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American Studies
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23 Mar

Updates

Written by Michael Fuchs
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Dawn of the Necrofauna: De-Extinction, the Necrocene, and the Jurassic Park Franchise (Jurassic Park symposium, Cardiff, June 8, 2018)

When Dr. Ian Malcolm confronts John Hammond with the implications and possible (or, rather, likely) consequences of recreating extinct species in Jurassic Park (1993), Hammond defends his project, saying, "Condors are on the verge of extinction. If I was to create a flock of condors on this island, you wouldn't have anything to say!" Ian tellingly replies that unlike species on the verge of extinction today, dinosaurs were not "obliterated by deforestation or the building of a dam." While this scene critiques the human impact on life on the planet we call "Earth," it simultaneously emphasizes Hammond's power to undo extinction. In this way, Jurassic Park assuages fears of species loss. Indeed, the movie goes so far as to suggest that simulations of nature can replace nature, since "creatures that previously existed only in pictorial or sculptural recreations have now been literally resurrected from species extinction" (Mitchell 1998).

In my paper, I will suggest that Jurassic World presents a logical continuation of these ideas. In particular, whereas Jurassic Park highlights the artificial character of Jurassic Park's (and, on a different level, Jurassic Park's) dinosaurs, Jurassic World singles out the Indominus rex as an unnatural creation—the I-rex "was designed" while the other prehistoric animals in the park are "real dinosaurs." Here, what Justin McBrien has dubbed "the Necrocene" (2016) comes on full display: Jurassic World has turned Jurassic Park's credo of "We can charge anything we want" into serialized creative destruction, as visitors continually want the dinosaurs to be "bigger, louder, [with] more teeth." This cycle of constant repetition with a difference (a.k.a. 'product variation') makes explicit that capitalism is founded upon "the planned obsolescence of all life" (McBrien 2016). As Jurassic World generates money from extinct-species-made-unextinct only to kill off the created animals in the end again, Jurassic World revives a franchise only to extinguish one of its main attractions. Jurassic World thus allegorizes the ongoing sixth mass extinction, which is (quite literally) fueled by "the exploitation of past extinctions" (McBrien 2016). Welcome to the Necrocene.

Dead Rising: De-Extinction as a Gothic Master-Narrative for the Anthropocene (IGA 2018, Manchester, July 31-August 3, 2018)

About 12,000 years ago, the current mass extinction cycle started. Unquestionably, the sixth mass extinction is a byproduct of the Anthropocene and as Bill McKibben suggested as early as 1989, the Anthropocene is defined by the increasing constructedness of nature, not only as a concept, but, more importantly, in its material form. In my paper, I will suggest that mass extinction's shadow companion—de-extinction—takes this construction of nature to the extreme. The mission of the NPO Revive & Restore, for example, is "to enhance biodiversity through the genetic rescue of […] extinct species." Akin to a necromancer, these scientists try to return the dead to the living, re-introduce the past into the present, and transform fantasy into reality. In the same way that apocalyptic scenarios have become everyday experience, these fantastic, Gothic ideas are thus becoming lived reality. Yet whereas the Gothic is generally assumed to channel anxieties and fears, the process of making-unextinct has become a beacon of hope for re-taking control of the planet. By discussing some recent (de-)extinction narratives and art pieces, I will suggest that this control cannot be but an illusion. As a giant corporation will incorporate the idealism of an NPO such as Revive & Restore, "the exploitation of past extinctions" (McBrien 2016) will not only become part of the money-making machinery, but bring about ever-new extinctions that will be undone, as extinct species are continuously made unextinct. Welcome to what Justin McBrien has so appropriately dubbed "the Necrocene" (2016).

Spectral Media—Ghostly Humans? Inter- and Intramedial Traces in Horror Cinema (Symbiotic Cinema, Växjö, September 6-8, 2018)

Spirit photography, electronic voice phenomena on the radio, phone calls from the netherworld–media have always opened the gateway to another world. "Every new medium is a machine for the production of ghosts," John Durham Peters diagnoses in his History of the Idea of Communication (139). Indeed, upon first seeing the Lumières' cinematograph in action, a reporter concluded that "death will no longer be absolute" (qtd. in Stratton 83). The device, he argued, would allow human beings to stay 'alive' in spectral form, immortalized in the moving images.

