Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Trans-speciation: From Margaret Cavendish to China Miéville

[cross-posted at The Valve]

The best thing in China Miéville's The Scar is the character Tanner Sack. Tanner is a prisoner from New Crobuzon (think: London), who is on board the Terpsichoria en route to a slave colony (think: Australia). The ship is hijacked by a particularly terrifying group of pirates from the outlaw city called Armada.

Tanner is a Remade, a person who has had involuntary surgery to reconstruct his body in hybrid form. The Remade are either part-animal or part-machine (one character in The Scar has the upper-body of a human woman attached to a coal-powered iron engine, and tank treads instead of legs).

In the anarchic environs of Armada, Tanner Sack learns to use the tentacles that had been implanted on him as a punishment constructively, and comes to think of himself, positively, as a water-bound being. Eventually, he comes to the realization that to really express himself fully he must in fact have a further operation, and become fully amphibian:

Tanner had thought about it for a long time.

His coming to terms with the sea felt like a long, drawn-out birth. Every day he spent more time below, and the water felt better against him. His new limbs had adapted completely, were as strong and almost as prehensile as his arms and hands.

He had seen with envy how Bastard John the dolphin policed his watch, passing through the brine with unique motion (as he swept in to punish some slacking worker with a brutal butting); and had watched as cray from their half-sunk ships (suspendedat the point of being lost, pickled in time) or the unclear menfish from Bask riding launched themselves into the sea, uncontained by harnessing or chains.

When he left the sea, Tanner felt his tentacles hang heavy and uncomfortable. But when he was below, in his harness, his leather and brass, he felt tethered and constrained. He wanted to swim free, across and up into the light and even, yes, even down, into the cold and silent darkness.

The language here reminds one of the language one sometimes sees with people in the real world who are transgendered: it's only as a person of the opposite gender that they can really feel able to express themselves fully. In some sense, Miéville's marvelous (and, I would add, original) interest in the Remade in The Scar is a way of thinking about the liberating possibilities of radical body modification.

Tanner's desire to have his Remade attributes enhanced in order to achieve full amphibian status is also, in the world Miéville has created, an act of radical political subversion. In New Crobuzon, to be Remade is to be branded forever as a criminal by a sadistic polity, and to be effectively condemned to life as a slave. In Armada, the Remade aren't strange; they are, in a kind of utopian reversal, encouraged to contribute to the society in whatever way their modifications might allow. It's an expression of Miéville's utopian (socialist/Marxist) politics.

But there is a bit of an ambiguity there, as the Remade who didn't choose their form remain in some sense fixed by the bodies that were given them as punishment. And as a floating city composed of boats soldered together, wandering nomadically through the open ocean, Armada isn't a place where personal freedoms in the contemporary liberal sense are necessarily paramount. And indeed, the central plot of The Scar revolves around an attempt by the part of the rulers of Armada to assume absolute authority. At base, there is a tension in Miéville's novel between what I would call functionalist and expressivist ideas about the Remade. With Tanner Sack, Miéville seems to be favoring the expressivist side. But functionalism (a kind of authoritarianism) is perhaps still the dominant in Armada.

* * *

In more specifically biological terms, the trans-speciated status of the Remade reverses the social Darwinism of The Island of Dr. Moreau, where this kind of trans-speciational surgery was an artificial way of forcing animals to climb the evolutionary ladder. In Miéville's utopic vision, trans-speciation enables human beings to enter into multiple evolutionary lines -- and experience life as part octopus or part dolphin (or, in one of the novel's most disturbing chapters, part mosquito).

If Moreau is biologically modernist in the sense that it promotes a concept of evolution that is strictly linear and teleological, perhaps The Scar is postmodernist in that it aims towards a kind of wild multiplicity. (It also calls up the phrase Gilles Deleuze uses -- "becoming-animal" -- though I will leave it to readers who understand Deleuzian thinking to draw connections between D/G and Miéville.)

An important difference between H.G. Wells and Miéville's respective novels might be the presence of natural hybrids in Miéville. In Wells, the monstrosities are purely surgical (and then disciplinary and social) creations.

