25. Nov 2019
Germán Sierra: METAPLASTICITY / ŠUM#12
Does the imago remember what it is like to be a larva? Does a serial shape-shifter—like John Carpenter’s The Thing, if it ever had an “original form”—keep memory traces from every of its uncountable previous bodies? Both science and common knowledge suggest that even if “subjective experience” or “personality” may be lost after massive morphological change, any singular or collective shape-shifting bio-technical entity must retain some baseline information through metamorphoses: some resilient traces of phyletic—genetic, anatomophysiological, or social—memory which, although inoperative or not fully accessible in every developmental stage, allow it to be identified as a member of a particular taxon while a certain degree of “individuality’—contingency’s footprint—is maintained. In the case of invertebrates, the flow of information is easily conceptualized as an endocrine cycle repeating itself during the lifetime of each specimen, inscribed on its DNA sequence, linked to reproduction, and expressed through a programmed series of gene network activation/inactivation rounds running across space/time.
Changes in life appear to be slow and convoluted. Linear, accelerated flight-lines are as rare as the corroboration of raw chaos, and they struck us with their awesomeness. We are tempted to consider that in Carpenter’s movie we may be witnessing a too short period of a hypothetical cycle of the alien—a parasitic phase that might develop into something even stranger, even more unhuman—but we could also consider that there’s no cycle at all; that The Thing has never actually undergone a “proper” metamorphosis into something other, and so it will continue forever: not as a parasite-in-progress (neither following the parasite/host logic—reproduced in the narratives of demonic possession—in which the host is infected yet not erased nor as part of a species replacement plan like the plant invasion portrayed in Body Snatchers films), but as a never-changing predator successively masking itself. Accordingly, its natural form would be the throbbing amorphous mass appearing between transformations: the “collapsing of multiple and incompatible morphic possibilities into one amorphous embodiment”.
The Thing can become anything not because it lacks form, but because it’s such a resolutely powerful form that its “cosmic uniqueness” preserves itself through the most radical changes. For Dylan Trigg, “the abject creature in the film is an expression of the origin of life itself: The body can be seen as being constituted not only in structural terms by an alien subjectivity, but in thematic terms by an anonymous teleology, the implication being that the origin of the universe is both constitutive of humanity and also against humanity.”
As a purposeless, out-of-control self-replaying-into-other technology, The Thing is frequently interpreted as a political metaphor for capitalism and the Anthropocene. Daniel Rourke, for instance, points out that “the world-in-itself has already been subsumed by The Thingly horror that is the human species. For even the coming world-without-us, a planet made barren and utterly replaced by The Thingly junk of human civilisation, will have written within its geological record a mark of human activity that goes back well before the human species had considered itself as a Thing ‘in’ any world at all.” Along the same lines of thought, Mark Fisher explains that both The Thing and capitalism “are monstrous, infinitely plastic entities, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which they come into contact”.
The Thing can change beyond the imaginable because it doesn’t need to imagine anything—it’s pure performance and contingence (is it a singular being, a swarm, or both?). It adopts any living being in its entirety, even the cognitive peculiarities associated with a specific individual: “The Thing copies cell by cell in a process so perfect, that the resultant simulacrum speaks, acts, and even thinks like the original.” There’s no better argument for reductive materialism than being puppeted by an alien: “Does The Thing ‘produce’ something other than human life or ‘reproduce’ human life in its entirety, and what, if anything, would be the difference?” asks Daniel Rourke. The Thing never transforms into something, but out of itself. “Lacking a substance of its own, much less a discernible appearance, the thing doesn’t simply duplicate other life forms, but actively negates them as it begins the process of assimilation.” It has no preference for humans—it is we, humans, who fear, expect, and somehow want to be chosen by it.
