Matter Poetics, Melange and the Lichenised Posthuman - How Artists and Writers Present Visions of an Interconnected Life Between Man and Non-Human Others in the Age of the Anthropocene.
A microscopic being changing the socioeconomic structure of societies worldwide is forcing us to confront our porosity. Covid-19 permeating and altering the bodies of so many begs the question – have we ever been individuals? Matter Poetics, Melange and the Lichenised Posthuman interrogates the ways in which our entangled existence is presented within science fiction media, using Frank Herbert’s seminal work Dune (1965) and the fictional mind-altering drug Melange to frame a discursive speculation surrounding the holobiotic existence of all Earthlings. Alternative theories surrounding symbiosis, taxonomy, mortality and consciousness expansion are sketched, calling for a reconsideration of what constitutes “the human” in such perilous times for the planet. The text examines literature, film, conceptual art and philosophical meditations. The mycelial practices of Jae Rhim Lee and Jordon Belson, the posthuman ideologies of Drew Milne, Donna Haraway and Lynn Margulis, and Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) are explored; thoughts and arguments, like matter, are scattered amorphously. Covid-19 restructuring the way we live our lives has made many more of us realise the fragility of the human condition. Science fiction is and always has been intertwined with our realities- can such speculations help us escape our dystopian reality by facilitating a re-evaluation of our inextricable connection to the natural world?
(though inessential, a base level knowledge of herbert’s duniverse will help with the understanding of this text)
duniverse – the fictional universe in which herbert’s dune is set
“Nothing is independent, nor autonomous.”
Social distancing and isolation over the past nine months has led to many of us turning inwards, questioning the nature of our perceived reality and the autonomy of our own bodies. An invisible killer infiltrating our lungs and kickstarting the breakdown of seemingly stable structures in societies across the globe sounds like the stuff of a science fiction novel yet is currently the truth we live.
Pre-Covid-19, my fascination with the concept of the self and our largely ignored intrinsic connection to non-human others was always going to be a topic of discussion within my practise. It was only when sat in my garden in the height of lockdown, halfway through Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) that I became fascinated with the fictional drug Melange, and how its use within the novel can open important discussions surrounding the body and mind in the Anthropocene.1
In Green Planets, Canavan queries: “Does science fiction offer a predictive window into a world that is to come, or does it instead merely reflect assumptions, anxieties and cultural preoccupations of its immediate present?” (2014). In this speculative discussion, I seek to explore ways in which writers and artists interrogate the chimerical2 nature of existence on Earth, and the ways in which science fiction has always been ‘science fact’, telling us what we already know, but do not acknowledge. The first half of my discussion is spore-like; thoughts and theories surrounding symbiosis, the individual3 mortality and psychedelics float free-form, moving beyond a rhizomatic (Deleuze, Guattari, 1987) way of thinking, employing a more atomic approach. Due to this discursive style, it is worth noting that footnotes are just as relevant as the body text and are crucial to understanding this work – like the mote, although small, their importance should not be overlooked.
1. The spice Melange is the rarest and most important commodity in Herbert’s Duniverse. An “awareness spectrum narcotic”, it possesses powerful psychotropic abilities. Highly addictive, physical dependence on the substance leads to the eyes of the user staining blue. Prescience is awakened within dormant parts of the human brain, notably within the order of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood and Guild Navigators.
2 Biology: “An organism containing a mixture of genetically different tissues, formed by processes such as fusion of early embryos, grafting, or mutation.”
Mythology: “Any mythical animal formed from parts of various animals.” (Oxford, 2020).
3. It is worth noting that this article, although critiquing the use of taxonomic categories uses them within its structure regardless. At this stage of discussion surrounding symbiosis, we are not yet ready to totally abandon Darwinian taxonomy. The human brain craves categorisation; order. It is how we’ve been taught about the natural world since we were children. Change is always unnerving, even when necessary to progress.
The second half retains a more traditional structure as my spores begin to settle. I use science fiction literature and film to interrogate the porous nature of the body, and anxieties surrounding this amidst the current climate, flowing into speculations on what understanding our symbiotic existence could mean in the age of the Anthropocene. If we are to survive the dystopian realities we find ourselves as characters in, seeking guidance from works of science fiction doesn’t seem so fantastical anymore. As Dune was my inspiration for this work, each section of the discussion starts with a quote, illustrating the ways in which the Duniverse and our lives on Earth intertwine.
The notion of getting closer to nature is ridiculous. We already are nature. What must happen next is the acknowledgement of our pre-existing interconnectivity.