* * *

A colleague who is an 18th century-ist was reading The Scar along with me, and suggested that there might also be a strong parallel between The Scar and the 17th century utopian text by Margaret Cavendish called The Blazing World (1666), which is about a human woman who is kidnapped by a man who loved her (but was "beneath her station"), and taken out to sea. The boat is taken across the ocean in a freak storm, and the men all freeze to death as the ship is brought towards the North Pole. But the lady is rescued by strange bear-men, and brought to see the Emperor, who is so impressed with her that he marries her and makes her Empress. Here is the passage from The Blazing World where the parallels to The Scar seem most apparent:

The rest of the inhabitants of that world, were men of several different sorts, shapes, figures, dispositions, and humors, as I have already made mention heretofore; some were bear-men, some worm-men, som fish- or mear-men, otherwise called sirens; some bird-men, some fly-men, some ant-men, some geese-men, some spider-men, some lice-men, some fox-men, some ape-men, some jackdaw-men, some magpie-men, some parrot-men, some satyrs, some giants, and many more, which I cannot all remember; and of these several sorts of men, each followed such a profession as was most proper for the nature of their species, which the Empress encourage them in, especially those that had applied themselves to the study of several arts and sciences; for they were as ingenious and witty in the invention of profitable and useful arts, as we are in our world, nay, more; and to that end she erected schools, and founded several societies. The bear-men were to be her experimental philosophers, the ape-men her chemists, the satyrs her Galenic physicians, the fox-men her politicans, the spider- and lice-men her mathematicians, the jackdaw-, magpie- and parrot-men her orators and logicians, the giants her architects, etc. But before all things, she having got a sovereign power from the Emperor over all the world, desired to be informed of the manner of their religion and government, and to that end she called the priests and statesmen, to give her an account of either. Of the statesmen she enquired, first, why they had so few laws? To which they answered, that many laws made many divisions, which most commonly did breed factions, and at last break out in open wars. Next, she asked why they preferred the monarchical form of government before any other? They answered, that as it was natural for one body fo have but one head, so it was natural for a politic body to have but one governor; and that a commonwealth, which had many governors was like a monster with many heads

Perhaps you see where this is going. Margaret Cavendish was a supporter of Monarchy during an era when questions about political authority and the divine right of kings was pretty urgent (I would welcome further comments on Cavendish's politics from those who know more than I). And her interest in the hybrid beings of the Blazing World is in some sense a functionalist one in support of a monarchialist vision: everyone in their place, with the Queen/Empress at the head.

But there is a kind of ambiguity or confusion here too, invoked at the end of the paragraph above. If she's so insistent on imagining a world where a sane monarch rules rather than the parliamentary "monster with many heads," why then populate her world with beings that would ordinarily be seen as monstrous? It seems like the hybrid animal/people she proposes are meant to follow their "natural" function, but notice that the jobs she gives them are more or less arbitrarily connected to the real-world personalities of those animals ("lice-men" are mathematicians?). And it can't escape our notice that a woman who was abducted in a patriarchal system in the real world has, in the Blazing World, been made an Empress -- again, defying "nature."

It's the reverse of the political ambiguity in Miéville. And yet, since both utopic visions contain contradictions that seem to nullify their primary arguments, they end up looking strangely parallel. The colleague who introduced this connection to me says she thinks The Scar and The Blazing World are closer to each other than to The Island of Dr. Moreau, and I agree.

* * *

Some final things:

--An edited excerpt of Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World can be found here.

--I suppose we could also discuss how the role of the Remade in The Scar differs from that in Miéville's Perdido Street Station.

--Or we could talk about the history of fantastic sightings in colonial travel narratives (and the literary texts they inspired (as in Shakespeare's Othello: "anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders").


abhishek said...

A few thoughts:
Margaret Cavendish belonged to family of Royalists, e.g. her brother Charles Lucas was a Royalist commander in the Civil War. She herself married into the aristocracy, so I guess it was not surprising that she was pro-monarchy. Very interestingly, her brother Charles was a student of Hobbes (author of Leviathan - the need for a strong central authority to avoid chaos) and had an influence on her.

In so far as the confusion and ambiguity, you mentioned, I differ. As I understood Cavendish's central premise, the "monstrosity" could be seen as metaphors for different people having different abilities. Their "natural" function, for a well-ordered stable society, is to fit into a certain division of labour in line with their abilities. The arbitrary connection she makes is more or less deliberate, in my opinion, because she is essentially describing a "western civilized" society using metaphors of lice men as mathematicians (couldn't figure out the connection b/w lice and maths myself, but in her mind, I guess, there would be a definite connection - perhaps lice-head-brain-intelligence-maths ).
So her functionalist-monarchist society remains, and from pov there are no ambiguities.

About the "defying nature" comment (in re being abducted by a man etc.), one criticism that I came across of Cavendish was that she was conceited and a self-publicist. - perhaps that could explain the apparent contradiction of defying "nature" in the sense that it could be contended that she was imagining herself as the "Empress" and hence the "natural" head of the order of things.

Nice historical connection, however the differences between Scar and Blazing World are significant. The former is way more anti-authoritarian as opposed to the "central stable authority" of the latter. The creatures in Scar, like you said, punished with trans-speciation and adapt themselves to their new condition in Armada (turning a curse into a boon) while in Cavendish's version they are metaphors of a utopia where trans-speciation represents an individual's abilities to fit in a society.
I guess you could term them anarcho-functionalism and monarcho-functionalism.

4:45 PM  

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