Friday, 3 May 2013

Posthuman, the grotesque and the pursuit of power

A PhD is about deep thinking. By the time you've been awarded your PhD you are considered to be an "expert" in your particular topic. To me this implies digging deeper and deeper, getting right into the guts of a topic and finding nuggets of knowledge no one else has discovered. Which is great, if you can stick to one topic. But I find so many different topics fascinating, it's hard to choose.

Over the past 6 to 8 months I've been on a path from neuroscience to the grotesque to the monstrous to the posthuman and back and around (and in and out). In the early part of my research my supervisor asked me over and over again: why neuroscience? what is it about neuroscience that fascinates you? why not something else? As a fiction writer, one of the most interesting things about neuroscience for me is not only its plethora of discoveries but also why particular lines of enquiry are pursued above others. Neuroscience provides a wide and deep pool of ideas I can draw from for my writing, which I can examine and explore within a range of fictional contexts.

My co-protagonist, Quarter, becomes what he is thanks to the wonders of (not quite yet invented) modern neuroscience. But it is what he has become, rather than the technical reasons behind his transformation, that hold the most potential for discovery. He's a weird looking guy: apart from the birds' eyes transplanted into the side of his head he has multiple grafts of animal skin on his body. This places him nicely in the grotesque, perhaps even the monstrous, in terms of his physical body. Quarter's grotesque body is designed. He needed he technical expertise of a gifted, if somewhat psychopathic, doctor (the character of Surgeon) to make the changes to his body. In this way he reflects the assertion of Paul Starr in his essay More Than Organic: Science Fiction and the Grotesque that:
The grotesque bodies of nuclear fiction and SF, which may include the mutant, the alien and the cyborg, directly demonstrate what the organicist grotesque often avoids or denies: that bodies are the products of technologies, that they are continually reformed by processes which are mixtures of the organic and inorganic.
The grotesque, and the monstrous, also hold fascination for me. I could choose to pursue the grotesque in my exegesis (the part of my thesis that supports the creative practice) and look deeply into the "mixtures of the organic and inorganic" in creating the grotesque. But then I ask myself: why did Quarter choose to change himself in this way? Although Surgeon performed the operations that gave Quarter his animal skin grafts and birds' eye transplants, he wanted, and asked for, those changes. Why did he want them? And what do they make him: grotesque; monstrous; posthuman; or all of these?

As a character operating within a narrative, Quarter does not reflect on any of these concepts. His choice to have the animal skin grafts and birds' eye implants are based on his desire for power: he wants others to fear him, and so obey him. To him, the grafts and implants signify his physical superiority, and thus his greater fitness for leadership. His goal is not to be a god or a monster or a posthuman but a powerful leader of the Dirt Circus League and beyond. However, in my search to discover why I write what I write, I have placed Quarter firmly within the realms of the posthuman. Does this mean I am positioning the move towards posthumanity as a search for power? Perhaps.

There are many ways to become posthuman. Some may pursue it to become more enlightened, more intelligent, more able or more creative. Through the character of Quarter, however, the striving for power, a power over others reinforced by the ability to engender fear, is what drives his pursuit of physical changes both on his skin and in his brain. In this way, his visually grotesque body and his posthumanism, brought about through the technological feats of surgery and neuroscience, are by-products of his pursuit of power.

Here's hoping, that in my circuitous meanderings, I'll be able to bring my research interests in neuroscience, the grotesque and posthumanism together in a way that, when I finally pull my PhD thesis together, will offer some deep insights into my creative practice.