Splice: not entirely scientific socialism

30May10

What follows is the review of some film trailers, a peicing together of a picture from them. This might seem odd unless one bears in mind the lesson of Schlegel quoted beneath this blog’s header: the fragment is complete in itself. Here then is an exploration of some fragments of a film, itself a fragment of cinema. The film in question is the new sf-horror set for release later this year: Splice. The tagline of this film: science’s newest miracle is a mistake.

The trailer for this new sf-horror film seems loaded with all kinds of current anxieties about science’s dark side, genetic manipulation in particular, and is very timely as it comes to theatre’s in the same year, just a month or so apart, from the creation of the first “artificial” life form.

Yet what is most striking about this trailer is the almost Oedipal positioning of the characters in relation to their creation. Sarah Polley’s female scientist, in her desperation stepping outside the ethical and legal constraints placed on genetic engineering, is seen to offer out her hand to a potentially (as the end of the trailer explicitly suggests) violent creature. Adrian Brody, holding Polley after the creature attacks as she lays in a position similar to that of a woman immediately post labour, utters that the thing they have created is “a mistake”.

A creature is made by a man and a woman. Prolley extends a hand to the monstrous infant, sure in the knowledge assured by her maternal instinct that the creature won’t harm her. Brody meanwhile regard’s their offspring as a mistake. Of course this is probably explicitly meant as in the sense of Frankstein’s monster; what they have created is an aberration, something that should not exist, which upsets the order of the world, a monster. Yet it is also clearly a statement of an unwilling or duped father who, faced with the responsibilities of having a child, displays his resentment by claiming the child a mistake.

So, although the film is wrapped up in anxieties about the possible horrors of the misapplication of genetic engineering it actually appears to be a fairly banal family melodrama. Yet that cannot be, after all the child is a mutant in form, it is of another order-its DNA being “not entirely” human. What then? Post-human?

This second trailer repeats some of the themes that bludgeon us in the foreground (“boundaries are being crossed”…”we’ve crossed a line”) but it also presents another element to the scenario that alters the familial background, shifting it away from mere melodrama or from a simple techno-parable of intergenerational conflict or Oedipal unease.

Significantly the maternal figure is not simply desperate to produce her offspring, she is not merely some caricature of a fixated would-be mother seeking IVF or, what is in the film, a more radical answer to this most apparently natural of womanly urges. First, this trailer makes it explicit that the scene is all important; the action, the production of the offspring, occurs in a laboratory and it is anyone of the anonymous laboratories all across the world. This is also not simply a question of science pushing too far and transgressing too many boundaries. It is significant that it is the maternal figure who is pushing these boundaries rather than some typical Hollywood figure of the gung-ho and very male renegade scientist. The woman in the laboratory is not simply a figure of science’s transgression but is more importantly an iteration of Antigone. This may seem like an odd claim insofar as Antigone is read by Lacan to be a figure of ethical action whereas our consensus is that this kind of biotech is far from ethical. Here the ‘mistake’ would be the idea of the moral aberration immanent to the creature’s status of existence as an aberration of science.

This would be so if we remained confined to the story of science’s dark transgression but we have already said that this is not what is really going on here. Instead, we find a woman who exemplifies the ide, so often quoted from Zizek and which I will quote once more, that ‘the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one’s desire’. If Antigone is excluded from the Athenian community for her commitment to her desire then so to will be this rogue female scientist.

The point is emphasised in this second trailer where Polley’s character responds to another character who has referred to her creation as ‘it’; don’t call her that, she insists. The maternal figure defends her child against reductions of her to the status of an ‘it’…what, given the complication of the term by object-oriented philosophy, I am hesitant to call her objectification. Here we find an Antigone figure defending her creation, which is really her daughter, from the accusation’s that she is not entirely human. It is no coincidence that the child is also female. Mother and daughter aligned against the legal and so-called ethical community as well as against Brody’s father who considers his female and not-quite-human daughter to be a mistake. We are far from the initial Oedipal picture or any intergenerational tension. It seems to me that Splice appears to be a kind of feminist parable.

