Why I Stayed with the Human

Kaisa Kortekallio

kuva_Kaisa_Kortekallio_2012_for_blog

Image: Kaisa Kortekallio, Lukija (Reader), 2012. 

Recently, I wrapped up a PhD thesis on “mutant narratives” – science fictional narratives that challenge the supremacy and cohesion of human subjects by persuading their readers into taking awkward positions. On the cover of the printed book, I placed a picture of a human-shaped figure, falling or sinking, glued together from pieces of blue and red paper (see the image above). 

In 2012, when I was working on both my Master’s thesis and such bricolage, I called the work Lukija (“Reader”). Back then, I lived with unarticulated feelings about immersion, enchantment, ecstasy – of being made anew by the strange agencies at work in reading. The various images, shades and textures of paper cuttings, along with their material histories in magazine publications, offered a way to work with those feelings and render them visible. During the PhD work, as I delved deeper into science fiction, cognitive narratology, and posthumanist theory, this initial intuition about reading was both affirmed and complicated. 

The figure, however, was and is coherently bound by its human-shaped outline. In a posthumanist work critical of liberal humanist subjects, is this not a little suspicious? Why stick with this figuration? 

Short answer: because I tried something else too, and failed. 

Long answer: even as I conceptualize myself as a multitude, a holobiont involving a variety of species, a spaceship for bacteria, a bricolage of materialcultural bits and pieces, I move as one. I do not seem to be able to shed this operational and experiential unity. I can take leave of it, in sleep, meditation or reading, and temporarily lose all sense of boundary between this body and other things – but whenever this body moves again, it moves as one, and the boundary reappears. The skin may be permeable, but it is still a very real boundary. 

Crucially, a similar dynamic of collage and cohesion took place in writing a PhD thesis. In reading science fictional narratives – Greg Bear, Paolo Bacigalupi, Jeff VanderMeer – I was often temporarily altered by what I read. The emotionally persuasive mutant families of Bear’s Darwin’s Children (2003) had me sobbing at the dream of familial unity; the oppressive heat wave and political tension in Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) struck resonance with the oppressiveness of the dark and rainy winter of 2017; and after reading VanderMeer’s Southern Reach (2014), I found myself emulating and repeating phrases and behavioral patterns that I hadn’t consciously noticed during first, second, or even third readings. Simply put – and this is also the gist of the thesis – these narratives became a significant part of my lived environment, and as that lived environment, they grew into me. Or, in more technical terms: as cognitive artefacts, science fictional narratives participated in the construction of (my) readerly subjectivity. In analysis, I traced this back to both narrative techniques and the experiential and material contexts of reading. The biggest challenge – which I think I failed, in the end – was how to best address such a readerly experience in writing. 

Initially, I wrote chapters of the thesis in variating and intermeshing voices and registers, thoroughly haunted by the voices and registers of the stories and theories! – that I was thinking with. The feedback I received in seminars was immediate and severe: this is not how we do things in academia. You have to develop your own voice. You have to establish authority over the work, and guide the reader through your thinking with a stable, coherent presence. 

And so I did. In the final assessment, my primary reviewer states that the “clear and self-confident voice [of the thesis] makes it a pleasure to read.” Every time I read these words, I cringe. Offering such pleasure makes me restless, hesitant, and at times even desperate: is this really what I am expected to produce, again and again? This repetition of the self-confident voice of the expert? The human-centered voice that in no way challenges the readers habitual sense of communication, the sense of being in touch with a person? 

Any student acquainted with poststructuralist theories knows that any textual person, whether in fiction, in nonfiction, or research, is a construction. However, the same student is encouraged and even required to assemble and congeal textual persons that are plausible to the assumed reader, that ring true. They are encouraged to feel such persons as natural, as expressions of themselves. This is anthropocentric subjectivation at work. 

How would one construct posthumanist textual agencies that ring true? Figurations that manage some kind of plausibility and still acknowledge the messiness and heterogeneity that make up writing bodies and subjects? What kinds of posthumanist voices can there be, now, at this moment in time? 

I do not know. I have no practice in developing such voices. So far, I have only practiced coherence and communication. In more-than-human environments, this practice makes me feel insecure, untruthful, and alone. 

