Saturday, January 7, 2012

We're the Squishy Monsters!

In myths, movies, and other forms of fiction, there are two prominent kinds of monsters: pointy and squishy ones. The pointy ones, with fangs, claws, or other sharp edges, represent the insect and the alien, the nonhuman that crawls out of its lair from elsewhere, creeps up your arm and bites you (werewolves, vampires, Giger's aliens, etc). Insects have the archetypal alien form, with their nonhuman body size, population, number of limbs, and exoskeleton that gives them sharp outer edges. The meaning of squishy monsters, like blobs of jelly, large and bulbous octopi bodies, or aliens with oversized heads and no sharp edges, is more complicated. Superficially, these monsters too scare us because of their inhumanity, but this depends on an identification of us with our seemingly immaterial consciousness. Ghosts and godlike intelligences of pure energy might then represent our own immaterial essence, our so-called spirit. To the extent that we think of ourselves as immaterial spirits, manifesting as consciousness, Plato’s hierarchy comes into play, in which the ideal Forms of imperfect, material copies reside in heaven while the copies swarm in the material plane, distracting intelligent beings and imprisoning them in the cave of ignorance. The squishy monster would thus be as alien to our true form as would the sharp-edged monster, since in the Gnostic scheme either would represent the Platonic baseness of materiality and either would be equally loathsome as a symbol of our jailer.

After the Scientific Revolution and the waning of anthropocentric teleology, according to which all of nature is objectively subject to a plan that's laid out in a heaven of ideal models, we’re led to think of ourselves in more corporeal terms. Moreover, scientists confirmed that the brain is our control center and that our eyes are extensions of our brains. The brain and eyes are quintessentially squishy organs, and although the brain is protected by a hard skull, by itself the brain is a pitifully fragile vessel. One of our predominant postmodern fears, then, is of the evident mismatch between the godlike powers of our intelligence, freedom, and consciousness, and our incarnation in fragile bodies with delicate internal organs. That is, we fear that assuming we're identical with our physical bodies, these bodies must not be prisons, after all, since there would be no captive spirit, no ghost in the machine, no traveler from a heavenly dimension who's lost among the cages of incarnated forms. Instead, the spilling of our blood and the rotting of our organs would terminate our life, in which case our intelligence, freedom, and consciousness must have misled us to assume otherwise. The postmodern fear, then, is that we’re godlike only in our delusions of grandeur, that we’re actually absurd animals whose life is sustained by eminently vulnerable bodies, next to what natural forces can throw at us. True, we dominate the planet with our own exoskeletons of skyscrapers, vehicles, weapons, and other hard-edged technologies. But at the core of our planetary power, at the helm of our army of machines, we’re naked apes who need to mitigate the curse of reason with escapist fantasies.

Reason empowers us to control natural forces to our benefit, but also potentially horrifies us by showing us what we really are: the very "science fictional" squishy monsters that terrify us! If we are essentially our flimsy, wrinkled, gelatinous brains with the tentacles of our nerve endings reaching down our brainstem to control our body’s extremities, a monster like the Dalek of Doctor Who (a slimy, puny alien encased in a powerful machine), the tentacled green alien in The Simpsons, or the mindless blob from classic science fiction surely revolts us because it reminds us so much of ourselves. We’re the slimy, squishy, fragile creatures with tentacles that frantically push buttons on our machines to protect us but also to enslave whatever we encounter. Not only are we those pitiful creatures, but we’re monstrous in our enthrallment to pragmatic reason, which coldly enforces our survival instinct--now with institutions like free markets and stealth oligarchic democracies--even if the end results are social dominance hierarchies, the extinction of all other species, and the ecosystem’s destruction. Moreover, we’re estranged from the rest of nature by our peculiar abilities and we’re alienated especially from ourselves, clinging to fantasies of immortality and transcendence even after science has pulled back the curtain and exposed our true nature.
We humans are the squishy, monstrous aliens! When we confront images of such creatures in the media, our fear and revulsion are due to our unwillingness to look ourselves in the mirror; we prefer to avoid the angst that’s our true birthright as animals cursed with “godlike” powers of intelligence, freedom, and consciousness. We’re free to turn our rationality and our scientific methods of investigation on ourselves, to cut through fairytales, intuitive myths, and other feel-good narratives to discover what turns out to be the horrible truth, and we’re sentient so that that truth can fully register with us as its imprint is burned in our brain, mocking our preferred self-image. We escape angst by externalizing the cause of our dread; we pretend that instead of beholding our monstrous visage in the cultural mirror, we’re merely titillated by tales of fictitious monsters and aliens that lie “under the bridge,” in a place “far, far away,” underground, on another planet, in a spaceship, in “another dimension,” or anywhere else but under our own skin.

