September 8th, 2012

S.C. Hickman

Ben Woodard: Slime Dynamics - Metaphysics and Extinction as Openess

"A polytical ethics necessary for replacing or undermining existing planetary politico-economical and religious systems. Cthulhoid Ethics is essential for accelerating the emergence and encounter with the radical Outside."
      - Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia 

The first movie I remember going to as a child was also the most memorable, it wasn't a great movie but it left a lasting impression on me because of the creatures that slimed there way through its dark and scummy world. The name of the movie was, The Blob.

The film takes place in July 1957. Teenager Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and his girlfriend Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) are making out at a lovers' lane when they see a meteorite crash beyond the next hill. Steve decides to look for it. An old man (Olin Howland) living nearby finds it first. When he pokes the meteorite with a stick, it breaks open, revealing a small jelly-like blob inside. The man picks it up with the stick, but then it suddenly attaches itself to his hand. In pain and unable to scrape or shake it loose, the old man runs comically onto the road, where he is nearly struck by Steve's car. Steve and Jane take him to Doctor Hallen (Stephen Chase).
Doctor Hallen is about to leave for a medical conference, but anesthetizes the man and sends Steve and Jane back to the impact site to gather information. Hallen decides he must amputate the man's arm since it is being consumed by the growing Blob. Before he can, however, the Blob completely consumes the old man, then Hallen's nurse Kate, and finally the doctor himself, all the while increasing in size.
Steve and Jane return to the office in time for Steve to witness the doctor's death. They go to the police station and return to the house with Lieutenant Dave (Earl Rowe) and Sergeant Bert (John Benson). However, there is no sign of the creature or its victims, and Bert dismisses Steve's story as a teenage prank. Steve and Jane are taken home by their parents, but later sneak out.
In the meantime, the Blob consumes a mechanic at a repair store. At the Colonial Theater, which is showing a midnight screening of Daughter of Horror, Tony (Robert Fields) is asked by Steve to chat about the Blob. Tony brings some friends only to warn people from a 1950's party, a couple making out and the bartender at a bar full of late-night drinkers. When Steve notices that his father's grocery store is unlocked, he and Jane go inside. The janitor is nowhere to be seen. Then the couple are cornered by the Blob; they seek refuge in the walk-in icebox. The Blob oozes in under the door but retreats. Steve and Jane gather their friends and set off the town's fire and air-raid alarms. The townspeople and police still refuse to believe Steve. Meanwhile, the Blob enters the Colonial Theater and engulfs the projectionist before oozing into the auditorium. Steve is finally vindicated when screaming people flee from the theater.
Jane's young brother Danny (Keith Almoney) fires at the Blob with his cap gun before running into the nearby diner. When Jane and Steve go after him, they become trapped along with the manager and a waitress when the Blob – now an enormous mass – engulfs the diner. It begins to ooze in through the windows, forcing those trapped inside to seek refuge in the cellar. The police try to kill the Blob by dropping a power line onto it, but the Blob is unaffected and the diner is set ablaze. Dave suggests to put the diner out. Steve notices the Blob crawling down the stairs and blocking the windows. Steve picks up Jane's brother, then Jane tells him to lay his head down, kissing him and he is fast asleep. Steve, Jane and Danny join in a group hug. Later, the manager uses a CO2 fire extinguisher on the fire. Steve notices that it also causes the Blob to recoil. Then he remembers that the creature also retreated from the icebox. He manages to tell Dave about the Blob's vulnerability to cold ("Hey, Dave! Hey, Dave, CO2 fire extinguishers! Dave, can you hear me? CO2!"). Jane's father, Mr. Martin (Elbert Smith), takes Steve's friends to the high school to retrieve enough fire extinguishers to first drive the Blob away from the diner, then freeze it. Dave requests an Air Force jet to transport the Blob to the Arctic, where it is parachuted to the ice. The film ends with the words "The End", which end up morphing into a question mark—suggesting that the Blob may return, ending the film with a cliffhanger.1

