Monday, January 2, 2012

Atwood's Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood

In Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, the narrative voice, assumed to be that of the unnamed protagonist, thinks:

The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality (89)
McCarthy's novel is perhaps one of the most popular dystopian novels to come out in the last couple decadesThe novel shows a bleak post-apocalyptic world where vegetation, animals, and most human beings have become extinct. The cause of the apocalypse is left in the dark, although we are told that there was a flash of light. Extinction has led to the emptying of language and its power. The only ethical actions left are between the few nomadic human beings left scrounging for scraps of food and a semblance of saftey.

But why am I speaking about The Road? Perhaps because Atwood offers a different kind of dystopia. Indeed, now that I re-think it, it is hard to think of Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood as post-apocalyptic, even though the main characters sometimes speak from a position after the "apocalyptic" event. But this is an apocalypse in reverse: it is not the wiping out of all of the earthly and the animal, leaving the solitary humans to carry the "fire," but rather the extinction of a majority of the human race through a carefully planned (but surreptitious) bioterrorist act, resulting in a plague. The human race has (apparently) been replaced by human made, transgenic organism referred to as the "Crakers." They are engineered to behave simiarily to animals in some ways (such as their mating rituals) but are also model human specimens with perfect bodies. Furthermore, the Crakers also possess language, although at the time of the books they have a limited vocabulary.

I want to look at the function of language, particularly related to art and rhetoric, in both Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood.  Snowman/Jimmy, who is the main protagonist in Oryx and Crake is a rhetorician and a "word person." He is a "word person" in the sense that this is what he is good at and in the sense that he uses language in order to manipulate others. In the "present" of the novel (although this is a problematic designation itself--most of the novel takes place as a flashback), Snowman currently plays the position of a priest to the Crakers. He has improvised a whole mythology about where the Crakers come from and pretends to "talk" to Crake through his watch. Crake, who we will later find out plays a Mad Scientist kind of role in the text, did help "create" the Crakers, but not as the God Snowman/Jimmy makes him out to be.

Jimmy (before he becomes "snowman") majores in Problematics at the Martha Graham Academy. Martha Graham Academy seems like the equivalent of a Liberal Arts and Humanities college. The college was set up by "liberal bleeding hearts from Old New York" and Jimmy compares the college to "studying latin, or book-binding: pleasent to contemplate in its way, but no longer central to anything" (187). However, the college tries for utilty: "Our Students Graduate With Employable Skills, ran the motto underneath the original Latin motto, which was Ars Longa Vita Brevis [Art is long, life is brief]" (188).

Indeed, Jimmy does have "employable skills" because Crake eventually hires him to help sell the BlyssPluss pill, the pill that secretely contains the plague that will wipe humans off the face of the earth. Later in the novel, when Crake tells Jimmy what his Paradice project is aiming for "immortality," Crake explains:

Immortality, said Crake, is a concept. If you take 'mortality' as being, not death, but the foreknowledge of it an the fear of it, then immortality is the absence of such fear. Babies are immortal. Edit out he fear and you'll be. . . (303).
Jimmy says that that sounds like "Applied Rhetoric 101." Rhetoric, as the art of persuasion, persuades people that they can achieve "immortality," but only if we understand and define immortality in this way. Crake says the Crakers are "floor models" that represent the "art of the possible" rather than the kind of being everyone would want. Of course the irony to this, as we soon find out, is that Crake means for the Crakers to replace the human race rather than serve human interests. Immortality in Crake's sense is really only given to the Crakers.

Jimmy functions as an Adman (rather and Adam), who first works at spinning products, then spins a tale for the Crakers that will satisfy their curiosity. But Jimmy seems to be much more interested in words beyond their utilitarian use (at least the rhetorical use put to advertising). That is to say, Jimmy/Snowman still finds words "useful" but mostly for himself. Examples:
"You scoundrel," says Snowman out loud. It's a fine word, scoundrel; one of the golden oldies. (191)
He compiled lists of old words too--words of a precision and suggestiveness that no longer had a meaningful application in today's world, or toady's world, as Jimmy sometimes deliberately misspelled it on his term papers [. . .] He memorized these hoary locutions, tossed them left-handed into conversation: wheelwright, lodestone, saturnine, adamant. He'd developed a strangely tender feeling towards such words, as if they were children abandoned int he woods and it was his duty to rescue them. (195)
Supposing, that is, he could manage to sleep. At night he'd lie awake, berating himself, bemoaning his fate. Berating, bemoaning, useful words. Doldrums. Lovelorn. Leman. Forsaken. Queynt. (312)
Sometimes he'd turn off the sound, whisper words to himself. Succulent. Morphology. Purblind. Quarto. Frass. It had a calming effect. (344)
A list of words without apparent connection one to the other. Rather, a seemingly random list that comforts Snowman. He enjoys listing these words for their "precision and suggestiveness." In contrast (?) to Jimmy's logophilia, Amanda, a girlfriend of Jimmy's, was an "image person, not a word person" (244). Amanda is a bioartist who "vulturizes" words:
The idea was to take a truckload of large dead-animal parts to vacant fields or the parking lots of abandoned factories and arrange them in the shapes of words, wait until the vultures had descended and were tearing them aparnt, then photograph the whole scene from a helicoptor [. . .] The words she vulturized--her term--had to have four letters. She gave a great deal of thought to them: each letter of the alphabet has a vibe, a plus or minus charge, so the words had to be selected with care. Vulturizing brough them to life, was her concept, and then it killed them. (245).
The words she "vulturizes" are not the precise, old words that Jimmy loved so much, but words like "PAIN," "WHOM," and "GUTS," and, finally, "LOVE." Is this an erasing of language or its materialization (or both?). Perhaps we could contrast this vulturization with what Jimmy is hired to do based on his dissertation about Self-Help books. These words are all concepts or nouns, whereas Jimmy claims "the adjectives change [. . .] Nothing's worse than last year's adjectives" (246). How to describe the noun--how do we sell the noun rather than materialize it/make it 'live'. The self-help process is explicitly connected to Crake's work at the Paradice dome, as it is also described as the "art of the possible [. . .] But with no guarantees, of course" (246).