Alternatively, however, we could also consider that the protoplasmic amorphousness appearing between formal appropriations might not be The Thing’s “proper shape”, but a transient state of the flesh (a sudden flesh-flash) that occurs during the re-shaping process from one form to another—the spectacle of a formal metabolism assembled around “the movement of outer stimulation versus the movement of inner surrender”. “This is the body,” Trigg explains, “as we find it in its ugly emergence, caught between states, as an internal corporeality where language lacks the means to organise materiality into a whole.” If it is so, The Thing wouldn’t have its own form—maybe an original, ancient shape that was lost after its initial transformation, or maybe there never was an original and its existence began with the same possibility of historically-unbound, meaningless, unforeseeable change. In this case, we couldn’t think about The Thing simply as a hyperplastic being, but rather as an example of serial metaplastic (dis)embodiments. Metaplasticity preys on plasticity, which is why The Thing, as it is essentially not shapeless or amorphous, but morphointensive, seems only able to transform itself into plastic living beings “with spectacular mimicry powers”. In fact, we know that it can replicate other beings, but we never find out whether The Thing has the capacity to replicate itself. Unlike John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? and its previous 1951 adaptation, in which the alien is identified as “an advanced form of plant life”, Carpenter’s version seems to be strictly allozoomorphic, with a definitive preference for mammals. We could think of it as a singular auto-performing artwork; a fully bio-automated entity without a mechanism for self-reproduction, crossing the universe at random, deprived of the possibility of ever being itself.
Living beings transform the environment into themselves to expand and reproduce their forms. The Thing, however, does not perform morphogenesis when it appropriates a given form: it does not transform itself into something, or something into itself, but actually undermines the relevance of form and the benevolent universality of becoming. Brassier states:
To affirm the metaphysical primacy of becoming is to claim that it is impossible for things not to change; impossible for things to stay the same; and ergo to claim that it is necessary for things to keep changing. The flux of ceaseless becoming is thereby conceived as ineluctable and as metaphysically necessary as unchanging stasis. But metaphysical necessity, whether it be that of perpetual flux or of permanent fixity, is precisely what the principle of absolute contingency rules out. The necessity of contingency, Meillassoux maintains, implies an absolute time which can interrupt the flux of becoming with the same arbitrary capriciousness as it can scramble the fixity of being. Absolute time is tantamount to a “hyper-chaos” for which nothing is impossible, unless it be the production of a necessary being.
The Thing’s metaplasticity does not open spaces of possibilities, but closes them into the empty exile of its anarchical trajectivity. It does not explore morphospaces, but capriciously interrupts the flux of becoming and thus blocks the possibility of a morphospace. It fixes a totalitarian plane of consistence by acting as the definitive attractor—or black hole—for any possible or impossible form, opening a portal into a speculative universe where chaos-time and ordered forms coexist folded in quantum simultaneity. Since The Thing exists, all existing and non-existing forms are submitted to it. The Thing works as an un-forming device, imposing a radical openness that creates an abstract fugue-state, a final exit from form that “evades language, reshapes subjectivity, and, finally, establishes itself as that most familiar thing—the body”.
The abstraction of a form is a formula—etymologically, a minor form. In our case, it is an alchemical recipe for contingent transmutation, for abject creation of a body. Clay or mud are not suitable feedstock for flesh. Every flesh-creating machine requires a bloody sacrifice: information is not enough. The humans in the film react to The Thing as they would to a common contagious disease, applying the same principle of geographic quarantine that, for millennia, has seemed adequate to prevent the expansion of plague outbursts. Yet The Thing does not behave as a typical infectious or parasitic agent. It hides into everybody’s nowhere. Perhaps it would be better to see it as an esolang “doing life in a way it has never been done before”,,  trying to re-allocate life “to the sole thing that knows how to use it effectively, to the Shoggoth-summoning regenerative anomalization of fate, to the runaway becoming of such infinite plasticity that nature warps and dissolves before it. To The Thing. To Capitalism.”
