I don’t like what’s happening with the body. In particular, what’s happening with my body, which is why I keep cutting it up.Saul Tenser, Crimes of the Future
In 2018, a study published in the journal Scientific Reports revealed that researchers from New York University’s School of Medicine have identified a new component of our biological structure. Dubbed the interstitium, the new organ is a long-hidden system of fluid-filled cavities found everywhere in the human body – thriving between membranes, buried within organs, and extant in our entire circulatory system. Far from vestigial, interstitium fulfil several integral functions, from transporting nutrients and solutes to playing an important communication role in our immune regulation. More recently there have been reports of a new pair of salivary glands located in the posterior nasopharynx of the human throat. So, this begs the question: are humans summoning dormant organs for some imminent hominin event, silently re-adapting on the precipice of unknowable futurological opportunity?
Establishing what this next phase will be, as well as the nature of the event, is more complicated. It has long been established that environmental factors are no longer the motivating forces for evolutionary change. In fact, the dominant stimulus for physiological change is sexual selection. This process is predicated on mutations that improve special reproductive competitiveness, seductiveness, and mating resistance. It is physical desirability that propels the rate of evolution in areas of the genome encoding for these functional characteristics. In the wild, female peacocks prefer to mate with males with more ornate trains. Male redback spiders deliver sperm to the female using evolved mouthparts – the male is completely subservient, driven by the desire for sexual acceptance, so much so that he will offer himself as food for the female during the mating process. It’s a powerful evolutionary process, and therefore the central preoccupation of our waking reality.
If human beings have stopped evolving in visible ways then perhaps it’s time to let outside technologies intervene. Take ExistenZ, for example. Cronenberg explores the much-fêted realm of cyberspace for the first time and connects our bodies to the mainframe network via parasitic conduits called ‘Umby-chords’. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Gellar, a mercurial video game designer presenting her latest game, ExistenZ, to a focus group of frothing admirers. After a botched assassination attempt Geller is forced to go on the run with a naïve PR pen-pusher called Ted Pikul (Jude Law). Along the way, Geller encourages Pikul to relinquish his virginity by having a port inserted at the base of his spine (via brutal penetrative stud-gun procedure) so they can finally share the game space together. But prior to the surgery Pikul has clear reservations about his own body fragmentation: ‘I’ve been dying to play your games, but I have this phobia about having my body penetrated…surgically’. He eventually gives in to this symbolic invagination and in doing so becomes a viable sex object in Allegra Geller’s eyes. When the spine-port becomes infected Geller sees fit to lube up the cracked entry-point, massage the outer edges, twist organic umbilicus in and out of it, and ultimately reassure Pikul that this new orifice will provide a gateway into a more exciting reality. She certainly comes good on her promise. When the game-pods are later dissected we see a nervous-system of bio-tech. The Umby-chord lives and breathes, occurs organically, and when it is inserted into a port the conduit has reality-deforming sex with its human partner. As David Cronenberg’s new film Crimes of the Future reminds us, the body is still reality. For now, at least. Surgery might even be the new sex.
The Wizard Behind the Curtain
To most, the sight of our own intestinal tract would elicit an understandable abodyemigphobiac (the irrational fear of human internal anatomy and physiology) response. As recently as last week my friend visited the doctor for a routine colonoscopy and described the sight of her intestines as resembling a ‘palpitating nest of worms’ – we are simply not meant to see the wizard behind the curtain. It reminds us of the frailness of our innermost meat, and the dualist illusion of eternal consciousness (or a soul) starts to break down. We already have a distant dysmorphic relationship with our innards – the surface dream we are locked into, and value, does not permit a meaningful connection with the functional processes of the lonely pink islands fluttering quietly inside us. In a sense this is similar to an individual’s common phobia of mirrors, spectrophobia, where any refraction of an ugly reality is likely to be avoided/rejected for the sake of maintaining our own daydream. These organs are a reminder that we are machinic. And how can a machine achieve transcendence with nature and spirituality? A machine is cold, not just atheistic but aspiritual. A famous critique of the mind, body relationship occurs in Ryle’s Concept of Mind. Ryle determined that the logical fallacy of Cartesian rationalism was its attempts to evaluate the relation between mind and body, as if they were two notions existing in the same logical category. But they are not comparable, they are unrelated to each other. Just the way we like it. The body is frail and fallible. The mind could go on. Two separate realities and never the twain shall meet.