“Whirling silence settled around Jessica. Every fibre of her body accepted the fact that something profound had happened to it. She felt that she was a conscious mote, smaller than any subatomic particle, yet capable of motion and sensing her surrounding.”
Frank Herbert, Dune (1965).
“We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do, in other words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, with the effects of another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join with it in composing a more powerful body.”
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (1987).
In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari name Matter “the abstract machine” (Adkins, 2015); arguing that there is never “one”4 in the non-hierarchical assemblages that make up all that exists on planet Earth. Frank Herbert’s Dune interrogates this concept of the self and body, through the characters’ use of Melange. After being taken in by the Fremen of Arrakis, Lady Jessica, a Bene Gesserit sister, takes part in a “Water of Life” ceremony. Ingesting the Melange bile of a sandworm is lethal to all who are untrained in pranda/bindu (mind/body) control; only those able to successfully metabolise the powerful psychedelic will survive. Survive – and awareness is amplified to the point of unlocking the entire genetic memory. All dormant parts of the brain have awakened; total symbiosis with the spice has created a “Revered Mother”. With the spirit of her ancestors living within her, Jessica is a multispecies composite– a conscious mote, a speck of dust simultaneously human and other. She becomes super-human; bettered by her use of a naturally occurring drug. Herbert uses her transformation to show the power of a life that is interconnected and aware of its Matter: she has become an extension of the perceived self- more than just “one”.
Back on Earth, “ideas of ‘the human’ diversify, self-transform and mutate as rapidly as new technologies” (Thacker, 2003). Questioning “where I end and you begin” has long been debated within scientific communities, with, until recently, individuality being understood as species diverging from one another (Darwin, 1859). Scientists tend to focus on evolution when defining such, often ignoring physiology, developmental biology, immunology, ecology, and the cognitive sciences (Gilbert, Tapp, Tauber, 2012).
4. “One” meaning bodies viewed as singular, closed units.
The term “symbiosis” was coined in 1877, to describe the interspecies collaboration that is a lichen. Made up of a photosynthetic algae, a fungus, and a kind of yeast, the convergence of such symbionts upsets outdated taxonomic categorisation; like Jessica, a lichen is neither this nor that, yet still categorised as its own entity.5
Binary taxonomical categories now seem to be much messier than we once thought. As humans, we have been taught to view existence in this binary manner, and to be fearful of “foreign bodies” entering our own. Drew Milne’s “Lichen Poetics” use the endosymbiont6 as a framework for queering the way we look at life; particularly through the arts- Lichen bears witness to “ecological trauma and extinction anxieties” (Milne, 2019). A few examples of Lichen media subscribing to this framework are:
Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” – parasitic alien species the “Tlic” living alongside and impregnating Terran humans as hosts for their young.
Andrzej Zulawski’s “On the Silver Globe”- famously unfinished science fiction epic, exploring ideas of transcendence of the human form, featuring telepathic birdmen who have mated with human females, creating “Sherns”.
Both works examine the fragility of the human and the terror associated with the loss of our autonomy in imagined futures. Symbiosis is a process to be feared, with mutation leading to the destruction of the self and the downfall of our species. In contrast, Jessica’s unlocking of her genetic memory by symbiotically fusing with Melange enhances the human. Could our acknowledgement that we are more than ourselves lead to transcendence from the current binaries we subscribe to? Whilst the effects of the current pandemic seem overwhelmingly negative, maybe the understanding of our permeability due to a virus commandeering our cells may enhance man in alternative ways: Our bodies may weaken, but re-envisioning what makes a “human” could strengthen us in ways we never expected.
5. Mycobionts (lichen fungi) require carbon as a food source in the form of simple sugars which is provided by a photobiont (algae or cyanobacteria) that are photosynthetic. In turn, the mycobiont constructs the thallus (the body of the lichen), providing stable conditions for symbiosis. This relationship is thought to be mutualistic, as both partners seem to benefit (British Lichen Society, 2020). Have these two organisms joined to compose a “more powerful body” like Jessica? It is yet unknown whether the fungi are “farming” the photobionts for their own gain, thus making the relationship parasitic. Although Covid-19 is viral, not parasitic, the joining of two entities causing the suffering of one and benefiting the other is presently of huge concern to humanity – “We are all lichens” (Gilbert,2012); realising our fragility is leading to the reimagination of what it means to be human in 2020.