What would happen—we might ask—if The Thing managed to escape from the ice desert and infiltrate other regions of the Earth? Could it integrate into the existing ecosystems without completely annihilating them? Our current culture allows a single outcome of eccentric ecosystem disruption: the romanticized, apocalyptic acceleration of extinction. In the classic horror-movie logic, the creature must be eradicated for humanity to survive, while in the new anthropocenic logic, humans must self-eradicate (or, at least, they must eradicate their selves) for life to continue on Earth. We might speculate that a new ecological equilibrium—a metaplastic equilibrium including the thing(s)—might not be impossible; however, it can’t be just another world-for-us imagined/designed to keep plasticity forces under hypothetical human control. Justin Woodman proposes an “accelerative pushing through to a space of—and self-identification with—the monstrous (a Prometheanism which is thus integrative and coalitional rather than subjugative)” in order to reconstruct “subjectivity in a way that presents the possibility of a (political) counter-capitalist identification with other marginalized (and dehumanized) subject positions, and for creating a collective space for imagining difference in the face of capitalist realism’s denial of such”. But in the presence of The Thing, there’s no subjectivity to be reconstructed. Unlike traditional fictions about metamorphosis, where the subject is stripped of the human figure yet never loses humanity (What’s happened to me? is Gregor Samsa’s first thought), or at least never ceases to be human, The Thing, in its perverse non-individuality, excludes any further togetherness. It’s not an other, but a rather. It’s not simply “a being from another planet”, but a machine that turns the Earth into “one planet among other planets, moving the scale of things out from the terrestrial into the cosmological framework”. “A Planet is useless for us,” explains Nyx Land. “A Planet can only be traced by the lines of eclipse that encapsulate us.” Terrified, or fascinated, we realize that there will be no mnemonic exuvia left around: we’ll be neither remembered nor forgotten.
Plasticity, or the property of an object to change some of its structural and functional features—some seemingly voluble aspects of its internal order—without ceasing to be itself, has become an essential concept in biology and neurosciences during the 20th century, and Catherine Malabou was responsible for popularizing the concept as a philosophical paradigm. According to Anna Street, “Malabou shows us that the ancient models—of writing and the trace in philosophy and of the genetic code in science—are no longer pertinent to thinking the modification or interruption of the system with which we are currently faced”.
“Plasticity,” writes Malabou, “refers to an equilibrium between the receiving and the giving of form.” It rules out strong determinism, but is compatible with a soft kind of determinism which is naturally associated to recent advances in epigenetics and collectively constructed morphologies. Plasticity is understood “as a sort of natural sculpting that forms our identity, an identity modeled by experience and that makes us subjects of a history, a singular, recognizable, identifiable history, with all its events, gaps, and future”. Malabou recognizes its power to produce unforeseeable, catastrophic changes, as it can refer “also to the plasticity of gelignite, of what can at any time explode or threaten to explode, for example, the self-identity of the present”. She also introduces the concept of “destructive plasticity” to explain the process of becoming other when there’s nothing else to turn to: “Destructive plasticity enables the appearance or formation of alterity where the other is absolutely lacking. Plasticity is the form of alterity when no transcendence, flight or escape is left. The only other that exists in this circumstance is being other to the self.” Nevertheless, being other to the self still requires using the self as the original reference. Plasticity, as commonly understood by science and philosophy, is more a way of maintaining a metastable self through adaptative changes than a set of mechanisms for contingent, radical change. The point of The Thing is not that it becomes other to itself, but that it can freely mutate into (a non-subjective) you.
Further speculating on plastic processes, David Roden defines a hyperplastic agent as one that “can make arbitrarily fine changes to any part of its functional or physical structure without compromising either its agency or its capacity for hyperplasticity”. A hyperplastic agent could therefore alter any informational state by physically altering, for instance, the relevant brain structure instead of spending hours on practice, learning or cognitive behavioral therapy. Hyperplasticity could also be one of the speculative features of a hypothetical General Artificial Intelligence, where “relationships between states are assumed to be extremely plastic because each system will have an excellent model of its own hardware and software and the power to modify them. If these relationships are modifiable then any given state could exist in alternative configurations. These states might function like homonyms within or between languages, having very different meanings in different contexts.”
Differences between alternative configurations and formal states might well have very different meanings in different contexts—something that would actually present a technical problem for an instrumental AI, but not for an organism or an artwork. Omohundro worries about “how an AI can ensure that future self-modifications will accomplish its current objectives? For one thing, it has to make those objectives clear to itself,” which seems to be the opposite of The Thing’s performance. “If its objectives are only implicit in the structure of a complex circuit or program, then future modifications are unlikely to preserve them,” unless the only objective is to not be thingself; or rather, unless the actual goal would be to keep thingself amorphous enough to have very different meanings in very different contexts, drawing, in Johannes Göransson’s words, a “transgressive circulation”, which “makes us uncertain, opens us to the weirdness of art”. That is, to an extreme artform where the creature’s only way to communicate is to kill and copy its interlocutor. Rather than a post-semantic singularity—which is to be expected from the actions of a (presumably cybernetic) protean post-human hyperagent—we must confront the eternal return of a pre-semantic multiplicity. The return of a real that never was.
