Posthuman pet love: Starting a new family line in 'Splice' (2009)

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Posthuman pet love: Starting a new family line in 'Splice' (2009)
  Posthuman pet love: starting a new family line in Splice   (2009) [from:  Queer Posthumanism   ]   Ralph Pordzik One major impact of the rise of new inter- or transdisciplinary approaches such as gender theory, queer studies, critical animal studies, environmental and eco-philosophy or embodied cognition theory has been the deployment of the idea that animals have their own ways of encountering the  world and should therefore be considered outside their dependencies on human definition. 1   Whereas some critics tend to regard exaggerated love of animals only as symptomatic of a culture caught in dangerous circuits of affect and commoditized desire, others view it as a natural consequence of the insight that the difference between humans and animals is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. A new type of phenomenology based on accepting the embodied experiences of animals and refusing to reduce their life and perception to that of human beings 2  could therefore easily be accepted as a reasonable conclusion to issues raised in this very special domain of posthumanist thought. People relating to animals as mere objects to be used as they see fit are already legion in the filmic gallery of scientific villains dating back to the infamous Island of Doctor Moreau   (1 977). The physiologist’s mad experiments upon species of wild animals have served as a model for a sheer inexhaustible series of films built around the terrifying vision of a science gone out of control and the legacy of a defiled planet forever violated by an alien, hostile presence. But what if the manipulation of the human genotype is not born from insanity but from an uncontrollable act of love  —parental love, to be more precise? In Vincenzo Natali’s seminal sci-fi film Splice   (2009), genetic engineers Clive and Elsa invest all their working hours in the project of creating hybrid animals for medical purposes. When Elsa blends her own DNA  with that of a new female specimen, a farcical hybrid creature with tail and sting and capable of breathing under wate r springs from this experiment. To its creators’ great surprise it ages at a  vastly accelerated rate, passing through the processes of onto- and psychogenesis within a considerably shortened span of time. From the very beginning, the film sets out to ruthlessly exploit this idea of a tightly packed developmental rhythm. Playing through all the oedipal routines of an ill-starred father-mother-child-triad, Splice   frames and enriches its narrative through a set of elaborate gender twists and turns remarkable for their transgressive power and the uncanny effect they create in the viewer. Dren, as the hybrid is named, quickly forms a maternal bond with Elsa who does her very best to project her worst childhood frustrations onto the shiftless creature. Passing through a series of infantile positions of anxiety and suffering and finding herself transfixed by her ‘daughter’s’ growing demands upon her agency as a nurturing mother, Elsa relives a traumatizing encounter of the past, badly mutilating Dren and then forcing on her the same draconic measures meted out to herself by an internalized demonic mother  —   with fatal consequences. Quickly growing adolescent, Dren becomes bored with her secluded life on a farm outside town and seduces Clive who has sex with her in a strangely unsettling scene (fig. 1). In a final remarkable twist and what is certainly one of the most disturbing moments of the film, Dren abruptly mutates into a violent male monster and rapes his/her genetic ‘mother’ 1   See, e.g., Rosa Braidotti, “Animals, Anomalies, and Inorganic Others,” PMLA 124.2 (2009), pp. 526  –  32. 2  See, e.g. Corinne Painter & Christian Lotz (eds.), Phenomenology and the Non-Human Animal: At the Limits of  Experience (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009).  Elsa. The film ends with Clive penetrated and killed by Dren’s stinger and Elsa pregnant with child, accepting her sponsoring company’s offer to continue her experiments with splicing animal genes. Fig. 1. Biologically misfit: mutant pleasures (  Splice  , 2009). Splice   is easily the most controversial among recent sci-fi films to bear inscriptions of an alternative and ultimately posthuman familial pattern. Its deliberate play with the status of the human and its animal or organic other marks it as a new departure in transbiology and the larger field of the new reproductive technologies which are generating the post- or transhuman body today. 3  The domestic family and its sentimental narratives that have grounded and lent meaning to all other social arrangements since the onset of modernity are radically questioned in this film  which conjures up hybrid entities and in-between states of being along with the deployment of scenes enacting and confirming the most highly and controversially cathexed sci-fi fantasies of cross-species alliance, procreation and cohabitation thinkable. Clive having sexual intercourse  with their malformed, zoomorphic offspring indicates a motif that provokes by counterpointing the standards of a fundamentally Christian, “pronatalist” 4  culture and society struggling to sustain the notion of the healthy family unit mainly through narratives of endangered domesticity and hygiene. 