Shapeshifter

D.T. Suzuki says of a picture of a hibiscus, a work attributed to the 13th century zen buddhist monk Mu-chi, “The secret is to become the plant itself. But how can a human being turn himself into a plant? …He ought to become the object he desires to paint. The discipline consists in studying the plant inwardly with his mind thoroughly purified of its subjective, self-centered contents. This means to keep the mind in unison with the Emptiness or Suchness, whereby one who stands against the object ceases to be the one outside that object but transforms himself into the object itself.”

The idea of shapeshifting had disturbed me when I was a child. This was mainly due to having seen X-Men. Mystique was, to me, by far the most threatening mutant because she undermined one’s confidence in anybody around oneself. One could never tell a friend from an enemy, or more close to home, a stranger from a loved one. The concept was perverse to me. I wanted to have confidence that my mother was my mother and not a stranger.

Additionally, there is something creepy about the otherwise forgettable film Spy Kids, specifically the Fooglies. Not only are they disturbing in appearance, but the idea that they are people whose form had been changed against their will is creepy. This is also what makes RoboCop disturbing. It seems that one of the most cruel tortures would be to augment another human being’s body against his or her will. I’m also reminded of the ending scene of The Fly, when Brundle holds the barrel of the shotgun to his head.
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What these examples have in common is the creepiness of disturbing the integrity of the body. Seth Brundle might be able to answer more closely than anyone what it feels like to be something not human, but there is an extent to which one should not know what it’s like to be anything other than human. Cockroaches, for example, find each other attractive, but I don’t think it would be sane for a human mind to find cockroaches attractive.

Obviously, Suzuki’s statement does not describe the physical transformation of the body into a hibiscus. He is describing the state of mushin, no-mind. Even in such a state, does a human being “become”, hyper-empathize with, or adopt understanding of what it is to be like a hibiscus?

A hibiscus is much more attractive a thing than a fly, yet still disturbing if one imagines “becoming” the plant. I also remember the Goosebump’s story “Stay Out of the Basement” as a creepy product in my childhood. A plant is equally non-human, or perhaps more-so, than an insect, yet insects are seen as significantly more disgusting. Despite their mode of being, they symbolically denote different values. Flies are disgusting and annoying whereas flowers are beautiful and tranquil.

It sounds very zen to say, “become the flower”, “become the cloud”, “become the bird”, but it is equally zen to say, “become the fly”. Zen entails no system of morality or beauty that divides beings into higher and lesser, so far as I know. But also as far as I can tell, the idealized landscape is a favorite theme of zen artists. There is something that appeals so much more to the human sensibility about a crane standing in a lake than a fly standing on a pile of shit, yet for these creatures themselves, both modes of being are equally ideal. Even in so many of the paintings of zen monks, these idealized humans, there seems to be a symbolic filter when looking at the world. This seems very different from looking at the world “thoroughly purified of… subjective, self-centered contents”. Symbols do not exist in nature.

A popular Buddhist folktale recalls a story about Hotei explaining that one should not confuse words for what they signify, like one should not confuse a finger pointing at the moon for the moon. One must look past the finger to see the moon.

One can experience an environment in multiple ways, by paying attention to the sense impression of one’s environment or by reading the environment as a set of signifiers. Suzuki is describing the experience of something like empathy with the inhuman objects of one’s environment. This reminds me of Ian Bogost’s book Alien Penomenology, Or, What it’s Like to be a Thing. Bogost structures his topic by presenting the diverse ontological theories of important philosophers. He points out that all of these theories are, using a phrase coined by Quentin Meillassoux, correlationist in nature, referring to the correlate between mind and world. Bogost summarizes, critically, “If things exist, they only do so for us.”

More broadly, he identifies two camps of thought: scientific naturalism and social relativism that dominate contemporary thinking. Scientific naturalism is the continuation of enlightenment thinking that positions things in relation to humans by defining them as consisting of ever smaller units of things, which man continually dissects further and further, bringing each level into the spotlight of understanding. Social Relativism positions things in relation to humans by defining them as social and/or psychological constructs. These camps can be said to be opposed, as one holds that true knowledge exists independent of history or context while the other holds that all objects of human understanding are shaped by history and context. However, these camps are not at all opposed, as they both take as their foundation the duality of mind and body. The human perspective (mind) is, in both camps, the perspective that defines and gives importance to all things.