In the prologue of Gary Shipley’s 2017 novel Warewolff!, the narrator states that he began to hear “one thing’s voice, and from that voice a portrait of itself—of itself made up with other things. It was learning to talk by shaping the stories of its victims.” Later on, the radically alien narrator describes the world he encounters: “Just stuff that isn’t me. And I do not feel like stuff. I feel like this endless faceless seeing. I’m a seamless tracking shot without arms or legs. It’s like I’m blind or have locked-in syndrome when I don’t.” David Roden compares Shipley’s work to Hans Bellmer’s anagrammatic dolls, because
both have no axioms or rules beyond the hazards of its dispersal. It is its own entirely misleading portrait. It has no people or worlds, only disjointed clones, plucky carcasses and scripts we mistook as our lives. Yet despite this ontological poverty, we can read Warewolff! Something happens, even if we do not understand what. Its dispersal is the horror of biomorphism: a condition somewhat akin to life that, like Shipley’s alien, “discloses its arrangements” through our language centers. And this is the condition of unbinding: we are spoken by something; we pass into something without even the assurance that our hunger is our own.
The Thing does not just come from another world, but from another time: pre-human time, well before “shared time life regression” became a possibility. It does not speak to us. It’s not speaking us. Our hunger is dismissed. The Thing is a transduction mechanism, a system for translating itself into itself across different language-forms, impelled by an ananthropic rather than inhuman drive. The inhuman or post-human are necessarily defined from human existence; they’re translations from the human into some otherness. Their hyperplasticity is a quantitative increase in plastic force. But The Thing does not actually care about humanity, technology or intelligence. Intelligence becomes completely irrelevant when it freely navigates through living forms, encountering cognition as just another edible formal feature. Purely immanentized “living”, it dismisses thinking because “thinking has interests that do not coincide with those of living; indeed, they can and have been pitted against the latter”. It is what Meillassoux would define as a “contradictory entity”, which
is always-already whatever it is not: /…/ the introduction of a contradictory entity into being would result in the implosion of the very idea of determination—of being such and such, of being this rather than that. Such an entity would be tantamount to a “black hole of differences”, into which all alterity would be irremediably swallowed up, since the being-other of this entity would be obliged, simply by virtue of being other than it, not to be other than it. Accordingly, real contradiction can in no way be identified with the thesis of universal becoming, for in becoming, things must be this, then other than this; they are, then they are not. This does not involve any contradiction, since the entity is never simultaneously this and its opposite, existent and non-existent. A really illogical entity consists rather in the systematic destruction of the minimal conditions for all becoming—it suppresses the dimension of alterity required for the deployment of any process whatsoever, liquidating it in the formless being which must always already be what it is not.
Aesthetic metaplasticity is evil aesthetics: it is the appropriation of any empty anthropological form to hide the inhuman amorphousness, the reformulation of the cogito “less in terms of an I think and more in terms of an It lives”. As Mark Fisher concedes, “it has seemed as if the deterritorializing impulses of capitalism have been confined to finance, leaving culture presided over by the forces of reterritorialization”. Metaplastic works, such as those by Gary Shipley, Kenji Siratori, Jake Reber and Mike Corrao, explore cultural deterritorialization through contingent abstraction. They’re made of entities which are not only hyperplastic—able to transform themselves into anything existent—but metaplastic: able to morph into anything non-existent, or to counter-morph anything existent. They’re full of bodies that, rather than anticipate an age of cyborgs, enhanced humanoids and intelligent machines, “announce the end of being”, full of “objects that announce the end of meaning”, of “elements that whorl each of their parts containing the end of the cosmos”. In those artworks we find “something akin to Time, but a Time that is inconceivable for physics, since it is capable of destroying, without cause or reason, every physical law, just as it is inconceivable for metaphysics, since it is capable of destroying every determinate entity, even a god, even God /…/ It is a Time capable of destroying even becoming itself by bringing forth, perhaps forever, fixity, stasis, and death.”
Germán Sierra is a writer and neuroscientist living in Spain. He has authored six books of fiction in Spanish, and one in English entitled The Artifact, published in 2018 by Inside the Castle.
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 Ibid., p. 129.
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