5  The constant fragi lity of straight family life is reflected in the husband’s being lured away in the night to the farm with promises of ‘animal’ pleasure and endearment. (Clive’s slow, rhythmic dancing which sounds the bell for his sexual encounter with Dren is a caustic parody of rules of etiquette in a society in which everything not lying within range of the familial Panopticon is seen as endangering the well-being of honest households and carrying with it the risk of contagion.) Likewise, Elsa’s revulsion at adopting the  role of biological mother must be seen as complementary to Clive’s obscure desire for the other’s   body and the emotional confusion of Dren whose sexual interest in her ‘father’ becomes aroused first after her secretly witnessing the couple having passionate sex in the living room  —  clearly a Freudian primal scene meant to 3   For more details see Sarah Franklin’s essay, “The Cyborg Embryo: Our Path to Transbiology,” Theory, Culture and Society   23.7-8 (2006), pp. 167-87. 4   Susan M. Squier, “Reproducing the Posthuman Body: Ectogenetic Fetus, Surrogate Mother, Pregnant Man,” in: Halberstam & Livingston, Posthuman Bodies  , p. 115. 5  I goes without further comment that the cross-species motif also includes historical references that concern concepts of racial difference along with laws (mostly established under imperialist rule) banning marriages of persons of different racially or ethnically defined groups.  activate an oedipal triangle with quickly shifting roles between persecutors, defenders and victims and introducing a sense of rivalry or negative interaction cycle that propels the film’s  action.  The normative family and its supposedly healthy bodies are coming under fire in Splice   with an emphasis unmatched in other production of the genre. Its interventionist biomedical politics represents a glaring shift in our understanding of the posthuman body and its relations to other entities; mapping the ‘denaturing’ practices of post -genomic reproductive technology onto the regulated spaces of social and familial life, the film inaugurates a powerful queer counter-discourse in areas as diverse as evolutionary biology, sociology and posthumanist ethics. The deconstructive force this image holds is even reinforced by the fact that the supposed troublemaker emerges treacherously and uncontrollably from within the damaged inner family circle: a neurotic mother turning into a monstrously fecund female, an unsettled father becoming more and more wayward and irresponsible; the female and her yelping parasitic offspring finally destroying the fragile husband and the bonds supposed to hold everyone together. In this respect, Splice   appears to dovetail nicely with a long-standing tradition of misogyny obsessed with the uncontrollable ‘nature’ of the female and prone to offering only negative readings of fertility. But the film defies easy interpretations, and instead of re-encoding the image of the fecund mother as a locus of male disgust, it rather aims at introducing the idea of an alternate cycle of sexual reproduction that verges on the grotesque to give a hint of the radically novel. For we cannot know what is beginning to grow in Elsa at the end of the film  —  Clive sleeping with Dren  who in turn impregnates Elsa in what looks like a most vengeful act of rape by a disappointed juvenile lover might bring about the most terrifying results of inter- or cross-species breeding. Elsa’s blending her own DNA with that of another entity appears to re -enact the initial fall from grace; taken at surface value, her violating the norms of proper maternal behaviour must lead to a condemnation of all her ensuing actions. This, however, is a judgement the film deliberately refrains from. The end belies simple conclusions in presenting Elsa as single victor in the familial struggle for reproductive supremacy; at this point, the frontier between the normal and the pathological, the orderly and the freakish or biologically misfit, has shifted several times already and still remains porous enough to secure the triumphant reading that disruptive threats to the family may appear anytime, anywhere. What Splice   finally achieves in this respect is a complete erosion of the boundary lines that separate individual from corporate responsibility, the domestic circle from civil society, the failed singular experiment from institutional science. The extent to  which the different factions within society co-evolve or even reshape each other is no longer clearly demarcated. Nor are their long-term initiatives and objectives. In the final analysis, the eccentric or grotesque bodies along with the alternate desires they are thought to enclose function to define and distribute radical difference, within and across a variety of overlapping power grids. This may lead to further unexpected liaisons, unsolicited and queer or hybrid socialities, new nonstandard sexualities and erotic attractions. It may also open up new levels of inter-species dysphoria, however. That Elsa vigorously re-appropriates her body from the confines of the bourgeois family romance only to lose it to N.E.R.D. again and thus to the globally increasing representative power of multinational capitalism is one of the ironic opportunities of narrative Splice   does not even bother to let slip. Splice   refashions topics already well- known from films such as Ridley Scott’s notorious  Alien   (1979) which, in a similar way, speculates on an alternate logics of identity rupturing and  exceeding the one we are familiar with. 6  In current science fiction film, it appears, the family and its liberal-humanist, heterosexist body no longer exist as the ultimate measure of the human. The “ongoing manic pro ject of the renaturalization of heterosexuality and the stabilization of relations between men and women” 7  defining and regulating public opinion is countered by an alternative mode of storytelling inscribing into discursive space the lives and perceptions of different kinds