LSFRC 2021 Papers
Dissolving the Individual: Collective Consciousness as a Rebellion Against Neoliberalism in Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and Chana Porter’s The Seep
In this paper, I explore ideas around collective consciousness and fungal networks as a rebellion against neoliberalism’s co-option of the utopian potential of the internet in the texts Rosewater by Tade Thompson and The Seep by Chana Porter. To do so I first outline some theoretical and conceptual ideas around how the internet has been used to uphold neoliberalism, how fungal networks offer a subversion of this by connecting us to each other and the nonhuman world, and how fungi, with their symbiotic and parasitic interactions with bodies, disrupt the idea of the body as discrete and inviolable. Then I explore these elements through the texts. Finally, I conclude, drawing together ideas between these two texts.
Rob McRuer has a useful definition of neoliberalism in his text Crip Theory, where he emphasises how neoliberalism’s prioritisation of the freedom of capital destroys or transforms into target markets “the public or democratic cultures that might constrain or limit the interest of global capital,” and neoliberalism’s end result of “more global inequality and raw exploitation and less rigidity in terms of how oppression is reproduced (and extended)” (2-3). This is something we can see particularly clearly in the case of the internet, whose revolutionary potential has largely been squandered in favour of propping up the status quo. Prem Sikka acknowledges that while “the internet represents the biggest advance in communication technology since the advent of the printing press,” its effectiveness in bringing about social change for the better is hampered because “it is colonised by corporate as well as radical groups seeking to change society” (765-766). We can see this in how social media, which is supposed to allow us to connect better, has contributed directly to the rise of the alt-right, Brexit, and Trumpism. Tracy L. Hawkins describes in “Facebook, Neoliberalism, and the Foreclosing of Imagination” how neoliberalism uses technology to reify its core beliefs in order to make it more difficult to imagine forms of resistance against it. Hawkins adds, “As a result of this, our ability to imagine new ways to organize society, to address issues of social justice, and to seek our ideal future is greatly curtailed” (137).
But there are many advantages to increased communication and increased connection, with great potential for activism. What would a network look like that wasn’t so anthropocentric? In his book Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake describes how fungi participate in symbiotic relationships that allow multicellular life to exist, from trees to humans. He says, “We are ecosystems, composed of—and decomposed by—an ecology of microbes, the significance of which is only now coming to light. . . . Symbiosis is a ubiquitous feature of life” (18). I am interested in how thinking about ourselves as ecosystems decentres the idea of the individual, and emphasises how we exist as a part of nature rather than something distinct from it. This idea is echoed in Donna Harraway’s “The Cyborg Manifesto,” which uses the cyborg as a metaphor to disrupt the humanist notion of the historically white male body as distinct from nature, woman, animal, and machine. She argues, “by the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism—in short, cyborgs” (“Cyborg” 61). This notion of hybridity between machine and organism extends to the biomolecular machinery of the fungi, the microbiota and the symbionts and parasites that we live intimately with. The notion of the human body as a discrete, inviable self is not compatible with our knowledge of ourselves as interactions of cellular machinery and genetic coding from varied sources both prokaryotic and eukaryotic. Haraway talks about biology as “a kind of cryptography,” and in “Tentacular Thinking” she further explores the idea of humans as interacting biological systems with no clearly defined boundaries: “We are all lichens; so we can be scraped off the rocks by the Furies, who still erupt to avenge crimes against the earth. Alternatively, we can join in the metabolic transformations between and among rocks and critters for living and dying well” (“Tentacular” 56). Using Hawaray’s question from “The Cyborg Manifesto”—“Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?” (61)—as a jumping off point, Margrit Shildrick positions hybridity in relation to the disabled body and prostheses. Shildrick argues that prostheses, whether they be replacement limbs, behaviour-altering drugs, or transplanted organs, disrupt ideas about the body as a discrete entity and force us to rethink our ideas about embodiment: “They not only demonstrate the inherent plasticity of the body, but, in the very process of incorporating non-self matter, point to the multiple possibilities of co-corporeality, where bodies are not just contiguous and mutually reliant but entwined with one another” (16). Thus, considering bodies as “contiguous,” “mutually reliant,” and “entwined” disrupts hierarchies of viewing non-disabled bodies as superior to disabled bodies, and allows us to rethink what constitutes a body and what its limits are. How we view embodiment also influences our ideas around subjectivity. This is explored in speculative fiction that engages with the fungal. While works like M. R. Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts have made the Cordyceps fungi the go-to pseudo-scientific explanation for zombies, other works, such as Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and Chana Porter’s The Seep, engage with the fungal to imagine exciting, if ambiguous, posthuman possibilities for connectivity that echo the early utopian ideals of the internet whilst avoiding its co-option by neoliberalism.
