The Primitive, Technology and Horror: A Posthuman Biology

The Primitive, Technology and Horror: A Posthuman Biology
© Illustration by Elias Ravanetti

The Golem, one of the oldest legends of artificial creation, may have originated as wooden or clay models of human beings that were placed in graves to act as servants of the dead. A fear that life itself could be conjured up in this mass of wood or clay through the power of Jewish Kabbalah rendered the Golem an ambivalent figuration, supposedly the servant of man, but one that threatened to overpower him. The Golem legend can be traced back to Jewish psalms of the sixth-century, where the formation of life (golmi, literally “unformed limbs”), was seen as something that could emanate both from the mother’s womb and from the (non-human) earth itself (Graham, 2002: 87).

The Golem is an example of a perennial horror in the western imagination, and it is striking how it exemplifies that western humanist versions of technology tend to create a master-servant dialectic and anything that threatens this divide invokes horror. With its fixation with “Frankenfoods” and genetic engineering technologies (Thompson, 2004: 165), the “revenge of nature” or “nature out of control” leitmotif is a common one in the contemporary west, its roots embedded in the Romantic tradition. However, since antiquity, technology has been simultaneously imbued with magic and rationality, evil and redemption, trickery and transparency (Scheper-Hughes, 2001).

Modern science has significant origins in medieval alchemy, astrology, and other occult arts (Davis, 1999). In the Hermetic tradition of the Renaissance, ancient fascinations with automata were reinvestigated and reinvested with scientific concepts. René Descartes, the philosopher who provided the western imagination with the most enduring model of the human to date, was fascinated with the automaton, comparing it to the human body, and thus creating an enduring preoccupation with mechanism as something that pervaded machines, bodies and animals but never the non-material, spiritual realm of the mind.

As well as the considerable eschatological significance attached to technology (Wagar, 1982),1 it is possible to discern a “doubleness” (Bell, 2001: 7) surrounding technology; a desire for it and a dread of it that speak of the ambivalent position that technology still maintains in the west today — a “schizoid” stance, alternating between the technophobic and the technophilic (Thompson, 2004). Andreas Huyssen (1986) attributes this to the two poles of experience people had with new technologies in the late nineteenth-century. On one hand, technics was aestheticised and fetishised (world expos such as the Crystal Palace, garden cities, the cité industrielle of Tony Garnier, the Città Nuova of Antonio Sant’Elia, the Werkbund), and on the other the military machinery of World War I which alienated human life while at the same time making the human-inhuman (Seltzer, 1992). The avant-garde expressed this bipolar experience in various ways in Dadaism, Futurism, Cubism and Constructivism (Rutsky, 1999).

Throughout western human history, we can observe technology as revolt. In the double sense of the word, technology is imagined as rebellious and repellent. Why is this so? Jean Baudrillard’s (1968) psychoanalytical reading of technology describes it as a force which, despite its outward association with progress and human civilisation, is perennially “haunted by the temptation of a reverse evolution which coexists in it with the potential for progress” (Baudrillard, 1996: 130). In his eyes, humans unconsciously produce technologies that are partly dysfunctional, and hence will never be infallible, because humans are terrified of the potential infallibility of the technological. We could call such an imaginary “techno-anxiety”.

Many of these diverse concepts seem to conflate the primitive, technology, and horror. These three tropes may seem unrelated and contradictory, but in this article, we will, first of all, explore each trope in turn, and consider what these interrelations can tell us about the logic of contemporary technoculture. Following this we will attempt to tie these tropes together by placing them in the wider context of studies on monsters, also known as teratology.

We will use a sample of images from contemporary visual culture that blend together the aesthetics of the primitive, technology and horror. Turning specifically to advertising, we will explore two exemplars of this visual economy in detail — Nike Mutant Foot (Publicis Mojo, Melbourne, 2005) and Audi Spider (Lynn Fox, London, 2005). While concentrating on these two primary texts, we will draw from a larger intertextual repertoire consisting of advertising, film and other images in visual culture to bring to light the different facets of the dynamic that is created when the primitive, technology and horror come together.

We argue that the aesthetic conflation of the primitive, technology and horror points to three new concepts. We call them metamorphing, primal technology, and proto-atavism. Metamorphing is a prevalent technique which does two things. It points to a logic of identity as a constant state of becoming and it emphasises flow as a necessary way to understand processes, objects identities.

We critique the almost universal celebration of flow in contemporary philosophical thought. Primal technology is a concept we use to contradict the humanist and pervasive concept of technology as (i) modern, (ii) progressive, (iii) clean and (iv) nonalive. Proto-atavism is a concept we introduce as a supplement to atavism — the idea that evolutionary traits from the past can exist in the present.

In contrast, proto-atavism argues that evolutionary traits from the future can also exist in the present. In explaining these terms, we argue that they present us with fantasies about technology which enliven the cultural imaginary. Together, they work to produce a conception of life which we could understand, paradoxically, as a type of “posthuman biology”.

Also published on Medium.

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