6. Also known as “symbiogenesis” – theory that eukaryotic cells evolved by multiple prokaryotes joining together and living symbiotically; an endosymbiont is one organism living inside of another. In the Duniverse, those able to metabolise the Water of Life become endosymbiotic with it- however, all human cells are endosymbionts anyway if we use this theory to explain life on Earth. Herbert uses spice as a framework for helping us to understand the posthuman.
Science Fiction appears to be the most Lichen genre in the media; unsurprising as the theory confronts us with our own impermanence, just as excellent sci-fi can achieve. To be Lichen is to be ecocritial; to understand the astrobiological nature of such organisms allows thinking beyond their own limitations. But is categorising something as Lichen going against the very principal of anti-taxonomy? “Matter Poetics” seems a more appropriate term for moving beyond a lichenised way of thinking, beyond the big physical, more nano-biological.
(ironically, all i am doing is rephrasing, still categorising. where do we go from here?)
(for the purpose of clarity, this text has to use some vocabulary that categorises)
Just as Jessica unlocks life within life within life inside of her, Terran humans, animals, fungi and plants are much the same. There is no “individual organism” within a “species” – life is a “microbial collective posing as sealed vessels.” (Morton, 2011). Metagenomic sequencing (Qin et al. 2010) has shown that each human gut has entered into a persistent partnership with over 150 species of bacteria, and that the human species maintains about 1000 major bacteria groups in our gut micro-biome. 90% of the cells that make up our bodies are not “us” (Marshall Protocol Knowledge Base, 2015). Such biological flora does not exist within us solely for our benefit.
A good example of a bacteria both “good” and “bad” is Staphylococcus aureus. Found on the skin and in the nose of 20-30% of healthy adults, staph bacteria may be helpful by preventing harmful bacteria and viruses from entering the skin by blocking pathways for “intruders”. However, cut your skin or inhale someone else’s staph droplets and risk skin, blood, and internal organ infection (Bush, 2019).
It is disturbing knowing those that live with us and essentially are us can kill us. Covid-19 has only made humanity more aware of our porosity. An organism invisible to the naked eye, entering our bodies unseen has revealed the fragility of seemingly stable structures – the human body and its body politics, the economic and social have all been thrown off kilter in 2020. What we thought we knew is changing; we are coming closer to admitting that we do not have the control over ourselves and the natural world that we presume we do.
every body is a holobiont7
conscious motes live in and on us
Writers and artists discussing ideas surrounding symbiosis and the holobiont are important as they engage their audiences with the shifting attitudes towards the idea of what makes us human and understanding our connection to the natural world. This is imperative in the current climate, where every decision we make will affect the delicate balance Earth presently teeters in. If we are able to see ourselves as more than human, the disaster we are headed towards may change course
7. Assemblage of a host, microbiome, virome and other related organisms that function together as one (term coined in 1991 by Lynn Margulis). Most notable examples include humans, lichens and corals. “The composition and function of microbiomes are critical for most animals and plants” (Richardson, 2017) meaning that technically, a large percentage of the living world is holobiotic.
Spanish collective Quimera Rosa attempt to illustrate this permeable nature of the body in their 2017 performance “May the Chlorophyll Be With/In You”, by carrying out the first intravenous chlorophyll transfusion, altering the DNA of the human participant. Whilst useful enough in alerting us to the truth of our own reality (just as a magical spice in a science fiction novel does the same), the piece seems redundant. If Earth already operates as superorganism, this statement seems purposeless. All eukaryotes are cosmogenic (Coccia, 2015, 12); it’s impossible to separate ourselves from the matter that makes up our planet, our universe. Why inject more when we are already holobionts – we can have plants become a part of us just by eating our dinner. It is exactly this “trans-corporeality” (Alaimo, 2010), the interfacing between bodies that makes debating pansychism and Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology so confusing in relation to my speculation.8
The trend within the arts favouring multispecies collaboration surrounding living in the Anthropocene is countered by the work of visual artist Jae Rhim Lee, who with her Infinity Mushroom Suit asks - what about when we die? Much like the mycorrhizal relationship between plant and fungi9 and the symbioses of lichens, Lee’s proposal marries man with mycelium. The suit proposes the remediation of toxins found in the human body and environment through the use of flesh-eating mushrooms, rethinking our relationship with decay and the environment. The spores within the suit speed decomposition and clean the body of toxins (Anderson, 2015).
