Liquid Ontology

Liquid Ontology

James J. Pulizzi
Joseph McElroy
New York: Knopf, 1977.

In this review-essay, James J. Pulizzi reads Joseph McElroy’s 1977 novel, Plus,
as a Bildungsroman for the posthuman: instead of tracing the development of a subject, the novel traces the development of processes that call the very idea of a subject into question. As a human brain adjusts to its new housing in an experimental satellite, the text unfolds in a series of re-entries and re-mappings, an unfolding that necessarily implicates the reader.

This review is a simultaneous publication from the current issue of American Book Review.



- Joseph McElroy

These words are the first that the protagonist (who we will call Imp Plus for now) of Joseph McElroy’s Plus sends to Capsule Command (i.e., CAP COM) in his/its modified English. From this transmission between Imp Plus and his/its terrestrial monitors, nothing is very clear. How do nerve fibers incline? Can vision harden to “MILKY” and “BONE”? What is a “SHADOW MEMBRANE”? You won’t find it in a textbook. Removed from its context, the quotation is nearly incomprehensible, but by the time it appears on page 176, it seems less opaque. By then we know that the brain of an ailing human male has been transplanted into an experimental satellite and launched into geosynchronous orbit. Knowing that, however, cast only a bit more light on what Imp Plus means in the above transmission, because Plus not only enacts “what being posthuman might be like” as Salvatore Proietti writes, but also shows us how a once human brain becomes posthuman. The novel is therefore just as much Bildungsroman for the posthuman as it is science fiction, experimental fiction, or whatever other label we might affix to it. This tale of maturation and education ends not with a fellow adult human but someone/something distinctly more alien.

Imp Plus is neither human nor thing, subject nor object but something with an ontology, a mode of being other than the anthropocentric one Western philosophy has been developing since Plato and Aristotle. McElroy’s novel indeed goads us into asking what Imp Plus is. Brain? Brain plus capsule? Cyborg? An ontology that puts objects and human subjects on the same level - or to use Graham Harman’s phrase, an object-oriented ontology - may stem the impulse to domesticate Imp Plus by re-inscribing him/it into contexts and language familiar to us. To understand Imp Plus, we need a new way of mapping his/its relation to us in much the same way that Imp Plus, now deprived of his/its human body, needs a new way of mapping his/its human memories and language onto his/its posthuman being.

In Cognitive Fictions (2002), Joseph Tabbi writes in depth about the role of narrative in this remapping process. Imp Plus initiates a recursive re-entry of contexts into themselves thereby allowing them to be subsumed within yet another context. The re-entry of one context into another repurposes Imp Plus’s human memories and language for his/ its less-than-human experiences and physiology. The printed text of Plus does not describe the recursive loops with theoretical detachment but enacts them, and therefore implicates us, the human readers, in the re-entry process. These nested re-entries remap familiar relations - such as subject and object, or brain and machine - onto themselves in a way that destroys neither term but rather redefines how they connect: “Out of nonprogrammable, re-entrant relations emerge new and often strange topologies where the inside and the outside, the upside and the downside…do not oppose so much as fold into or map onto another.”

Thanks to this re-entry and remapping, whatever Imp Plus may be, he/it is not absolutely other and incomprehensible like Stanislaw Lem’s planet Solaris to Immanuel Kant’s thing-in-itself. The process of re-entry and remapping follow the co-evolution of Imp Plus’s erstwhile human brain, its new technological body, and the language of the novel. Imp Plus is not so much a being as a becoming. N. Katherine Hayles and I argue at greater length elsewhere that the contexts needed for Imp Plus to understand his embodied human life are no longer available post-implantation because those contexts are not static entities independent of bodies, environments, languages, and technologies, but instead co-evolve with all of them. The novel enacts this co-evolution through Imp Plus’s attempts to articulate his/its new being by transforming human language and contexts, and so crucially differs from other brain-in-a-vat narratives. We can take the name, Imp Plus, as an example. Ground or CAP COM designates him/its Imp Plus, which the protagonist belatedly remembers stands for Interplanetary Monitoring Platform. As he/ it grows, that designation - given by a world to which he/it no longer literally belongs - does not convey the constant changes he/it is undergoing in orbit. Are the Concentration Loop and Dim Echo parts of Imp Plus, or something other? Eventually, a new name, the Lattice, subsumes Imp Plus: “For what was that old name Imp Plus now in the face of lattice layers?”; “The lattice evolved from Imp Plus had taken Imp Plus in.”

