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Gleanings: Xenobots, the Limits of Human Conception, and the Cosmic Radio Station
Distilled recommendations from reading into the dark
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on waking up at the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
Welcome to this first installment of what will be an ongoing series in which I distill my inveterate free-form reading (and viewing and listening) into a short list of recommendations with accompanying brief commentary. My single criterion for including a given item in one of these entries is: Did it fascinate me, move me, disturb me, delight me, enlighten me, or otherwise grab my attention with sufficient force to suggest itself as worth sharing? Put differently: Did it speak to my daemon? I proceed on the assumption that if it did this for me, it may do it for you.
I have set myself the arbitrary number of three to five items to round out a complete entry. Each time I “fill one up,” I’ll click the publish button. Such posts may not always wait for the regular Wednesday publication slot.
One: What on Earth Is a Xenobot? (Aeon, August 30, 2022)
The author is science writer Philip Ball. The subheadline says, “The more we understand how cells produce shape and form, the more inadequate the idea of a genomic blueprint looks.”
The question of why biological forms assume certain shapes has long interested me. When my literary interests, both as a writer and reader, turned toward supernatural horror in my teens and afterward, I often found myself drawn to stories that involved some form of body horror. Lovecraft figured highly here with his slimy cavalcade of organic monstrosities, some of them squatting on the liminal fence between the physical and the supernatural or extra-dimensional. So did Ligotti with his notion, iterated across multiple stories, of the nightmarish ontological forces — the Great Chemists, Nethescurial — that continually “dream” the material world, including living organisms, into new and horrible forms. As the narrator of “The Chymist,” who serves these forces, says to one of his unhappy victims, “You are about to become the flesh and blood kaleidescope of my imagination.” I have also been drawn to the stories of Clive Barker and the films of David Cronenberg with their similar meditations on the horrors of flesh.
This notion has played a part in my own stories, too. In “An Abhorrence to All Flesh,” “Notes of a Mad Copyist,” and “The God of Foulness,” the principle of corruption implanted in all organic forms, which makes them subject to eventual death and decay, reveals an intrinsic property of corruption and foulness in the Godhead itself, a divine essence of rottenness expressing itself in and through human bodies.
So I brought this sensibility with me when I went to read “What on Earth Is a Xenobot?” at Aeon. But it wasn’t something I had in the forefront of my mind. I wasn’t thinking about it at all, and I certainly had no expectation that the article might invoke it. In other words, I didn’t expect that when I dove into that article, I was diving into a Lovecraftian-Ligottian-Cronenbergian body horror story. But still, there it was, midway into the text:
[E]ven single-celled living is apt to become collective. Not even cancer cells are bent on self-replication, oblivious to other cells around them. Many tumours look less like undifferentiated masses of wildly multiplying cells and more like a deranged version of organ growth. Cancer cells, too, can differentiate and specialise, as if following some new, lunatic trajectory. A tumour, far from growing heedless of the host tissues around it, can integrate with those tissues and even commandeer them for its own ends. In some ways, tumours represent an alternative morphology of our own cells. . . .
Acknowledging that the human form is a contingent outcome of the way our cells are programmed for construction raises some mind-bending questions. Are there, for example, human xenobots (perhaps we might call them anthrobots)? If so, are they truly ‘human’? Might there be a kind of organ or tissue that our cells could make but don’t normally get the chance to? Might our still cells ‘remember’ older evolutionary body shapes?
I’m tempted to write to Aeon’s editors and suggest a new closing line for the article: “Now Rose of madness—BLOOM!”
Two: A Sliver of Reality (Aeon, September 5, 2022)
The author is physicist and computer scientist David H. Wolpert. The subheadline says, “Science and mathematics may never fully capture the physical universe. Are there hard limits to human intelligence?” The article poses ten questions, accompanied by capsule preliminary answers, about the hard limits of human intelligence. It is partly adapted from another article by Wolpert titled “What Can We Know about That Which We Cannot Even Imagine?” The questions are all quite skillfully conceived for evoking a vivid sense of that potential hard limit to what we humans are intrinsically capable of thinking or even imagining. I’m especially taken with the following one, which is number six on the list, because of its pointed philosophical implications involving the deep nature of selfhood and self-knowledge, and because it gives me an effective new metaphor for understanding the relationship between the thought world of the ego self and the nondual field of pure-absolute awareness of which the ego and its finite subjective mini-world are a dream reduction:
Is it possible for an entity that exists only in a computer simulation to run an accurate computer simulation of the ‘higher’ entity that simulated them?
If the answer is ‘no’, then whatever we contemplate in our universe is only a small subset of what can be known by those who reside higher in the sequence of more complex simulations. And if the answer is ‘no’, it would mean that there are deep aspects of reality that we cannot even imagine.
More: A Sliver of Reality
Three: The Cosmic Radio Station (Steven Pressfield, August 24, 2022)
Steven Pressfield has remained one of the most cogent writers about the reality and role of the muse/daemon/genius in creative work ever since the publication of his classic The War of Art in 2011, followed by several more highly recommendable books that further developed the theme. Currently he continues to offer reflections and insights on this topic in his weekly “Writing Wednesdays” blog posts, which I heartily recommend. This recent entry, whose minuscule length belies a gargantuan meaning, is a case in point:
I believe that the Fifth Symphony existed before Beethoven composed it. . . . The work existed on another plane of reality—the plane of potentiality. Composers (who knows how many?) sat at their pianos and searched the aether for these divine measures. But only one found the frequency. Only Beethoven tuned in to the Cosmic Radio Station. . . . That’s the artist’s work. . . . How fortunate for us that we all, and not just Beethoven, have that receiver built from birth into our own heads (or hearts.)
More: The Cosmic Radio Station
Also see “Rick Rubin’s Source,” in which Pressfield describes his delight at reading a preview copy of Rubin’s forthcoming book The Creative Act (scheduled for publication this January) and finding that Rubin is “a great believer inspiration,” which he calls “Source” and views as an omnipresent phenomenon that everyone is tapped into and that artists must trust and serve. Pressfield comments, “Source. The Cosmic Radio Station. The Muse. They’re real. And they’re sensational.”
I agree, at length.