What's fascinating about the horror of this strange creature from the farthest reaches of space and time is not its uncanny alien otherness, but that it reminds us of our own homely origins, our evolutionary heritage leading back and downward into the antediluvian slime world of our own microbial past. Watching the humans of the above movie struggle against the indestructible power of the undying Blob reminds us all that there is something a the heart of creation itself that is neither human, nor is it at all concerned about the fate of humanity. This something, that lives in the dark, that hides below the surface of our daylight world of human wants and needs, our social, cultural, religious, philosophical, and affective sexual lives will live on even when we as a species are forgotten in the distance of cosmic memory. What we cannot accept is that the Blob is not alien, that it is the secret accomplice of our own inner life. We only need look below the membraneous surface of our own flesh where the liquid ooze and slime of that dark vitalistic force of time lives as the Blob in us ever striving, ever restless in its movement toward the terminus of absolute extinction. Maybe Thomas Ligotti was right when one of his characters said:

“The sinister, the terrible never deceive: the state in which they leave us is always one of enlightenment. And only this condition of vicious insight allows us a full grasp of the world, all things considered, just as a frigid melancholy grants us full possession of ourselves. We may hide from horror only in the heart of horror. (“The Medusa”)” 

Slime Dynamics

"Our existence is then only a stacking of putrescence, an infusorial mass or protoplasm or an originative but rotten unity."
     - Iain Hamilton Grant. Being and Slime

"The essay is essentially about how humans can't handle unpleasant realities and what those realities are. But we're predisposed not to think about those things in a way that will affect how we live, or to think about them at all in most cases."
     - Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

Ben Woodard makes reference to the movie District 9 by director Peter Jackson in his new book Slime Dynamics. In it he discovers the 'gesture of the ethical' and realizes that what is missing in our humanity is our inability to recognize in the alien core of the other both the limit of a dark vitalism below our humanistic facade and an openess that would return us to the great Outdoors of the Real. In an "era of involuntary transparency" ( "On Nihilism" ) - as Jean Baudrillard once reflected, the melancholic threads of nihilism revitalize a Nietzschean vision where a "condition of tension, as a disproportion between what we want to value (or need) and how the world appears to operate" force us into the slime pit of our own bitter origins. In this non-space of non-meaning we live lives that are fruitless, barren, and without outlet or purpose, shifting in a Kierkegaardian slime fest "where one can hear one's own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless." In this world we fear even the utmost terror that we might just live in a world where there are no objects at all; and, that  the entire human species is not only insignificant, without purpose and unlikely to change but is foredoomed to absolute extinction in slime...

