Re-Wiring the Self and Memory in the Posthuman of Superhero Comics


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders


Re-Wiring the Self and Memory in the Posthuman of Superhero Comics

Rimi Nandy


“We’re gonna make you indestructible. But first, we’re gonna have to destroy you.”

The distant dream of transforming human beings into a better version of themselves has always been a part of the human imagination. The trace of our earliest ancestors can still be found in the primates. The process of evolution has led humans to the present stage. With time, every aspect of the human body underwent a gradual change, and with it, society has also been restructured and reconstructed. Technological advancements are made to move the human race one step further. However, the idea of creating a better society through carefully selecting a partner for procreation can be found in the words of Plato. The 1940’s saw an intensification, even an institutionalization of eugenics. The term was first coined by Sir Francis Galton in the year 1883. (History.com Editors) This later gave birth to man’s preoccupation with a superior human body which transcends the average human existence, based on Nietzsche’s concept of the übermensch. In the hands of the Nazi regime, eugenics sought to enforce biopolitics predicated on the idea of racial superiority. Following in the wake of eugenics, the branches of transhumanism and posthumanism were born. The incorporation of a technological extension in a human body or tinkering with the basic DNA of the human body leading to the creation of super humans became a popular trope.

Übermensch: the precursor of the Posthuman superhero

Nietzsche first discusses the figure of an übermensch or “overman”, who is superior to the average human being, directly associating it with his Theory of Will to Power. By virtue of the superiority gained by the übermensch, he either desires to destroy or protect. A sense of self-actualization is reflected in the power play between the powerful and the weak.  The contrasting characters of the superhero and the villain is a  true portrayal of this belief in the will to power. This desire to overpower the weak adds meaning to life. A superhero’s actions can contribute to achieving a sense of fulfilment by protecting the weak. The desire to help and protect humanity drives the actions of a superhero. The human, according to Foucault, is a historical and cultural construct. (Garland) The superhuman in the form of the übermensch counters the idea of being human through his ability to overcome the physical and metaphysical limitations endured by the socially constructed idea of a human. In spite of being endowed with superhuman powers without access to any form of sovereignty, the characters of the Winter Soldier, Wolverine, Jessica Jones, Doctor Manhattan, Lucy, and Vision share the common trope of enabling a better life for society. Their bodies become the site where the power relation between the strong and the weak is played out. The übermensch sets the stage for the development of superheroes as a popular cultural trope.

Transforming into the Posthuman

The superheroes and their representation always include an origin story which points at the exact moment when the average person transforms into the enhanced superhuman. Wolverine, however, was never truly an average human, with his mutated gene enabling him to heal faster than anyone. However, the pain endured in the process and the loss of memory transforms Wolverine into a raging man with little sense of the consequences of his actions. Jessica Jones, on the other hand, is an experimental superhero. She survives a fatal accident that alters her genetic code. Nonetheless, the super strength she acquires forces her to accept the responsibility of saving people. The psychological trauma she endures turns her into a reckless alcoholic. Her ability to connect to other people and her standards of morality are equally twisted. Much like Jessica Jones, the character of Bucky the Winter Soldier also lacked agency when turned into a super soldier. The body horror endured by the Winter Soldier is clearly evident in its representation on screen.

Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki. 2021. Ideal Federal Savings Bank. [online] Available at: marvelcinematicuniverse.fandom.com/wiki/Ideal_Federal_Savings_Bank.

Through the integration of bionic arms coupled with constant brainwashing, Bucky is transformed into a killing machine. He has no right over his body or his own consciousness. Bucky is an assassin who follows orders he never questions. During his battle with Captain America, Bucky fails to recognize his closest friend. The moral obligation connected with memory is completely eradicated. However, Captain America’s words “till the end of the line” break through Bucky’s brainwashing. In a fight between a machine and human nature, Bucky overcomes his conditioning.

Following the trend of accidental superheroes, there is also the character of Lucy from the 2014 film of the same name. Lucy, the protagonist, accidentally absorbs a manufactured enzyme named CPH4. As her mental and physical capacity increases, her moral compass appears to decrease. Doctor Manhattan, from Watchmen,is a similar superhero, whose body is broken down into atomic particles when he gets trapped inside Gila Flat’s test vault. Akin to Lucy losing her sense of pain and fear, Doctor Manhattan can no longer experience any human emotions. He sees himself as someone beyond the grasp of humanity.

The character of Vision in the Avengers series walks beyond the posthuman, becoming a transhuman. The transhuman varies from the posthuman with reference to the degree of restructuring of the body. Vision is a new species altogether, being the bodily representation of an AI. Ultron, the AI created by Iron Man (Tony Stark), develops a twisted concept of humans being flawed. He chooses not to be contained in the manner of binary codes; instead, he desires a body for himself. Ultron is a classic example of AI transforming a utopian concept into a dystopian world. This fear of AI turning rogue is reflected in the words of Stephen Hawking, who believed that “…the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”. (Hawking quoted in Skelley) Ultron’s ultimate aim was to create a more advanced form of himself, in the process eradicating the human race in order to save the world from the hands of a species gradually destroying the earth. Vision is a true synchronization between Artificial Intelligence and advanced Biotechnology. Vision’s skin is manufactured by combining human tissue with vibranium, thereby making his body indestructible. He is not a human being with bodily enhancement; rather, Vision is an embodiment of all the elements that a human being lacks. The groundwork of Ultron’s belief stems from the transhumanist concept of singularity. Body enhancements targeted towards countering human limitations forms one of the basic principles of both Posthumanism and Transhumanism.

Consciousness and Intentionality

The true nature of human consciousness is a fluid concept. The significance of the relation between the mind and the body is crucial to the understanding of consciousness. Whether consciousness is restricted to the mind alone or integrated into the bond between the mind and the body has been debated for a long time. The advancement in computer technologies creating the possibility of saving consciousness in the form of binary code has further spurred on the belief that human consciousness can exist on its own even in the absence of a body. Even so, being situated into an artificially constructed foreign body, the brain re-accommodates itself, thereby also altering the connected consciousness and intentionality. The sense of intentionality born out of the hybridization of the human and the machine creates a new form of intentionality. This is possible only due to the enhanced capability of the body. This form of hybrid intentionality is situated beyond the limits of the human body. The manner in which Wolverine, Jessica Jones, Lucy and the Winter Soldier choose to fight is directly linked to the indestructible nature of their body along with the superhuman strength they have acquired. Their perception of the world and their sense of moral obligation also undergoes a massive change.

Posthumanism contradicts the very essence of humanism, which accepts the centrality of human beings. The central belief of humanism is in the superiority of the human in contrast to all other species. Posthumanism develops on the premise of the human body being limited by its transient nature. It strives towards creating an entity through physical enhancements capable of overcoming the limitations of the body. However, whether human beings cease to be humans due to the enhancements has been a matter of debate among various theorists. The changes in human consciousness affected by the upgrade of physical ability is the focal point in posthuman studies. In the words of N. Katherine Hayles, “Human mind without the human body is not human mind.” (Hayles 222-246) his is clearly reflected in the constant struggles faced by the characters of Wolverine and Jessica Jones, trying to come to terms with the change in their moral sensibilities. The technologically enhanced body of the Winter Soldier also clearly depicts the loss of human consciousness and sensibilities. Lucy is similarly transformed into a superior being, transcending corporeal limitations. Her enhanced intellectual capacity renders her incapable of feeling human emotions. Her cognitive skills follow a logical mindset, stepping over the fallacy and frailty caused by emotions. An important marker of the posthuman is the notion of intentionality. What sets apart Vision from his precursor Ultron is this very intentionality. Both Ultron and Jarvis are Artificial Intelligence created to further human capacity. On the one hand, Ultron views humans as an inferior race to be substituted by procreating a single self, based on his own image. Vision’s body becomes the site for the coming together of two minds, namely Ultron and Jarvis. Vision’s actions are dictated by the intention of Jarvis, who believed in helping humans without altering their sense of individuality. Although Ultron aimed to create an image of himself in Vision, his destructive intentions are overpowered by the more benevolent desire of Jarvis the humans. This coupling of an artificially manufactured indestructible body and the contradictory intentions of Ultron and Jarvis creates a new species in a manner reminiscent of the transhumanist model of posthumanity. Even though Vision is an android, his choice to defend and protect human beings is inspired by Jarvis’ intentions. What essentially distinguishes a man from the man-machine hybrid is the ability to experience emotions.  However, one of the plates from the Avengers comics depicts Vision experiencing sorrow and shedding tears. This expression of emotion complicates the differentiating factor between humans and the android. This is entirely the result of the synthesis between man and machine to create a transhuman being, who is at the same time similar and different from a human being.

Pinterest. 2021. Vision-Even An Android Can Cry | Vision Marvel Comics, Marvel Vision, Marvel Comics Art. Available at: https://in.pinterest.com/pin/305822630916071157/.

The importance of intentionality can also be seen in the figure of the Winter Soldier, who is able to overcome his psychological conditioning due to his desire to save his friend Captain America. Wolverine and Jessica Jones, in spite of their raging personalities always verging on the edge of destruction, are ultimately guided by their intention to protect the people around them. Even the character of Lucy ultimately transforms herself into a pen drive handing over knowledge acquired without passing through the various stages of evolution. Her intention, as made clear with her interaction with Professor Samuel Norman, is to help humanity progress with the help of the knowledge passed by her to the Professor. In all the superheroes mentioned earlier, the body enhancements are not in the shape of appendages which can be easily added or removed at will without instituting changes to the moral self. Instead, the modifications are permanently integrated into the body, thereby altering the mind, morality and consciousness.

Conclusion

The critical analysis of the selected characters from a theoretical perspective depicts the manner in which consciousness and sense of morality is affected by the changes introduced in the body. The pain and horror endured during the process of enhancement further adds on to the lack of moral perception. The centrality of the position and significance of the human with regards to posthumanism and transhumanism alters the perception of the superhero’s self. The accidental and experimental methods of imbibing the bodies with superhuman strength, overcoming the arduous process of the various stages of evolution, restructures the very essence of body, mind and consciousness. The posthuman/transhuman body of the aforementioned superheroes undergoes an alteration not only in the physical state but also the psychological and emotional state. The role of technology in bringing such an alteration is crucial to the understanding of the concept of posthumanism.

WORKS CITED

Abad-Santos, Alex. The history of Vision, the superhero making his film debut in Avengers: Age of Ultron. 16 March 2015, www.vox.com/2015/3/16/8220697/vision-avengers-age-of-ultron

Cooper, Angel. “Domination, Individuality, and Moral Chaos: Nietzsche’s Will to Power.” Undergraduate Review, Volume 6 , 2010, pp. 60-65.

Curley, Michael. ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’: A Black and White Morality in a Politically Grey Time. 16 April 2019, www.popmatters.com/captain-america-the-winter-soldier-2633776064.html

Frisina, Megan. Internal War: The Psychological Damage of The Winter Soldier. 23 March 2018, medium.com/@mfrisina/internal-war-the-psychological-damage-of-the-winter-soldier-fa80b4295103#:~:text=In%20the%20article%20%E2%80%9CSoldier%20of,was%20showcased%20brilliantly%20on%20screen.

Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future:Consequences of Biotechnology Revolution. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Garland, David. “What Is a ‘History of the Present’? On Foucault’s Genealogies and Their Critical Preconditions.” Punishment & Society, vol. 16, no. 4, 2014, pp. 365–384., doi:10.1177/1462474514541711.

Hayles, N. K. “Narratives of Artificial Life.” How We Became posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. University of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 222-246.

History.com Editors. “Eugenics.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 15 Nov. 2017, http://www.history.com/topics/germany/eugenics.

James, Mario. Lucy — The posthuman Eve. 7 March 2019, https://medium.com/@mariogomes/lucy-the-posthuman-eve-8e3230b2915

Jeffrey, Scott. The Posthuman Body in Superhero Comics:Human, Superhuman, Transhuman, Post/Human. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Lilley, Stephen J. Transhumanism and Society: The Social Debate Over Human Enhancement. Springer, 2018.

Transhumanism and society: The social debate over human enhancement.” Springer Briefs in Philosophy. Springer, 2018.

Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki. n.d. 15 October 2020.

Pepperell, Robert. The Posthuman Condition: Consciousness beyond the brain. Intellect Books, 2003.

Polo, Susana. Doctor Manhattan’s actual powers boggle the mind:A man with matter manipulation and non-linear memory. 8 December 2019. <https://www.polygon.com/comics/2019/12/8/20999176/doctor-manhattan-powers-explained-how-work-watchmen-comic-hbo-time-sees-future&gt;.

Robinson, Tasha. Lucy and the enduring appeal of the instant upgrade. 28 July 2014, thedissolve.com/features/exposition/679-lucy-and-the-enduring-appeal-of-the-instant-upgrad/

Skelley, C. A. “Interfaces and Interfacings: Posthuman Ecologies, Bodies and Identities.” Greensboro, 2016.

Verbeek, Peter-Paul. “Cyborg intentionality: Rethinking the phenomenology.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 2008,pp.  387- 395. PDF.

