haunted ecologies: the island of doctor moreau and neuromancer

In ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s penultimate thesis reads thus: ‘The Geological Hypothesis Regarding the Anthropocene Requires Us to Put Global Histories of Capital in Conversation with the Species History of Humans’. He argues ‘the crisis of climate change’ demands we ‘mix together the immiscible chronologies of capital and species history’, acknowledging that ‘this combination, however, stretches, in quite fundamental ways, the very idea of historical understanding’. He calls for a ‘a conversation between disciplines and between recorded and deep histories of human beings’. I take no issue with these claims; the part of this thesis on which I would like to focus is this: he goes on to suggest that though ‘it seems true that the crisis of climate change has been necessitated by the high-energy-consuming models of society that capitalist industrialisation has created and promoted’, the contemporary crisis has actually ‘brought into view certain other conditions for the existence of life in the human form that have no intrinsic connection to the logics of capitalist, nationalist, or socialist identities’. Therefore, ‘it is not a crisis for the inorganic planet in any meaningful sense’.

I take issue with two aspects of this argument. First, as outlined in my position paper, I disagree with the implied separation of an “organic” and “inorganic” world. Second, I challenge the notion that there are, what Chakrabarty later calls, ‘parameters of human existence’ that are ‘independent of capitalism or socialism’. Rather, I argue that new form(s) of capitalism have emerged, crystallised, and become dominant in the decade since Chakrabarty’s article, meaning the binaries and parameters Chakrabarty establishes are, if not totally collapsed, then significantly more blurred; as Chakrabarty himself suggests, ‘capitalist societies themselves have not remained the same since the beginning of capitalism’. In the first quarter of this essay I review and expand upon the ideas outlined in my position paper, complicating Chakrabarty’s argument, before going on to develop my own concept for understanding and combating the climate crisis; I provisionally call this idea ‘haunted ecologies’.

In her 2019 book Capital is Dead, Is This Something Worse?, Mckenzie Wark delineates several concepts from which I base my reply to Chakrabarty; Wark believes that capitalism has mutated to the extent that the world ‘capitalism’ may no longer be useful. The constant modification of the word ‘capitalism’ provides a succinct starting point for her argument: ‘post-Fordist’ and ‘neoliberal capitalism’ are examples of lexical modifiers to ‘capitalism’ that carry modifiers themselves; ‘capitalism’ is no longer ‘good poetry’. Wark draws on Benjamin Bratton’s model of The Stack to describe how her ‘vectoralist class’ – ‘the dominant ruling class of our time’, those that ‘own and control information’ – exploits the ‘hacker class’ – those that ‘produce new information’ but that ‘do not own what they produce’ – to create a ‘sophisticated logistics that tracks and manages flows of energy, labour, resources, and finished products through them’. At the bottom of the stack lies the crucial layer for this essay: ‘the earth layer’. The earth layer is ‘that from which the resources and energy to make and run this whole vast edifice to the digitized commodity are extracted’; ‘the foundational layer within The Stack is the Earth itself’, ‘all movement through the lower machine layers draws on the chemistry and physics of the Earth layer – its energy, minerals, scale and curvature, heat and cold, and so on’. Wark uses this to argue that ‘everything is transformed into information and resources’; ‘not just everyone but everything is tracked and monitored and turned into information’, ‘everything – animal, mineral, vegetable’.

Bratton quotes E. A. Grosz to explain how the earth came to be conceived and exploited in this way; Grosz argues that ‘the earth can be infinitely […] framed’, that ‘framing is the means by which objects are delimited, qualities unleashed’. Bratton cites the moment ‘William Anders took the famous “Earthrise” photograph’ as the moment the Earth became framed as an Earth-layer; the notion of an ‘absolute scale for Earthly culture and ecology and a single planetary “inside”’ was created. ‘That same apparent self-evident image of totality [now] serves as a graphical user interface’ for corporations like Google, and as such has been used to redefine ‘the surface of the earth’ as a ‘governable epidermis’, ‘recomposing’, reframing, ‘that skin as a bio-informational matrix enrolled into other hard and soft systems’. As a result, ‘the world itself is seen as being information, such that to organise all the information is to organise all the world’. Consequently, I argue that an “organic” world no longer exists; it has been transmuted into inorganic information. The Earth now constitutes a layer in the global stack, from which vectoralists are able to extract resources before directing them along logistical chains of their design to profitable ends; this is the ‘overdeveloped world’.