My paper will investigate representations of spectral media in horror cinema and discuss two interrelated phenomena: (a) the representation of proto-cinematic technologies and analog technologies in digital horror movies and (b) the depiction of digital media's monstrosity in analog horror films.

ad (a): As I will show, the resurrection of past technologies in digital horror movies (e.g. the early-twentieth-century camera in Night of the Demons [2009] and the protocinematic image-recording devices in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter [2012]) represents the next step in the development of (audio)visual media's engagement with the past: Analog photography commemorated the dead, while film re-animated the dead. Digital cinema, as William Brown has argued, removes the image from its anthropocentric perspective; the digital image is a post-human creation, born from binary code, existing in a computer. Cloverfield (2008) presents an illustrative example in this context, as the analog traces of recordings of human interactions and human deaths are increasingly displaced by digital recordings of a (digital) nonhuman creature. Here, the resurrection of the medium's past anticipates the death of film qua celluloid. Now, if we accept that cinema was the human eye of the twentieth century, as Francesco Cassetti has suggested, then the death of cinema in the early twenty-first century heralds the vanishing of the human.

ad (b): Digital media lack a material body; however, they combine and remediate a number of different media. They generally belong to an ontology different from the one occupied by analog media. Unlike analog media, which brought forth specters, digital media themselves are spectral–they simulate, to use Jacques Derrida's dictum, a "being-there of an absent or departed one" (5). For example, horror movies such as FearDotCom (2002), Pulse (2006), and Unknown User (2014) use the spectral presence of the internet as a source of horror. When human characters die in these movies, their virtual doubles replace them. These virtual identities do not simply immortalize the characters in the digital domain, as the avatars take on lives of their own; agencies beyond human control. In this way, these movies do not only suggest that the human body loses its material anchor in the digital domain; instead, the human disappears altogether. In the end, my proposed paper will thus argue that both the incorporation of analog media and analog technologies in digital horror movies and the integration of digital media and digital technologies in analog horror films herald the age of post-cinema and anticipate a post-human future.

Telling Stories about Dying: Extinction in Thomas Pynchon's Oeuvre (Essay for Volume on Extinction Narratives)

"Nature does not know extinction. All it knows is transformation," states "inventor and space expert" Wernher Von Braun in an epigram to Gravity's Rainbow (1973). This statement is deeply entrenched in Thomas Pynchon's symbolic use of thermodynamics—every breathing organism is energy and energy cannot simply disappear. Yet beyond this idea (which Pynchon scholars have discussed ad nauseam), "nature" cannot know extinction, since both "nature" and "extinction" are human constructs which may refer to phenomena occurring on planet Earth, but which cannot mean anything outside human discursive fields. In view of his general distrust in human discourses, it seems interesting that, throughout his career, Pynchon has touched upon extinction.

Tellingly, in their introduction to the anthology Extinction Studies (2017), Deborah Bird Rose, Thomas van Dooren, and Matthew Chrulew stress that "storytelling is never innocent: it matters which stories we use to tell and think other stories with." Drawing on this idea, I will map the constant presence of extinction in Pynchon's work, focusing on Gravity's Rainbow, Mason & Dixon (1997), and Against the Day (2006). In Gravity's Rainbow, the character Frans ponders the extermination of the dodo (while participating in a hunt) while the novel reflects (on) anxieties pertaining to the end of humanity in the face of the Cold War; in Mason & Dixon, drawing the titular line becomes the harbinger of the westward movement of the nineteenth century and the attendant subjugation of nature; and Against the Day not only touches upon one of the consequences of the westward march of American civilization (the near-extinction of the American buffalo), but also functions as a veritable example of climate fiction, as humankind emerges as a planetary force at the dawn of the twentieth century.

In all three novels, Pynchon employs the framework of (postmodern) historical fiction to comment on the past, present, and future. And while Pynchon is largely considered an American author, I will argue that he should be included in the canon of green writers—and ecological issues know no national boundaries. Indeed, similar to Justin McBrien (2016), Pynchon's oeuvre links the beginning of the Age of Man to the discovery of the New World and the attendant globalization of commodity exchange, for the "capitalist reorganization of New World natures boomeranged death upon Eurasia" (as McBrien has it). Turning postmodernist discourse into environmentalist poetics, I will suggest that Pynchon's oeuvre follows the idea outlined in the epigram to Gravity's Rainbow, for extinction entails transformation, in two respects: On the one hand, capitalism "devours all life" (again McBrien), as it converts dead organic matter into capital. On the other hand, humans turn the material bodies of eradicated species,
such as the dodo, into their spectral shadows, captured in images, texts, sculptures, taxidermy, etc. However, in this anthropocentric world, what might humans become if they went extinct?