When discussing her invention in her TED talk, Lee states that “we are responsible for and victims of our own pollution.” (2011). Not only do we destroy the natural world whilst alive by burning fossil fuels, enabling industrial farming and pouring pesticides into the environment, toxins are released when we are cremated, and our corpses pumped full of formaldehyde. We harm the natural world by trying to preserve our own dead bodies, denying our organic state of decay.
8. Attributing material agency to inorganic matter opens up an ethical and philosophical debate too complex for my short speculation; I suggest undertaking your own research on the theory of pansychism (See Roelofs and Buchanan, 2018, and Lamme, 2018).
Also see Susan Schneider’s discussion on consciousness, selfhood and ethics (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwVKXKlU1GU&t=1312s)
9.Explained ecologically, mycorrhizal fungi living in the roots of plants, supplying them with crucial nutrients and water, are the reason for the plant’s existence in the first place. “Most plants acquire the majority of their nutrients through this 500 million-year-old symbiosis, and mycorrhizal fungi acquire their key limiting nutrient, carbon, from their plant partner.” (Heckman et al., 2001).
Rather than just helping humans to “die green”, the mushroom suit removes anthropocentric thinking, understanding that if all life is intrinsically linked, when “we” die it’s not the end – nature goes on living without us. This nature/culture distinction is critiqued through Lee’s invention. We fail to greet nature as a living being, part of us, instead seeing it as passive, unconscious – “backgrounding” it. Organisms are not seen as objects of knowledge but as processing devices, with the term “nature” only existing as a means of man dominating the vegetal world.
Infinity Mushroom turns this Westernised view of man being separate from our vegetal and fungal companions on its head. With a Gaian (Lovelock, Margulis, 1974) outlook in mind – that is, that Earth is a vast, self-regulating organism, with all living things working together to define its conditions - environmental responsibility remains imperative, even in death. Once we are gone, toxins we have ingested remain. With the increasing worldwide Coronavirus deaths, the thought of our own demise is inescapable in the age of Covid-19. It is what we do next that will determine how we live and die in the Anthropocene – radical reimagination of the self is undoubtedly required.
“Like an abrupt revelation- the curtains whipped away- she realised she had become aware of a psychokinesthetic extension of herself. She was the mote, yet not the mote.”
Frank Herbert, Dune (1965).
“How to write a fairytale:
Include a cross-species contact, which is to say, a sharp point between the flower and the animal.”
Bhanu Kapil- PLANTSEX (2019).
Perhaps the most accessible way of understanding our connection to everything other than our human bodies is through the use of plant medicine.10 There are many obvious ways that we are connected to the natural world that we are taught are acceptable: We burn the fossilised remains of plant and animal life for fuel. We evolved to farm nature for food, eating our non-human companions. We wear clothes made of organic material. These connections have always been just the way life is for modern man, with few questioning the more complex relationships we share with non-human others. I am interested in Herbert’s prediction of an organic psychedelic advancing man’s cognitive development, and the implications this could have if more real people opened up to the idea of our world being one interconnected “mesh” (Morton, 2009) through the use of such drugs provided for us by the Earth.
Naturally occurring psychedelics like psylocibin (fungal) and mescaline (vegetal) unlock neural pathways normally inaccessible in the sober brain, leading users to feel akin with their plant and animal peers, euphoria, and visual distortions (to name just a few effects) (Sheldrake, 2020). Jessica drinking the Water of Life, becoming “the mote, yet not the mote” encapsulates this loss of self and euphoria felt after having ingested plant medicine.11
10. Term derived from indigenous traditions and healing practises that use organic hallucinogens such as psylocibin mushrooms, peyote and ayahuasca. “Medicine” refers to the spiritually healing properties of such plants, as well as the spiritual power they possess.
11. When treated with a high dose of psilocybin, advanced stage cancer patients noted reduced anxiety surrounding their own deaths, having “mystical experiences leading to significant and lasting improvements in quality of life.” (Grob, Danforth, Chopra, 2011). Covid-19 has us more aware of our own mortality then we ever have been. Might we fear this invisible killer less if more of us come to understand our atomic connection with each and every conscious mote around us?
Melange is formed through the fungal excretions of Sandtrout (larval form of the giant sandworms) mixing with water underground to form a pre-spice mass. Then pushed to the surface, the intense heat and air pressure of Arrakis cause the drug to form (Hart, 2008). Psychedelic mushrooms must be growing beneath Arrakis for this process to occur –psilocybin could be what gives Melange its consciousness-elevating powers.
Jordon Belson’s Music of the Spheres (1977) is a fitting audio-visual interpretation of so-called Earthly “ego-deaths”12 and the awakening of Jessica’s ancestral line within her.