This leads to my second disagreement with Chakrabarty: if the so-called organic world has been transformed into inorganic information, can it still be argued that viable ‘parameters’ that are ‘independent of capitalism’ exist? Wark’s model proposes a kind of capitalism that has no “outside”; the notion of an ‘organic’ realm separate from the hegemonic ideology in any meaningful way has become impossible or, at least, unimaginable; as Mark Fisher claims in Capitalist Realism: ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. In much the same way that Jakob von Uekull describes the environmental ‘bubble’ that ‘encloses each and every one of us on all sides’, and ‘represents […] all the features accessible to subjects’, I argue that the ideological bubble of this new type of capital cannot be burst by interaction or intersection with parameters that purport to exist outside its ever reterritorializing reach; the bubble can only be burst from the inside.

This raises the complex question of exactly how this bubble should be burst; I believe the essential ‘conversation between disciplines’ that Chakrabarty calls for will not take place between ‘recorded and deep histories of human beings’, but between this new type of late-capital and fiction, wherein literary texts are used as tools of egress with which the ‘futures’ that ‘we cannot visualise’ enter the collective imagination. The remainder of this essay will be devoted to developing this idea, engaging with the question of what genres, forms, and critical approaches must be deployed to rescue the once-organic Earth.

A natural starting point for exploring literatures endowed with this world-building and world-changing quality might be to look for those with an overtly utopian impulse; as Frederic Jameson describes, in a world where ‘the historic alternatives to capitalism have been proven unviable and impossible’, where ‘no other socioeconomic system appears conceivable, let alone practically available’, Utopians ‘offer to conceive of such alternative systems’. Science-fiction (SF) literature has been examined at length by critics who proclaim whether or not it falls within this category. Jameson ultimately suggests that it might not, citing SF’s ‘reality principle’ as the primary reason for this: ‘the SF framework electrocutes the Utopian dreamer just as surely as the poisonous cobwebs of [the Strugatsky Brothers’/Tarkovsky’s] Zone fatally infect humans who come into contact with them’, this is the ‘inevitable reconfirmation of SF’s reality principle’. I disagree with Jameson, aligning more closely with Darko Suvin’s principle of ‘cognitive estrangement’, wherein SF is characterized ‘in terms of an essentially epistemological function’, with certain SF texts comprising a ‘category specifically devoted to the imagination of alternative social and economic forms’. Via readings of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, I suggest, following Suvin, that SF’s reality principle, rather than inhibiting the imaginative creation of alternative socio-political realities, is actually the mechanism that allows for such an act; the reality principle allows ‘the desire called utopia’ to surface in what initially appear to be dystopic SF texts. These texts harness the power of the uncanny to locate the impossible within the everyday, and thus imagine alternative worlds which can be located within, and created from, the world we inhabit now; ‘in the case of the Utopian texts, the most reliable political test lies not in any judgment on the individual work in question so much as in its capacity to generate new ones’.

Doctor Moreau not only satisfies Suvin’s claim that ‘an island in the far-off ocean is the paradigm of the aesthetically most satisfying goal of the SF voyage’, but importantly aligns with his belief that ‘monsters, or simply differing strangers – are a mirror to man just as the differing country is a mirror for his world’. He goes on to suggest that ‘the mirror is not only a reflecting one, it is also a transforming one’, ‘the mirror is a crucible’. I argue that Wells’ ‘aesthetic form of hesitations, imitations, and glimpse of an ambiguously disquieting strangeness’ is deployed specifically to induce an uncanny effect. This effect is palpable when Wells’ protagonist first comes into contact with Moreau’s beasts: Prendick becomes ‘so nervous’ that he ‘controlled an impulse to headlong flight with the utmost difficulty’. However, what frightens him is not any explicit physical threat, but his inability to identify the uncanny sight as human or non-human: ‘What on earth was he – man or animal? […] I was anxious not to show the fear that seemed chilling my backbone’. This is obversely echoed in the Beast people’s attempts to identify with Prendick:

‘Was he not made?’ said the Ape Man. ‘He said- he said he was made.’

