Abject Materialities: An Ontology of Everything on the Face of the Earth

If a cell gets out it could imitate everything on the face of the Earth…and it’s not gonna stop!!!

On the 5th of October I took part in the ASAP/4 ‘Genres of the Present’ Conference at the Royal College of Art. In collusion with Zara Dinnen, Rob Gallagher and Simon Clark, I delivered a paper on The Thing, as part of a panel on contemporary ‘Figures’. Our idea was to perform the exhaustion of the Zombie as a contemporary trope, and then suggest some alternative figures that might usefully replace it. Our nod to the ‘Figure’ was inspired, in part, by this etymological diversion from Bruno Latour’s book, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods:

To designate the aberration of the coastal Guinea Blacks, and to cover up their own misunderstanding, the Portuguese (very Catholic, explorers, conquerors, and to a certain extent slave traders as well) are thought to have used the adjective feitiço, from feito, the past participle of the Portuguese verb “to do, to make.” As a noun, it means form, figure, configuration, but as an adjective, artificial, fabricated, factitious and finally, enchanted. Right from the start, the word’s etymology refused, like the Blacks, to choose between what is shaped by work and what is artificial; this refusal, this hesitation, induced fascination and brought on spells. (pg. 6)

My paper is a short ‘work-in-progress’, and will eventually make-up a portion of my thesis. It contains elements of words I have splurged here before. The paper is on, or about, The Thing, using the fictional figure as a way to explore possible contradictions inherent in (post)human ontology. This synopsis might clarify/muddy things up further:

Coiled up as DNA or proliferating through digital communication networks, nucleotides and electrical on/off signals figure each other in a coding metaphor with no origin. Tracing the evolution of The Thing over its 70 year history in science-fiction (including John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella and John Carpenter’s 1982 film), this paper explores this figure’s most terrifying, absolute other quality: the inability of its matter to err. The Thing re-constitutes the contemporary information paradigm, leaving us with/as an Earthly nature that was always already posthuman.

You can read the paper here, or download a PDF, print it out, and pin it up at your next horror/sci-fi/philosophy convention.

If you are interested in reading more on The Thing, check out Anne Billson’s blog, listen to Peter Watts award winning short story homage, The Things, or alternatively, wallow in my archives a bit longer