A kaleidoscopic trip through space, Belson considers the universe as a vast musical instrument, playing a harmony evoking a sacred celestial experience using synths, bells and marimbas. He cinematically translates the meditative, capturing “psychokinesthetic extensions” of the self dancing and intertwining across the screen. In Ecological Thinking: The Politics of Epistemic Location, Lorraine Code examines this surrender of man to the flow of the universe they assume they have mastered/have dominion over: “knowers are repositioned as self-consciously part of nature, while anthropocentric projects of mastery are suspended by projects of displacing Enlightenment ‘man’ from the centre of the universe” (2006, 32). Entheogens are seen by many as conscious teachers that use the body of the host as a vessel to communicate through, imploring the user to “wake up” and acknowledge the chimerical nature of our existence, dethroning man from the hierarchies we created and placed ourselves atop.
12. “The experience of a compromised sense of self occasioned by psychedelic drugs” (Nour, Evans, Nutt, Carhart-Harris, 2016) – that is, forgetting who you are, that you have a body- dying without actually dying.
We are taught to fear the power of psychedelics. Becoming symbiotic with a psilocybin mushroom seems terrifying and fantastical; the average person is wary of taking such drugs due to their demonisation in the media.13
Dune implores its reader to consider what might happen if we too begin to use more of our brains like the Bene Gesserit sisters do by using Melange. If more people used psychedelics, that would lead to further understanding of our holobiotic existence; the acknowledgement that we are “the sharp point between the flower and animal” could lead to many caring more about their impact on the Earth, thus leading us away from the dystopia we currently live in. For example, if we showed more compassion towards our animal companions, zoonotic diseases like Covid-19, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV would eventually cease to exist14. Multispecies collaboration and the understanding that other beings possess intelligences far greater than we cared to admit until now could be key to surviving a looming mass extinction.
taking mushrooms and “becoming the tree” that you are beneath might well be the melding of two bodies, a sentient fungal other peeling back the layers that encapsulate our perceived reality. but when we begin seeing plants and fungi as being “like us”, we are once again wrongly centring man as the template for what constitutes being “alive”15.
I believe the intelligence of the vegetal world is presently entirely incomprehensible – just as Music of the Spheres sings the universal hum transcending time and space, the beings that are responsible for all conditions on earth vibrate at a frequency we are foolish to imagine we could ever match or understand. Vegetal and fungal symbionts encapsulate what I mean when I say “Matter Poetics”- others possessing “minds” impenetrable to the limited spectrum of human intelligence. Losing a sense of the self when ingesting such drugs may well be these complex organisms guiding us to a closer understanding that humans = humus; when we no longer exist, the earth we become.
13. See Bracco, 2019.
14. Three in four of the world’s emerging infectious diseases now come from animals kept in horrific conditions on factory farms and wildlife markets (Independent, 2020). I agree with a statement given by charity Viva in that “ending the exploitation of animals is one of the single biggest actions humankind can take to prevent itself from future pandemics.” (Viva, 2020).
15. Our arrogance as humans means we use man as a “template”, assuming that if others are conscious, the consciousness they possess is like our own. See Responses in the Living and Non-Living (Bose, 1902), detailing the human-like reactions of plants to external stimuli.
If experiencing ego-death is what it takes for some people to understand our connection to and the importance of nonhuman others, maybe dying in its literal and psychedelic sense is the way we comprehend these links. Obviously being actually dead is not of much use, however knowing that we can face death by eating something readily accessible16 is of paramount importance.
Lee’s mushroom suit makes us face our mortality just like psilocybin, as do Herbert’s tales of Jessica’s transcendence and Belson’s visual interpretation of leaving the body. Being spore-like whilst alive is a nod of respect to those that eat us when we die, open our minds and aid the oxygenation of our atmosphere.
16. In a single cubic inch of soil, there can be more than 8 miles of mycelium cells (Stamets, 2008). The mycelial network facilitates the multidirectional transfer of nutrients between plants worldwide and is almost always underneath our feet wherever we walk. Fungi are in us, on us and around us at all times.
it is interesting to note that a mycorrhizal relationship is the reason for the existence of the spice. in the old testament, isiah notes that
“all flesh is grass” (40:6). if all plants are fungi, and the plants i eat become my flesh, does that mean i am a fungus? (sheldrake, 2020, 147).
does it matter “what i am” if taxonomy becomes obsolete?
“That which makes a man superhuman is terrifying”
Frank Herbert, Dune (1965).