In the thesis, the “clear and self-confident voice” states that “the ethical and practical starting point as well as the ongoing process” of the study is marked by Donna J. Haraway’s (2016) notion of staying with the trouble. On the first page of the book of the same title, Haraway writes of learning to be present “as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.” My thesis takes on the task of staying with the human figure – as it is repeated and reconfigured in certain works of science fiction, and as it constrains and structures both embodied experience and scholarly subjectivity. As I was being shaped in those seminars, such a task seemed proper. After the work was done, the old bricolage figure also seemed proper. 

My best hope for the future is that after all these years, the papery figure is still falling. Maybe the glue slowly erodes, and the pieces come apart a little. Maybe there are cracks and pores for new growths in and out. Maybe there is also room for a present in which such figurations of metamorphosis can be inhabited, not in escapist or romantic mental enclaves but in more-than-human daily lives. 

*** 

On most days, Kaisa Kortekallio, Ph.D., can be found staring and poking at various living things in a garden in Espoo, Finland. Her Ph.D. thesis, Reading Mutant Narratives: The Bodily Experientiality of Contemporary Ecological Science Fiction, is available here.

 ***

References: 

Haraway, Donna J. 2016: Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham & London: Duke University Press.  

The Power of Science Fiction

By Donna McCormack

Speculative and science fiction are filled with monsters. The latter range from delightful though intimidating seapersons from Nalo Hopkinson’s The New Moon’s Arms, in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl and in the amazing collection edited by Nisi Shawl New Suns to more uncertain monstrous manifestations in Hiromi Goto’s Hopeful Monsters, sessing in NK Jemisin’s trilogy and the delightfully sensuous vampiric Gilda from Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories. Many members of the Monster Network are fascinated by monsters and have a long-standing engagement with and passions for SF. So, we decided to do a podcast on it. 

We were due to meet in my kitchen in London prior to giving a keynote at a monster event at Roehampton University. Some couldn’t make the meeting because bodies and schedules get in the way, while others bumped into each unexpectedly and then as we came together in this kitchen we agreed we’d go ahead with the plan to talk about SF. Despite the cosy setting, the house kept interrupting the conversation as the electricity had short-circuited and we were awaiting an electrician, which resulted in the smoke alarm’s constant, slow beep… beep… beep… Sometimes a house wants to have its own say even if we maybe cannot adequately account for its form of communication. 

Ingvil Hellstrand has been working on and enjoying SF for more years than she wants me to reveal! Line Henriksen has been working with creepy pastas – digital SF – in her PhD which she is currently transforming into what is sure to be an amazingly disturbing and exciting monograph. And, me, I have lived and worked with ghosts, the border between the sensible and insensible, for as long as I can remember. I am fascinated by that which comes back to haunt us, especially through viscera. We wanted to talk about what we enjoy, what brings us pleasure, as well as that which disturbs us, makes us question what we assumed we knew as accepted knowledge, and that which helps us learn over and over again. 

If many imagine that SF is about the future, we never got round to talking about the future, mainly because one of the Monster Network members rang the door bell, interrupting our attempt to step into the future, to articulate what the future might mean to and in SF. We made no attempt to resume our discussion, but instead leave that open to listeners or to anyone who may want to enter into dialogue with us in the future on the future. 

We do talk about the past, about the role of the past in SF and questioned this assumption that because something looks more technologically advanced than today’s society that it must therefore be in the future. Indeed, we talked about how these re-imaginings help us rethink the past, rethink how time itself moves, and therefore what the present might be and become. We delved into time, discussing temporality and the issues around linearity and undoing such understandings, without lapsing into a hierarchy of any time. We also grapple with the apocalypse with mentions of what some of us see as exciting X-Men and also more recent reincarnations of the apocalypse, such as Rebecca Roanhorse’s duology (or will she publish a third one!?), which reinforces questions we might want to ask about whose apocalypse, which histories and who will survive what. 

Most of all, we discussed a broad range of texts, a field of research, that could be defined as SF because we all are in many ways immersed in the genre as it grows, changes and as older texts emerge as central to our thinking forcing us to rethink our canons.  

The Monster Network has been and continues to work on how to reimagine methods of analysing texts, including the textual of our existing worlds, and SF is one way in which we enjoy and critically engage such thinking. We hope you’ll enjoy the podcast! 