Westacott, Emrys. Nietzsche’s Concept of the Will to Power. 29 January 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/nietzsches-concept-of-the-will-to-power-2670658#:~:text=Emrys%20Westacott%20is%20a%20professor%20of%20philosophy%20at%20Alfred%20University.&text=The%20%E2%80%9Cwill%20to%20power%E2%80%9D%20is,century%20German%20philosopher%20Friedrich%20Nietzsche.


Rimi Nandy is presently working in the Department of English Language and Literature at Adamas University. She is also pursuing her PhD from the School of Media, Communication and Culture, Jadavpur University. Her areas of interest are social media narratives, Digital Humanities, Postmodernism, and Posthumanism.

Language and the Borders of Identity in “The Language Sheath”


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders


Language and the Borders of Identity in “The Language Sheath”

Yen Ooi


Chinese science fiction written by both writers from Chinese-speaking nations and Chinese diaspora communities has a shared interest in the anxieties of identity. As I write this paper (originally as a presentation for the London Science Fiction Research Community—LSFRC’s Beyond Borders Conference in September 2020), I find myself yet again negotiating personal experiences with critical research while reflecting through the literature. Jiayang Fan, in her personal history piece published in the New Yorker titled “How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda” describes this anxiety clearly when she asks, “For what is an immigrant but a mind mired in contradictions and doublings, stranded in unresolved splits of the self?” Couple this with the sensitivities of language, as demonstrated in Gloria Anzaldúa’s famous quote, “So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language,” (401) we discover a ripe and volatile environment for the expression of identity through language.

I chose the short story “The Language Sheath” by Regina Kanyu Wang (2020), translated by Emily Jin and Wang herself, because of how strongly it resonated with me. When I first read it, I wondered how Wang, a writer who lived in Shanghai, would know of a diaspora’s relationship with language so well. I felt silly when I learnt that this experience isn’t unique to diasporas. It is an experience of colonization through language that happened, and is still happening everywhere.

“The Language Sheath” is a story about Ilsa and her son Yakk, and their complicated relationship that’s made more problematic by them having different first languages. In the story, Ilsa is a linguist, specializing in Kemorean, a fictional language in the fictional country of Kemor, and she’s hired by a language-technology company called Babel to create and record a corpus of spoken Kamorean for their translation machine that uses an output filter described as a ‘language sheath.’ Ilsa’s dream is for Yakk to embrace being Kemorean and to speak Kemorean well, but Yakk, like every teenager, wants to do what trend dictates—he wants to speak English and embrace all that is modern and cool.

My first languages were English, Malay, Hokkien (on my paternal side), and Hakka (on my maternal side). Growing up in Malaysia, it is compulsory to learn English, something that was inherited from our colonial past, and Malay is the national language. Because Malaysia’s demographics are multicultural, it is common for Malaysians to speak a third or fourth language from their family. Like Ilsa, my parents wanted me to be able to use their languages, but because Mandarin is the centralized language for China, they wanted me to speak that too, and so I learnt it. But I struggled to enjoy Mandarin because it felt forced, and was of the least use to me. In the end, English became my main language. Though I speak some Hakka, Hokkien, Cantonese, and Mandarin, I can barely read and write in Chinese.

Like Yakk’s parents, my parents had a big decision to make when it came to choosing my school and considering what effect it might have on my language. In the story, Ilsa holds a grudge with her ex-husband when she tells the reader: “Take my son, Yakk. His father sent him to an international school in early childhood, and even though he transferred to a Kemorean public school later at my insistence, his Kemorean is execrable. He can only construct simple sentences and commits solecisms all the time. He even speaks with an odd accent, as though he weren’t a native speaker. It’s a terrible disappointment.” Though my parents don’t see my basic Mandarin as a disappointment, what is highlighted here is the difficulty families face when parent and child use different languages.

My lack of Chinese language skills sometimes feels to me like a betrayal to my parents, no matter how much I tell myself that it isn’t. Like the relationship between my identity and my language, I place the same values to my parents’ languages and their identity. In a particularly personal section in her essay, Fan confesses that “It is reductive to compare a mother with a motherland, but…”. And I paraphrase this for my point, that it is reductive to compare a mother with a mother tongue, but the intricate and intense relationship that one has with their parents is precisely based on communications, which suggests that a difference in language would create problems. Ilsa’s description of Yakk above shows her disconnect with him because of their languages, and as readers, we can accept and possibly empathize that this difference, among other things, has caused their relationship to break down.

Though we know through the study of linguistics that languages continuously change with society, the loss of a language creates what is known as illocutionary silencing: “When a language disappears, past and present speakers lose the ability to realize a range of speech acts that can only be realized in that language. With that ability, speakers lose something in which they have a fundamental interest: their standing as fully empowered members of a linguistic community”. (Nowak, 831) Our desire to protect a language here stems from our need to maintain our position within a community—whether for cultural heritage or lineage purposes—that in turn, establishes our identity. This places an intangible value on the language itself.

The Language Conservancy, tracking 7,000 languages in use today, say that “about 2,900 or 41% are endangered” and that “about 90% of all languages will become extinct in the next 100 years.” When language is lost, it is easy to blame the older generation for not being better protectors, but the processes of modernization, of economic growth and colonialism are like natural forces against maintaining a pure language. In the story, Ilsa explains: “More than a decade ago, the Kemorean government started to heavily promote English education in order to boost economic development and international trade. Kemor’s generous policy on foreign investment brought an influx of foreigners to the country.” The drive for economic growth in the story became the main perpetrator for the fall of the Kemorean language. And in the story’s world, English still represents the world lingua franca, as the socio-economic colonialist.

Rey Chow understands that those who are colonized start to see their own language and culture as being relegated. She proposes three levels of mimeticism working in an overlapping, overdetermined manner at all times. The first level has to do with the imperative created by the colonizer or imperialist. The values are hierarchically determined and the colonized, her language, and her culture are thus relegated to the position of the inferior, improper copy. “Condemned to a permanent inferiority complex, the colonized subject must nonetheless try, in envy, to become that from which she has been excluded in an a priori manner. She is always a bad copy, yet even as she continues to be debased, she has no choice but to continue to mimic. She is damned if she tries; she is damned if she doesn’t”. (104)

In speaking with Wang about her story, I understood that she was coming from a similar place as me. Mandarin, though the national language, isn’t her mother tongue, which is Shanghainese. In trying to understand China and its people, because of its seemingly long and unbroken history, there is little concern about colonialism or imperialism. Yet, the various governments through its history, have brought on colonializing impact on its people through the management and development of the national language. From the standardization to Mandarin, to the processes of unification of the written language, to the adoption of the Beijing dialect as standard, it has been in progress for a long time, and we are still seeing minority languages, dialects, and topolects being affected today. There are many layers to this power struggle between languages, but the problem posed is the borders the inheritance of language alludes to that shapes our identities.

In the story, Ilsa and Yakk have different relationships to both Kemorean and English. Ilsa feels that she has to protect Kemorean so it doesn’t continue its path to decline. She believes that “A true Kemorean should speak nothing but the Kemorean language.” Yakk, however, did well with English. Though this was mostly due to his father’s decision to put him in an international school where English became his first language, he also believed that English was the more powerful language, which opened up international opportunities. This reminds us of the position that English already holds in our world today as the lingua franca. We learn in the story that “After transferring to the public school, [Yakk] lost touch with his old friends from the international school. Only David and William met up with him occasionally. They gave him English books and told him which of their old classmates had been admitted to top universities in other countries.” This cements the belief that English brings opportunities that Kemorean cannot.

The colonized here is Yakk, who is now “seen in terms of a desire to be white,” what Chow explains that is felt “concurrently with the shame accompanying the inferior position to which she has been socially assigned.” Ilsa fights Yakk because she sees him to have a desire to be not-Kemorean and she equates this to the shame—a shame in losing his Kemorean heritage, which accompanies his inferior position that she has now socially assigned to him. And the more Ilsa pushes Yakk, the more his position as the colonized is strengthened. Yakk starts to vacillate between Kemorean and English because of the stresses caused by Ilsa, which gives his identity plurality and multiplicity, the characteristics that Chow describes in the second level of mimeticism. This is a complicated position for the colonized as he learns to love and hate, yearn and reject multiple reflections of himself, much like the earlier quote from Fan that describes the immigrant as “stranded in unresolved splits of the self.”

The black and white, which is the Kemorean and English in the story, is now mutually constituted. And in the story, Ilsa affirms this through allocating good characteristics to Kemoreans and bad characteristics to foreigners. The crux of this is experienced when Yakk returns home one day to see his mother crying. As he hugged her, he whispered, “Don’t cry, Mom,” in English and Ilsa just stared at him in response. And it was after he said it again in Kemorean that Ilsa hugged him back, tighter. This scene highlights the fact that Yakk is aware that speaking in Kemorean appeases his mother. And Ilsa in turn believes that if Yakk continues on his English path, she will lose him forever. Near the peak of the story, Yakk has a recurring nightmare where he is surrounded by circles of people who are repeating his mother’s lines over and over, while he tries to break away to no avail. “Yakk, listen to me, you must respect Kemorean. You have to speak your mother tongue well. This is about honoring your culture…”

Yakk later learns that Babel successfully creates the language sheath to both translate and perfect Kemorean. So, whether a speaker uses a different language or is just speaking in broken Kemorean, the sheath will be able to transmit only “Standard Model Kemorean output.” He reacts by asking his mother, “Everyone’s words, you tamper?” And Ilsa replies: “Not tampering, but embellishment. What I have provided is only a sheath. The content of the speech won’t change. The sheath only makes the words more elegant and pleasant to the ear.” In this scene, with Yakk’s rudimentary question and Ilsa’s sophisticated response, we reach the coda that brings us to Chow’s final point on mimeticism of the colonized.

The colonized now no longer replicates the white man or his culture but rather an image, a stereotyped view of the ethnic. In the story, Ilsa becomes the person who creates this stereotype through the creation of the Kemorean language sheath. Not only will there be Standard Model Kemorean to be heard with the sheath, it will be hers. Though Ilsa’s determination in preserving Kemorean can be seen as a strength, especially in thinking that she is fighting the colonization of their language, what she doesn’t see is that her actions endorse and legitimize the colonizer’s campaign.

At the end, “The man from Babel introduced himself as Hanson, the executive in charge of the Kemorean Project. He spoke to Yakk in English and shook his hand like an adult. Yakk didn’t like him, though. Mother’s condition was Babel’s fault.” Hanson is seen as a saviour of Kemorean in Ilsa’s eyes. She puts him and the company and its tech on the pedestal. She gives them the power to take and own Kemorean, to be packaged and sold, to be stereotyped. In Yakk’s meeting with Hanson, she affirms this by asking Yakk, “Did you thank Mr. Hanson? He’s been so helpful to us.”

Though Hanson isn’t a main protagonist in the story, he is the representation of the colonizing culture, clearly defined by Chow in The Protestant Ethnic & The Spirit of Capitalism. “The white subject who nowadays endeavors to compensate for the historical “wrong” of being white by taking on politically correct agendas (such as desegregation) and thus distancing himself from his own ethnic history, is seldom if ever accused of being disloyal to his culture; more often than not, he tends to be applauded for being politically progressive and morally superior.”

However, Chow also reveals that “When it comes to nonwhite peoples doing exactly the same thing, however—that is, becoming sympathetic to or identified with cultures other than their own—we get a drastically different kind of evaluation”. (117) This can be clearly seen in Ilsa’s reactions when Yakk expresses his preference for English. She cannot identify the value of the culture that English brings at all, or a culture of hybridity. To Ilsa, English should remain a second language, a tool for communication and business only. “Kemoreans speak much better English than foreigners speak Kemorean. From my perspective, this isn’t right. Foreigners are coming to Kemor, so why should Kemoreans learn their language instead?”

If we accept that language defines our identities, then what can we—who are working with the colonizer’s language—do to move on? What can we learn from this? Chow’s words ring of truth when she says, “What defines diasporic realities, paradoxically, is what cannot be unified”. (130) To allow us to study the convoluted relationship between an immigrant, a diaspora, or the colonized and their languages, we need to first accept that it is and will always be in a state of flux, or as Kyoko Murakami describes in her study on the liminality of language, that in analyzing the self, it is “not as a static being but “becoming”. (31) Perhaps then, we might be able to accept the liminal position languages hold that simultaneously represents a culture, yet invites assimilation with other cultures and languages, like a plant that is part epiphyte and part parasite. 

WORKS CITED

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Barrios and Borderlands: Cultures of Latinos and Latinas in the United States, ed. Denis Lynn Daly Heyck. New York: Routledge, 1994. pp 401-402.

Chow, Rey. The Protestant Ethnic & The Spirit of Capitalism. Columbia University Press, 2002.

Bennett, Jane. Influx and Efflux: Writing up with Walt Whitman. Duke University Press, 2020.

Fan, Jiayang, ‘How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda.” The New Yorker, 7 September 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/09/14/how-my-mother-and-i-became-chinese-propaganda. Accessed 27 November 2020

Murakami, Kyoko. “Liminality in Language Use: Some Thoughts on Interactional Analysis from a Dialogical Perspective.” Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, vol. 44, 2010. pp 30-38.