Tade Thompson’s Rosewater is set in a near-future Nigeria where an alien incursion has occurred in the form of Wormwood, which has burrowed under the ground and released fungi-like spores into Earth’s atmosphere. Wormwood is trapped under the dome of Utopicity, and the city of Rosewater has sprung up around it. The alien fungi, or xenoform, attaches itself to the natural fungi on human skin, forming a psychic network called the xenosphere which “sensitives” like protagonist Kaaro are able to access like the internet. In the virtual space of the xenosphere, sensitives are able to embody themselves in nonhuman forms: Kaaro appears as a Griffin and inhabits such surreal places as a palace made of meat. But the xenosphere is more than just a recapitulation of the cyberpunk dream. In Rosewater, everyone is connected into a communal “worldmind,” the differences between discrete individual bodies called into question as consciousness extends across fungal networks and through different people’s minds.
The dome opens once a year, releasing alien fungi into the atmosphere and healing the injured and diseased. However, this process does not always work like the people who flock to visit Rosewater might wish. Whilst some are healed, others are put back together incorrectly—the deformed, or mutated or remade in new and unusual ways—known as the “remade.” Even the dead are infected with xenoforms, brought back to life as soulless zombies, or the reanimates. Thus, the interaction between humans and the alien fungi doesn’t so much return people to an idealised complete body, but remakes it in challenging new forms.
This is further complicated by the ways the xenosphere, like the internet, contributes to upholding some elements of the neoliberal paradigm while subverting others. Kaaro works at a bank, forming a psychic shield to prevent other sensitives from hacking the bank through the xenosphere. Furthermore, Kaaro discovers that the xenoforms are slowly replacing human cells with more xenoforms whilst replicating the original body’s appearance, and that eventually humanity will be entirely replaced. This causes Kaaro to question his own subjectivity:
I am not the same. I don’t look at the dome in the same way. It’s now a stye or a boil, swollen with purulence, waiting, biding its time. I don’t know what my healing has cost me. How many native cells have the xenoforms driven out? Ten, fifteen percent? How human am I? I see the people touching me and the ones at the periphery staring as dead people. Conquered and killed by invaders, walking around carrying their death, but they don’t even know it. (Thompson 263)
The replacement of human cells by the alien xenoforms can be read as a metaphor for colonialism, especially as this all takes place in a Nigeria where the indigenous culture has been overwritten by the all-powerful cultural influences of the West. Thus the fungal entities in Rosewater force us to confront not just the way we think about human bodies but how we think about the body politic in the context of Western post-colonialism.
If the xenosphere in Rosewater is ambiguous in how it both disrupts and upholds the paradigm, the Seep in Chana Porter’s novella of the same name is somewhat more straightforwardly utopian. The Seep, “the friendly neighborhood bodiless sentience that makes your life just a little bit easier,” (Porter 170) is never explicitly described as a fungus, but behaves much like one. The book is set in a world where the Seep has quietly invaded, infiltrated, and linked not just humans, but all life and matter on Earth. This vast interspecies network eliminates capitalism, poverty, and hunger by allowing an immediate empathy between humans, non-human animals and the environment:
The aliens changed all of that. You could hold a product in your hand and feel its history, feel people’s attitudes and emotions as they’d processed the materials. Struggles that had felt impossibly uphill were now suddenly so clear, as if everyone had awoken one morning from the same dream. It was insanity to poison your environment to save a dime. It was insanity to build bigger and bigger bombs to keep the peace. Guns were melted down into scrap metal. Police officers put their uniforms away. (13)
Within this network, neoliberalism’s prioritising of capital above all else becomes literally unthinkable as the old paradigms are swept away by new understanding. Seeptech can alter matter directly, immediately ending scarcity, healing most diseases, and opening up new possibilities for embodiment.