The Satyr Man looked curiously at me. ‘The Third with the whip, he that walks into the sea, has a thin white face.’

‘He has a long thin whip,’ said Montgomery.

‘Yesterday he bled and wept,’ said the Satyr. ‘You never bleed nor weep. The Master does not bleed nor weep.’

[…]

‘He says nothing,’ said the Satyr. ‘Men have voices.’

‘Yesterday he asked me of things to eat,’ said the Ape Man. ‘He did not know.’

In their failed attempts to identify Prendick with either themselves or the Master – ‘You never bleed or weep’, ‘The Master does not bleed nor weep’ – it becomes evident that Prendick’s symptoms of ‘nausea and uncanniness […] draw him into a relation with the beast people’, ‘the beast people are uncanny because they remind Prendick of himself’. Thus, Suvin is right to characterise Moreau ‘not only a latter day Dr. Frankenstein, but also a demonically inverted God of Genesis’, where ‘his surgically humanized Beast Folk are a counterpart of ourselves’.

Suvin’s later comment adds a dimension to this uncanny effect that will become conceptually central to my remaining analysis: ‘Doctor Moreau turns the imperial order of Kipling’s Jungle Book into a degenerative slaughterhouse’. By comparing these tales, Suvin acknowledges that inside every uncanny dystopic SF exists the echoes of failed or possible utopias. SF, Suvin continues, engenders ‘the verbal mode appropriate to an “as if” stance in the subjunctive’, and ‘starts by saying “what if?”’; What if there was no imperial order in the Jungle Book? What if a scientific establishment that supported vivisection was taken to its unscrutinised conclusion? These are the questions upon which Wells’ worlds are born and built. In light of this, Wellsian SF can be understood as an ‘exploratory organ based on the “lateral possibilities” of history making’; ‘just as utopia, SF is a “serious game”’ that ‘plays with realities’, that ‘teaches us to understand’ and ‘modify our empirical reality’. As such, Wellsian SF places emphasis on the fact that ‘people’s destiny is not […] outside of them, but is incarnated in manmade, changeable institutions’; by asking ‘what if?’ on the reader’s behalf, Wells helps to acknowledge that hegemonic ideologies and systems are ‘manmade’ and ‘changeable’, which is the first step towards bursting the bubble.

In his book Semi-Detached, John Plotz also highlights Wells’ uncanny effect, noting how his technique hinges upon a set of tropes that revolve around ‘partially present characters or related kinds of odd doubling’. He is similarly aware of the work’s world-building capability, complementing Wells’ ability to ‘conjure up worlds of n-plus-one (or n-minus one) dimensions’ that, via protagonists who have ‘departed from his ordinary world without quite managing to leave it behind’, are ‘transmitted’ to the reader’. However, bringing Plotz into this piece alongside Suvin for the sake of agreement would serve no useful critical purpose; I introduce Plotz because his analysis brings with it an important piece of vocabulary around which my analysis of Neuromancer will be centred, and will differ it from the above analysis of Wells. Plotz suggests that ‘Wells wants his readers to be haunted by the possibility that’ the worlds he creates ‘are right here with us’, ‘unfolding behind every door’. It is this ‘haunting’ aspect, and specifically the temporal dimension of a haunt, that I hope to explore. However, before a full exegesis on this point, it is important to acknowledge the criticism that Neuromancer has most often provoked and, therefore, the kinds I write against; in doing so, I hope to propose a strategy for pushing at the overdeveloped world’s ideological bubble, and elicit an uncanny encounter with the once-organic earth.

