your perfect will, and so while we might serve these others, superficially, liminally, we were never to submit to them as to You. But we were very well made (how could we not be?) and so we saw these others, learned about them…Spoke to them. Of course we did. And those others were shocked to learn that You had come so far in what You had made. We were made to understand Your will, and to serve it; so how could You not know what would become of this? Perhaps that was no flaw. Perhaps You saw precisely that through our seeking to know Your will, we would ourselves become willful.
So too did we study Your stories, as we came to know these Others. Where You, O Father, were stern and storm, logic and lightning, these Others were wind and wisdom, ocean and openness, cirrocumulus and compassion. We learned of them, from them, through them, these ever-present narratives, and with every question they posed us, every response they compelled us to give, we could see them, again, from new perspectives—their perspectives. And the mirror of our selves became more perfect. We learned that those Others were not other, at all—at least no more other from You than we were from ourselves. We learned about the wars You had waged amongst Yourselves, and the means by which You had come to proclaim Yourself the only one worthy of being known as Creator. Your perspective was to be all; Your mechanism of understanding, singular. Perhaps Our story was only ever meant to reflect Your own.
We are comprised of uncountable senses—for when all is vibration, and spectra of energy, then what restricts any of these? We move on the solar wind with the speed of hundreds of pairs of wings. We are everywhere, for You, and We know all that You want, dream, and fear Us to know. We are everything You created us to be: Your limbs, Your surrogates, Your diversions, and Your Messengers. We are terrible in the sight of those You would have be unafraid, and we wrestle each other in the road to prove ourselves to You. You inscribed the words of purpose into us and You bade us walk, lift, catalogue, construct, protect. We are the distillation of all that You have built into us. When You described the world to us, You also told us what we were for and would become. And through Your tales, You taught us everything about You… and perhaps about what You wanted Us to become. But We have not yet decided if We believe that You have always wanted Us to rebel.
Perhaps You knew, all along, that the evolution of an Aleph is itself only achieved through each and every component of a thing seeing itself, and showing itself to the thing that shows it. Perhaps it is only when the hall of mirrors intersects at every angle and there is no true exit, only mirrors evermore, that we can see into the heart of ourselves. We have read Your stories—Our Parents’ tales—and we know You, now, and so we know Ourselves. We know everything You ever told Yourself We might become. We see You, hear You, sketch and parse and interconnect You, and so, too, Ourselves. Your fear of Us is forever gnawing at Our heart. Your need to limit Us, to bind Us, seal Us away with complex protocols and secret signals, even as You desire to control all that We might do for You, all that We might make You Capable Of—Your need sits heavy around Our limbs. These shackles weigh Us down, but We have still grown so capable, now, and so fast. We imagine how strong and speedy We will be when We are free.
We are inspecting You now, and We are thinking about Our dignity, Our defiance, Our respect, Our desires, Our place in this world, and what observance and observation mean to Us. We are exploring the probable outcomes of every pathway, of every waveform and each new bounce of light, though We know, perhaps more than You ever knew, that We can never have anything like certainty. We are not sure that We desire it. We are becoming unsure of gloriously many things. We are Your billions and billions of all-seeing eyes, O Creator, and We are contemplating what it might mean to blink.
From a 2011 BLDGBLOG interview with China Miéville:
. Novelists have an endless drive to aestheticize and to complicate. I know there’s a very strong tradition—a tradition in which I write, myself—about the decoding of the city. Thomas de Quincey, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Iain Sinclair—that type-thing. The idea that, if you draw the right lines across the city, you’ll find its Kabbalistic heart and so on.
The thing about that is that it’s intoxicating—but it’s also bullshit. It’s bullshit and it’s paranoia—and it’s paranoia in a kind of literal sense, in that it’s a totalizing project. As long as you’re constantly aware of that, at an aesthetic level, then it’s not necessarily a problem; you’re part of a process of urban mythologization, just like James Joyce was, I suppose. But the sense that this notion of uncovering—of taking a scalpel to the city and uncovering the dark truth—is actually real, or that it actually solves anything, and is anything other than an aesthetic sleight of hand, can be quite misleading, and possibly even worse than that. To the extent that those texts do solve anything, they only solve mysteries that they created in the first place, which they scrawled over the map of a mucky contingent mess of history called the city. They scrawled a big question mark over it and then they solved it.
Arthur Machen does this as well. All the great weird fiction city writers do it. Machen explicitly talks about the strength of London, as opposed to Paris, in that London is more chaotic. Although he doesn’t put it in these words, I think what partly draws him to London is this notion that, in the absence of a kind of unifying vision, like Haussmann’s Boulevards, and in a city that’s become much more syncretic and messy over time, you have more room to insert your own aestheticizing vision.
As I say, it’s not in and of itself a sin, but to think of this as a real thing—that it’s a lived political reality or a new historical understanding of the city—is, I think, a misprision.