Imp Plus was once a subject but becomes an object for the new subject, the Lattice. Indeed, I would go so far as to extend the argument Hayles and I make to say that the elemental pairing of subject and object fades away as McElroy’s protagonist evolves. Using Tabbi’s language, we could say that the re-entry of Imp Plus into the Lattice folds subjects and objects onto one another so that they are no longer a binary pairing of opposites. Imp Plus/the Lattice has a new world of objects without subjects to explore - objects which include the very brain that resided in his/its human body. During the earlier chapters, for example, Imp Plus/the Lattice struggles with articulating what might count as experiences (phenomenal moments): “For yes these pulses here now in orbit were color…. Yet pieces too. Or things beyond color. Too small to be seen but no less seen.” Lacking eyes with which to see and therefore to situate objects in a three-dimensional space, any references Imp Plus/the Lattice makes to color, to shapes, to space, and even to objects must mean something quite different than it does for us: “What happens to the brain’s three-dimensional map of the retina when there is no more retina to send to?”

His/its declaration (quoted earlier) that the Lattice absorbs Imp Plus but is also a part of Imp Plus underscores the transience of his/its experiences and even physiology. Indeed, the “Lattice” is never a stable entity as such but “a field of times. He was as much the motion as its place.” As something that never settles on any particular place, on any static distinctions, Imp Plus/the Lattice resembles what Gilles Deleuze calls a Body without Organs. Even though Imp Plus/the Lattice is literally a body without organs, Deleuze’s BwO is nothing so definite. The BwO never settles down into a stable entity (or in Deleuze’s terms, the actual) but always remains a field of potentials that might temporarily settle into something stable until transforming again. As a BwO, McElroy’s posthuman organism necessarily changes its being and its organization in ways a more stable human brain in a human body does not need to. Through the lens of the BwO, we can see Imp Plus/ the Lattice not as a changing brain in an artificial satellite but as an emerging entity with only vaguely recognizable parts.

But Imp Plus/the Lattice also points to a potential problem with using the BwO. Since the BwO has no stable boundaries, it tends to disperse indefinitely until it becomes impossible to say if there are Bodies without Organs or just one Body without Organs. As a cognitive being, Imp Plus/the Lattice has a perspective that necessarily draws a boundary, even if the perspective re-enters and remaps itself over the course of the novel. Imp Plus/the Lattice, for instance, must decide what counts as brain, what as capsule. McElroy’s narrative derives its force from the destruction of boundaries and the constant assertion of new ones, as Imp Plus/the Lattice breaks down the distinction once useful to it as a human brain and establishes new ones for its posthuman existence. Because these new distinctions become progressively less connected to human perspectives and contexts, the English in which Imp Plus/the Lattice thinks becomes steadily more alien.

What few and fleeting distinctions appear in the work’s modified English, we need in order to see the final paragraphs of the novel as Imp Plus/the Lattice’s first decision: “The lattice dipped pale and still and contained what it yet might not wholly have: an idea of itself: itself not wholly self-possessed…. No desire to carom into space, no desire for re-entry.” Is this suicide? An act of liberation? The answer is frustratingly but importantly obscure because Imp Plus has a way of being that is not directly tied to human being-in-the-world. A concept like “suicide” or “liberation” would not necessarily apply to him/it.

The creation and possible end of a new object derived from a human one makes McElroy’s novel even more crucial for contemporary readers. Do we not move a bit closer to the world McElroy’s novel imagines when we use computers to visualize the human brain with MRIs, treat mental illnesses with psychopharmaceutical drugs, or distribute more and more of our cognition among “smart” devices and relational databases? All these other objects - whether in our bodies or executing on microprocessors - change how we interact with them and what we think of as a thinking subject. We are perhaps more like Imp Plus/the Lattice than we know.