It’s a strange notion, that we might not know or understand our own bodies. That they might even be so alien to us that we require an enforced denial of sorts to maintain our mental wellbeing. But wouldn’t it be healthier for my friend to view this same intestinal system with admiration more for its aesthetic than its digestive function? The parasites in Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977) can seize control of human organs, dulling the mind to favour cannibalistic impulses but ascending the host organ to new evolutionary plateaus of survival. In the new parasite-driven society we would reappraise what we once deemed meaningful and beautiful. In a new reality the common aesthetic would transform and we would start to view entry wounds as sexually stimulating, look upon the peeking armpit parasites within us with familial fondness. For the first time in his filmography, Cronenberg rejects the notion of a creeping singularity or oneness with the technological. It’s time to embrace the innermost meat.
The new film’s protagonist, Saul Tenser, suffers from ‘accelerated evolution syndrome’, a disorder that leads his body to continually develop new vestigial organs. Cronenberg enjoys making mutants out of his characters and is clearly inspired by real-life performance artists. The unfortunate ‘casualties’ in the aforementioned Shivers and Rabid are forced to step into the next phase of genetic mutation by their infection, but some of his characters make the conscious choice to evolve. Take the basic mortar of Seth Brundle, deteriorating to neonatal art for the sake of science when he enters the telepod in The Fly (1986) – shedding great swathes of his own flesh, bone, and viscera until all that’s left is the new chitinous insect membrane underneath. It is the final Lazarus performance – life transitioning to death then back to life (then back to death). In 1964, Orlan, the French performance artist who was a source of inspiration for Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, produced a controversial and ground-breaking photograph of herself giving birth to a mannequin, entitled Orlan S’Accouche d’Elle M’Aime. She would take it one step further in 1978 by filming her own ectopic pregnancy in 1978, the non-viable foetus almost killing her mid-recording. Orlan did not want to die, which is why she had the procedure and why she has pursued a career in the ego-sphere of art. Brundle had the commitment to go all the way. He is largely unconcerned with his own fate if a scientific breakthrough can be achieved. He put his body on the line, took the risk of destroying what he once was, so he could emerge anew. Both Orlan and Brundle are essentially destroying their own tissue, but only one of these performances results in the death of the mother.
(Max Renn makes a similar journey in Videodrome, consciously obliterating his old flesh so it can be replaced by something new; a media/human crossbreed. Suicide being the quickest way to achieve the new reality for his body.)
Even Klinke, or ear man in the film, seems like a riff on performance art, in this case the work of the Australian Stelios Arcadiou. In 2006 Arcadiou, also known as Stelarc, had a third ear cultivated from cells in a lab and surgically inserted on his inner arm.The ear, described by Stelarc as a prosthetic augmentation, was constructed from soft tissue and flexible cartilage harvested from his ribcage instead of any hard materials. Ear on Arm is Stelarc’s longest performance and took him over a decade to find surgeons willing to perform the procedure. People consider Stelarc an evolutionary revolutionary, albeit his transformation required the unnatural intervention of surgery. And, of course, to Cronenberg, surgeons are priest-like figures. Honourable, shamanic in bib and doff. These surgeons helped Stelarc become a celebrated mutant and respected artist. They give meaning to the machine as well as the agency of the ghost within.