 

 

Monster Talks 6: The Power of Speculative Fiction

cropped-monster_talks-podkast-art-final_01.jpg

The monstrous and the wondrous often co-exist in speculative fiction and science fiction  – related genres and storytelling practices that allow for imagining otherwise. Working with the speculative, then, raises questions of what and how to imagine, and how things can be told, and from which location or position. What happens if stories are told from a non-human perspective, or from a different timeline? What kinds of monsters are invoked, and what is their significance? Whose world is at stake in the apocalypse? How might speculative and science fiction differ as the mainstream is increasingly challenged and exciting writing emerges from Black, Indigenous and people of colour authors? In this podcast we discuss the power of speculative and science fiction, and what it offers to our thinking. In conversation: Dr Donna McCormack (University of Surrey), Dr Line Henriksen (IT University of Copenhagen), Dr Ingvil Hellstrand (University of Stavanger) and the Unruly Fire Alarm, all members of the Monster Network.

Monster Talks is a podcast series that explores the figure of the monster and the concept of the monstrous as important thinking tools for addressing dynamics of power, inclusion and exclusion, discrimination and violence. The podcast is made possible by the support of Nordic Culture Point and produced by The Monster Network in collaboration with Network for Gender Studies at UiS. All episodes are available from the podcast’s website at UiS.

Artwork by Joanne Teresa Taylor, NettOp, University of Stavanger.

 

 

Part 2. Digital magic: A Conversation on The Cyber Spellbook

By Cancan Wang and Line Henriksen

About a year ago at a casual lunch, we started talking about magic. We were both fascinated by the dissemination of ‘magical memes’ that spread curses and luck on the internet, and wondered why these digital spells flourish, and what they might indicate about the role of magic in a digital context. Recently we came across The Cyber Spellbook: MagicK in the Virtual World (2002) by Patricia Telesco and Sirona Knight. Sitting separately in front of our computers during the Danish Corona virus quarantine, we thought this might be a good time to talk about – and write a short text on – magic. After all, one might need a spell for good luck (preferably a digital one to maintain social distancing) in the time of a global disease outbreak. This text is an excerpt from our online conversation  – mediated by Zoom – around the text on the cover of The Cyber Spellbook, as well as its Amazon reviews. This digitally mediated conversation ended up touching on issues such as spellcasting, conjuring, and temporality in a digital sphere. In case you’re looking for more in-depth engagements with the topic of magic and technology, see the works of e.g. Briana Pegado, Nazila Kivi and Simone Natale + Diana Pasulka.

This is part 2 of 1. Find the first post here.

ACT II

Image 3
Figure 3. A screenshot of the reviews of the book

Wang: Should we try the seven exciting customer reviews?

Henriksen: Let’s do it! Continue reading “Part 2. Digital magic: A Conversation on The Cyber Spellbook”

Part 1: Digital Magic. A Conversation on The Cyber Spellbook.

By Cancan Wang and Line Henriksen

About a year ago at a casual lunch, we started talking about magic. We were both fascinated by the dissemination of ‘magical memes’ that spread curses and luck on the internet, and wondered why these digital spells flourish, and what they might indicate about the role of magic in a digital context. Recently we came across The Cyber Spellbook: MagicK in the Virtual World (2002) by Patricia Telesco and Sirona Knight. Sitting separately in front of our computers during the Danish Corona virus quarantine, we thought this might be a good time to talk about – and write a short text on – magic. After all, one might need a spell for good luck (preferably a digital one to maintain social distancing) in the time of a global disease outbreak. This text is an excerpt from our online conversation  – mediated by Zoom – around the text on the cover of The Cyber Spellbook, as well as its Amazon reviews. This digitally mediated conversation ended up touching on issues such as spellcasting, conjuring, and temporality in a digital sphere. In case you’re looking for more in-depth engagements with the topic of magic and technology, see the works of e.g. Briana Pegado, Nazila Kivi and Simone Natale + Diana Pasulka.

Image 1
Figure 1. The book page of The Cyber Spellbook: Magick in the Virtual World, by Patricia Telesco on Amazon

ACT I

Wang: So let’s look at the cyber spellbook. It is a book that came out in 2002, which is about 18 years ago. I actually don’t know how long this concept of digital witchcraft or cyber spellbook has existed. Cuz it seems like if the book came out then, maybe these concepts have been there for some time. Don’t you think so?

Henriksen: I’ll do a quick google for ’digital witchcraft’.

W: And I will try ’digital spellbook’. Let’s just see. Continue reading “Part 1: Digital Magic. A Conversation on The Cyber Spellbook.”