Nowak, Ethan. “Language Loss and Illocutionary Silencing.” Mind, Vol. 120, Issue 515, July 2020. https://academic.oup.com/mind/article/129/515/831/5573258. Accessed 1 December 2020.

Pandell, Lexi. “WIRED Book Club: Is Three-Body Problem’s Translation Better than the Original?” Wired, 6 October 2016. http://www.wired.com/2016/10/wired-book-club-ken-liu-interview/.

The Language Conservancy, “Language Loss.” https://languageconservancy.org/language-loss/ Accessed 2 December 2020.

Wang, Regina Kanyu. Jin, Emily and Wang, Regina Kanyu (trans.) “The Language Sheath.” Clarkesworld, Hugo Award-winning Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine. Issue 164, May 2020. http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/wang_05_20/ Accessed 19 November 2020.


Yen Ooi is a writer-researcher whose works explore cultural storytelling and its effects on identity. She is currently working towards her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, specialising in the development of Chinese science fiction by diaspora writers and writers from Chinese-speaking nations. Her research delves into the critical inheritance of culture that permeates across the genre. Yen is narrative designer on Road to Guangdong, a narrative driving game, and author of Sun: Queens of Earth (novel) and A Suspicious Collection of Short Stories and Poetry (collection). Her short stories and poetry can be found in various publications. When she’s not writing, Yen is also a lecturer and mentor.

Call for Papers: Interrogating Our History


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Interrogating Our History


Call for Papers: Interrogating Our History

The Editorial Collective


The SFRA Review requests papers centering on texts, broadly defined, that were considered influential fifty years ago in 1971. As a jumping-off point, we suggest consideration of one or more of the Hugo and Nebula nominees for Best Novel, listed here:


Hugo Award nominees:

Ringworld • Larry Niven (winner)
Star Light • Hal Clement
Tau Zero • Poul Anderson
Tower of Glass • Robert Silverberg
The Year of the Quiet Sun • Wilson Tucker


Nebula Award nominees:

A Time of Changes • Robert Silverberg (winner)
The Byworlder • Poul Anderson
The Devil is Dead • RA Lafferty
Half Past Human • TJ Bass
The Lathe of Heaven • Ursula K. Le Guin
Margaret and I • Kate Wilhelm


While we view as questionable and often problematic the concept of a “canon,” and note that the groups of fans and critics that nominated and awarded the following texts were demographically unrepresentative by the standards of 2021 (as were their authors), these works were, nevertheless, considered worthy of attention and esteem at the time, though most have fallen into comparative obscurity by now. You are free to choose a novel that wasn’t nominated, or a shorter work, or film, television, comics, etc., or a work from 1970 or 1972, if that is where your interests lie. We suggest, but do not demand, one of the following approaches:

For younger scholars, critics or fans: Choose one of the listed texts, read it carefully, and write a paper detailing your experience of this work of “classic” SF. This could take any number of formats, including but not limited to a personal memoir, an academic examination, an examination in light of previous reviews or academic work on the text. If you are a graduate student, or even an undergraduate student, this could be a great opportunity for a first publication.

For more-established scholars, critics or fans: Choose one of the texts you have not read and write a paper on it following the above instructions. Give us the benefit of your experience living through times that have changed in terms of literary elements such as plot, style, characterization, etc., as well as in terms of society and politics. Or, alternatively, choose one of the texts that you remember reading and reread it with an eye toward interrogating the nostalgia or memories you have of your previous experience with the text.

For anyone: Choose a text not on this list, something more obscure: something you believe was ahead of its time or otherwise worthy of our collective attention. Write a paper arguing why it ought to be included in a “canon” of influential texts. What is it doing or saying that stands out as exemplary, and what might have prevented it from gaining the attention you believe it deserves?

For EVERYONE: These papers should include a cogent summary of the novel’s plot as a courtesy to readers; they must include close readings of the text of the novel as support for the argument you make. The style guidelines (MLA 8th edition) can be found on the SFRA Review website. Because this call for papers is intended to spark a conversation, we ask that the papers be kept relatively brief, with a maximum of 4,000 words. You are welcome to send the paper itself or a brief abstract to sfrarev@gmail.com. Please use “The Review at 50” as the subject header for the email. While the Review is not a peer-reviewed publication, your abstract or paper will be evaluated by at least two members of the Editorial Collective, and you may be asked to make revisions.

We very much welcome participation in this project by creators, critics, scholars and fans of SF from all parts of the world and all walks of life.

The SFRA Review at Fifty: Interrogating Our History


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Interrogating Our History


The SFRA Review at Fifty: Interrogating Our History

The Editorial Collective


The SFRA Review has published continuously for fifty years now. SF has grown through this period, accumulating a broad, deep, complex and sometimes problematic history of texts and films, creators, critics, scholars and fans. We here at the Editorial Collective would like to invite the creators, critics, scholars and fans of 2021 to examine, reflect upon, and interrogate the concerns and preoccupations of the year 1971, which was a very different time, especially in SF. The creators, critics and scholars who have been canonized were almost without exception white or male, and usually both. The Internet did not exist: discourse and publishing were in the hands of a few gatekeepers, who were diverse neither in demographics nor opinion on what was worthy of publication. Things we view as necessary or even take for granted today, were still unthought-of, or inchoate, or sometimes actively suppressed.

Yet the texts and discourse of 1971 are one stratum among many of our accumulated history as creators, critics, scholars and fans of SF: we ought not to dismiss them simply because they’re often unrepresentative by our own standards. The texts and discourse of that year influenced those of later years, and thus still influence, though indirectly, the texts and discourse of today. In 1971, Larry Niven’s Ringworld was the Hugo award winner. In 1971, John W. Campbell passed away while he was still the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, but as recently as two years ago, his name was still on major awards, despite his extensively documented history of problematic beliefs, statements and editorial decisions. In 1971, the SFRA and the Review were brand-new: SF as the subject of and respondent to serious scholarly criticism was in its infancy, and most theories of how we might understand works of SF yet unformed.

It is in the spirit of interrogating our history as creators, critics, scholars, and fans of SF that we at the Review invite scholars and fans of all generations to consider the history that was laid down for us fifty years ago in 1971: to critique that which deserves critique; to acknowledge that which stands the test of time, even though it may still deserve critique; to bring to light that which was ignored—or suppressed. The call for papers below encourages a wide variety of writers and a wide variety of topics, on purpose, because we wish to expand rather than limit our understanding of our own history as people who love SF. Ultimately, our goal is to create an ongoing conversation about our history: to place different generations and different perspectives at the same metaphorical roundtable, in order better to comprehend the forces and discourses that shaped and continue to shape the much broader, deeper and more complex understanding(s) of SF that we have today.

We urge creators, critics, scholars and fans of all backgrounds to visit the call for papers for this initiative and to submit a paper or abstract. We look forward to an ongoing, frank and fruitful conversation about our history.

“We’re modelled from trash”: Corporeal and Corporate Borders in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go



“We’re modelled from trash”: Corporeal and Corporate Borders in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

Agnibha Banerjee


As dusk gnaws upon the life he has so painstakingly crafted for himself, the butler Stevens, in the last pages of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989), has an epiphany which, in an ephemeral moment of illumination characteristic of much of Ishiguro’s fiction, reveals to him the futility and disgrace of a position he has willingly sacrificed the best years of his life to: “All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really—one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?” (256). Like the painter Masuji Ono in Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World (1986) who, at the twilight of his life, admits that though he “believed in all sincerity” that he “was achieving good for [his] countrymen,” he was in fact “mistaken” (124), Stevens joins the hapless crowds of those situated at the margins of power, faceless, docile, and complicit in systems which their limited interpretative resources cannot fully comprehend. In Ishiguro’s oeuvre, such an instrumentalization of life—marked by the reduction of human beings to automatons subtly coerced to serve as means towards the propagation of ends they can only partially decipher—reaches its terrifyingly literal culmination in Never Let Me Go (2005), where the dominated group is denied that which had hitherto been a tautological, if somewhat insufficient, necessity—humanity.

As Myra J. Seaman points out:

the human long presumed by traditional Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment humanism is a subject (generally assumed male) who is at the centre of his world (that is, the world); is defined by his supreme, utterly rational intelligence; does not depend (unlike his predecessor) upon a divine authority to make his way through the world but instead manipulates it in accord with his own wishes; and is a historically independent agent whose thought and action produce history (1)

This category of the human, however, when put to critical scrutiny by the tools of deconstruction and discourse analysis, is revealed to be an amalgamation of ideologically implicated narratives which, operating upon the politics of exclusionism, have been systematically used to designate certain demographics as “less than human” (3), legitimizing their discrimination and oppression. The “human” has always been a privileged construct, awarded by and to those with the material and cultural capital to define themselves thus, and consequently not everyone whose biology—itself an effect of power—would ostensibly identify them as homo sapiens were accorded the benefits of that tag. The definition of the human is, however, thrown into disarray in face of the challenge posed by the clones in Never Let Me Go, whose organs are harvested to prolong the longevity of the “normal” humans. In possession of all those cerebral and limbic attributes hitherto cherished as exclusively human, the clones represent a distinctly posthuman threat, symptomatic of major scientific breakthroughs in the fields of biotechnology and genetics. Evoking an unsettling sense of dread akin to the Freudian uncanny where that which ought to have remained hidden is frightfully exposed, the prospect of human cloning dissolves the abiding enigma of the human—its supposed irreproducibility and irreplaceability—into a murky flux of protein strands and cytoplasmic fluid.

In Ishiguro’s England, the abhorrence for the clones is hinted at throughout the text, culminating in Miss Emily—one of the “guardians” at Hailsham, the clones’ apparently idyllic boarding school—declaring: “Afraid of you? We’re all afraid of you. I myself had to fight back my dread of you all almost every day … There were times I’d look down at you all from my study window and I’d feel such revulsion” (264). What provokes this primaeval dread is perhaps an unconscious awareness of the inhuman mechanisms—the clockwork framework and the arbitrary codes of biochemical data that genetics argues are the fundamental ‘building blocks’ of all life—within the human. The terror of an erosion of difference between the human and the non-human, augmented further by a repressed cognisance of familiarity and identification, results in the “protective projection of our fears and anxieties onto the recognisable form of the embodied human clone” (Marks 3) who is denigrated, and, in Never Let Me Go, commodified and murdered. It follows then, as Leon R. Kass emphasises in Flesh of my Flesh, that much of the bioethical uproar against cloning is an endeavour to define and police the frontiers of the human, banking upon an “intuit” disgust against artificial genetic replication:

We are repelled by the prospect of human cloning not because of the strangeness or novelty of the undertaking, but because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things we rightfully hold dear. … Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to permissible as long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect … repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.  (Kass 20)

In Never Let Me Go, however, such an appeal to an ahistorical, inviolable “central core humanity” is susceptible to the mechanisms of a far more sinister and all-pervasive force—the market.

The capitalist market, with its ruthless, amoral logic of supply and demand, production and consumption, supersedes and subsumes humanist prejudices against cloning, with bioethics playing second fiddle to the biopolitical need to prolong the lifespan of the privileged “normal” humans:

Suddenly there were all these new possibilities laid before us, all these new ways to cure so many previously incurable diseases. This was what the world noticed the most, wanted the most. And for a long time, people preferred to believe these organs appeared from nowhere … There was no going back … their overwhelming concern was that their own children, their spouses, their parents, their friends, did not die … They tried to convince themselves that … you were less than human, so it didn’t matter.  (Never Let Me Go 258)

The genome, which genetic determinism holds to be the governing algorithm of life, thus becomes the (pre)text for the capitalist appropriation and instrumentalization of biopower. Biopower, as Michel Foucault enunciates, is a force that concerns itself with “the administration of bodies and the calculated management of life … optimising forces, aptitudes, and life in general without the same time making them more difficult to govern” (The History of Sexuality 141). In the dystopian reality of Never Let Me Go, the rigidity and perpetuity of the boundary between the humans and the clones is reinforced in the following ways: childhood indoctrination, fantastical tales of escape, and denial of the humanity of the clones. These measures foreclose the possibility of subversion, eradicating transgression even before its inception. Operating in tandem with each other, these interpellative forces reduce the embodied materiality of the clones to “docile bodies,” that enter “into a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down, rearranges it” (Discipline and Punish 134), and commodifies it in an economy of extraction masquerading as an economy of exchange. The compulsory organ removals are called “donations” (giving it an altruistic and voluntary veneer), and in death (though the word itself is never used), the clones are said to “complete,” ironically suggesting that the clones become fully realised subjects only when their vivisected objectification culminates in a total annihilation of existence.