of shape-shifting organisms that constantly broaden the limits of bio-design and cybernetics. The borders that previously secured familial identities along with the central institution of the “household as irreplaceable refuge for the cultivation of human sentiment and interiority” 8  have become permeable, if not glaringly open. Beyond and around the impressive cinematic surface of narrative and digital imagery stretches another plane of meaning addressing the crossings-over and recombinant effects biotechnology and posthuman ethics have made possible. Exploring and mapping new terrain, sci-fi film invites new familial contracts and social exchanges many of  which subvert resistant strains of heterosexual romance and, staking their identities in grotesque or zoomorphic bodily practices and trans-species flows, recast them in a persistently queer universe. […]   With his/her marked desire for independence from the pedagogic tyranny of the adult parent and his/her almost complete indifference to their disciplinary standards, Dren stirs on a problem of representing the other that so far has only received scant attention. For the main part, the film emphasizes the metamorphic, unstable quality of bodily identity, setting forth the spectacle of a body reconfiguring itself according to an unexpected biogenetic and -medical logic. But what is the exact status of the individual human in this arrangement? Does the hybrid entity only figure as a projection screen for unrecognized human desires? Is it to be supposed that viewers project their biased and unexamined views about otherness onto the biotic cyborg, thus turning it into a passive allegorical stand-in in a moral fable about posthuman megalomania? Economies of  wanting have always played a prominent part in fantasies about alterity, and this uninterrupted appetite for the other leads one to assume another function for the grotesque in the context of posthuman discourses. According to Jacques Lacan, it is lack that causes desire for unity and completion to arise in the first place. Arguably, lack always mean lack-of-being (  manqué à être   ):  what the subject profoundly desires is being itself, a desire that cannot be fulfilled. The purpose of the new relationship between human and cyborg (or, for that matter, alien) is thus precisely to  warrant this kind of fulfilment and to provide the self with a  —  frequently bionic   —  prosthesis utilizable to redefine its selfhood without surrendering to the other completely. So far, many tales about cyborgic improvement have couched their ideas about the re-engineering of the facts of life in the Romantic idiom of pedagogic care and instruction, presenting the cyborg as a living being in need of attentive management in order for it to be properly policed and standardized. In Splice  , this project ultimately has proven a failure, however, with the offspring itself signifying the fact of reproductive disaster redounding on its misguided and inexperienced ‘parents’. Whatever the outcome of biogenetic experimentation may bring forth in the final instance cannot be interpreted according to the ‘either/or’ logics of anatomical or species difference anymore. A female carrying the child of her own ‘progeny’ and a male striving to have sex with a transgender cyborg can no longer lay claim to their heterosexuality/humanity as an essential feature legible in 6   For details see Charles Elkins (ed.), “Symposium on  Alien  ,” Science-Fiction Studies   7.3 (19880), pp. 278  –  304. 7  Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure  , p. 35. 8   Roddey Reid, “‘Death of the Family,’ or, Keeping Human Beings Human,” in: Halberstam & Livingston, Posthuman Bodies  , p. 189.  terms of ‘natural’ and/or external appearances: they unexpectedly merge into the grotesque bodies they created in order to safe- guard and keep separate man’s humanity. Like many other chapters in the history of evolutionary biology, this one is apt to end with a brief note on the blending of different species, commenting with a shrug the fact of a new architecture of life derived from an artificially induced mixture of biological forms. Species difference or the concept of the animal/mutant/cyborg is constitutive of the human now, and there is no other way but to accept that the idea of human exceptionalism rests on flawed foundational assumptions. Human and cyborg are in fact one  , a contested site of anthropological difference and alternate embodiment, and the main function of this new cyborgic human (or, for that matter, humanoid cyborg) in art, film or writing is to reify social relations and political identities as queer   bodies, to collapse the notion of the human-cyborg as unitary being or embodiment into that of a multitude of morphic and libidinal possibilities. The ideological tension between reproductive (or parental) hope and reproductive failure inscribed into the short history of the cyborgic body can no longer be resolved in a manner appropriate to its uncontrollably new scope and meaning; once queried and queered, the human-animal-binary vanishes into thin air and the novel unions and alliances springing from this liquidation cannot but dramatically exceed the accepted moral and legal frameworks of anthropomorphism and -centrism. If current designs in the realm of sci-fi and utopian storytelling teach us anything at all it is the idea that the collectives of the future will do everything to avoid embodying the normative family of our liberal-humanist past. And very probably, it will not be safer or comfortable but certainly more exciting in these as-yet-uncharted “streets among strangers where queer zombies roam.” 9   9  Ibid. p. 195.
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