“Where, if what old tradition tells be true,
In former ages men from mushrooms grew.”
Ovid, Metamorphoses (8 AD).
the “mesh” now seems infinite, beyond comprehension. if I am a collection of bacteria, microbes, the lice in my eyelashes and the occasional virus I may pick up then shake off, how much of chimerical “me” is conscious?
acknowledging the post-epicene:
resisting categorisation – “man”, “woman”, “human”, “thing” (milne, 2019)
leads to more understanding of other-than-human sentience, of both organic and inorganic matter.
Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1991) outlines “The Informatics of Domination”, two of which are particularly relevant:
ORGANISM – BIOTIC COMPOUND
BIOLOGY AS CLINICAL PRACTISE – BIOLOGY AS INSCRIPTION
“Biology as inscription” alludes to a more informal practise, loosening the hard defined “species” categorisation, opting for a more poetic, Gaian view of all matter on Earth.
Matter, encompassing the world and ourselves has been “subdivided into manageable ‘bits’ or flattened into a ‘blank slate’ for human inscription” (Alaimo, 2010, 1).
Ideas of what it means to be human are changing in the Anthropocene. The “Anthro” prefix means human, humanoid. If we are no longer human, but “biotic compounds”, this geological age needs swiftly renaming – Haraway already proposed this in a 2016 journal, using the theories of symbiosis by Lovelock and Margulis to inspire a new term to define the now: Chthulucene17
Haraway’s “Cyborg World” of the near future visualises us unafraid of our “joint kinship with animals and machines” (Haraway, 1991). Here, she proposes that a cyborg is not just machine and man combined, but organic matter melded as one too, like the chimeric Tlic and Shern creatures from the work of Butler and Zulawski.
organic cyborg = chimera
This anti-nature-culture distinction is also woven throughout Herbert’s Duniverse through the use of Melange. The chimera is present throughout the novel. The spice produces chimeras/cyborgs “of the brain” through awakening prescience by fusing with the consciousness of whom or whatever ingests it. Anatomically and most explicitly visually, the Guild Navigators are the most notable example. Mutated through mass consumption of spice, Navigators use a specific form of prescience to safely traverse interstellar space. Described as “humanoid fish” (Herbert, 1965), their addiction to Melange has caused their bodies to warp into creatures uncategorisable, leaving them confined to tanks filled with spice gas just to survive, unable to walk or talk properly ever again.
17. “The name Chthulu is likely drawn from the word ‘chthonic’, meaning ‘subterranean’, with its invocations of the underworld. Chthulu is part-octopus, part-man, part-dragon, and his head is tentacled” (Grear, 2017). Haraway argues we are chimeric in our nature, symbionts just like lichens. We will relinquish the Anthropocene when we begin to understand this. The subterranean mycelial network, with its endless interconnections, is a living example of worldly symbiosis.
Binaries within the Duniverse are unlike those historically accepted on Earth; DNA is Subject to change so extreme that what we know as “human” is lost entirely. The notion of human being separate to environment is queered through Herbert’s storytelling. The image of a Guild Navigator causes discomfort; anxiety/fear surrounding loss of what we know ourselves to be. This is the horror of symbiosis: “Losing our identity to form a whole with others, be they human or not human, amounts to giving up our own breathing, and this can lead to a terrible struggle for survival” (Irigary, 2016, 23). Herbert’s Guild Navigators serve as a warning: acknowledge your interconnectivity with the world, but don’t overdo it. If Jessica using Melange to advance cognitively is the positive of symbiosis with a natural substance, the Navigators are the negative – symbiosis to the point of being confined to a floating tank of spice and unable to speak due to addiction warns us of losing what makes us us. Currently, we are all afraid of a virus entering our bodies and making us ill, or worse, killing us. We don’t yet know what happens in the long run after Covid-19 has attacked the body. Could the virus be interconnecting with us in ways that could change our bodies forever?
In the previous section, I paint unbecoming and merging with the natural world as euphoric- a possible way to save us from the mess we have created on Earth. But losing the concept of the self is ultimately terrifying. Each body is the centre of its own reality; when we lose this perceived reality, we cease to exist. “Permanently partial identities” (Haraway, 1991) conjure images of monstrosity, a “human” body fighting for release.
