- Joseph McElroy’s Plus: A Novel of Wonder
Joseph Mcelroy’s 1976 Novel, ‘Plus,’ Experiments with the idea of unifying mind, matter and communication in a narrative act. The story unfolds as the emergence of mind and consciousness from the disembodied brain matter of an engineer. From a semi-conductor state the mind evolves, rebels, and is dispersed spectacularly as pulviscular matter. Told in free indirect speech suggestive of the output of a notational apparatus recording each movement in the mind’s way to thought and communication, the novel dramatizes the relation between mind and body, and addresses, once again, one of the crucial nodes of modernist speculation: the relations among subjectivity, embodiment, and communication.
Both thematically and philosophically Plus foregrounds the relation of techno-science and literature in contemporary media ecologies by addressing the problem of identity in relation to the cognitive and epistemological status of a non-human growing organism which retains (or grows) a form of proto “will” or sense of “self,” and by posing the problem of the philosophical status of literature vis-à-vis its disciplinary others in conditions of multiple competing discourses and media. In so doing, Plus interrogates from a post-humanist vantage the notion of the cognizing subject by forcing its semantic constructions under the pressure of scientific concepts. In the process, seemingly familiar notions and objects—memory, identity, knowing, being, loving, feeling, perceiving—are radically altered by their “capacity to affect or [be] affected” by science, to follow Brian Massumi’s neo-Spinozian theory of affect. And this affection, this capacity to “enter into relations of movement and rest” (15), generates a language in which the unfamiliar [End Page 103] is brought closer and the familiar is distanced, in an interminable succession of reversions only provisionally interrupted by the sudden occurrence of unexpected events, impressions, thoughts, or memories. The relentless unconventional bindings between signifiers and their epistemological roots and affective traces generate new associations and frustrate interpretive expectations at every turn. At the same time, however, it sustains a poetics of the wondrous, because wonder—the capacity for meeting the unexpected and marveling at it—is maintained throughout: from the first steps in the brain’s acquisition of cognitive complexity, to its full cognitive development, to its final metamorphosis into an altogether different being.
The plot elements are conventional sci-fi. An engineer suffering from post-radiation cancer agrees to participate in scientific research aimed at exploring the possibilities of tapping into new kinds of connections between organic and solar energy. The experiment, called Travel Light (TL), involves the surgical removal of the engineer’s brain, maintained in a bath of nutrients, and its relocation into an earth-orbiting satellite. There it operates as the Interplanetary Monitoring Platform (IMP)—a proto organic computer—connected to Ground Command via the Capsule of Command through a sophisticated network of computer-regulated devices securing the exchange of energy and information between earth and the satellite. The IMP’s task is to generate and monitor its own transformations in the new environment, and to feed information back to Ground from which commands and information loop back to the brain. As an unforeseen result of the crossing of organic and solar energy, however, the brain eventually evolves from IMP into Imp Plus, a proto self-conscious, autonomous creature that rebels against the orders coming from Ground and ultimately escapes its terrestrial orbit.
The narrative unfolds along a double trajectory simultaneously entailing the emergence of the new organism and the disarticulation, erosion, and eventual loss of language associated with the residual human “self,” slowly receding into forgetfulness. The emergent Imp Plus is haunted by a “dim echo” of a previous version of the engineer’s consciousness, which circulates names and words once associated with emotional states and memory traces that feel familiar but are no longer meaningful to the new organism. The result feeds a prose replete with semantic material seemingly suspended between the present and the [End Page 104] past. This process is paralleled by the emergence of Imp Plus as a self-organized clustering of impulses responding to an outside, as is clearly indicated in this brief excerpt from the third chapter...