In the tale of the beauty and the beast, this clash between our appearance and inner reality is reduced to the mundane conflicts between the sexes or social classes, as the beautiful woman/upper class learns to love the man/lower class in spite of his or its uncouth tendencies and primitive outbursts. In The Tempest, Prospero, who represents our godlike creative intellect, learns to accept the beastly Caliban as his own (“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”). According to Jungian psychology, we each have a shadow side of our character that undermines our persona, or public image, and we need to confront and accept our shadow so that we can develop into authentic, whole individuals.

There is, however, no wholesome union between our biological reality and our preferred status as beautiful children of God or as worthy lords of creation. On the contrary, the natural facts of what we are and how we act as a species are full-fledged horrors enabled by our escapist fantasies. Far from undermining socially-useful delusions, science and other forces of modernity have created the self-destructive postmodern society, lost in aimless pragmatism, stultifying relativism and decadence, its birth rate paltry, its leaders functionary technocrats or demagogues, and its culture a corresponding panoply of scientistic or more retrograde rationalizations of oligarchic excesses. (See Scientism.) Were we to accept our monstrous, alienated identity and abandon our soothing narratives, there’s every indication that postmodern society would lose its collective sanity and implode. Premodern, theocratic societies in the Middle East are currently imploding in the so-called Arab Spring, but even if they manage to reform themselves like the compromising Church, pacifying their reactionary fundamentalists, their reformation would likely usher in the secular delusions of scientism to bolster the ensuing "enlightened" voters and stealth oligarchs.

Transhumanists expect that technology will eventually enable us to radically merge with technology, such as by downloading our minds into new, powerful and immortal bodies. Even were this feasible, we might then escape the horror of our naturally selected form but pass on the preoccupations that cause our monstrous behaviour and our angst. Were the transformation sufficiently radical, the result would be the death of humans unless there were some continuity between the two species, such as a gradual development of humans into posthumans. Any such continuity, though, would permit regression, which is why postmodern humans still have primitive, prehuman tendencies due to the fact that our brain structures slowly evolved. A posthuman, then, would either still be outwardly, if not inwardly, monstrous and thus subject to angst from the disparity between its ideals and its practices, or else would bear witness to our execution rather than embodying our resurrection. At any rate, the transhumanist combines Gnostic horror of cosmic imprisonment with scientistic assurance of social progress through technoscience. The horror is justified, the scientism less so.  

What should be done about this ultimate self-loathing? I know of no near-term or obvious methods for postmodern (relatively well-informed) folk to avoid horror from the knowledge of our existential predicament, other than methods that depend on delusions and thus violate ethical or inspiring aesthetic standards. The method actually practiced on a mass scale involves, as I said, the scapegoating of fictional monsters and aliens, that is, the pretense that there are no real ones, but only the harmless, entertaining fictions. Were we to admit that those imaginary freaks are merely pale imitations of living and breathing, walking and talking monstrous aliens, and that each one of us, beginning with our revolting biological essence and ending in our collective sociopathic abuse of the planet and of each other, is such a freak, our politically correct charades would come crushing down and a great time of reckoning would be at hand. For example, the elected politician’s invoking of optimistic, civic mantras about our dignity and greatness would lose its power to stupefy. At a minimum, conscientious, courageous, and informed persons should foreswear the most egregious, degrading forms of self-deception. Being a squishy monster is bad enough, but a deluded coward who flees from self-awareness to a world of make-believe is even more nauseating.


  1. Hm, is it wrong if the fantasies we cling to of immortality and transcendence are labelled as aspirations and we realistically realize the bleak difficulty and impermanence of the pursuits?

    1. I think you're asking whether escapist fantasies can be harmless. They surely can be. I'm a fan of science fiction and that includes some transhuman SF, which deals with immortality and transcendence (the techno singularity). My criticism of delusions is really ethical and aesthetic, which means that what bothers me about delusions is the set of vices they require and foster. If you've got what you call a realistic mindset, and you can detach yourself from your fantasies so that you don't let them weaken your character too much, then you're free to enjoy them and even to work to realize them, without necessarily violating what I'd call some inspiring ethical and aesthetic standards. Indeed, those standards aren't exactly "realistic," which is what makes them normative and idealistic. But an ideal or an entertaining fantasy isn't the same as a delusion (the latter is pejorative).

      Now, if you're talking specifically about quasi-religious fantasies, about immortality and so on, this is a more difficult question in my view. I'm going to be addressing a related issue in an upcoming blog rant, about the difference between optimistic, traditional mysticism and the darker, Lovecraftian kind. I'll have to think this over until then.