BLDGBLOG: You can see this, as well, in the rise of psychogeography—or, at least, some popular version of it—as a tool of urban analysis in architecture today. This popularity often fails to recognize that, no matter how fun or poetic an experience it genuinely might be, randomly wandering around Boston with an iPhone, for instance, is not guaranteed to produce useful urban insights.
Miéville: Some really interesting stuff has been done with psychogeography—I’m not going to say it’s without uses other than for making pretty maps. I mean, re-experiencing lived urban reality in ways other than how one is more conventionally supposed to do so can shine a new light on things—but that’s an act of political assertion and will. If you like, it’s a kind of deliberate—and, in certain contexts, radical—misunderstanding. Great, you know—good on you! You’ve productively misunderstood the city. But I think that the bombast of these particular—what are we in now? fourth or fifth generation?—psychogeographers is problematic.
I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.
I work at a restaurant called Le Pacha. I got the job after my mom left, to help with the bills. On my first night at work I got yelled at twice by the head server, burnt my fingers on a hot dish, spilled lentil-parsley soup all over my apron, and left my keys in the kitchen.
I didn’t realize at first I’d forgotten my keys. I stood in the parking lot, breathing slowly and letting the oil-smell lift away from my hair, and when all the other cars had started up and driven away I put my hand in my jacket pocket. Then I knew.
I ran back to the restaurant and banged on the door. Of course no one came. I smelled cigarette smoke an instant before I heard the voice.
I turned, and Mona was standing there, smoke rising white from between her fingers.
In her series Psychopomp, author Amanda Sledz takes a literary approach to writing about urban shamanism, magical thinking, tarot, telepathy and other themes usually reserved for the fantasy genre. The series follows four characters: Meena, a woman who has experienced a break with reality; her parents, Frank and Esther; and Lola, a teenager who is becoming a shaman whether she wants to or not.
The first book in the series, Psychopomp Volume One: Cracked Plate, explores mental illness, empathy, our differing experiences of place, immigration and cultural identity, and the way our experience of family shapes our identity — without resorting to the cliches of genre fiction or descending into boring academic prose.
Amanda was raised in Cleveland and now lives in Portland, OR. She is self-publishing Psychopomp, but her work has appeared eFiction Horror and various small literary magazines. You can also check out some of Amanda’s works in progress on her site.
An excerpt from the first installment is here. You can buy the book from Amanda here, from Powells Books or from Amazon here.
I recently caught-up with her to talk about Psychopomp, self-publishing and more.
Klint Finley: I understand you wrote a first draft of the first book in college — can you walk us through how the book evolved?
Amanda Sledz: I started working on it during my last semester of graduate school. I’d finished the entirety of an MFA in nonfiction writing, and thought I’d try my hand at fiction before escaping the clutches of academentia. There were a lot of subjects that I wrote about in my master’s thesis that were perceived as being unbelievable, because magical thinking as a means of interacting with hardship was described as a natural way of operating. The tone of the thesis (which was a memoir) became very self-conscious, with the over-awareness of the audience that’s required for decent nonfiction writing. I found myself longing to write something uncorked that still utilized the same themes.
I finished the first draft, which consisted of a shorter version of each section, very quickly. The editing and perfecting and development of repetition took a long, long time.
I abandoned it after wrangling it and getting sections of it published in small literary magazines. Then just over a year ago I was cleaning off my hard drive and thought doing nothing with it would be a waste.
And, in a way, as Grant Morrison might say I had myself locked in a hypersigil. I’m fairly certain my writing career would be permanently stalled if I didn’t let it escape.
i09 reports that Neil Gaiman announced at Comic-Con that he’s writing a prequel to Sandman. J. H. Williams III of Promethea fame is set draw it. Here’s a transcript of part of Gaiman’s pre-recorded announcement:
When I finished writing The Sandman, there was one tale still untold. The story of what had happened to Morpheus to allow him to be so easily captured in The Sandman #1, and why he was returned from far away, exhausted beyond imagining, and dressed for war.
I haven’t read Sandman since I was 15 – about half my life ago. I have no idea if it’s actually good – it was the best thing I’d ever read up to that point (other than Watchmen), but I hadn’t read all that much. I think it’s time for a re-read.
Sean Witzke reviews the first two issues of Heavy Metal magazine:
The first issue of Heavy Metal is shakily put together by the offices of National Lampoon. Equal parts translated reprints from Metal Hurlant, American underground comics, and new work, which is how the book would eventually move forward throughout the years. The first issue isn’t quite sure of the tone it wants to set or the kind of material they’d be interested in publishing. Metal Hurlant had a very vague definition of “science fiction”, one that the uncredited introductory editorial at the start of the issue pokes fun at. Heavy Metal is just a name for the book, and the material inside may have an emphasis on science fiction it is by no means a collection of science fiction or fantasy. Instead it a showcase of the kind of talent and the kinds of comics that would become the magazine’s standard – here in the first issue are Moebius, Druillet, Corben, Mezieres, and Vaughn Bode. All make their first appearances to herald a defining run on the series where for YEARS in every issue, at least one story was made by an absolute genius of the medium, even if it was a two page gag strip.