Both Tenser and Klinke are essentially celebrated mutants in Crimes. If one were to consider fossil records of the moment the film is set, Tenser might represent a transitional entity who links current Homo sapiens back to Homo erectus and then forward to the next hominin event. Whether we transcend the physical parameters naturally or colonise space in our current bodies first before later adapting to a new cosmological environment, changes are coming and they’re as inevitable as death and taxes. This next stage could take on a functionary configuration. There are vocal factions of scientists who argue that, with the help of chromatophore transplants, human beings could eventually acquire an ability to consciously alter the colour of their skin, a mechanism that would help us camouflage against predators the way chameleons do. There is a biologist working at Sheffield University who makes serious assertions that we could one day grow beaks! More resilient than teeth, a rostrum would make our oral functions ‘more robust and practical’. Cartilaginous skeletons would allow us to become more flexible and would make evolutionary sense, eliminating that inherent physical fragility that inhibits our daily consciousness. Then there’s natural regression. With the increasing need to engage with technical interfaces, there are some who believe we will spout tentacles during the next stage. After all, our ancestors were organisms who lived in the Vendian sea and were likely radially symmetrical instead of bilateral. A return to the Vitruvian man. Regression as a means of evolution.
Tenser may be a living link of sorts, a preamble to the big transformation – or maybe he is a vague future-dream of what we are about to become. Maybe he is the final stage before complete corporeal reconfiguration.
The Transcendent Image
The creation of inner beauty cannot be an accident…Adrienne Berceau, Crimes of the Future
Crimes has a distinctly scenic, if prosaic, Mediterranean setting. We land in an Athens we can all recognise – a place of littoral caves, sandstone, and marble pantheons, all of which rest in distinctly banal realism beneath the familiar Greek acropolis. This setting of Greece feels deliberate on Cronenberg’s part, especially when one considers the themes inherent to the film – Hippocrates contribution to the ‘natural’ treatment of disease and Anaximander theory on fossil records and the origin and evolution of life feels particularly relevant to the genetic makeup of Crimes of the Future.
The interior sets are ones of rusty spigots, corroded metal spice racks, brassbound spiral stairwells, grates, and factory buildings. There is age and rust and material deterioration everywhere. This real-world backdrop roots in a ‘near-future’ and proposes a reliance on natural methods – granted there is use of an acoustic medical device, reminiscent of a stethoscope, but it’s made evident that while technology can record and manipulate, it cannot incite change. A union of the organic and technological on the other hand will get us much closer to that spiritual transcendence we seek.
Crimes of the Future posits a world where a new bio-technology reigns supreme, but interestingly for a contemporary film on this topic, there is no social media facsimile here. No obsession with surface or the theatrics of an elevated ego. There are no circuit boards spilling insulated entrails of cable-trail to be found. There is no cyber-talk and there are no futuristic transpecial accoutrements to speak of. The only technology present, or the prevailing form of it at least, is the SARK autopsy bed, which looks like a dentist chair composed of weaved bone and beetle shell. The SARK module has an exoskeleton, honeycombed and armoured. It is a natural-looking, physical object which manipulates the physical structures of the interior human domain. Cronenberg’s new vision extends to us a world governed by uncaring Darwinism, not by the interventions and advancements of any industrial folly. Nothing feels man-made or unnatural. It is conceivable that the SARK was never designed and distributed by a human engineer, but rather simply came into being the way the rest of early sentient life came into being. The technology was born of its own, existing, evolving, and functioning in the world the way any creature might.
Still, while the modern apparition of cybernetic technology appears absent from Cronenberg’s latest film, there remains an element of self-design or morphological freedom at its core – something that devoted carnal artists like Orlan, Neil Harbisson and Manuel De Aguas would recognise as part of their own central creative philosophy. These are artists driven by functional imperative. In Spain, the Transpecies Society is going strong. Founded by Harbisson, an Irishman who became the first self-identified cyborg, the society has many artists as members. One member, Manel de Aguas, developed an artificial organ called Weather Sense which allows him to connect to peripheral meteorological conditions. De Aguas states that ‘my life as “propioespecie” will be my performance art – a piece with an indefinite duration in which I will perform my life as a non-human species, who is sensorially hyper-connected to the atmosphere.’ These artists are dedicated to personal nonconformity, rallying against what they define as the radical ‘anthropocentrism’ of today’s society. He goes on to say that ‘the desire to add a new artificial organ or not may be something in our nature. We should all have the freedom to do whatever we want with our bodies and our minds.’