Bogost, finding correlationism to be a limitation and a flaw in defining things, offers object-oriented ontology, an ontology focused on things from the perspective of things, as a solution. Whereas one might normally define a fly in relation to a human perspective, object-oriented ontology would attempt to define the fly from the perspective of the fly. Furthermore, one would define other things in relation to the perspective of the fly, and one would continue to define the fly as it is seen by other things (“seen”, here, being a metaphor). The human relationship to the fly is an acceptable way of describing the fly, but it is one accurate description among many. The fly’s relationship to any other thing is equally descriptive of the fly. This is referred to by Levi Bryant as flat ontology. Bogost provides a very specific example by answering the question: What is E.T. (the 1982 videogame adaptation of the movie). He provides numerous definitions, including the programed operations of the game itself, the material plastic-encased ROM, the copyright, the experience of playing the game, and the symbol the game has become of the market crash of 1983. All these definitions, separate from each other (the cultural symbol the game has become is inherently separated from the game’s programmed operations), equally and accurately describe the thing that is E.T. There is no “more” true or accurate definition of the thing. Thus, object-oriented ontology is flat, not hierarchical.

It’s interesting to imagine what the world looks like to the Mantis Shrimp, who have twelve photoreceptors in their eye’s to human kind’s three. When one imagines how the world looks to the Mantis shrimp, one imagines a spectacular world of vibrancy, as if someone turned up the saturation on the photo filter. In fact, seeing into the infrared or ultraviolet spectrum might not be altogether useful to the human. The idea that shrimp see “better” than humans is correlationist (and also somewhat misunderstood). Shrimp see as is suited for shrimp, while human beings see as is suited for human beings. When we imagine seeing through the eyes of a shrimp, we ultimately imagine seeing through the eyes of a human no matter what. It’s similar to Picasso’s problem with analytic cubism: that it is ultimately impossible to envision the object seen from multiple perspectives, that conventions of linear perspective still find their way into the the composition. After realizing this, he focused on synthetic cubism, a more semiotic instead of observational practice.

Herein lies the challenge to object-oriented ontology: one cannot divorce oneself from one’s inherently human perspective. Things are elusive, possessing (“possessing” here being a metaphor) an attribute object-oriented ontology refers to as withdrawal. When discussing Thomas Nagel’s attempt to answer the question: what is it like to be a bat?, Bogost summarizes Nagel, “consciousness has a subjective character that cannot be reduced to its physical components…. For Nagel, the very idea of experience requires this “being-likeness,” a feature that eludes observation even if its edges can be traced by examining physical properties. Because of this elusiveness… physical reductionism can never explain the experience of a being.” Boost further points out the obvious, “imagining what it’s like to be a bat is not the same as being a bat.”

Yet object-oriented ontology emphasizes that this being of the bat, as well as of all beings, is flat. There is no hierarchy of being. Knowing what it is like to be a bat would serve to develop a more concrete understanding of reality, for the bat’s reality is equally as real as the human’s. Yet the human cannot experience the bat’s reality while experiencing the human’s. For the mind that seeks objectivity, this is a torture. As a solution, Bogost proposes abandoning this desire for objectivity, or objective phenomenology, in favor of what he calls alien phenomenology. Alien phenomenology appears wholly more poetic than scientific. Bogost emphasizes anthropomorphizing as not only unavoidable (as any thing sees other things from its own perspective), but as actually useful. He cites Jane Bennett: “Maybe it’s worth running the risks associated with anthropomorphizing (superstition, the divination of nature, romanticism) because it, oddly enough, works against anthropocentrism: a chord is struck between person and thing, and I am no longer above or outside a nonhuman “environment.””

Anthropomorphizing, as unscientific as it is, might help overcome this correlationist problem. Though it does not serve to help in the quest for “objective” knowledge, it overcomes the hierarchical relationship between man and environment.

Kid’s like playing as animals almost by impulse.

I remember, as a kid, performing an exercise in school where I and some other students tried to position our bodies with each other’s so as to create letters.

What is the most abstract thing one can anthropomorphize or have empathy for? A color? A shape? A line? A letter or a word?

The most abstract thing I’ve ever seen anthropomorphized was the soundtrack. This was a segment in Disney’s Fantasia. The soundtrack comes out simply as a line, already given personality, properly demonstrating what animating does, which is to instill spirit. The line transforms as it visually describes the noises one hears.