The vestiges of resistance that remain in the novel, most notably the use of the clones’ artwork to determine whether or not they qualify as human, serve not to alleviate their exploitation but to further enmesh and implicate them in a network of liberal humanist power-knowledge structures that (re)inscribe their dehumanisation. Devastated and disillusioned that the myth of a deferral of organ donations was precisely that, a myth, Tommy, one of clones reared at Hailsham, enquires of Miss Emily: “If the rumours weren’t true, then why did you take all our art stuff away? … Why did we do all that work in the first place? Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that?” (Never Let Me Go 254), to which she retorts: “We took your art away because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.” (255). Ironically, it is precisely this attempted identification with the human—who in humanist thought is the exclusive proprietor of the “soul”—through a flawed appeal to Romantic conceptions of art, that dooms the clones, calcifying their position as disembodied and disembowelled utilities. As J. Paul Narkunas observes:

Hailsham and other elite clone farms were an humanitarian gesture to foster [the clones’] happiness while ensuring their compliance, while also assuaging any stings of conscience among the “natural humans” who supported these institutions, for creating humans whose only value is through organs that must be donated. … Ishiguro comments on the transformation of the affective values of humans— their interiority, their souls, and their empathy—into a kind of capital for humanitarian organisations.  (Reified Life 236)

Ishiguro, however, does not entirely abandon the empathetic potential of art. Instead, as Shameem Black contends, “As an alternative to humanist modes of representation, Ishiguro’s inhuman style suggests that only by recognising what in ourselves is mechanical, manufactured, and replicated—in a traditional sense, not fully human – will we escape the barbarities committed in the name of preserving purely human lives” (3). In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro emphasises the need for a radical remapping of the cartographies of the human that would celebrate difference through the deployment of a posthuman bioethics that does not draw borders dictated by discriminatory notions of origins and originality, but instead embraces the all too human non-human, both within and without. Exemplary of this “new aesthetics of empathy for a posthumanist age” (Black 20) is Tommy’s artworks which celebrate difference through a juxtaposition of the organic and the mechanical, of the automata within the human and the human within the automata: “The first impression was like one you’d get if you took the back off a radio set: tiny canals, weaving tendons, miniature screws, and wheels were all drawn with obsessive precision, and only when you held the page away could you see it was some kind of armadillo, say, or a bird” (Never Let Me Go 187). As biotechnology and genetics continue to corrode the precarious boundaries of the human, as capitalism persists in using science as a means to dissect and commodify existence, Ishiguro’s clones, albeit “modelled on trash” (164), like Tommy’s “fantastic creatures” (188), posit an alternate vision of the posthuman body, one that achieves a chiasmatic intertwining of the organic and the mechanical, one that revels, independent of the tyranny of the market, in the other-than-human within the human.


WORKS CITED

Black, Shameem. “Ishiguro’s Inhuman Aesthetics.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 55, no. 4, Winter 2009, pp. 785-807. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26287383.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan, Penguin, 2019.

The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: The Will to Knowledge. Translated by Robert Hurley, Penguin, 1998.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Translated by David McLintock, Penguin Modern Classics, 2003.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. Faber, 2013.

–. Never Let Me Go. Faber, 2010.

–. The Remains of the Day. Faber, 2013.

Kass, R. Leon. “The Wisdom of Repugnance.” The Flesh of My Flesh: The Ethics of Cloning Humans. Edited by Gregory E. Pence, Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.

Marks, John. “Clone Stories: ‘Shallow are the souls that have forgotten to shudder’.” Paragraph, vol. 33, no. 3, November 2005, pp. 331-353. http://jstor/stable/43151855.

Narkunas, J. Paul. Reified Life: Speculative Capital and the Ahuman Condition. Fordham University Press, 2018. Seaman, J. Myra. “Becoming More (than) Human: Affective Posthumanisms, Past and Present.” Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 37, no. 2, Summer 2007, pp. 246-275.

Agnibha Banerjee is Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature at Adamas University, India, and is currently working on a PhD proposal. He completed his BA in English from St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta in 2017 and his MA in English from the University of Calcutta in 2019. His research interests include posthumanism, utopian/ dystopian studies, modern and postmodern literature, Marxist criticism, and discourse studies.

Imagination Collectives: Sensemaking Through Collaborative Science Fiction



Imagination Collectives: Sensemaking Through Collaborative Science Fiction

Bob Beard and Joey Eschrich


Humankind is incredibly adaptable. A year after the outbreak of COVID-19, we’ve become accustomed to rolling school closures, startling spikes in infections, and continued and shocking mismanagement of resources. We grit our teeth behind protective face masks and white-knuckle our way through a reality we struggle to justify as the “new normal.” Already our notions of life with the virus have begun to settle, the first layer of sediment that will form the bedrock of a post-pandemic society. It’s hard then to look back to the spring of 2020 and remember the cascading strangeness of those first days and weeks, when the systems and safeguards we depended on failed, our coworkers and loved ones were transformed into digital avatars, and the rational people we thought we were clung to hard-earned rolls of toilet paper as a two-ply talisman to ward off feelings of scarcity and inadequacy. As the author Arundhati Roy asserts, the global cataclysm of COVID-19 was “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

Of course, speculative fiction stories are rife with these transitional devices, from wormholes and wardrobes to stargates that bridge the familiar and fantastic. But it’s one thing to read and delight in these types of adventures, and another to be unwillingly hurtled headlong into uncertainty. This vertigo—a sense that reality was bending around us, and the dislocation and radical possibility that came with it—was the impetus for the Us in Flux series from the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) at Arizona State University.

At CSI, we use the tools of speculative fiction and foresight to collaboratively imagine new, different, and possible futures, from space-based economies and sustainable cities to AI-augmented homes, new models for teaching and learning, and more.  As unprecedented disruption and challenges to our social systems swept the globe, leaving folks isolated and unsettled, we adapted our method of pairing storytelling with technical expertise to help contemplate possibilities for this strange new world and our roles in it.

Inviting some of our favorite collaborators and spreading the word through their professional networks, we put out a call for original pieces of flash fiction that could address the dynamics of the moment through themes of community, collaboration, and collective imagination. A number of talented writers responded to the challenge immediately, keen to explore how the unfolding public health crisis might inspire alternative social arrangements, networks, and identities. Those early discussions, infused with curiosity and hope, were a salve for the isolation and confusion that cast a pall over the globe.

Scholars and fans of SF are intimately familiar with the importance of worldbuilding. Constructing an imaginary world from whole cloth—its customs, values, and social norms– gives coherence to the strange and the unfamiliar, and provides the scaffolding necessary to meet the challenges of a new reality. Throughout the Us in Flux series, the power of this type of storytelling became apparent. At the same time that authors Christopher Rowe, Kij Johnson, Chinelo Onwualu, Tochi Onyebuchi, Tina Connolly, Nisi Shawl, Sarah Pinsker, Usman T. Malik, Regina Kanyu Wang, Ray Mwihaki, and Ernest Hogan were engaged in sweeping acts of worldbuilding, all of us were similarly finding new and novel ways to remake our work, school, and relationships. Both required courage, imagination, and a renewed sense of responsibility, and both inspired us to grapple with uncertainty though new ways of thinking. These skills would prove essential as the initial shock of the pandemic gave way to a global reckoning with systemic anti-Black racism and the interrogation of institutions—the law enforcement apparatus, the justice system, medical infrastructure—that once seemed implacable, intractably resistant to change.

Sharing not only the stories, but also the discussions that informed their development became an important part of Us in Flux. Each week or two, readers could gain glimpses of possible worlds through the lens of a new story, then join a discussion with the author and a subject-matter expert (from ecologists and conflict journalists to virtual-reality producers and architects) to learn more about the real-life motivations and choices upon which the fictions were built. And while none of these tales were expressly about the multiple tragedies unfolding around us, they were often in dialogue the news cycle and in a few cases, incredibly prescient, presaging events that would emerge just a few days after their publication.

The spirit of those conversations, heady and illuminating, continue in the essays that follow. Moritz Ingwersen examines feelings of isolation and self-determination in stories by Kij Johnson and Sarah Pinsker, revealing how the stories enter a conversation with the transcendentalist writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Likewise, Eric Stribling points to the philosophical underpinnings of Chinelo Onwualu’s anarcho-feminist vampire yarn, from Plato and Hegel to Frederick Douglass and Frantz Fanon, while in their essays, Sara DiCaglio, Andy Hageman, and Yen Ooi unravel the mysteries of Regina Kanyu Wang’s, cyber-cuscuta: an invisible, invasive organism that devours and processes gobs of anthropogenic digital clutter, and has settled the Earth in cyberspace, living quietly alongside its human hosts.

Today, at the dawn of 2021, the “new normal” is still profoundly strange. Although the stories presented here mark a specific period of the crisis, we’re still (and arguably, are always) in a state of flux and reinvention. We ask you then to consider these pieces not as an endpoint, but rather an invitation. By participating in this process—reading, analyzing, sharing, and talking through the ideas presented here—and by continuing to create and share new stories, we can carefully consider the narratives that we’re presented with, boldly imagine the futures we might want to inhabit, and emerge from all of this as better citizens of a better world.


Bob Beard is the Public Engagement Strategist for the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, where he produces multimedia content, public programming, exhibitions, and experiences at the intersection of science, engineering, and the humanities. With two decades of hands-on media experience, paired with his research in fandoms and other communities of practice, Bob’s work focuses on creating spaces for intellectual curiosity, accessibility, and advocacy. His projects include Frankenstein200, a transmedia experience for STEM education supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation; Reanimated!, a video series examining ethical issues raised by emerging technologies; Drawn Futures: Arizona 2045, a sustainability-themed comic book designed for 5th to 8th grade students; and PBS Nerd, a national brand and outreach campaign developed for public television stations across the United States.

Joey Eschrich is the editor and program manager at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, and assistant director for Future Tense, a partnership of ASU, Slate magazine, and New America on emerging technology, policy, and society. He has edited several books of science fiction and nonfiction, including Future Tense Fiction (2019), published by Unnamed Press, A Year Without a Winter (2019), published by Columbia University Press, and Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities (2017), which was supported by a grant from NASA.

Imagining Futures Together: On Science Fiction and Resilience



Imagining Futures Together: On Science Fiction and Resilience

Ed Finn


One of the most remarkable outcomes of the past year of crisis is how we have begun to confront the stakes and politics of shared imagination. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to imagine the lives of strangers in depth: their fears, their choices, their moments of discipline and failures of will. Every masked and distanced interaction is a new imaginative exercise in completing a face or an intention obscured by the pervasive disruptions of the disease. The parallel pandemic of racism that surged back into the headlines in the midst of COVID had similar effects, pushing millions of people to imagine the visceral impacts of racial injustice and structural violence on the lives and bodies of others. The marches and protests marked a sea change in the long history of racial oppression in the United States, a shift in mood so sudden and profound that it seemed almost science fictional. Speaking of fiction, the horrific events of January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol served as a third reminder of the power of shared imagination, playing out a drama of insurrection in which various actors were reading from vastly different scripts, in entirely different genres. The continuing aftermath of that day demonstrates the massive fissures, or imagination gaps, separating different sides of the American electorate, and the heavy cost of those gaps. These dramas in the United States have many counterparts around the world, with the pandemic driving a new global consciousness of risk and collective choices.

Shared imagination drives history: an idea becomes articulated into a worldview, an ideology that explains not just what has happened but what must happen next. A successful ideology accumulates followers who use it as a filter and a mission statement for organizing and reshaping reality. The intensity of shared imagination this past year, the speed of change in large-scale world-historical systems, is greater than anything I have experienced in my lifetime. The only points of comparison during my own forty years are other major inflections in the shared imaginary of modern planetary culture: the gradual collapse of the Soviet Union from the late 1980s to early 1990s and the removal of the unique counterweight it provided to global capitalism, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the unending wars that were launched in their wake. Yet the pandemic has introduced more change, more quickly, than either of those turning points, because the force it exerts on world affairs continues to multiply, rather than dissipating after a single cataclysmic impact.

The inspiration for the Us In Flux series of stories and conversations that led to this special issue is the question of shared imagination, and its link to resilience. How do we get better at imagining together? What does it mean to share a vision of the future, to work towards something? In an essay for The New Yorker in May 2020, celebrated science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson argued that our response to the pandemic showed our capacity for real change. Alluding to the work of critic Raymond Williams, Robinson argued that we need to develop new “structures of feeling” to contend with a reality that is shifting beneath our feet.

These events, and others like them, are easier to imagine now than they were back in January, when they were the stuff of dystopian science fiction. But science fiction is the realism of our time. The sense that we are all now stuck in a science-fiction novel that we’re writing together—that’s another sign of the emerging structure of feeling.

When we think back on the impact of the past year, we will measure the shifts in collective action and global consciousness as well as number the dead. The lessons of resilience we must learn from COVID are precious and urgent; we will need to learn how to think together about structural racism and spiraling economic inequality, about climate and capitalism, and about the growing challenge of how we practice truth and empathy in an increasingly fragmented world of algorithmic culture.

A tall order at any time, and especially now as the world reels with the continued onslaught of the pandemic and the gradual worsening of all the other crises it has temporarily pushed out of view. It is up to us, not just to imagine a better future, but to share that vision, find common ground and new structures of feeling to change the game in the present. Yoshio Kamijo and his collaborators have shown that imagining future generations in a decision process, asking someone to speak for them and advocate for them, dramatically shifts collective thinking towards the long term. This is, ultimately, an act of worldbuilding, of science fiction as a practice for creating more inspiring and inclusive futures. And it is at the heart of the work we pursue at the Center for Science and the Imagination: to create new practices and collaborative networks of imagination, and to act as if we really are all writing this science fiction novel together.

