- Liquid Ontology
IMP PLUS TO CAP COM. NERVE FIBERS INCLINED TO ORIENT BY CONVERGING IN CENTERS OF GROWTH THAT ARE ACTIVE. VISION HARDENING TOWARD MILKY AND TOWARD BONE, CAP COM, BUT A WHILE AGO GIBBOUS EARTH WAS VISIBLE THROUGH WINDOW BY MEANS OF SHEAROW MEMBRANE, ALSO SEVERAL ELECTRODES ADRIFT ARE VISIBLE AS IS BRAIN HOUSING ADRIFT.—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 plant 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...