And like the confrontational showmanship of these artists (which involves self-mutilation and the implantation of osseointegrated devices), the visual element of Saul Tenser’s art remains and elicits similarly strong polemic, only we need an autopsy bed to witness the new developments as they happen. As a result, Tenser’s work actually becomes more confrontational, more theatrical. Tenser offers an audience, not just his heart and soul, but literally his blood and guts. Interestingly, Klinke’s ears are non-functioning and so his aberrant appearance is deemed pretentious and escapist propaganda by the intelligentsia. He is a poser. Had they been fully functioning he may have achieved credible art, like the aforementioned Stelarc. Tenser’s mutations, however, are admired, even lusted after by Timlin (played by Kristin Stewart). He is a rockstar to those who appreciate his functioning uniqueness. Timlin is proud to archive the artist’s organography.
Artists are like insects, with more sensitive antennas than most people to pick up things around.David Cronenberg
The ultimate goal of all transhumanists, as is the case with all artists, is to achieve immortality. The act of creating art, an artistic body of work, is itself transhuman, a shot at the immortal. Art is in our image, it becomes us, and also surpasses us. In Cronenberg’s world, artists have retreated completely inwards in their efforts to achieve this, away from the direction of any technological subsumption. To many of us living in this version of reality, where our personalities are sanitised and our fleshliness filtered, the world of the film seems positively utopian. Every artist in Crimes of the Future is a committed analogue and seems wholly fulfilled by their work. Nothing is ethereal or transient. Even the gyrating ear man, Klinke, engages in semi-purposeful mutilation – unalterable scarification that will never and should never heal. This art, human art, cannot be lost to the hungry coded abyss of cyberspace. These artists are willing to sacrifice their very organic carapace in order to achieve a kind of transcendent imagery. With the exception of those few performance artists mentioned earlier, can you imagine any creative figure in our culture willing to part with their physical avatar with such a profound finality? And I include myself among those who’d refuse. True art is the antithesis of beauty. Beauty is only what we think we want in this current evolutionary cul-de-sac. Limiting and superficial.
Surviving Death as an Organic Posthuman
Technology is an extension of our bodies. For me, it has always been an expression of human will and creativity – and the body is in its centre.David Cronenberg
Just before Crimes dropped, Cronenberg starred in a one-minute-long NFT entitled The Death of David Cronenberg. This short depicts Cronenberg entering his childhood bedroom before tearfully embracing his own supine corpse. It seems like a relatively straightforward materialists’ metaphor for mortality salience – a fear of body-death – but perhaps it is also a veiled comment on potential evolutionary advancement. The fundamental paradox of the short is that Cronenberg’s corpse lies before him, yet he is still there to oversee it. He can hold his own physical image the way a hologram might covet its user-of-origin. Now, undoubtedly, Cronenberg’s career and legacy are enough to immortalise him in the minds of those who admire his art, but maybe the director is illustrating to us the second life. If you consider the way planaria (flatworms) can regenerate lost tissue, is it so outrageous to imagine that the next phase of human evolution could see us manifest consciousness into an infinite number of organic shells? One body dies but the consciousness’ will to power manifests and imbues a mirror body as a means of surviving after death.
This is a common theoretical discussion among futurologists and usually centres around the concept of whole brain emulation (WBE). Here the brain is essentially copied and uploaded to a computer. The hope is that by copying the brain to computational substrate the memories therein will also be transferred – it would be a machine intelligence, a facsimile for consciousness, but it’s about as close as we can get to extracting the fragile phantom of authentic awareness from the host vessel.
WBE requires brain mapping and simulation: basically, you need billions of pounds of investment in technology in order to achieve the digital facsimile of a human personality. Cronenberg has organic means. The creative organ, stronger than any computerised alternative. Driven by the Artist in the Machine. In the same way that all cosmological systems, like our universe, can creatively muster atoms and molecules from nothing, our latent Darwinian processes (variation and selection) put the creation of new species of organisms in motion.