In his book Building Imaginary Worlds, Mark J. P. Wolf argues that there are two things that almost never change in our stories about what might be: causality and empathy. Without a sequence of events, a fundamental rule structure for the universe, we cannot invest ourselves in the action and struggle of a plot. Without characters with whom we can identify on an emotional level, we cannot care for a world and its inhabitants. Causality and empathy remain two of our great challenges, our collective blind spots, in imagining positive futures. The stories featured in this special issue work to draw our attention to those oft-neglected aspects of envisioning the future. Whether we are seeking out meaning in the patterns and interactions of human and non-human systems, as in Kij Johnson and Regina Kanyu Wang’s stories, or questioning the boundaries of self and other, as in stories by Sarah Pinsker and Chinelo Onwualu, we are constantly testing and reinscribing the rules of the world through the fictive simulations that we construct and share.

One of the greatest gifts of science fiction is that it allows us to look beyond our comfortable assumptions about causality and empathy. We never quite do away with them, so essential are they to our own narrative processing of reality. But we can transform them utterly, imagining the political hegemony of anarchy in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, or how interspecies reproduction might upend the stakes of individual agency in Octavia Butler’s Dawn. Where most of the stories we tell ultimately reinscribe the same causal lessons (actions have consequences; look before you leap), science fiction allows us to imagine reasoning and feeling in different ways.

What the stories of Us in Flux remind us, and what this year of tragedy and emergency has shown us, is that causality and empathy become invisible and unquestioned if we ignore them and take them for granted. They can become blind spots, sources of hamartia and false assumptions. Left untended and unconsidered, they can deceive and derail us.

To fix our broken futures, we need to attend to these two blind spots of causality and empathy. The pandemic has led us, forced us, to contend with the lives of strangers in intimate, inspiring, heartrending depth. We are living through a painful causal revolution with every new mutation and public-health challenge, an epidemiology of causes and effects. The growing realization that COVID will continue to circulate, and our disparate lurching attempts to cope with its consequences at individual and collective scales of action, reveal the blind spots that brought us to this place, that made the pandemic and its consequences such a bitter surprise.

In a remarkable article on the role of imagination in perception, “Minding the Gap,” Etienne Pelaprat and Michael Cole describe the human eye’s unceasing saccade movements as an essential aspect of visual perception. If cameras and sensors contrive to hold an image—say of a single, printed letter—precisely in place, fixed in relation to the retina, the image fades to gray for the subject, losing its distinctiveness and becoming invisible. The eye sees by constantly sampling the visual universe, and seeking out boundaries and edges, by glancing across the real over and over again. In biological terms, we perceive discontinuously, taking repeated samples of reality and sending them up the brainstem. The imagination, these authors argue, then steps in to assemble a continuous experience from these pieces, stitching together a fantasy of completeness, of embodied solidity, from the fragmentary samples of our senses and our own memories, presumptions, and continuing self-narratives. Causality and empathy begin here, in the tireless story-building engines of the brain, activating memory and mirror neurons, nostalgia and anticipation, to spin a tale of the self and the world. Psychologists who study resilience marvel at the ability of some people to take on setbacks and discouragements without losing the thread of their narrative, without being unduly discouraged or disordered by them. Resilience is the ability to find a way past unpleasant surprises and either resume the story where it left off or revise it on the fly to incorporate new information.

Science fiction is a training ground for imaginative resilience because it allows us to practice alternative causalities, alternative empathies. It reminds us that the impossible is not impossible to imagine. The exercise of exploring what could happen if we changed the rules is essential training, now more than ever, because it is becoming increasingly clear that the old rules have failed us. If we are going to survive not just this pandemic (and the next one, and the one after that) but the rising tides and temperatures, the rapidly attenuating pyramid schemes of the ultra-rich, and our teetering commitment to global democracy, we need to understand causality and empathy in a deep and flexible way. In order to create better futures, we need to imagine them together, including those who have been displaced, disenfranchised, and disenchanted by the mounting challenges of the twenty-first century. We need to think of imagination as a process, and maybe as a duty: part of our broader responsibility toward future generations. This is a structure of feeling, but also a structure of care: care for ourselves, and for the ones who are not yet here, the future unborn. Imagination is the ignition system for these capacities to act and think together: empathy, anticipation, and resilience.  


Ed Finn is the founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, where he is an associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the School of Arts, Media and Engineering. He is also the academic director of Future Tense, a partnership of ASU, Slate magazine, and New America on emerging technology, policy, and society. He is the author of What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing (2017), and the co-editor of Future Tense Fiction (2019) and Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (2014).

From Self-Reliance to Exposure: Ethics of Connection and Flux in Sarah Pinsker’s “Notice” and Kij Johnson’s “An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck”



From Self-Reliance to Exposure: Ethics of Connection and Flux in Sarah Pinsker’s “Notice” and Kij Johnson’s “An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck”

Moritz Ingwersen


The related systemic conditions of the climate crisis and the pandemic highlight a subject in flux, inextricable from the planetary circulation of viruses, aerosols, toxins, bodies, and resources. To imagine oneself as bounded, self-sufficient, or distinct from the flows of the material world has become increasingly untenable. Our posthuman times, as Stacy Alaimo insists, call for a critical acknowledgment, an embrace even, of “exposure, or radical openness to one’s environment” (Exposed 13). Arguably, this attention to the mutual suffusion of body and world—a  recurring trope in materialist posthumanism and ecological theory—is informed by cybernetics, which already in the work of Wiener pivots on the recognition that “to be alive is to participate in a continuous stream of influences from the outer world and acts of the outer world, in which we are merely the transitional stage” (Wiener 122)—or, in more poetical terms, “[w]e are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water” (96). With reverberations in Alaimo’s emphasis on “trans-corporeality” as the mode by which “the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world” (Bodily Natures 2), Wiener’s cybernetic organism is simply a function of the negentropic organization of metabolic systems. Yet, the implications of this material suffusion are easily generalized for a characterization of the wider relations by which the human is embedded in a planetary network of influences and conditioning environments. In these terms, the late French philosopher Michel Serres—one of the most evocative contemporary navigators of passages between science and the imagination—promotes the ethical task of understanding the relationship between self and world as “a syrrhèse, a confluence not a system, a mobile confluence of fluxes” (Serres and Latour 122). In consequence, recognizing the constitution of the self as such an “assembly of relations” entails a complication of individual responsibility (ibid.). If the material substrate of the self reaches not only beyond skin but also beyond national and geographic boundaries, it seems ethically imperative to acknowledge at least partial accountability for these relations, be they human or nonhuman. Highlighting the reciprocity of such an interchange, Donna Haraway speaks of “response-ability” (12) and “sympoeisis” (33) to describe the formative conditions of a subject in flux—formerly known as the cyborg—that is radically embedded in, reliant on, permeated by, and responsive to the material-semiotic forces of what used to be called “the  environment.”

It is against this backdrop that I read Sarah Pinsker’s “Notice” and Kij Johnson’s “An Attempt at Exhausting my Deck” as evocative depictions of what it means to embrace the relationalities between self and world. Arguably, both stories are among the least overtly science-fictional in the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination’s Us in Flux archive. Their settings are mundane and their portrayals of subjectivities in transformation feature no speculative technoscience, aliens, or superhumans. Their estrangements derive simply from an act of opening up to the world that nonetheless communicates an insightful posthumanist critique. By “posthumanist critique” I mean a critical return to and revision of liberal humanist ideas of subjectivity that harken back to the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Strikingly, both stories present a vision of subjectivity in flux that ambivalently talks back to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The ambivalent post/humanist legacy of American transcendentalism—stretched thin between the apotheosis of the individual and a theorization of its more-than-human enmeshment—becomes their foil for re-imagining the human relation to nature and society in ways that reject bounded individualism in favor of an ethics of connection and care.

Pinsker’s “Notice” is focalized through Malachi, a 19-year-old member of a closed community that calls itself “Reliance” and mandates severe restrictions on contact with “Outsiders.” Located somewhere in the American heartland, the Reliance, as readers learn, was founded sixty years before the diegetic present with the aim “to create a self-sufficient society away from globalism, commercialism, and celebrity” (Pinsker). Reminiscent of pastoral utopian communities from Brook Farm to B. F. Skinner’s fictional, yet influential Walden Two, its idealization of self-sufficiency and suspicion towards globalized social connections seems inspired by American transcendentalist philosophy. As if to invoke Thoreau as a collective patron saint and reference point, the protagonist is incorrectly referred to as Henry by one of the community’s elders—“Everyone in the Reliance probably blurred together for a Founding Aunt.” Tellingly, the name “Reliance” recalls Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” a founding text in the history of American individualism and, I argue, key for understanding Pinsker’s story as a critique of liberal humanism. “Notice” revolves around the disintegration of a tightly enforced boundary between inside and outside, self and society, that seems to rely less on physical walls than on ideological manipulation and an illusion of containment. Against the prohibition of contact with outsiders, Malachi accepts a box of mail from the postal agent and accidentally spills its contents. This chance event, a boundary-transgression in more than a metaphorical sense, initiates a critical awareness of interconnectedness with the world outside and the limits of self-sufficiency. Among the spilled mail, he discovers an envelope addressed to himself that contains his “Third Notice” to register for “Transformative Service,” a type of conscription for one year of mandatory social and community work—akin to the U.S. Selective Service System—that, if completed, would guarantee him a lifelong basic income and free health insurance. Already this immediate confrontation with the U.S. postal system triggers a moment of cognitive dissonance and estrangement: “He’d never really thought about where mail came from, beyond the abstract of Not Here.” This incipient awareness of an outside, let alone of a potential exchange across the bounds of the Reliance, is exacerbated when he finds out that previous letters had been withheld from him by the community’s head office—tellingly named “the Enlightenment.” For members of the Reliance, exposure to the wider world has been construed as a threat to independence: “Outside is dangerous and . . . un-self-sufficient.”

The contrast between the ideals of the Reliance and the vision of a social-welfare state that relies on community work and takes lifelong care of its citizens recapitulates the rhetoric of American conservatism and its affinities with the libertarian legacy of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (1841) and Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849). The Reliance seems to borrow from Emerson an appeal to individualism that corresponds with a deep distrust of society:

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. (Emerson, “Self-Reliance” 265)

While foundational for American humanism, Emerson’s notion of self-reliance proceeds from a radical rejection of responsibility for and connections to the Not Here:

never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition, with this incredible tenderness for black folks a thousand miles off. […] do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situation. Are they my poor? I tell you, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. (266)

Emblematic of the exclusionary construction of agency that informs early modern formations of the human as a political and ontological category, Emerson’s celebration of the individual via a detachment from the structural (economic and social) conditions that sustain it merits a sharp posthumanist critique. Insofar as it may be inspired by such an Emersonian understanding of self-reliance, the politics of Malachi’s community materialize a social program of “ontological hygiene” that rests on a denial of responsibility for and belonging to anything outside of its boundaries (Graham 11). Against this backdrop, the prospect of signing up for Transformative Service is both unsettling and enticing for Malachi. Considering that “[c]oming together for other people instead of your people didn’t seem like such a bad thing” (Pinsker), he begins to entertain the possibility that the world outside the Reliance may be “something that was the opposite of self-sufficiency, but not dangerous.” Transformative Service implies transformation, a reaching out to the world rather than withdrawing from it, a renunciation of stasis and containment in favor of an engagement in “meal delivery, agriculture, home building, citizen journalism, music for seniors, emergency services, [or] respite camps.” Ultimately, Pinsker’s story offers a utopia that rests on unmasking the illusion of self-reliance. As the mail carrier reminds Malachi on her next visit: “Are you [self-sufficient], though? You wouldn’t get your mail if it wasn’t for me. You fix your own machinery, but do you make the parts? It’s a fantasy of self-sufficiency, kid. Here—take your mail.” If anything, this condensation articulates the central argument of a critically posthumanist critique in times of pandemics, climate crisis, and resource capitalism: everyone is connected to the Not Here, even though the infrastructural conditions of this connection may more often than not be invisible, repressed, unconscious, or denied.

By invoking this opening-up to the world as a departure from (self-)Reliance and the Enlightenment, “Notice” may be read as a commentary on the ambivalent and potentially toxic legacy and reception of transcendentalist elevations of “the individual as a higher and independent power” (Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” 104). While transcendentalist political philosophy has informed civil rights protests and anti-totalitarian activism, it also continues to drive neoliberal agendas of deregulation, a peculiarly American abhorrence of anything remotely “socialist,” and libertarian gun-rights activists who view mask-wearing in times of Covid-19 as an infringement upon their inalienable rights (see Solnit). Ironically, it is precisely the decision of leaving the Reliance—and by extension, the distorted legacy of “self-reliance”—behind that for Pinsker’s protagonist becomes “the first big choice he’d ever made for himself” (Pinsker).

