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Mediating The Fly : Posthuman Metamorphosis in the 1950s

From: Configurations
Volume 10, Number 1, Winter 2002
pp. 169-191 | 10.1353/con.2003.0002

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Configurations 10.1 (2002) 169-191

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One measure of The Fly's modest cultural purchase is its generation of continuations and variants. Like Frankenstein, this breeding of further episodes has transformed a simple horror story into a collective fabulation—so this is a piece of modern mythology in the raw. The Fly's first author was George Langelaan, a British writer raised in France. Its first appearance was in the form of a short story published in Playboy in June 1957. Within a year it was rescripted by James Clavell and made into a Twentieth-Century Fox movie directed by Kurt Neumann. This was followed by Return of the Fly in 1959, and Curse of the Fly in 1965. The northern hemisphere was safe from Fly remakes for two decades, until Charles Edward Pogue and David Cronenberg cowrote and Cronenberg directed his major revision of 1986, followed in 1989 by The Fly II.

Criticism has been focused on cinematic matters, particularly Cronenberg's transformation of Neumann, with little reference to Langelaan. In contrast, I will use a combination of literature-and-science studies and media theory to discuss the initial flight of The Fly from a textual to a cinematic medium, its first transformation from ephemeral prose fiction to B-movie institution. Although Neumann's movie hews fairly closely to Langelaan's original, some important divergences bear examination. To frame them, I will briefly discuss literary metamorphosis and the concept of the posthuman, and then treat The Fly in its 1950s incarnations both in its historical situation as a product of Cold War and early-cybernetic culture, and as a continuation of the long literary line of metamorphic allegory. The Fly is precisely an allegory of modern media. In displaying the transformative power or daemonic agency of communications technology, this taut fable also unfolds the paradoxical unity of the distinction between matter and information, and this productive modern equivocation fuses the premodern to the posthuman.

Metamorphosis

Stories of bodily metamorphoses depict in various figures the restless transformations of the human. They allude to the fact that the essence of the human is to have no essence. Amplified by the social complexities produced by verbal languages and other technologies of communication, cultural developments accelerate past biological evolution, and metamorphic stories imagine an uncanny acceleration of human change. In premodern cultures, the perils of human status depicted in myth and legend, folklore and fantasy, dress the sheer contingencies of the natural order in divine or daemonic guises. That supernatural surplus also marks the supplemental status of social communication. The soul is troped into being by the mechanisms of speech, thought, and writing, and then found to be in correspondence with, or more precisely, attributed to, human impressions of nonhuman agencies at large in the extrahuman environment. Archaic and classical metamorphs—fictive entities once merely human that become some hybrid of human and nonhuman traces—were typically reinscribed back into the natural order: Daphne into a laurel tree, Narcissus into a flower. Metamorphoses induced by modern media systems depict more immediately the artifactual construction of the human through an ongoing reorganization of natural and technical elements.

Biological evolution, or natural metamorphosis, exploits random genetic mutations within the processes of both asexual and sexual reproduction. Put another way, the variations necessary to evolutionary processes are driven by the increment of noise within the channel of genetic transmission from one generation to the next. This is the literal biological ground of the cultural figure of bodily metamorphosis. Parents send their children composite genetic messages that always rearrange themselves in transit to their recipients, and children are inserted into a social system that refigures the mutability of natural reproduction in the medium of changing cultural transmissions. I read fantastic stories of human metamorphosis, then, as specific allegorical composites and inscriptions of the sexual and informatic messages human beings send in order to self-organize in all the unpredictable ways humans stumble into. Premodern tales of metamorphosis anticipate and overlap modern and contemporary stories of posthuman transformation.

The Posthuman

In the last decade the theoretical trope of the posthuman has upped the ante on the notion of the postmodern. The common effect of its several definitions...