Animating, in the manual way, entails “becoming” the thing described perhaps even more than zen painting. Images of animators drawing reveal contorted expressions as they transform into the things they describe. When animating by hand, all things that move only do so as a consequence of the manual work of the animator. Not just characters. The wind. Water. Fire. Fairy dust. Hair. Explosions. The soundtrack. All of these are expressive, a consequence of a human anthropomorphizing. Hair falls in an animation because the animator becomes the hair, expressed an emotion by occupying the object.

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Up till now, my examples of “things” have been fairly binary. Appealing or ugly. A flower or a fly. This is a very anthropocentric way of thinking. While experience will present many things that are disgusting, enticing, or inspirational, most experience consists of things that are boring. Shapeshifting into a fly is disgusting. Shapeshifting into one of Jupiter’s moons is weird. A whole lot of existence consists of just little rocks.

Something like a plant, however, inherently presents the most challenge. It is alive, but does a plant feel? We know when a plant isn’t getting what it needs. It looks like the abstract idea of sad. It sags, down. It becomes grey. Does a plant “want” what it needs? Is a plant “happy” when it gets what it needs. Plants move to receive as much sunlight as possible, although slowly.  Sped up film reveals just how animated a plant is.

Does a coral reef consist of feeling beings? Does a sponge feel sad? At what point does one see the experience of something outside one’s body as comparable. One has empathy with one’s dog, to the point where one almost become one’s dog. A dog’s pain is shared by its master. Could one empathize with the pain of a sponge?

Perhaps one inherently has the ability to shape shift, but becomes locked into one shape as one develops an increasingly solid concept of oneself. How broad can one’s concept of oneself be? To what extent does one experience being a tongue, for the tongue is one aspect of experience (this, by the way, turns one’s mouth into an environment, which is outside the tongue-body). Is one one’s tongue? Can one experience being a kidney? Being calories? Is a body calories or does a body have calories provisionally? Or is a calorie something foreign to the body that transforms into the body? Is a body the water the body mostly consists of? To what extent does one experience being carbon?

One’s experience of oneself is a very small portion of what one is, but why can one not experience being those things of which one is composed? Why is an animal alive, yet seems to be composed of dead, unfeeling matter. Is a human what carbon feels like?

Looking from the other end, to what extent do we experience being the things we constitute? Do I experience being my family? My community? What does it mean to be a “member” of something? Is it more then a metaphor to compare a member of an organization to an organ in the body? Then I am more than where my body ends. Then I am not my body. But the idea that I am not my body feels perverse, as disturbing the integrity of the body feels perverse.

Apparently, Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero intends to transplant the living head of a living person onto the living body of another fairly soon. Whether or not this surgery will actually occur and whether or not it will succeed aside, the idea presents the question: would this be a head transplant or a body transplant? And of course if this procedure does occur and is a success, the world of mythology with its centaurs and chimeras becomes more real.

The idea of shapeshifting can manifest an anxiety, a response to the increasing plasticity of the world and ourselves (however the self is defined) within (within?) it. When the objects of one’s environment are flexible, they are much more difficult to bring under the power of understanding. The western tradition has emphasized the barriers between things, sterilizing or freezing them, to bring them under an uncorrupted observation. Of course this is a perfectly acceptable and useful way of understanding, but the manner in which the object interacts with other objects becomes negated. Naturally, the distinction between one thing and another is porous.

Further, when the body itself becomes flexible, concepts of the self become challenged. The realization of the flexibility of the self can ignite an identity crises or it can ignite a feeling of transcendence, zen’s satori. Teeter-tottering between the two, perhaps it is the extent to which one feels a benefit from a fixed idea of the self that determines on which side one lands.

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Zen Patriarch Kyogen Sweeping, Kano Motonobu

Of course, satori does not necessarily occur in as dramatic a fashion as an identity crisis. Zen patriarch Kyogen experiences satori while sweeping.

Marshal McLuhan emphasizes that all of human products are an extension of the body. Product is not only what a man makes, but what a man makes out of something. A sharp rock becomes a knife: an extension of the body’s teeth and nails. More complex operations involve transforming the environment into such a thing as a cell phone, not necessarily an extension of a body part, but of a faculty (in this instance, the body’s faculty to speak and to hear). But this is human transforming environment into his/her body, not the other way around. Perhaps this is the reason for the zen emphasis on nature. Nature, not necessarily as just beautiful or sublime, but as mute, neutral, and fundamentally indifferent and alien from the human body. The dissolution of a self-centered relationship with the environment is the embrace of a much more broad idea of the self.

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