District 9 begins in 1982, when a large alien spacecraft stops above Johannesburg, South Africa. An investigation team enters the ship, discovering a population of sick and malnourished extraterrestrials. The aliens, derogatorily referred to as "prawns", are confined to District 9, a government camp just underneath the ship. Periodic unrest then occurs between the aliens and the locals and subsequently the South African government hires Multinational United (MNU), a private military company, to relocate the aliens to a new internment camp.
In August 2010, Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an Afrikaner bureaucrat, is appointed by Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar), an MNU executive and his father-in-law, to lead the camp relocation by serving the aliens with eviction notices. Meanwhile, alien Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope), his son, and an alien friend search for alien technology from which they distill a mysterious fluid, storing it in a small canister. While raiding the shack of Christopher's friend, Wikus discovers and seizes the container, which sprays the fluid onto his face. Christopher's friend is subsequently killed by Koobus Venter (David James), a xenophobic soldier leading the operation.
The fluid slowly begins mutating Wikus into a prawn, beginning with his arm. MNU then kidnap and force Wikus to test various alien weapons which only function when alien DNA is present. The MNU scientists then decide to vivisect Wikus' organs, but Wikus overpowers his captors and escapes. Smit orders Venter and his men to hunt down Wikus; meanwhile, a story is released to the media stating that Wikus is infected with an alien STD.
Wikus finds refuge in District 9 and stumbles into Christopher's shack; a lost command module from the ship is revealed underneath the shack, and Christopher discloses that the "fuel" in the canister would allow him to reactivate the dormant mothership and reverse Wikus' mutation. The canister is held at MNU headquarters, so Wikus and Christopher agree on a plan to get it back by first stealing weapons from Nigerian arms-dealer Obesandjo and his gang.
Wikus and Christopher attack the MNU offices, retrieve the canister, and flee back to District 9 with MNU forces in pursuit. Disgusted by the illegal experiments on his fellow aliens at MNU headquarters, Christopher says he must use all the "fuel" to get help before curing Wikus, but the trip to the alien planet and back will take three years. Wikus becomes enraged and attacks Christopher, then hijacks the command module which is almost immediately shot down. Venter and his men seize Wikus and Christopher, but Obesandjo's gang ambushes the MNU convoy and captures Wikus, as Obesandjo believes that eating Wikus' mutated arm will give him the ability to use alien weaponry. Obesandjo's base is then surrounded by MNU and a firefight ensues.
In the downed command module, Christopher's son activates the mothership and an alien mechanized battle suit which saves Wikus by killing Obesandjo and his men. Wikus takes control of the battle suit and rescues Christopher, shielding him as they run to the command module. Wikus aids Christopher's escape by staying behind and holding off the MNU troops; Christopher promises to return in three years before making his way to the command module. Wikus kills all the troops except Venter, who cripples his suit and forces it to eject him. As he is cornered by Venter, a group of aliens surround them and tear Venter to pieces. Christopher leaves in the mothership with his son as Johannesburg's residents celebrate its departure.
A series of interviews and news broadcasts are shown, with people theorizing about Wikus' whereabouts and the potential return of the mothership, and what it could entail. MNU's illegal experiments on the aliens are uncovered and exposed. District 9 is completely demolished, with all the aliens having been moved to the new larger District 10 farther from the city. Wikus' wife Tania finds a metal flower on her doorstep, giving her hope that Wikus is still alive. The film ends with what appears to be a fully transformed Wikus crafting a similar flower in a scrapyard.

What we know of the film is that like Alive in Joburg, the short film on which the feature film is based, the setting of District 9 is inspired by historical events that took place in South Africa during the apartheid era, with the film's title particularly alluding to District Six. District Six, an inner-city residential area in Cape Town, was declared a "whites only" area by the government in 1966, with 60,000 people forcibly removed and relocated to Cape Flats, 25 km (15 mi) away. The film also refers to contemporary evictions and forced removals to new suburban ghettos in post-apartheid South Africa as well as the resistance of its residents. This includes the high profile attempted forced removal of the Joe Slovo informal settlement in Cape Town to temporary relocation areas in Delft, plus the attempted evictions of Abahlali baseMjondolo and evictions in the shack settlement, Chiawelo, where the film was actually shot. Blikkiesdorp, a temporary relocation area in Cape Town, has also been compared with the District 9 camp earning a front page spread in The Daily Voice.
The film makes a statement about inhumanity in the irony of Wikus becoming more humane as he becomes less human. Throughout the movie, he becomes more aware of the aliens' plight, eventually helping them escape the planet, even turning on his own species to do so. Chris Mikesell from the Hawaii newspaper, Ka Leo, notes that inhumanity is a deep-rooted theme throughout. He writes: "Substitute 'black,' 'Asian,' 'Mexican,' 'illegal,' 'Jew,' or any number of different labels for the word 'prawn' in this film and you will hear the hidden truth behind the dialogue". Alien eggs are destroyed before hatching and described as popcorn. He described that District 9 shows the corruption of which humans are capable. MNU, the corporation in charge of protecting the aliens, is actually taking away captured aliens and using them as experiments in order to be able to use their weapons.
Themes of racism and xenophobia are put forward by the movie in the form of speciesism applied to the aliens. The use of the word "prawn" to describe the aliens is a reference to the Parktown prawn, a king cricket species considered a pest in South Africa.[26] Copley has said that the theme is not intended to be the main focus of the work, but rather that it can work at a subconscious level even if it is not noticed.
Duane Dudek from the Journal Sentinel wrote that "The result is an action film about xenophobia, in which all races of humans are united in their dislike and mistrust of an insect-like species".
An underlying theme in District 9 is state reliance on multinational corporations as a government funded enforcement arm. As MNU represents the type of corporation which partners with governments, the negative portrayal of MNU in the film can be seen as a statement about the dangers of governments, particularly in their outsourcing of paramilitaries and bureaucracies to private contractors.