Yet even within this utopian world there are problems. The Seep’s fascination with humans and embodiment leads to it amassing data on every aspect of people’s lives, albeit at least not to sell to the highest bidder like Facebook or Google. The people in the world of the Seep live in a state of constant surveillance:
The Seep loved giving you everything you wanted, in exchange for information about being human. The green flash of a credit stick, at a coffee shop or a bookstore or any number of places, was a marker of where you were and what you wanted, a little dot in a vast, ever-evolving data set. Trina had resigned herself to using credit years ago, to being a little dot in the aliens’ matrix . . . (68)
The narrative focuses on Trina FastHorse Goldberg-Oneka, who is struggling because her wife has decided to be reborn as a baby with no memories of her past life. Because the Seep is a disembodied intelligence, it doesn’t properly understand embodiment and so has difficulty understanding why Trina is unwilling to erase her suffering to feel better. Trina’s embodied life history as a trans woman with Jewish and Native American heritage are important aspects of her identity that she has fought for and has no interest in giving up: “But Trina had labored for this body! She’d fought and kicked and clawed to have her insides match her outsides, and now people changed their faces as easily as getting a haircut. Trina knew then that she wouldn’t change form. . .” (145). Thus the Seep’s network, whilst opening up new possibilities for exploring embodiment, like the internet before it, can also flatten and homogenise aspects of embodied identity in favour of a majority consensus.
So, fungal networks in speculative fiction give us a new way to think about the utopian connectivity promised by the internet whilst avoiding co-option by neoliberalism. Fungi allow us a new way to think about the permeability of the body and the effects this has on embodiment and subjectivity. In Tade Thompson’s Rosewater, fungi connect humanity and its environment into a contiguous whole even as it rewrites the human body as its own. In Chana Porter’s The Seep, the Seep’s alien network connects humans with the non-human world, making capitalist exploitation of both people and the environment impossible. Both books help us to rethink the utopian possibilities of connectivity, whilst critiquing how the internet upholds the neoliberal paradigm.
Harraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto.” Manifestly Haraway, U of Minnesota P, 2016, pp. 3-90.
—. “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Cthulucene.” Staying With The Trouble, Duke UP, 2016, pp. 30-57.
Hawkins, Tracy L. “Facebook, Neoliberalism, and the Foreclosing of Imagination.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 52, no. 1, 2019, pp. 137-152.
McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York UP, 2006.
Porter, Chana. The Seep. 2020, Soho Press
Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures.The Bodley Head, 2020.
Shildrick, Margrit. “‘Why Should Our Bodies End at the Skin?’ Embodiment, Boundaries, and Somatechnics.” Hypatia, vol. 30, no. 1, 2015, pp. 14-29.
Sikka, Prem. “The internet and possibilities for counter accounts: some reflections.” Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, vol. 19 no. 5, 2006, pp. 759-769.
Thompson, Tade. Rosewater. Apex Publications, 2016.
Jonathan Thornton is in his first year studying for a Ph.D. in science fiction literature at the University of Liverpool. He is interested in the portrayal of insects in speculative fiction and fantastika. He has an M.A. in science fiction literature and an M.Sc. in medical entomology, and works as a technician at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. He has had articles published in the SFRA Review, The Polyphony, Fifty Key Figures in Cyberpunk Culture (Routledge, in press) and the Routledge Handbook to Star Trek (in press). He also writes criticism and reviews and conducts interviews for internet publications Tor dot com, Fantasy Faction, The Fantasy Hive, and Gingernuts of Horror.