No guarantees. Para-dice.

I'm not sure what to do with the phrase the "art of the possible." In a way, Crake's project is more similar to certain "bioart" (transgenics, genomic art, tissue culture, etc.) than Amanda's Vulturizing. Bioart, however, while creating the possible. also show sthe limits of the possible. Perhaps the "vulturizing" speaks to the limits of language?

Furthermore, what does "vulturizing" have to do with writing? In Year of the Flood we find out that 'writing' was discouraged by the group the God's Gardeners, a group that Amanda had once been a part in. Ren, one of the protagonists, tells us that the Gardeners thought writing was "dangerous" because "your enemies could trace you through it, and hunt you down, and use your words to condemn you" (6). They also have a theological reason goes back to Plato:
They told us to depend on memory, because nothing written down could be relied on. The Spirit travels from mouth to mouth, not from thing to thing: books could be burnt, paper crumble away, computers could be destroyed. Only the Spirit lives forever and the Spirit isn't a thing. (6)
 The series Amanda does she names The Living Word--"she said for a joke it was inspired by the Gardeners because they'd repressed us so much about writing things down" (56).

I have really fascinated with so-called "Bioart" in the past couple months.The question for me is--what constitutes "bioart" in the novels? Is Crake's project a kind of 'bioart'? Is the bioterrorist group, MaddAdam also doing a kind of "bioart" or, to use the language of a recent collection of essays by Beatriz de Costa, "tactical biopolitics"? Amanda's art is relatively harmless--symbolically powerful, but tactically almost useless. She creates images and not new forms of life.

In an essay in Tactical Biopolitics (my computer is out of service at the moment, so I cannot find the exact quote, essay, or author), the author claims that bioart tends to be transmitted through 'documentation' of the art event (including photographs) rather than seeing the art itself. Amanda's project then would fit this kind of art. Only a very few people have seen this artwork first-hand and rely on accounts--witnesses, if you will.

On this topic, allow me close these scattered reflections on these two powerful books with an acknowledgment of their extensions. For both Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood, Atwood has created websites:  and  I was half hoping these would experimental websites, a la the Critical Art Ensembles Cult of the New Eve, but the site was relatively easy and standard to navigate--except for a couple things.

God's Gardeners are a fiction created by the author, but it seems that they have burst out of the book into the world. Someone actually set the Gardener's hymns to music. This is pretty cool in itself (and a little wierd), but Atwood has taken it even farther and, luckily, there is someone to document it:

In the Wake of the Flood (Teaser) from filmswelike on Vimeo.

Atwood says in this video teaser that she thinks that more people "would attempt to save the planet if they believed it was their duty," which seemingly endorses the God's Gardener's message. Furthermore, for the book release, people were given scripts (including hymns) and put on their own show of the book, an interesting and artistic way for people to experience the book and completely revoultionizing the idea of a 'book tour'. This may relate to other fan communities' projects springing up for various books/series.

I'm a bit put off by Atwood's serious suggestion of making a kind of religion out of protecting the environment and the earth. The Year of the Flood pokes fun at the God's Gardener's and its hard not to read the text as satirical. However, we would have to admit that the God's Gardener's are really some of the only people to survive the "waterless flood" and they are flexible in their creeds and beliefs. God's Gardener's actually come across as incredibly practical as well as 'human' in the sense of fallen, imperfect, beings.

But, and this is another question I'd like to explore, are the texts "posthuman" in a sense? What would Haraway's take on the text be? Derrida's? I am not suggesting that we merely dismiss the text if it does not hold up to such posthuman (unhuman, whatever) critiques, but rather that the books deal with the same territory in a very accessible and emotional way. Atwood's characters, especially the God's Gardener's are not mere caricatures--they read like plausible human beings. The swear, they lie, they cheat, they break rules, they manipulate, they're hierarchal, secretive, full of love, hate, jealousy, indifference, coldness, warmth, etc. The God's Gardener's life is not a utopia nor an Eden before the Fall. As Adam One says, the Fall is ongoing.  And then, of course, where do the Crakers fit in? Are they the posthumans? What is the role of 'art' in the text and in the new society that seems to form toward the end of Year of the Flood.

I realize I haven't ended yet. When I went to, I clicked on a link called "neat stuff" and looked at the entires. One of them, to my surprise, was Victimless Leather, a project of the Tissue Culture and Art Project, artists I have been recently researching. Little comment was made on Atwood' site about the project. But I will venture to call their art--the art of the possible, in the best possible sense.

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