Polyp Life

Woodard reminds us that humans "like any other polyp of living matter, are nothing but heaps of slime slapped together and shaped by the accidents of time and the context of space. The fact that we have evolved self-consciousness should not guarantee or maintain meaning.Meaning is only ever the final gloss on being which when removed does not then dictate mass suicide nor pure apathy (Woodard. 66). 3

Woodard's excellent meditation on the dark vitality at the heart of life can be read in an afternoon. The format is a series of essays that expand in waves upon the central theme of the patient work of the negative, not the negative that negates life, but the patient negation that eliminates meaning from the very fabric of space and time revealing the pathology of existence: "... subtracting meaning, reducing ontological life to biological life is only to unbind pathology which seems like a far more useful weapon in combating a structure than meaning..."(66). He explains this saying,

"Pathology opens the oddness of any creation in time and space thereby spreading a plague of tenuousness across all of existence. ... Everything Dies. This introduces the tension between inactivity between inaction and action, that things will perish but so will I. The strange temporality is reflected in the symptom, in that particular things in time form our particular pathological trajectory but this trajectory continuously reminds us of its existence (66-67)."

Reza Negarestani in his essay Death as a Perversion: Openess and Germinal Death (here) tells us the "desire for openness has been considered the desire for life, death, horror, outside and intensity and this is why it has been cautiously appropriated whether through desire itself or despotic rigidities. However, it has been never totally blocked, for even in the case of monolithic despotism and rigidity, we do not encounter closure but strictly economical openness which is the indispensable part of any paranoiacally isolationist organization." This type of openess Negarestani terms affordance and tells us that through "affordance, openness is represented as the level of being open (to) not being opened (the plane of epidemic and contagion: plagues, contaminations, possession, etc.)." In a declarative statement he continues:

""I am open to you." means, I have the capacity to bear your investment or 'I afford you' (this is not an intentional conservative voice but what arises as the fundamental noise produced by the machinery of different levels of organization and boundary, and finally organic survival); if you exceed this capacity I will be cracked, lacerated and laid open. "

Woodard tells us that this kind of openess is a form of "being splayed open" that recognizes pathology but does not legitimate structure (67). He tells us that we must remain open to the pathological and to life itself so that the power of the Cthuloid ethics reveals the fissures and cracks of our lacerated pathologies (67). Ultimately Woodard's meditation lays bare the emptiness within and without, a darkness that is a blinding nihil that affords a "metaphysical construct opposed to emergence and that is at once a simultaneous resurrection and mutilation of vitalism (8)."

The term "emergent" was coined by the pioneer psychologist G. H. Lewes, who wrote:
"Every resultant is either a sum or a difference of the co-operant forces; their sum, when their directions are the same -- their difference, when their directions are contrary. Further, every resultant is clearly traceable in its components, because these are homogeneous and commensurable. It is otherwise with emergents, when, instead of adding measurable motion to measurable motion, or things of one kind to other individuals of their kind, there is a co-operation of things of unlike kinds. The emergent is unlike its components insofar as these are incommensurable, and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference." 4  

