One way to think about popular culture's formulation of the extraterrestrial is by separating it into two categories: Trevor Paglen writes of the stranger-alien which exhibits anthropomorphic intelligence and culture, or at the very least can interact with human beings. This is generally the alien creature found in Hollywood movies and in video games--an alien which could be said to act as a prop for turning the camera back on the human protagonists, always the central concern of humanistic narrative. The second category which Paglen delineates is the alien-alien, which I call the ‘disappointing alien’ - this creature exhibits a biology which prohibits any meaningful interaction with humans - either they simply cannot or do not acknowledge us, or they are so other as to be difficult to recognize as a form of life.
In his 1989 essay “the Paradox of the Phasmid”, philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman makes a statement about the eponymous insect that encapsulates some of the thinking behind my disappointing aliens: “It is an animal without head or tail, a dissimilar animal which, strictly speaking, we could never envision head-on like a living thing whose motions I can predict or, simply, whose mouth I can locate and thereby locate myself in front of it.” The ability or inability to locate oneself as a human being in relation to these ‘things’ is just one question that concerns me.
From that jumping-off point I’m positioning this series of paintings as an attempt to imagine or ‘think’ that other form of life. Several issues are raised: any attempt to imagine the alien “out there” is culturally-grounded--the very act of imagining is constrained by the content of one’s own cultural experience. What starts as an attempt to focus on, and essentially value, the alien-in-itself becomes an ontological exercise in thinking life-in-itself or the world-without-us (or the universe-without-us). These paintings now have to deal with the limit of imagination, indeed, with the limit of the thought of life itself. This plays into my formal decisions, namely the use of darkness and very localized light. In our attempts to interrogate the universe, we’re confronted with the little bits that are comprehensible to us out of the surrounding, pressing morass of darkness and unthinkability.
Media theorist Eugene Thacker in his discussion of William Hope Hodgson’s 1912 novel The Night Land describes the plight of the human characters thusly: “[They]...are like naturalists visiting a strange land, having brought the wrong bestiary with them.” “[The] life-forms [they confront] are not named, only described--that is their incomprehensibility results in the substitution of description for (taxonomic) naming.”
"Not only are they unable to analyze and classify the life of the Night Land, they are unable to distinguish the living from the nonliving. In the Night Land, everything appears to be alive, but none of it is living in any naturalistic, let alone humanistic, sense of the term. They are effectively in Kant's position vis-a-vis the question of purposiveness and order of life--able to comprehend that there is something "out there", but unable to think that something in itself."
This problem of the liminal or spectral nature of the living-nonliving distinction has led me to posit different sorts of ‘network organisms’ in the paintings. For these things, whatever they are, there appears to be little distinction between environment and creature, calling into question whether it even makes sense to make such distinctions (recalling to mind Didi-Huberman’s statement about the phasmid, that, quite literally the creature is “that which it eats and that in which it lives").
I'm coming more and more to posit this project as sort of 'doing philosophy in paint'. Having to sit with these ideas and work them out visually is a way to clarify and advance my thinking. And as the concepts or vague ideas for the next set of paintings begin to coalesce, I feel like I'm getting farther with those ideas--with actually trying to think them. This is not to say I'm solving the Kantian problem. Merely that I'm throwing a lot of conceptual elaboration at these questions. I don't think I can quite stress enough how central that's coming to be for how I do this.
So, it's acutely embarrassing at this point that I only have three paintings! Considering the amount of time I've spent writing and thinking there should be more work to show for it, but I will say the delay in getting more paint on surfaces has been logistical (money, of course). There are a growing number of sketches for future paintings piling up and I'm anxious to get started with the next batch (not to mention get better documentation of the finished ones).
A couple of other questions this work raises for me:
It's impossible, because of the culturally grounded nature of the act of imagining, for these to be totally alien. We simply can't truly think the thought of that other life. So, one side effect of doing this project is what I call the mirror-effect: both because and in spite of their very alienness or non-terrestriality, the concepts underlying these creatures can draw parallels with our own local situation: our own boundary-less-ness, our entanglement with the environment, the sort of dark-life problem at the heart of our biologistic understanding of the world (i.e. that at the limit, life can't really be distinguished from non-life). In fact, the notion of looking particularly at the paradoxes and problems of life and its ontology and then speculating about extraterrestrials based on those is part of a larger argument about the role of a 'speculative biology' that I'm currently pulling together.
This of course becomes of moment in the ecological and geological epoch we find ourselves in. The work then can function as a bit of an ecological call. We are, in a way, not really different from the weird aliens in the paintings--we are just one weird entangled state among countless other entangled states, one planet among countless planets or planes of weird, entangled spectrality--just one oddity in a vast abyss of oddities--all aliens in the abverse.
A final question is about the concept of valuing this alienness, and positioning ourselves to value the alien-thing-for-itself, or the world-for-itself. At this point Paglen's discussion of the cultural choice to relate to the alien-alien being a reflection of an ethical commitment to the world becomes important. For me, the horror of the unhuman world, the unhuman planet in Thacker's terminology, is not a horror that closes off discourse. It is not a moralizing horror. It does not posit that "the unhuman is bad and the human is good, therefore..." Instead, that horror is a concomitant of the awe and respect of the universe, both local and non-local, that comes with recognizing that the world is not for us. This is vastly different from one accusation leveled at speculative realism: that it guarantees a dismissive misanthropy.
I personally find the aforementioned horror to be a kind of 'delicious' horror - a luxurious horror. Existential dread, to me, is potentially conceivable as a luxury. And it is not an idle one--it does not have to be nihilistic in the naive sense. It can, in fact, lead to a more realistic coping with the complexities of the unthinkable ecological system that we find ourselves embedded in.
Didi-Huberman, Georges. "The Paradox of the Phasmid." USC.edu. 1989. http://www.usc.edu/dept/comp-lit/tympanum/3/phasmid.html
Harman, Graham. "Steve Fuller Vs. Administrators." Object Oriented Philosophy. May, 2014.
Paglen, Trevor. "Friends of Space, How are You All, Have You Eaten Yet, or Why Talk to Aliens Even if We Can't." Afterall. Issue 32. 2013.
Thacker, Eugene. After Life. University of Chicago Press. 2010.
Thacker, Eugene. In the Dust of This Planet. Zero Books. 2011.
arts educator, painter, drawist, heavy metal enthusiast, and long-time Lovecraft fan