In Jean-Francois Lyotard's short lecture “Can Thought Go on without a Body?” the theorist plays with the concept that human thinking could ever be divorced from the physical body. He imagines a future in which humans must prepare for the inevitable destruction of all life by an aging sun. Given this particular catastrophe, to extend the existence of human thought humans would have to form some sort of non-biological self—some hardware—that could propel human thought through the universe. This couldn’t happen, according to Lyotard, because human thought is uniquely composed in its vessel; any thought that could leave the earth in brand-new hardware would be so distinct from what we know as human thinking that it would be unrecognizable.
This is neither a positive nor negative moment in the essay—that new, completely unimaginable thought could leave this planet and travel the universe, totally unrecognizable from human understanding. Given this particular moment in human history, one in which humans stand on the brink of their own possible extinction, scientists and artists alike are curious about the radical transformation of life and thought which could survive, even if it's entirely distinct from the life we know.
Theories such as these—ideas that imagine a radically new life entirely divorced from what we now understand as existence— are a fascinating quandary for the imagination. If this potential new life is unthinkable, unrecognizable, then how can science, or even literature and art, begin to imagine what it would be like? What kinds of traits or attributes would be successful for the continuation of life? What kinds of bodies would flourish in this new life hierarchy?
Unsurprisingly, much of it takes place through metaphor. In the short film Mercury (Pierre Edelmann, 2018) evolutionary survival and medical vampirism are one in the same. Set in 2098, much of humanity has stopped producing bone marrow, and those that have it are vulnerable to having it harvested. The film’s voiceover, however, of a young woman who poses as a prostitute to scavenge cells, points to the ruthlessness of survival of the species (and the individual) as being the driving force behind the will to act. The resurrection and maintenance of life, in this case, is morally neutral, as are those that seek it.
This ruthless notion of evolution is even more active in representations of scientific discovery. In Struggle for Existence (2010), Laurie Sumiye charts the plight of the Palila Finch, a radically endangered bird from Hawai’i, as it approaches extinction in our near future. While humankind seeks to save the Palila, the film questions conservation and the role of extinction in natural global history. In wondering why humans attempt to save some species but not others, the film explores the role of extinction in species diversity and new life.
Struggle for Existence (2010)
Or, the image of new life can function through abstraction. In the short, animated film Abiogenesis (Richard Mans, 2015), a robot seed takes root on a lifeless plant. By mixing itself with the matter of the dead planet, it is able to adapt and form a new ecosystem. Similarly, Ruth Marsh in Cyber Hive (2018) uses animation to explore the beautiful lives of cybernetic bees. These animated robots take on much of the habits and tasks of our current biological bees but have within them a kind of elemental beauty that belies their animatronic existence. In imagining this cyborg life as abstractly beautiful, the animation creates a space for this entity to illumuniate the akin to a sublime natural discovery.
Cyber Hive (2018)
Similarly, the abstract work of experimental artist Adrian Regnier charts the convergence of natural history with the human constructions of the present. In Hay Cosas Buenas En Las Cosas Buenas Que Hay (2013), Regnier uses outlines, drawings, and live action footage of biological and contemporary life simultaneously growing and shrinking. Two perverse countdown clocks—as well as the biological violence that runs through--point to the finitude of current modes of life. Nonetheless, the images of construction and creation that augment those suggest a more circular relationship between the destruction of old life and the beginning of new.
Finally, Ben Meredith’s New Life (2016) imagines the possibility of expansion through visual absence. A faux documentary that charts the experiences of Adam Holmes, an astronaut on the first manned flight to Europa, New Life explores the ways that exploration goes hand in hand with death and rebirth. The piece moves backward and forwards in time, from before Adam’s journey to 20 years later, when his discoveries of new life have been shown to combat disease and fundamentally change the ways that humans understand the universe. What’s key in this film is the visual absence of an alien entity; the piece remains entirely focused on the humans that are affected by it and Adam’s work.
New Life (2016)
About the author
Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.