Realising that humans are made of the same matter as others, be that bacteria, fungi, plants or animals, shocks and terrifies, reminding us of our own mortality and insignificance. Just as Lee accomplishes with Infinity Mushroom Suit- we fear what we do not understand; death and being anything other than human are two of those things. Recent cinema explores such ideas- Alex Garland’s 2018 sci-fi horror Annihilation imagines a cyborg future where DNA begins refracting18 after a meteor hits a Floridian lighthouse. Matter becomes entirely malleable within “the Shimmer”, causing those within it to push towards self-destruction. The film is simultaneously disturbing and beautiful in its examination of bodily mutations:
A scene in which a grotesque bear-like creature howls in the final cries of the woman that it mauled to death (WATCH NOW) is not only visually horrifying, but confronts us with our own animal nature, and the fear of merging with and being trapped in a body unlike our own. Part of her became part of the creature destroying her.
18. “The Shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything” explains explorer Josie Radek to her teammates. Genetic code is reflected and distorted across the area being swallowed by the leakage from the lighthouse, causing bizarre crossbreeds, duplicates and distortions of life.
Josie surrenders to the shimmer, wilfully succumbing to its mutations, no longer attempting to resist the refraction of her DNA (WATCH NOW). As plants begin sprouting from her flesh, she gives up her human form, merging forever with the natural world. Like Jessica, she becomes “the mote and not the mote”. Josie’s unbecoming, like Belson’s Music of the Spheres visualises the death of the ego. She faces her own mortality without fear, thus “dying” peacefully, as opposed to her teammates whose last moments are spent in agony. Do we want to suffer and die on a tortured planet? Or, like Josie, will surrendering to the symbiotic planet help us move forward?
The film examines the entropy of the self, its dreamlike void reminiscent of the physical transformations in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 AD), which include animal and fungus to human, human to inanimate object, and gender-bending. The entanglement of species that once seemed the stuff of such myths is finally the topic of legitimate discussion within the eco/biological fields in the West. Ovid, Herbert and Garland’s fables of symbiosis echo Amazonian beliefs of humans inhabiting the bodies of animals and plants, as chronicled in the studies of Eduardo Viveiros De Castro (2004). Recognising ourselves as beyond human allows us to become more aware of Western civilizations causing increasing divides between man and non-human others, with capitalist structures in our day to day lives preventing many from acknowledging our holobiotic reality. Life is precarious; the threat of extinction looming, whether that be due to climate change or a deadly pandemic – both caused by our lack of respect for non-human others is a constant reminder of the impermanence and fragility of all matter.
“We try to copy these patterns [of the universe] in our lives and our society, seeking the rhythms, the dances, the forms that comfort. Yet, it is possible to see peril in the finding of ultimate perfection. It is clear that the ultimate pattern contains its own fixity. In such perfection, all things move toward death.”
Frank Herbert, Dune, (1965).
“The best of all possible news is that, should ‘we’ survive the Anthropocene, it will
not be as ‘humans’"
Benjamin Bratton, Some Trace Effects of the Post-Anthropocene: On Accelerationist Geopolitical Aesthetics (2013).
The spice Melange invites us to question our own mortality and the body being an “architectonic compilation of millions of agencies of chimerical cells” (Sagan, 2013) subject to physiological and psychological change. Melange is metaphorical for the conscious everything, the sliding movement across bodies and nature, its “Matter Poetics” present throughout all of the media discussed thus far. The spice helps us comprehend that bodies are nature. It is now clearer than ever before that we must embrace the nature within us if we are to reverse the damage we have done to the planet; our destruction of Earth is a form of self-harm. Science fiction is becoming not-so-fictitious; with more and more theorists and biologists visualising a future in which we recognise all life as porous - the notion of “being closer to nature” as foolish; no “skin” or “membrane” is a barrier excluding other entities.
These ideas reimagine the techno-utopia (Bina, Inch, Pereira, 2020) some of us visualise when we hear the word “future”, with the notion of “cyborg” being not human and machine, instead replacing it with a general consensus of “oneness” with what we currently view as external matter. The “Butlarian Jihad” of the Duniverse19 predicts artificial intelligence failing us, leading to humanity seeking answers from natural substances instead.
19. Butlarian Jihad - The Great Revolt – “Man may not be replaced” (Herbert, 1965).
After two generations of chaos in the Duniverse, all artificial intelligence, or “thinking machines” were destroyed by humans, with mankind favouring consciousness expansion using the spice Melange over advancing technologically.