Woodard tells us that vitalism is traditionally not unlike emergentism in that both suggest there is something more to life, something that drives and/or affects life that is not purely reducible to the classifiable componenets of life itself (8). Against this signification of vitalism as emergentism as that which harbors the meaning of life or vital substance that "propels life forward", he offers instead the theory that the "vital force is time and its effect on space" that propels all things forward (8). In his readings of Deleuze, Guattari, Bergson and Merleau-Ponty he comes to the realization that vitalism cannot be a thing, that it cannot be a force "because it says nothing about life itself as a force, only that it develops but not how(9)." What all the philosophers of vitalism have left out is a dark truth Woodard tells us, one that shows forth the force of time itself: "... time as something beyond thought which is the force of vitalism (life emerges over time) and the substance of vitalism is not the germ plasm trumping heredity but space as it is filled by life (9)."

He goes on to ask a central question: How do we bring vitalism "into contact with reality and raise it from its spatio-temporal philosophical obscurity?(10)"

The articulation of vitalism that he presents is what he terms a "minimalist metaphysics which operates on reality by way of following an ontological cascade mirroring the cosmological progression of forces and matters.(10)" He takes an almost Spinzoist turn (rooted in the Neo-Platonic One) telling us that this "force of forces" arises out of the original One, a "One not as a pure unification but the possibility of 'isness' itself stemming from the original simultaneous explosion of time and space as well as the resulting emanations, immanences, emergences and transcendences(10)." He argues that "vitalism is a mental shadow of the progression of the universe from the speculative moment before the Big Bang, as a highly condensed mass, to its extension into time and space and matter, to biological life, and finally to reflective thinking(10-11)." He sees this as a "degenerate take on vitalism and the Neo-Platonic One" and together they form his unique theory of  dark vitalism.

This dark vitalism led Woodard to the "sickening realization" that the universe is oblivious to human existence, that this inhospitable universe is shaped by the force of time and that all things within it are accidents of the contortions of a universal geometry of space that shapes all things, including us, which are "further ravaged by accident, context, feedback, and the degradation of wear and age (11)." The universal geometry of this dark vitalism is formed by the three-fold darkness of its central unfolding: first, it is dark because it is obscured by both nature ... and by time ... since the cause of the most of the nature we know has fallen back into the deep past. Second, it is dark because it spells bad news for the human race in terms of our origin, our meaning, and our ultimate fate. And, finally, it is dark on an aesthetic and experiential level our psychological and phenomenological existence is darkened and less friendly to us, and to our perceptions, given the destructiveness of time and space (11-12).

In a series of resonating essays that open out toward each other in a triple movment and doubling remediation of nihilistic light, revealing wave after wave of intrepid disclosure, Woodard offers us a deeply personal and moving vision of our material life as slime. As he states it so eloquently, slime "is the smudge of reality, the remainder and reminder of the fact that things fall apart. The shining path of humanity is only ever the verminous-like trail of our own oozing across time and space - the trace and proof of our complete sliminess through and through. Human existence then is composed of the slime of being conjoined with the mindless and dysfunctional repetitions of pathology (67-68)."

In the end this is a dark vitalism that accepts the deep realms of forces and processes but does not try to think it under the sign of reason alone, instead it envisions a "strange combination of realism and vitalism" that is both speculative and material, and tells us that "time is the ground of all ideation, and human beings are merely thinking slime(60)". It accepts that life is an accident, a mistake, a "foul thing" - that it is the vision of a cosmic nihilism that will "fill space till the cosmos burns too low for anything to again cohere, ending only with an ocean of putrescence spilling over into the boundless void of extinction (68)." Ultimately he tells us that his text is less about slime itself than about the sliminess of life, of the inevitable biological and physical constraints on living in the world that, in one way or another, is always a being-toward-extinction(13).

1. The Blob (Wikipedia)
2. District 9 (Wikipedia)
3. Woodard, Ben. Slime Dynamics - Generation, Mutation, and the Creep of Life. (Zero Books, 2012)
4. Emergence (Wikipedia)