To reduce transcendentalist philosophy to the problematic implications of a super-charged individualism, however, would miss the mark and not do justice to its intrinsic ambiguity and simultaneous potential for an ecologically-minded posthumanist mobilization. Paradoxically, when it comes to so-called nature, Emerson and Thoreau’s vision of the relationship between human and world proceeds from a radical immersion, rather than disengagement of the individual. Imagining nature as “floods of life [that] stream around and through us” (“Nature” 190), Emerson, invoking the pervasion of the subject by the material and (materially) divine flows of the universe, in a way anticipates the work of Wiener, Alaimo, and Serres. In her recent study of material suffusion in Thoreau and Whitman, Jane Bennett comes to a similar conclusion, drawing attention to Thoreau’s sensitivity to “natural influences” and a “cross-species current of ‘sympathy’” that conjoins him with the vegetable and animal life at Walden Pond (Bennett 91). In contrast to Pinsker, Kij Johnson’s “An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck” invites a bridge to transcendentalism that facilitates rather than curtails connections and openings to the more-than-human world. As if to mobilize the performative dimension of Pinsker’s title, Johnson’s story foregrounds an expansion of “things to notice,” a defamiliarization of divides between inside and outside by which the Not Here becomes familiar. Published during a time of lockdown, vis-à-vis the competing specters of viral infection and social isolation, it chronicles a woman’s deliberate attempt to sharpen her senses for the nonhuman relations outside her window.

Johnson’s story opens with a reference to the work of Georges Perec, a member of the French Oulipo group whose experiments in constrained writing can be understood as programmatic for the protagonist’s endeavor to explore, in almost fractal depth, the limited periphery of her apartment. Her name, Linna, perhaps not coincidentally recalls Linnaeus, the renowned naturalist and founder of modern taxonomy. In equal measures, her attempt at exhausting her deck, “an eight-by-six wooden platform” attached to her room, seems informed by the Linnean Systema Naturae and Thoreau’s notion of “home-cosmography” (“Walden” 341). It starts with an exercise in amateur nomenclature:

5 kinds of trees, I think? I don’t know any names, so I’ll call them
Spackle-bark trees. Massive, with coarse bark, looks like it’s applied with a palette knife in rough rectangles. Leaves = your basic leaf shape.
Alligator-bark trees. Smaller trunks, rough bark. The pattern’s shallower, smaller—little irregular squares.
Some sort of
(Johnson)

This beginning of a list ends on an ellipsis when her attention is sidetracked by the appearance of a squirrel, three jays, and a wasp. Reminiscent of Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” (“Nature” 193), an instantiation of his idea of the poet as someone “whose eye can integrate all the parts” (192), she is determined to take in everything she sees and record her impressions in a written impromptu catalog. Her perception is less dispersed or distracted than complexified, slowly attuning to the infinite and inhuman scales of ecological variation that shape her surroundings:

Three speeds of wind in the trees. One tree’s highest branches bob while another one is still. There’s microweather up there, patches of wind .001 mph slower than the air right above it, or a 10th of a degree warmer, because it’s over a tree that collects more heat than its neighbors. Maybe? (Johnson)

Like the American amateur naturalists before her—from Thoreau to Aldo Leopold and Annie Dillard—she delights in the interchanges between her private space and the vibrant multiplicity on her proverbial doorstep. Similar to Thoreau who “enjoy[s] the friendship of the seasons” (“Walden” 202) and Emerson who recognizes that he is “not alone and unacknowledged” but in the presence of nonhumans who “nod to me, and I to them” (“Nature” 193), Linna realizes that she may be “alone, but she is seldom lonely” (Johnson). The inhabitants of her deck “connect her to the larger world.” Thoreau’s notes on solitude in Walden unmistakably resonate with her experience:

I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. (202-203)

Yet, in distinction to Thoreau, Linna’s growing awareness of a newly found “beneficent society of Nature” does not fall back on a simplistic opposition between nature and culture. Rather, she recognizes that her entanglements with the external world are multiple, bridging divides between physical and nonphysical relations, human and other-than-human kinship:

They aren’t all alive, the people on her friends list: her father, for one. Others she’s never met and never will: a musician who made a song in 1984 that cracks her open, fictional characters in favorite shows. They are not—she looks it up—“a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.” But they matter to her. Because of them, she reaches out of herself and into the world. To care is as important as to connect, sometimes. And they aren’t all people. Lil Bit and the curious juvenile cardinal; the squirrels, the blue jays, the dark-eyed juncos and the tufted titmice and the downy woodpeckers; the Japanese hemlock crowding against the railings of her deck, and the deck itself, which has taken on a sort of life of its own under her steady regard. (Johnson)

Comparable to the protagonist’s emancipation in Pinsker’s “Notice,” the limitations of Linna’s place become an occasion to reach “out of herself and into the world,” in what is invoked as an ethics of care and connection. In their shared rejection of bounded individualism in favor of response-ability and empathy, both stories may ultimately be characterized as ecotopian. While Johnson foregrounds that ecological thinking begins with a shift in awareness and a recognition of expanded ecological relations, Pinsker’s near-future U.S. introduces a political system that has normalized the vision of contemporary progressives whose Green New Deal is inextricable from wide-ranging social welfare programs. Overtly environmental measures aside, ecological thinking, as Timothy Morton and many others have pointed out, means “to join the dots and see that everything is connected” (1). In different ways, Pinsker’s and Johnson’s stories impel precisely this recognition: that the more the individual becomes aware of its linkages, dependencies, and abilities to engage, “the more our world opens up” (ibid.).

      In this sense, both stories metabolize the core meaning of understanding ourselves in flux—namely, to resist attempts to close the system, and to become cognizant and affectively aware of its material enmeshments and modes of interpermeation—for good or for ill. By employing Emerson and Thoreau as implicit intertextual foils, they point to the interrelated histories of humanism, ecology, and posthumanism and remind us that their relationships are complex and themselves in flux. While transcendentalist notions of self-reliance fundamentally inform the ideological infrastructure of toxic transhumanism—the overextension of the liberal humanist subject to compensate for the intrinsic deficiency of what Arnold Gehlen has famously described “man’s ‘world-openness’” (Gehlen 24)—, its alignment of human and nature, in so far as it is able to shed its naive romanticism, offers productive ways to imagine ecotopian futures grounded in more-than-human empathy and ethics of trans-corporeal affection. Mediating these oppositions, Pinsker and Johnson rehabilitate exposure and flux not as vulnerability, but as a vision of opening oneself up to the world and welcoming rather than denying one’s relations.

WORKS CITED

Alaimo, Stacy. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Indiana University Press, 2010.

—–. Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Bennett, Jane. Influx and Efflux: Writing up with Walt Whitman. Duke University Press, 2020.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature [1836].” Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by William H. Gilman, Signet Classic, 1965, pp. 190–228.

—–. “Self-Reliance [1841].” Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by William H. Gilman, Signet Classic, 1965, pp. 262–85.

Gehlen, Arnold. Man, His Nature and Place in the World. Columbia University Press, 1988.

Graham, Elaine. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. Manchester University Press, 2002.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.

Johnson, Kij. “An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck.” Us in Flux: Center for Science and the Imagination, https://csi.asu.edu/story/kij-johnson-uif/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.

Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press, 2012.

Pinsker, Sarah. “Notice.” Us in Flux: Center for Science and the Imagination, https://csi.asu.edu/projects/usinflux/sarah-pinsker-uif/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.

Serres, Michel, and Bruno Latour. Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time. Translated by Roxanne Lapidus, University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Solnit, Rebecca. “Masculinity As Radical Selfishness: Rebecca Solnit on the Maskless Men of the Pandemic.” Literary Hub, 29 May 2020, https://lithub.com/masculinity-as-radical-selfishness-rebecca-solnit-on-the-maskless-men-of-the-pandemic/.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” Walden and Other Writings, edited by Joseph Wood Krutch, Bantam Books, 1962, pp. 85–104.

—. “Walden.” Walden and Other Writings, edited by Joseph Wood Krutch, Bantam Books, 1962, pp. 105–351.

Wiener, Norbert. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954.


Moritz Ingwersen is currently an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Konstanz, Germany, and will begin a position as Professor of North American Literature and Future Studies at Dresden University of Technology in March 2021. He holds an MA in English and Physics from the University of Cologne and a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from Trent University, Ontario. His research engages intersections among speculative fiction, science and technology studies, and the environmental humanities. Aside from a monograph entitled Neal Stephenson’s Archaeology of Cyberculture: Science Fiction as Science Studiesforthcoming with Liverpool University Press, his publications include articles on Michel Serres, J. G. Ballard, N. K. Jemisin, and Indigenous Petrofiction. He is the co-editor of Culture-Theory-Disability: Encounters between Cultural Studies and Disability Studies (2017) and a forthcoming special issue on elemental ecocriticism.

Nature Will Prevail: Convergence Culture and Eco-Fiction in “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto”



Nature Will Prevail: Convergence Culture and Eco-Fiction in “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto”

Yen Ooi


Regina Kanyu Wang’s short story, “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” is a piece of eco-fiction that challenges not only our assumptions about cyberspace, but also our awareness of what we are actually engaging with in our technological habits. In 2010, Evan Carroll and John Romano engaged readers of their book Your Digital Afterlife in trying to understand what happens to digital data after we die. They begin by introducing the fact that the digital revolution is happening, where “digital things are quickly replacing physical things in our lives.” This means that as a species, we are constantly creating data, much of which is never used again, but which cannot be easily discarded, and if left unmanaged, cannot be easily accessed after our deaths either. Because digital data is intangible and digital memory presents itself as abundant with cloud solutions that further camouflage any worry of storage, there seems to be a lack of priority in recognising data waste or data disposal issues. And even when we would like to discard our digital data, data security that protects us from losing information also prevents us from doing so. “In the digital world, preventing others from acquiring information about us is just as difficult as to rid ourselves of data that we do not need any longer… Experts in computer forensics know just how difficult it is to delete information so that it cannot be reconstructed and retrieved again”. (Schafer) 

In the story, we learn that the cyber-cuscuta—what Wang describes as a “digital being” (“Us in Flux: Conversations”)—serves as a biological solution to our data-waste problem. They formed and germinated in cyberspace during a pandemic—though the year and pandemic details were not specific, I read that as a reference to an increase in online activities during lockdown periods of Covid-19. The cyber-cuscuta ingest and replicate data in cyberspace to create meaning, and in this process of transforming data into information, they feed on the entropy created. In the story, when humans learn about the cyber-cuscuta, their reaction is to try and purge them from cyberspace, to no avail. And it was precisely this t extreme action taken by humans that drove the cyber-cuscuta to confront them in a public hearing that the entire story takes place at. This is the description of what the humans did in the cyber-cuscuta’s speech:

You were so determined that you’d rather perish together with us than acknowledge our mutual entanglement. Without any forewarning, you cut down the global internet connection. Blackout. Clearance. Strangulation. In three days, many of us lost activity. Some species vanished forever. Many of you committed suicide. It was loss on both sides, and it was out of your control. And it was at that moment that we came to understand ourselves as life.

And here, we learn that it was the humans’ desperate action that spawned the cyber-cuscuta, evolving them into consciousness.

In many ways, the cyber-cuscuta is the ultimate representation of Henry Jenkins’s theory of Convergence Culture. In talking about his book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Jenkins summarises that it is about the relationship between three concepts—media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence. (2006) If we consider cyberspace the cyber-cuscuta’s home, it is the ultimate point of “media convergence” as all media data travels through and is situated in cyberspace for exchange and storage. The cyber-cuscuta’s manifesto that forms the entire story is the ultimate call to “participatory culture,” in a guise to empower and democratise through engagement, through the symbiotic sharing of data. And its biology is a “collective intelligence” that grew out of our disorganised data that is mocked as an ineffective mess that they, the cyber-cuscuta, are able to decipher and create intelligent products from.

In 2004, Jenkins wrote, “Media convergence is more than simply a technological shift.” He described it as the movement of technological change that democratises the act of media consumption and production, that challenges corporate media control—what he termed “culture-jamming,” which disrupts the flow of media from an outside position—with grassroots developments that encourage consumer production through blogging. Since then, we have already seen this shift through social media applications that provide users with an immediate platform to showcase their own creations. Successful bloggers on various platforms are now hailed as influencers who get approached by large corporations with partnership deals in a turn of power. As far back as 2008, “Google reported that it was processing 20 petabytes of user-generated content each day”. (Carroll and Romano) Media convergence is no longer a theory, and is now part of most of our daily experiences. For the story, this concept is extrapolated even further, to the point that data is no longer just media objects. Data have now become the habitat and livelihood of a new being, a new genus that identifies as the cyber-cuscuta. This science fictional imagination accords with Jenkins’s observation that “Convergence alters the relationship between existing technologies, industries, markets, genres and audiences,” and the story takes it further, pushing the boundaries to challenge humans’ position as the most intelligent species on earth.