The natural world is conscious; we do not yet know if artificial intelligence will ever reach the same level of consciousness. A capitalist nightmare where we are all forced to merge with technology, leading to a dystopia without empathy is an image of the future we are bombarded with in popular science fiction (Neuromancer, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). Understanding what we are before we merge with any kind of microchip is essential in not losing what makes us who we are (Schneider, 2019). However, I believe we have already merged, and are constantly remerging. The bacteria and fungi that compose most of us, our existence as holobionts and chimeras, and our symbiosis with psychedelic teachers is all really happening, and always has been. Maybe attempting to understand who “we” are, and how and why we got here is accepting that we never will.
Worryingly, “Gaian utopia” may not be the positive alternative to the techno kind. This atomised network of bodies now presents the dilemma of “placing the blame” on a singular species for the demise of planet Earth- if we are all one, is the Earth Holobiont responsible for its own perishing? I first thought that “entropology” (Gibbons, 2018) would be an appropriate term to describe this self-destruction- (blend of “entropy” and “anthropology”). But if the future ends up doing away with the “anthro”, things get messy. In any case, the second law of thermodynamics only applies to systems free of external influences- if our bodies are not our own, if “Matter Poetics” applies to all that exists, maybe Earth is not slowly annihilating itself. A chimerical utopia may actually be on the horizon. After all, if we all recognised ourselves as part of something other than the centres of our own universe, wouldn’t we make the effort to save it? InSense of Place and Sense of Planet, Ursula, K. Heise advocates for “eco-cosmopolitism”, this being “an attempt to envision individuals and groups as part of planetary ‘imagined communities’ of both human and non-human kinds.” (2008, 61). Covid-19 threatening humanity has made increasing numbers of people aware of the effects they have on the planet and the connection we share with the other-than-human world. Heine’s brand of cosmopolitism may soon be celebrated by more as we begin trying to undo the mistakes of our past.
Perhaps the hopelessness we feel when discussing our future is due to man’s obsession with progressing as a species rather than appreciating the precarity of our existence. Seeing ourselves as impermanent might be the kind of positive nihilism needed to survive the so-called Anthropocene. Lichens can teach us ways of seeing and being unlike any other creature, due to their abilities as extremophiles –they are able to survive in some of the most extreme environments on Earth, such as “hot arid and semi-arid deserts and the cold polar regions” (Mattick, 1954), with many scientists believing they could survive on Mars after finding “lichen-like” (Dass, 2017, Joseph, 2014) and “fungal-like” (Joseph et al., 2019) structures on its surface from images captured by various Martian missions. (Armstrong, 2019). As our climate changes and conditions on Earth become more and more inhospitable, like lichens, humans yearn to flourish in lands ravaged by desertification, an ice age or the various post-industrial wastelands we will inevitably leave in our wake. The Fremen of the desert planet Arrakis are undoubtedly Lichen, having learned to survive in a world with little to no available water. If lichens can survive on another planet, why can’t we when we’re no longer humans? Eventually we may be left with no choice but to seek renewed existence elsewhere. Seeing ourselves as different physiologies may be the first step in living the sci-fi dream of planetary migration.
All life on Earth is connected to human life because of our functioning as a holobiont. Holding on to an anthropocentric vision of the future is senseless; when we all begin viewing Matter as “the abstract machine”, endless possibilities for our future on the planet, or even elsewhere are unlocked. Colonising another heavenly body is beginning to seem less fictitious. If we are all lichens, maybe we already have.
It comes as no surprise that Herbert’s Duniverse seems to owe its magic to its mycelial inspiration; it is even more exciting realising that such a universe is really not that inconceivable as we move further away from binary systems and begin understanding how radical reimaginations of what constitutes “the human” could positively affect the future of Earth and its Earthlings. Dystopia may be reversable. This year has been difficult for many; the “new normal” needs scrapping. A shift in the collective thinking of humanity has been pending for decades- like Jessica, it is our minds that must expand in order to save us from ourselves.
I have been unsure for a long while about how to categorise myself; I have never felt like a “human” and am overjoyed at the prospect of leaving such imagined binaries behind, however, recognise that an understanding of the world as atomised by all of humanity is a long way off. Many see science fiction as fantastical. I think that is all about to change in 2020. Our time is running out – sci-fi and self-help becoming synonymous could eventually lead to all life on Earth and beyond being understood as “the conscious mote”. What happens to our holobiont next is up to us to write.
the spores of speculation on my subject drift further than my short discussion allows. for further reading on symbiosis and capitalism, see the mushroom at the end of the world (tsing, 2015). for more on the atomised individual, pansychism and the human condition, see spinoza and the politics of renaturalization (sharp, 2011)
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