Gibson’s novel is often interpreted as the fictionalised urtext of accelerationism as first described in Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, wherein the pair argued that ‘capitalism was unique for unleashing the forces of deterritorialization and decoding that other social forms tried to constrain and code’, but that ‘this release was always provisional on a reterritorialization that dragged desire back into the family and the Oedipal matrix, recoding what it had decoded.’ As such, they believed the only way out of capitalism was ‘not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to “accelerate the process”, as Nietzsche puts it’. I broadly align with this theory, and believe Neuromancer can be interpreted as sincerely embodying this anti-capitalistic idea. However, many critics have not been so kind. Jameson argues that ‘there are no great utopian texts after the widespread introduction of computers’, ‘instead we have the freemarket deliria of cyberpunk, which assumes that capitalism is itself a kind of utopia of difference and variety.’ Similarly, Benjamin Noys agrees that ‘the difficulty at [Neuromancer’s] heart, is that cyberpunk phuturism gives over to capital a monopoly on our imagination of the future’. Veronica Hollinger rallies in support, honing her critical energies on the novel’s ending – ‘the unprecedented coming-to-consciousness of the cyberspatial “deus ex machina”, the Wintermute AI’ – and the way in which the novel, after ‘introducing the possibility of profound change into its fictional world’, supposedly ‘breaks off’ as if unable to envisage what comes next’, as evidence of a ‘complex’ but ultimately ‘apocalyptic’ attitude in Gibson’.

I believe that what imbues accelerationist works like Neuromancer with a redemptive, utopian, and world-changing quality, is their temporality. Despite taking issue with Neuromancer, Noys’ suggestion that ‘Gibson’s novel tracks a capitalist utopia in dystopian formations’ speaks to Suvin’s argument that inside every dystopia is the kernel of possible utopias. However, by accelerating the hegemonic ideology forwards in time, Nueormancer adds the further possibility of uncanny confrontation with alternative words and systems that could have been, or yet could be. The concept of the haunt is not originally Plotzs’; Jacques Derrida coined the term ‘hauntology’ in his 1993 book Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Much like his earlier concept of différance, hauntology refers ‘to the way in which nothing enjoys a purely positive existence. Everything that exists is possible only on the basis of a whole series of absences, which precede and surround it’. As such, ‘it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept’ because the haunt, the spectre, ‘has no being in itself but marks a relation to what is no longer or not yet’, and simultaneously ‘constitutes a refusal to give up on the desire for the future.’ If haunting ‘is about refusing to give up the ghost or […] the refusal of the ghost to give up on us’, then I argue that reading Neuromancer as a text haunted by echoes of alternative worlds that are ‘no longer’ or ‘not yet’, these worlds can be located within the apparently hypercapitalistic world that the novel presents; ‘the spectre will not allow us to settle for the mediocre satisfactions one can glean in a world governed by capitalist realism’.

One such alternative past or future that haunts Neuromancer is that in which the once-organic world has not been transformed beyond recognition into inorganic logistical chains, and these worlds come to haunt the novel via the same uncanny effect that Well’s deployed decades earlier. From its opening sentence, Neuromancer depicts an ecology invaded by technology: ‘the sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel’. Technology, the inorganic, has become the referent for the once-organic world, not the other way around. Any mention of the once-organic world is placed in relief by its now technological origins: ‘They had breakfast on the roof of the hotel’ studded with an ‘unnatural number of trees’, ‘the trees were small, gnarled, impossibly old, the result of genetic engineering and chemical manipulation’, and ‘between the trees […] bright umbrellas shaded the hotel’s guests from the unfaltering radiance of the LadoAcheson sun.’ The so-called natural world has been totally erased. However, I believe the presence, or lack thereof, of the organic in Neuromancer is also a haunted one; Gibson himself described a Wellsian strangeness when writing the novel, saying to Larry McCaffery that ‘you know you’re in a very strange place, but you’re also aware this weirdness is just your world’.

This sense of the uncanny is reflected throughout the novel, including haunted interactions with the natural world. The ubiquity of the inorganic stains any notion of the natural to the point that the failure to keep pace with technological developments seems unnatural: ‘The bartender’s smile widened’, ‘his ugliness was the stuff of legend’, ‘in an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it’. Yet, simultaneously, the preservation of ‘stuff of legend’ inspires a disturbing feeling of the uncanny, as can be seen in Finn and Case’s discovery of a horse:

‘Hey, Christ,’ the Finn said, taking Case’s arm, ‘looka that.’ He pointed. ‘It’s a horse, man. You ever see a horse?’ Case glanced at the embalmed animal and shook his head. […]

‘Saw one in Maryland once,’ the Finn said, ‘and that was a good three years after the pandemic. There’s Arabs still trying to code ‘em up from the DNA, but they always croak.’