Yet can we really neglect the science aspect? No. Too much emphasis is made on it. It is impossible to not have noticed the incredibly prop from which the daughter comes gushing forth; the synthetic womb. This is important because our maternal figure who is really a figure of ethical action is not the cliched woman following her natural urges. She does not get impregnated by her man and give birth out of some natural instinct. This is a question of desire rather than biological determinism; anatomy is not destiny, especially when one can deploy technology to incubate and birth on one’s behalf. And this tends to confirm my suspicion that there is a feminism going on here. This synthetic womb signals what Shulamith Firestone, in her Dialectic of Sex, calls

the total emancipation of women (and men) from the shackles of biology via advances in contraceptive, reproductive technology and alternative models of work and social organization

Firestone may go overboard in her statement of cynernetic-feminism entailing a complete transcendence of biology and she may be fall far too hard onto the fetishisation of science but she is also working to reject the idea that woman is somehow all nature where men are all technology, just as much as she is dismissing the hysterical reaction to science as inherently an evil transgressive force. I do not subscribe to Firestone’s faith in progress and I think that it is incorrect to emphasise either the positive or negative pole in the dialectic of technology as if the question were not more complex than that.

However, I completely embrace the shape of her project and its denaturing of woman thought of as only and always a thing of nature that is set apart. Here we get at a feminist idea of humanity as homo faber BUT not as some utilitarian or technocrat would conceive of it. And while we’re at it, lets be clear, that no one is suggesting that women would ever have to renounce a desire to give birth in the so-called natural manner. In fact, each is as natural as the other; isn’t that one of the lessons of cybernetic theory? Firesmith is profoundly interested in what political avenues are opened up by new technologies, rather than denying them out of hand because ‘technology’ is evil or because it is unnatural. In overturning sex-class one also has to overturn the nature-culture distinction.

The fashionable ideology that “artificial” lacks the inherent goodness of “natural” is an appealing, but hopelessly simplistic notion of the intellectually chic. Artifice is the result of a deliberate intent to make. Nature also “makes” things, using a set of basic building blocks common throughout the universe. Exchanging infinite time for deliberate design, nature has ingeniously built plants, planets, galaxies and unimaginable constructs which seem to structure the universe itself. What we call “natural” is simply the result of whatever set of rules nature has followed in fashioning our observable reality. On planet Earth, nature has manipulated the common elements to fashion everything from bacteria to the molten core of the planet. Discoveries in the “nano” technologies of bio, molecular, and micro engineering will re-edit the nomenclature of “natural” versus “unnatural”, blurring if not erasing the line of distinction between “machine” and “organism”, “natural” and “unnatural”, “God-given” and “man-made”

-Syd Mead

A “cybernetic communism” seems entirely compatible with recent trends in ontology and with an anarchic kind of feminism.
And with this in mind we must also take into account another point hammered at us in the second trailer: the return of the New. We hear a female (and not a male) newscaster, probably remarking on the public discovery of the daughter figure of the film, stating that she is ‘something completely unique in this world’. First, she is unique. She is the introduction of something entirely different. Secondly, this difference is unique in regards to this world. The existence of our biotech daughter fundamentally upsets the order of the world. In more Badiouian words we might say that she drills a hole in our encyclopaedic knowledge of our situation. More simply, she is the introduction of genuine novelty.

Towards the end of the second trailer we hear a male voice stating that she is an imminent threat, the atrocity that science has been waiting to unleash on us all, a ‘new species’. At the same time her newness is also the making obsolete of what preceded her (again, in creating her our Antigone figure gives herself up unto death for the sake of her desire). In the scientific picture she is what Virilio might call the integral accident of biotechnology. Viewed from the feminist trajectory I have been tracing the threat of her newness is less a result of her point of origin but what this origin means. Her very existence is traumatic. It ruptures, denatures and makes the order as it is unsustainable. It presents a new species to this world: another form-of-life. She is revolution. Thus it is that Polly’s desire, for which she sacrifices herself, is the desire for revolution. When Brody remarks that their daughter is a ‘mistake’ he is taking up the reactionary line that would solidify into counter-revolution.

I will definitely be watching Splice. If nothing else, it looks like it’ll be good fun. It may turn out that the daughter figure (who I’ve just discovered is called Dren) may turn out to be nothing of the kind that I have described. But there again, I’m working with fragments that are complete unto themselves.

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