The use of a new biological being in the story instead of artificial intelligence smartly avoids the popular idea that “‘the computer’ is in itself capable of producing social and historical change,” what Espen Aarseth considers as “a strangely ahistorical and anthropomorphic misconception”. (15) In clearly defining that the data itself isn’t alive, but serves as food to the cyber-cuscuta, there isn’t a need to anthropomorphize any technology. Rather, they’re treated like sentient aliens that grew from cyberspace, allowing readers to accept the cyber-cuscuta’s level of intelligence in reference to humans, to us. The biological implications of the cyber-cuscuta’s form, despite living in cyberspace and living off data, places the story firmly in the genre of eco-fiction by framing the humans’ connection with the environment. Using Jim Dwyer’s criteria for eco-fiction, “The nonhuman environment [in this case, cyberspace] is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.” The creation of cyberspace and its datasphere is a direct implication of humans’ technological revolution. The human history in the story is unimportant, and human accountability to the environment—in the creation of digital space—is part of the text’s ethical orientation. (Woodbury) In this piece of eco-fiction, the cyber-cuscuta manages to transform data into information by taking all uploaded data from open, public resources and disassembling, mixing, creating collages and reassembling them. Thus, their intelligence comes from human intelligence. However, their speech in the story insinuates that they understand humans better than humans understand themselves, through a process that is similar to that of “collective intelligence.”

In convergence culture, Jenkins uses the term “collective intelligence,” originally coined by media guru Tim O’Reilly, in a way that embraces Pierre Levy’s concept “that gives expression to the new links between knowledge and power that are emerging within network culture: people from diverse backgrounds pool knowledge, debate interpretations and organize through the production of meaning”. (Jenkins and Deuze) This concept of a community-driven knowledge utopia has been heavily discussed and challenged in many ways in the field of digital humanities, but for the purpose of this article, I would like to focus on the cyber-cuscuta and how they naturally embrace collective intelligence in a way that humans can only dream of. In the story, the cyber-cuscuta somewhat taunts the humans by saying, “We replicate data, stage it differently, create permutations, but all the new data and information is produced by you. We are just reorganizing your data and amplifying the information that is originally there.” The mockery here inheres in the fact that humans do not come up with anything new, and that despite humans’ ability to create data and information, humans are unable to recognise the intelligence behind them or decipher the data for themselves. This makes the cyber-cuscuta the collective intelligence, as they suggest that they are the only ones who are able to produce meaning from humans’ endless data stream. The cyber-cuscuta then plead: “Together we reach an equilibrium: you create data for us and we digest the entropy surplus, maintaining a balance between various categories of information and preventing your cyberspace from drifting into complete chaos. You need us just like we need you.” 

Here, the cyber-cuscuta goes for the jugular—society’s craving or need for participation in media culture. The suggestion above by the cyber-cuscuta that humans need them as much as they need humans should have been brushed off easily, as creating data isn’t a basic human need. Or is it? 

In convergence culture, participatory culture is understood as what occurs when audiences no longer only consume media, but also produce media that is consumed by others. “Consumption becomes production; reading becomes writing; spectator culture becomes participatory culture” (Jenkins, 2006). Neil Gibb, a business consultant and social advocate, studied this phenomenon and suggests that “What we are seeing is not a shift in consumer sentiment, it is a shift in human sentiment.” He sees the concept of the consumer as “an abstraction, a distinction designed to dehumanise the people that companies are targeting.” And that what we have been experiencing is the “end game of consumerism, and the rise of a new paradigm—one in which passive consumers are replaced by active participants.” Both Gibb and Jenkins are excited about the same thing, but what Jenkins limits to being a part of media culture, Gibb suggests is a revolutionary period in the world, what he calls the participation revolution. He reflects on the disruptions that are challenging and fundamentally changing how things are done in politics, economics, world markets, and pairs it with the social revolution underway through social media use that is shaping the way humanity communicates, builds relationships, and behaves with social conventions being questioned and redrawn. Going back to the story, whether we believe the cyber-cuscuta’s existence to be caused directly by the increased creative output from humans or not, the timing of their existence is ideal for their survival. During this period of participation revolution—as we experience a heightened participatory culture—humans will not be able to halt or even reduce their creative output.

At the end of the story, the cyber-cuscuta pleads to the humans for understanding, proposing the ultimate call to action in participation, “Open your mind and accept us.” They paint a picture of a new future through a symbiotic partnership that will bring both humans and cyber-cuscuta away from earth, into the universe. They reveal that in all the data that humans have generated, the solution to leave the planet is already available, but that only they would be able to unlock it. They tell the humans, “Neural signals are no different than electronic signals. Biological information is not fundamentally different from digital information.” Their manifesto is persuasive.

What is most synchronous is that the story itself is written in the style most befitting of media practice today that is targeted at “generation why,” Gibbs’s term for millennials, whom he sees as a generation that “want to participate directly in making a difference.” Wang herself is from this generation, so her intimate understanding of the generation’s ethos is no surprise. Because of this drive to want to make a difference, Gibb explains that millennials need to do work that they feel is meaningful, to feel affiliated with organisations and people that are authentic and trustworthy, and to be engaged in lives that have meaning and purpose. Wang’s story does this by following the structure of the marketing technique “Start with Why,” coined by marketer Simon Sinek, which structures any marketing narrative to begin with a “why” that lures audience engagement, before proceeding to the “how,” which is a call to action for audience participation, before finally transitioning to “what” the narrative is actually selling or talking about. The cyber-cuscuta spend most of the story explaining to humans (and thus, to readers) why we should listen, why we should engage, and it tries to do so authentically, in a personal way. And near the end, in its plea, it proposes a call to action—the “how,” if you like—for humans to join them, to let the cyber-cuscuta into their minds. And in true marketing narrative, the “what” is actually hidden. Though it is hinted at, the cyber-cuscuta never overtly tells humans that “what” they’re selling is actually a full assimilation of cyber-cuscuta with humanity. 

The story does a wonderful job commentating on media culture today while mirroring the criticisms of convergence culture through storytelling. And it does this while emphasising one main point that comes across subtly, that earth is deteriorating into an unlivable state. Going back to Dwyer’s criteria for eco-fiction, both environments in the story—cyberspace and Earth—are experienced “as processes rather than as a constant or a given”. (Woodbury) Cyberspace is constantly changing as humans continue to create and cyber-cuscuta continue to ingest and reorganise data into information. And Earth? Well, this is what the cyber-cuscuta have to say about the planet’s prospects: “There is not much time left. We exist only in cyberspace. There are no physical creatures like us that can help to tidy up the clutter you create in the physical world.” Earth is a process of deterioration. Through this last point, we finally come to understand that at its heart, Wang’s story is a piece of eco-fiction that is reaching out to readers in hope to engage and drive participation in the ecological discussions of the world today.

“So, fellow symbiont, what do you say?”

WORKS CITED

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext, Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, The John Hopkins University Press, 1997. 

Carroll, Evan and Romano, John. Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What’s Your Legacy? US, New Riders, 2010.

Gibb, Neil. The Participation Revolution. UK: Eye Books, 2018.

Jenkins, Henry. “The cultural logic of media convergence.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 7 (1), 2004, pp. 33-43

Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. E-book, New York: New York University Press, 2006, https://hdl-handle-net.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/2027/heb.08235. Accessed 15 Nov 2020.

Jenkins, Henry. “Welcome to Convergence Culture” 19 June 2006 http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2006/06/welcome_to_convergence_culture.html accessed 14 November 2020.

Jenkins, Henry and Deuze, Mark. “Editorial: Convergence Culture,” The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol. 14 (1), 2008, pp. 5-12.

Schafer, Burkhard. “D-waste: Data disposal as challenge for waste management in the Internet of Things.” International Review of Information Ethics, Vol. 22 (12/2014), pp. 101-107

Sinek, Simon. Start With Why. New York: Portfolio / Penguin, 2011.

“Us in Flux: Conversations – Memes, Symbiosis, and the Microbiome.” YouTube, uploaded by Center for Science and the Imagination, 29 June 2020, https://youtu.be/ob6TQ9ELxLg.

Wang, Regina Kanyu. “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto.” Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University.  https://csi.asu.edu/story/wang-uif/ accessed 14 November 2020

Woodbury, Mary. “A History of Eco-fiction, Part 1.” 31 May 2018. Climate Culture: creative conversations for the Anthropocene. https://climatecultures.net/speculative-worlds/a-history-of-eco-fiction-part-1/ accessed 17 November 2020


Yen Ooi is a writer-researcher whose works explore cultural storytelling and its effects on identity. She is currently working towards her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, specialising in the development of Chinese science fiction by diaspora writers and writers from Chinese-speaking nations. Her research delves into the critical inheritance of culture that permeates across the genre. Yen is narrative designer on Road to Guangdong, a narrative driving game, and author of Sun: Queens of Earth (novel) and A Suspicious Collection of Short Stories and Poetry (collection). Her short stories and poetry can be found in various publications. When she’s not writing, Yen is also a lecturer and mentor.

Our Viral Companions



Our Viral Companions

Sara DiCaglio


In “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto,” Regina Kanyu Wang imagines a world in which a digital amalgamated being, “cyber-cuscuta,” emerges from digital bits throughout the internet. As Wang discusses in the Us in Flux conversation with Athena Aktipis accompanying the piece, the idea of the digestive and reproductive space of the microbiome partly inspired her thinking about cyber-cuscuta, particularly in the ways that the symbiont evolves and differentiates to digest different forms of information, and develops both in helpful and harmful ways in concert with the human. Wang writes,

You may compare us to the denizens of your own microbiomes. There are different kinds of microbiota, feeding on sugar, fat, fiber, and other substances. And there are different species of cyber-cuscuta, ones with a particular taste for oil price charts, Tetris gameplay streaming, or whale songs…. Sometimes, various species of us collaborate to digest vast assemblages of data… Sometimes, species of us also compete with each other, fighting for the same rare and desirable chunk of data… However, we have never destroyed your data. Our process of “eating” differs from yours.

The story considers what it means to live in symbiosis with the other, with the microscopic, the human, the technological, the social, the affective. 

As theorists (Hyrd, Landecker, Lorimer, Beck) have moved to think about the material networks in which we live, the microbial has featured broadly, spurred on by a need to confront issues like the over-sanitation of houses, the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and microbial issues in digestion. It’s not just that our bodies are multiple, but the microbial itself; Hannah Landecker explains, “bacteria have epidemics of plasmid infection; plasmids have epidemics of transposon and integron infection. Our epidemics have epidemics; our populations have populations”. (42) This idea of multiplicity, of the world of the microscopic that stretches out far beyond our vision and knowledge, is no longer new to our thinking about what embodiment and humanity mean. Collectively, we have become better at thinking microbially, beginning to consider microbial relations in disparate sites such as yogurt marketing, fecal transplantation, antibiotic use, and the National Institute for Health’s Human Microbiome Project. We, as Wang presses us to explore, have begun to consider what we live in relation to, what non-human entities make us human, and what those entities are in relation to our symbiont selves.

Into this moment of thinking about symbionts, holobionts (Gilbert), the microscopic, and the submicroscopic comes our current pandemic, waltzing in with its viral glory. Like other pandemics before it, and like the microbiome I discuss above, the coronavirus forces us to contend with the wide array of our global connections, of our not-aloneness, as zoonotic illness crosses from animal (bat, bird, monkey, pig, mink, depending on the pandemic and the moment) to human and sometimes back (might we remember the infected Bronx Zoo tiger from the early days of the coronavirus?). Beyond human-scaled species, the viral exists in a broader set of concerns and communities—existing around us, aerosolized, spike-proteined, within us, latent, active, in traces of t-cells, vaccination relations. We live, as with the microbial, in constant relation with viruses.

But unlike the microbial turn, particularly within broader culture, our theories of symbionts and other creatures with which we might happily—or at least neutrally—live seem to stop at the viral. While we have to a limited extent decided we can live in peace with some microbes, making our sourdough and waiting before using antibiotics on our children’s ear infections, thinking about viruses has not similarly changed. Though we do not medicate that ear infection because it might be “just a virus,” that is not to say that we have agreed that we should live in harmony with that virus. The long history of military-infused virus discourse makes the viral always already an other in the us-versus-them division. As Ed Cohen writes, “the reason we (i.e., humans) want to contain such [viral] diseases is precisely because we (i.e., living organisms) already contain them”. (15)

In this piece, I want to explore how thinking about virality might complicate our microscopic thinking. Because even as we have expanded our view of the microbial, the viral remains framed as an invading enemy, as solely replicating. Though we might “go viral” in ways that both disappear and yet remain somewhere in the memory of cultural contexts, our thinking about viruses and viral time remains limited. To go viral is to reproduce uncontrollably and, generally, unexpectedly. That reproduction is what matters, whether we are talking about a viral video, an idea, or a virus itself. Our collective sense of what a virus is, its adjectival form, is all about the reproductive.

In that reproduction, however, is a fleetingness. The viral does what it does, it moves on, destroys, finds more hosts. It might reprogram the original host, taking control of it and how we come to understand it. It might otherwise overtake the host, making them fade away except in service of the viral. But what this understanding doesn’t tend to offer is a particular sense of the idea of longevity. In other words, in general popular depictions of viral activity, the virus coexists only insofar as is in its interests to search and destroy.