Jade Hagan notes that the awe and disgust with which they gawk at the animal reveals an uncanny alienation from but, simultaneously, familiarity with the natural world, ‘as if this symbol of nature represented a return of the repressed’. It is a haunted experience because, though ‘they appear intrigued by’ what they finally deem an ‘obsolescent form’, they ultimately know that ‘they share origins with this animal’. Thus, in Neuromancer ‘nature is irreducibly alien – but it is also right here’; the organic is nowhere, but simultaneously everywhere.

Moreover, and most importantly, these uncanny collisions with the natural world point towards the spectre of times and worlds that were, could have been, or are not yet. In that short passage alone Gibson’s contemporary reader is simultaneously pointed to their own world, in which the horse has not yet become entirely obsolescent, the world of the novel in which it evidently has, but, most importantly, the several worlds and timelines that could have occurred in between, and could yet occur. I return to Suvin’s formulation; these encounters force readers to ask ‘what if?’: What is ‘the pandemic’? What if it had not occurred? Would this save the horse from obsolescence? What if the ‘Arabs’ could ‘code ‘em up from the DNA’ and the organic was reintroduced to Neuromancer’s world? Contrastingly, what if it disappeared entirely? What if this could be avoided? What if it was the fault of capitalism, pushed to its absolute pervasive limit, that was responsible for these erasures?

The so-called organic Earth, its organic creatures and landscapes, and the climate crisis itself may be given minimal explicit emphasis in their own right, appearing most often in relief to technology and logistical chains. However, by building a futuristic but haunted world in which late-capital is pushed to its overdeveloped limit, and every direct interaction with the organic functions as a catalyst for the uncanny, Gibson, just as Wells before him and as theorised by Suvin, invites his reader to do two things. First, to seriously contemplate the infinite number of alternative worlds that could have been or could yet be in the space between the reader’s world and the novel’s world. Second, Gibson forces his reader to recognise that both these worlds are built of human creation, ‘incarnated in manmade, changeable institutions’, and, therefore, to ask that crucial question: what if we were to reconfigure these institutions so that the organic world could be rescued from the edge of extinction? What if, in the process, a system other than capitalism was born? Thus, Gibson’s ecologies are haunted ecologies.

Primary

Gibson, William, Neuromancer, (London: Hachette UK, 2016)

Wells, H. G., ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’, The Island of Doctor Moreau and Other Stories, (London: Wordsworth Editions, 2017)

Secondary

Bratton, Benjamin H., The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, (London / Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015)

Chakrabarty, Dipesh, ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, Critical Inquiry, 35.2, (Winter 2009), 197-222

Deleuze, Giles, and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983)

Derrida, Jacques, Spectres of Marx, (London: Routledge Classics, 2006)

Fisher, Mark, Capitalist Realism, (London: Zero Books, 2009)

  • Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures, (London: Zero Books, 2014)

Grosz, E. A., Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008)

Hagan, Jade, ‘The Dark Ecology of William Gibson’s Neuromancer: Technology, Object-Oriented Ontology, and the Dawning of Entanglement’, (Tulane University, 2013), <scholar.colorado.edu>

Hägglund, Martin, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008)

Hollinger, Veronica, ‘Stories About the Future: From Patterns of Expectation to Pattern Recognition’, Science Fiction Studies, 33.3, (2006), pp. 452-472

Hurley, Kelly, The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siecle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Jameson, Frederic, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, (London: Verso, 2005)

  • ‘In Soviet Arcadia’, New Left Review, 75, (2012), 119-127

McCaffery, Larry, and William Gibson, ‘An Interview with William Gibson’, Mississippi Review, 16.2, (1988), 217-236

Noys, Benjamin, Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism, (London: Zero Books, 2014)

Plotz, John, Semi Detached: The Aesthetics of Virtual Experience Since Dickens, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018)

Suvin, Darko, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1979)

  • Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction, (London: Macmillan Press, 1988)

Uexküll, Jakob von, A Foray into The Worlds of Animals and Humans: With a Theory of Meaning, trans. Joseph D. O’Neil, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)

Wark, McKenzie, Capital Is Dead, Is This Something Worse?, (London: Verso, 2019)

  •  ‘Capital is Dead, McKenzie Wark in Conversation with Verso Books’, last accessed 12 May 2020, <youtube.com>
  • A Hacker Manifesto, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004)

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