Potential for enlightenment
It is time to stop seeing. It is time to stop speaking. It is time to listen.Crimes of the Future
In the 1990s there was something of a body art renaissance. People were starting to acknowledge their bodies in a different way. In Dan Brooks’s New York Times article, ‘The Existential Anguish of the Tattoo’, he explains that ‘Like many important signifiers of the 1990s, tattoos began as a gesture of rebellion and became so ubiquitous as to carry no stigma at all.’ The 90s was a time of freedom and self-experimentation without fear of ridicule. Brooks continues:
I know a dozen people with full sleeves, and all but one of them have children. Their sleeves now read as an indictment of nonconformism rather than an assertion of it – which is weird, because the tattoos themselves haven’t changed.
Standard blackwork tattoos were on the rise but so were more unusual practices, like keloiding, subdermal implants and stretching. Soon the performative side of body modification had been appropriated by the art community. The potential of transformation felt endless, and it seemed the human mind had finally made peace with the body, seeing it as more of a personal canvas than a decaying vessel for consciousness to tour the planes of our physical environment.
And so Tenser’s neo-organs become a simple metaphor for creativity. Those with vestigial organs become artists while the bureaucratic registry doctors and sentinels of the New Vice Unit are simply cold, logical sceptics and aficionados of the creative performance. Artists are determined to inculcate their public with a sense of transcendental worth. Crimes is a film preoccupied with what human beings can achieve naturally – what we can achieve without the phantom broadcast of Videodrome present to encourage our tumours or the jolting trauma of Existenz’s reality-altering bio-port surgery. And it’s important to make the distinction that while these films all share a common grammar, Crimes of the Future is not Videodrome or ExistenZ. In Crimes of the Future there are no victims because none of its characters can feel pain. In a sense this is Cronenberg’s most humane film.
Then there is 8-year-old Brecken, who is smothered by his mother in a brutal act of filicide during the film’s opening set-piece. She feels he is an abomination because he consumes and digests plastic. This is not such a science-fictional concept. It was discovered recently that microbes in oceans and soils are evolving to do exactly this. There are over 30,000 different enzymes able to degrade different types of plastic, with the human body already able to deal with 50,000 particles of microplastic. Some scientists believe that consumption might be a feasible way to counter plastic pollution. But when we think about these changes in terms of futurological opportunity we may not be ready to shed the body just yet – maybe we’re preparing to completely recalibrate our internal digestive tract first. Perhaps a body that can digest synthetic polymers can develop stronger respiratory and cardiovascular systems to counter the effects of heavy metal pollution and our own biotoxicity. We would see a reduction in the progression of diseases like Alzheimer’s, asthma, Parkinson’s and other risk factors of environmental contamination, if only our bodies were completely unlocked of their full potential. So, it’s established that we have a built-in reverse-vending machine ready to recycle our worries away. Yet Brecken’s mother is disgusted by this ability and expunges him. It is the non-artist who fears the evolution of the body. The anti-technology of Crimes of the Future reveals itself in its mutants. The characters who are fearless in the face of their physical decay, because underneath, beneath the creases of subcutaneous tissue, wonderous new technology is waiting to bloom forth from within. The artists in Crimes of the Future engage in self-autopsy, which is really a new way of looking inwards, towards the soul. It is the non-artist who will cease to evolve and survive, while the artist takes the body, even that of a child, and without reservation seeks to turn autopsy into art. The artist transgresses physical boundaries.
Chris Kelso is a multi-translated Scottish writer and editor. His books include The Black Dog Eats the City, The Dregs Trilogy, Interrogating the Abyss, and Children of the New Flesh: The Early Work and Pervasive Influence of David Cronenberg (co-edited with David Leo Rice). Kelso’s work has been published in Black Static, Locus magazine, and many more. He has been nominated for a British Fantasy Award, a Brave New Weird Award, and was the two-time winner of the Ginger Nuts of Horror Awards for best novel in 2016/17. This essay is his Interzone debut.
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