However, viral infection—with both Covid in particular and with other viruses more generally—is not such a simple on and off switch. Have you had chickenpox? Then within your body remains the chickenpox virus, sometimes reactivated to lead to shingles, and sometimes simply dormant. We co-exist with the viruses in our bodies, are changed by them; they lie dormant, a part of our holobionts. (Gilbert) HIV may be the most readily accessed version of this, but this is more broadly true of viruses in the aggregate. I argue that our expansion of thinking about the microbial and microbiome needs to be accompanied by attention to virality in all of its forms—reproducing, latent, entangled—in order to more fully capture the realm of lively activity in which we live. And though we may make room for some models of long-term viral coexistence—the flu and common colds as inescapable parts of our world, as well as HIV as a long-term presence in certain bodies and (as I talk about later) in relation to certain identities, these are the exception rather than the rule. Cultural models of thinking about the viral, and specifically about our current pandemic, fail to consider many of the many instances of long-term viral existence.

And thus, we find ourselves bewildered by the ability of children who contact no one who is readily ill getting sick during lockdown. As an article in the New York Times published in late June explained to confused parents of children who had been socially isolating, viruses—including, for example, roseola and coxsackieviruses—do not leave the body after an infection, but rather lie dormant; they can then be reactivated, which can lead to viral shedding and reinfection (Wenner Moyer). Within our current pandemic, we find ourselves struggling, even more than a hundred years after the persecution of “Typhoid Mary,” to come to grips with the concept of asymptomatic carriers. Ideologies of guilt and patient zeros, as well as models of viruses as awaiting their moment to control everything, make it difficult for us to think about the longue durée of the viral, about things like “long-Covid” and other viral interactions—harmful, neutral, and beyond. (Greenhalgh, Trisha et al.) 

And so, within this piece, I use “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” and considerations of the microbiome as a contemporary model of symbiosis as jumping-off points through which to think about these questions of viral coexistence, infection, and contemplation. How, I ask, might we reimagine the viral in ways that make room for its temporal complexity, and what might this kind of thinking help us do to better comprehend the pandemic and our pandemic-inflected future?  My analysis allies itself with work related to our multispecies entanglements. (Kirskey, Helmreich, Lowe, Cohen) As recent analyses of SARS and H5N1 (Lowe, Cohen) illustrate, our thinking about viral containment and relations often fails to think through the lateral, multispecies relations and changes that occur through the viral. But here, I am particularly interested in considering the language and phenomenon of latency, of not just the viral as definitionally intermingled with the genetic, but its inherent intermixing, its latency, its geographic and temporal connections. 

Let’s step back into definition. Viruses were discovered at the very end of the nineteenth century, though they could not be imaged until the early 1930s. Their discovery hinged upon their size—they were found only after being passed through a device that filtered out all bacterial-sized—that is, microscopic rather than submicroscopic—particles. Though in the twenty-first century the discovery of giant viruses such as the mimivirus, which are closer in size to and even larger than some bacterium, has altered this size-based definition of the viral, the boundary-busting nature of those viral entities reflects broader definitions of the viral as category-less. The common explanation of viruses as neither living nor non-living reflects a similar discomfort with the breakdown of these categories—what do we do with our definitions of life if such things exist? Viruses cross boundaries; they gather and collect and move through and switch up and arrange genetic material. As Ed Cohen points out, “because viruses must participate in the cellular processes of organisms in order to replicate, their existence testifies to the partiality of definitions that localize life within bounded membranes and against the world (as immunological theories usually suppose)”. (19)

Stefan Helmreich further traces the relation between the viral and the genetic, particularly thinking about the lateral shift that allows organisms and viruses to co-evolve and co-mingle. He writes:

Viruses, entities imagined as other to the body and its health, as foreign material that poisons the familiar space of the self, are alien to vitality yet enmeshed with it. Viruses operate by employing the replicative genetic apparatus of the hosts they infect to make more copies of their own genetic material, a propagation they are unable to accomplish on their own. In the baroque history of evolution, viruses have not only or merely parasitized organisms in which they have taken up tenancy but also laterally contributed—think tangled tree of life—to the genomes of those creatures, as viral material has been transduced into host DNA. (192)

But this understanding of the virus as co-mingled with the genetic stuff of life—as a co-producer or co-existent of the human—fails, I’d argue, to move to the popular understanding of viruses, which still rely on concepts of the viral as ultimately reproductive, and solely so. This failure is important for many reasons—but long-Covid and other contested illnesses are a particularly vital and practical one. For, in addition to causing acute infections, viruses are thought to be responsible for numerous chronic conditions—conditions that remain contestable and complex. Symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, also called myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), often appears after viral infection, and these contested illnesses press on our definitions of what evidence, infection, and embodiment can bring together, as Abigail Dumes discusses in her reading of the (bacterial) contested illness of chronic lyme.

But this contestability, I argue, also appears in the form of cultural forgetting. Viruses linger; they also alter our immune system, as well as potentially having long-term effects on other parts of our bodies. But in the case of our ongoing pandemic, we can see the erasure of viral complexity in the drive to make the virus quantifiable. Each day since March, I have practiced the almost religious ritual of visiting media and public health websites to check the available numbers in my county, my current state of Texas, my home state of New York, and an assortment of other states and geographic boundaries. I can recite with confidence the viral counts of my locality, state, and the nation for the past several days, as well as their assorted reported deaths and the state’s hospitalization numbers. This meeting point of the available data, my facility with numbers, and my anxiety provides an overview of the public data: here is what we know, here is what we share.

Others with perhaps differently wired math brains and different political and public interests might fixate on other regularly shared data: the positivity rate, the number of active cases, the number of recovered cases, or the regional hospital census data. All these numbers tell us different things to different effects, emphasizing case counts, care and resources, and mortality over different temporal and spatial divides. However, none of these numbers report anything about long-term Covid infections. Recovery numbers relate infection to a binary, a switch, wherein after a period of time—generally two weeks—patients, minus a percentage assumed to be either hospitalized or dead—patients are categorized as recovered, as back to normal.

The exception, perhaps, to the rule of understanding viruses as something other than companionate, or at least something other than long term, comes in discussions of HIV. Framed as a disease that is inextricably a part of the body, HIV has long been treated in and of itself an identity category. We can see this even in practices of risk calibration around HIV, wherein certain bodies—male bodies that have had sex with other male bodies, particularly, as well as those who may have used intravenous drugs—are marked as never fully HIV negative by discourse such as blood-donation regulations. These bodies are not marked just as always at risk of HIV, but always accompanied by that risk, a risk that is seemingly inescapable. Viruses do not work in isolation. As Celia Lowe has argued in her analysis of the H5N1 virus strain of 2003, we might think of viral pandemics as part of a broader “multispecies cloud” in which “viral and vital materials reassort, changing the taken-for-granted boundaries not only of species, but of nations, organizations, and economies”. (643) And during the epidemic of 2013-16, Ebola survivors struggled to become reintegrated into their communities due to worries about infectiousness. Moreover, Ebola has been found to persist and lay dormant in unique spaces throughout the body, including most notably the immune-privileged eye. (Shantha et. al) Though there is certainly much more to be said about these two diseases than can fit in this brief piece, I mention them here because of the way that they highlight the paradoxes of rhetorics of the viral: bodies are marked as virally inflected even without infection, while other bodies are marked as infectious while recovered, leaving little room to think about the complexities of post-viral conditions, viral persistence, and latency. 

To return to Wang, though the primary vein of thought that cyber-cuscuta emerges from here is microbial—marked by an interest in digestion as well as its forms of digestive evolution—there is also inarguably a virality about the cyber-cuscuta, which centers itself around its replication: “During all these years, we have never generated anything new. We replicate data, stage it differently, create permutations, but all the new data and information is produced by you.” The very entrance of information coming to life calls upon a long-lived science fiction trope, from Blood Music to even the much-maligned first-season Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “I Robot, You Jane.” This trope mixes the viral, the atomic, and the digitized to centralize reproduction, to imagine a latency that only awaits its moment to strike. The conflation of the computer virus, viral phenomena, and the virus focus on a malevolent digitization, a mindless replication. But, returning to the above quote, cyber-cuscuta also connect ideas about replication with remixing and change. “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto,” in its thinking about the microbial and digestive, pushes us to think beyond the viral, replicative trope, to consider how the digital might also be fodder for the microbial, how remixing and digesting might do something other than destroy.  

To understand the viral beyond replication is also to rethink that very idea of replication as mindless, as having no effect other than zombification. Moreover, it is to invite broader thinking about what we ignore in our thinking about the viral and microbial—from environmental and animal husbandry considerations (Squier) to better considerations of patient experiences with chronic illness. (Dumes) If we have redefined our understandings of what counts as a part of “us” to make space for the microbiome, how do we continue to talk about viruses as invaders, as other? There’s a reticence to think outside of morality, outside of good and bad. In this model, the virus exists unequivocally on the bad side of that equation, the enemy. And yet we live with them all the time. I do not mean or want to suggest that pandemics function as a possibility or, frankly, anything uplifting; they are moments of grief, of endless piles of grief.  And, certainly, during this moment I have no particularly warm and fuzzy thoughts to share about the viral, with whom I feel little affective relation in my socially distanced corner. But even, or perhaps especially, at this moment we must recognize that the viral is the stuff with which we live—not just during this or any other pandemic, but at all times. They are realities, and, as a result, they are things to—things we must—think with. And thinking better with pandemics, thinking better with the viral, allows us to more fully comprehend how the lived experience of viral companionship, viral mixing functions. Dormant, latent, asymptomatic, symptomatic, aerosolized, other—outside of us and within. To allow our thinking about the microbial to turn to companionate species, to understand our symbiotic relationship within our holobiont selves without also considering the viruses and plasmids also in that relation is to overlook a broad swath of our viral condition. Might we think, then, beyond simple replication and replacement? Beyond the metaphors of zombification and children of the corn, leaning into complexity, into fraught companionship, balance, imbalance. Through such rethinking, we might begin to consider the lives of those—of all of us—living with the viral with more care and nuance, with more attention to what makes us, connects us, reproduces in and through us, is us. 

WORKS CITED

Beck, Alice. “Microbiomes as Companion Species: An Exploration of Dis- and Re-Entanglements with the Microbial Self.” Social & Cultural Geography, Mar. 2019, pp. 1–19, doi:10.1080/14649365.2019.1593490.

Berrigan, Caitlin. “Life Cycle of a Common Weed.” The Multispecies Salon. edited by Eben Kirskey, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 164-180.

Cohen, Ed. “The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment; or, How Scale Undoes Us One and All.” Social Text, vol. 29, no. 1, 2011, pp. 15–35. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1215/01642472-1210247.

Dumes, Abigail. Divided Bodies: Lyme Disease, Contested Illness, and Evidence-Based Medicine. Duke University Press, 2020.

Gilbert, Scott. “Holobionts Can Evolve by Changing Their Symbionts and Hosts,” Feral Atlas: The More Than Human Anthropocene. edited byAnna L. Tsing, Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena and Feifei Zhou,Stanford University Press, 2020. doi: 10.21627/2020fa

Greenhalgh, Trisha et al. “Management of Post-Acute Covid-19 in Primary Care.” BMJ 2020; 370. M3026. doi: 10.1136/bmj.m3026

Helmreich, Stefan. Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas. University of California Press, 2009.

Hird, Myra. The Origins of Sociable Life: Evolution After Science Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Honigsbaum, Mark and Krishnan, Lakshmi. “Taking pandemic sequelae seriously: from the Russian influenza to COVID-19 long-haulers.” The Lancet, Vol 396, No 10260, P 1389-1391. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(20)32134-6

Landecker, Hannah. “Antibiotic Resistance and the Biology of History.” Body & Society, vol. 22, no. 4, Dec. 2016, pp. 19–52. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1177/1357034X14561341.

Lorimer, Jamie. “Hookworms Make Us Human: The Microbiome, Eco-immunology, and a Probiotic Turn in Western Health Care.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly. vol 33, no 1, 2018, pp. 60-70. doi: 10.1111/maq.12466

Lowe, Celia. “Viral Clouds: Becoming H5N1 in Indonesia.” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 25, no. 4, 2010, pp. 625–49. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/j.1548-1360.2010.01072.x.

Shantha, Jessica G et al. “An update on ocular complications of Ebola virus disease.” Current opinion in ophthalmology vol. 28,6 (2017): 600-606. doi:10.1097/ICU.0000000000000426

Squier, Susan Merrill. Poultry Science, Chicken Culture: A Partial Alphabet. Rutgers University Press, 2011.

“Us in Flux: Conversations – Memes, Symbiosis, and the Microbiome” Uploaded by Center for Science and the Imagination, June 29, 2020.

Wald, Priscilla. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Duke University Press Books, 2008.

Wang, Regina Kanyu. “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto.” Center for Science and the Imagination. Arizona State University, https://csi.asu.edu/story/wang-uif/ Accessed November 28, 2020.

Wenner Moyer, Melinda. “How Are My Kids Still Getting Sick in Lockdown.” New York Times, June 24, 2020.


Sara DiCaglio is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas A&M University. Her work, which is interested in embodied relations on multiple scales, has appeared in journals such as Body & Society, Feminist Theory, and Peitho. Her current book project, tentatively entitled Tracing Loss: Feminist Anatomies of Reproduction, Miscarriage, and Time, argues for a reintegration of reproductive loss into models of pregnancy in order to broaden our cultural discourse surrounding reproductive justice and maternal-fetal health. More information about her work can be found at saradicaglio.com.