Planète sauvage

I took 3-MeO-PCP for the first time in a long time, standing in the baby-blue kitchen of L & N’s Ridgewood apartment. I dissolved into litboard threads feat. The Brothers K, then schlepped across town to the Rubin c. 7:00 & smoked a spliff by the entrance & went inside the glass doors & went down to the theater & went upstairs to grab a ticket & went downstairs again to find my group.

We were there to see Fantastic Planet, the gorgeous Laloux animated flick from  ‘73. Brooklyn Raga Massive was improvising a live score. It was 2018. I had no idea, then, that the Rubin was so New Agey; the curator announced as the next night’s programming a sober rave, and incited us, while watching Laloux, to consider “time: past, present, and future.” Which—“Burnt Norton” did it better, but—floating in Disso-land, there wasn’t much else I could consider. 

For exposition: the world of the film features humans (“Oms”) and big blue alien types (“Traags”) who keep the Oms as pets. One Traag week was equivalent to a year in Om time… Technologically and intellectually their superior, a hundred times their size, the Traags see Oms as savage, crude, unconscious, and instinctual—vermin, in short. Rousseau, Malebranche, Descartes: the argument is always the same. Animal as machine, as automaton, reaction sans pleasure, reaction sans pain. (By extension: Man as not animal.) Can we understand the meaning of cope

So a young Traag princess, Tiwa, finds our protagonist, the wild Om boy Terr, clinging to his mother’s unbreathing body—a casualty of Traag rough-housing. She adopts him as her play-thing: a toy prince in a dollhouse, dressed up in finery, gorging himself on fruit. Jeff tells me the OST was done Goraguer, who won the ‘65 Eurovision with France & Serge for “Poupée de cire.” This is a song that goes “I am a wax doll, I am a rag doll” over and over, sung by the teenage Gall, for whom Serge had previously written couplets which allude to oral sex. Allegedly, the entendre went over her head until clued in and humiliated on tour, somewhere near Japan. Shuts herself up as act of protest, never sings Serge or speaks to Serge again. Girl as puppet, manipulated amusement. Girl as Om. But now the score was all micro-tones and tabla, vibes without verbiage.

But Terr is the American Indian, learning white ways because these provincial practices and mannerisms are the only evidence accepted by whites of a human’s humanity. He’s eavesdropping on info sessions, the pedagogy of the princess, memorizing the strange nouns, the geographies and cultural practices: uvas, openosh, pontic rebation. The enviparous molog with its half-billion lucons and gambous amalga. A surface temp measured in laiks; a fepular sea. Er-shaped globes, garus crystallization; the tark‘s flayed flesh and liscinian muscle, a fuliform vilok. Worlding as a constellation of proper and improper nouns, the aesthetics of technical jargon. Language a good regulator of the world it maps—thus strange language as a proxy for strange world. But by and large the Traags speak French, language of colonialism.

Like the blood-red, Traag meditation orbs, my mind is floating miles above Manhattan, drifting through the nether of implicature and reference. It is with the Oms in the tall grass, hiding behind pebbles & twigs & Iam thinking about scale, about levels of zoom. The ever-receding detail & complexity of the world; what is hidden because it lives outside our scale of concern. The stuff that pops up under the microscope—that’s life in there. Ten million dust mites drowned in washed sheets. Our universe as an atom of another universe. Each of our atoms as universe. Fantastic Planet as Horton Hears a Who. Topography, perspective, distance-closeness, the helicopter trick: When I was just a kid like Terr, like Tiwa, I’d play with mini army men half-an-inch tall, set them up by the thousands, in formation across a miniature landscapes: driftwood plateaus, pebbles as boulders, weeds like palm trees and trenches in the imprint of a twig. The war metaphor suggested a game, suggested a use of the landscape; from contingency and logic, meaning flowed. It was all about the scaled affordances of topography: occupying high ground tucking behind barricades digging into trenches scaling lookout points. Me standing over in third-person omniscient, projecting myself into plastic, play-acting the drama of a smaller world. Sometimes even now when I’m up close and a little stoned, peering at a lightning-struck log, a windswept pattern in the sand, I can pull a perspective shift: suddenly I’m a thousand feet up in a chopper, surfing above dunes fifty feet tall, crevasses a mile deep, perilous bluffs and overhangs. The moss becomes fern and forest; the worms are Shai-Hulud. 

*

Laloux’s defamiliarization maneuver is simple and effective, a trick you get in clever vamp and alien pulp, which is asking, “What happens when humans aren’t top of the food chain?” Which is asking, “If our system of moral weight and deservingness is based on a combo of cognitive and evolutionary supremacy, what happens when we’re dwarfed by a cognitively and evolutionarily superior species?” (Some interpretations read Traags as a parable for AI.) My friend JenRM once did a parody of vampire chit-chat, something like, “Humans are weak and delicious. Sometimes when they beg for their lives it makes me wonder if they’re conscious, or have real feelings the way vampires do, but probably not, right? They don’t intuitively grok the clicking language we use while hunting, and I’m pretty sure they have single-core consciousness? Even though their minds are tiny, it makes for surprisingly effective art to pretend we care about their ephemeral, myopic concerns.” So there’s a vamp equivalent of Bambi, dutifully cried to by vampire yung’uns. Terrible behavior towards humans is justified by the terrible behaviors of humans to each other: savagery met by savagery. I think the bit ends all, “Free range humans have perfectly adequate lives most of the time, and they barely even understand what happens to them in the end.” I’m watching Terr, walking across a crystalline landscape in his green frock and red-thorned cap. When he whistles, the crystals shatter, tinkling.

There is a circular logic to anthroposupremacy: Given a problem and criteria for its solution, success may be objectively measured, but picking between problems, ranking individuals based on their performance on problems you yourself are skilled at is a value judgment, is theological. Like discussing the cockroach, the Traags wonder whether Om adaptability, their canny ability to survive and reproduce, is evidence of intelligence—or whether (more likely) the higher spiritual practices and (with irony) “humanisms” of the Traags are better prereqs. We select those attributes and skills we excel at as the highest attributes and skills, and we do this not just with the animal kingdom but with other people. The character builds we max out risk becoming the character builds we most value, risk becoming the character builds we give highest honorifics of “humanity” to. (Realpolitik, coalition-building, all the way down.)

*

I’m thinking about time—time past, time present… time future contained in time past. The strange temporal position of the vegetarian as conscientious objector, radical in deed instead of word. The passive abolitionist, who eschews disturbing dinner-time with sermons, appears in hindsight a coward, the butt of historical dramas. And yet who among us does not get off from defying the stereotypes, distinguishing oneself from the bad behavior of those other militant vegans? Do we forgive the trespasses of others, or become ever-harsher on ourselves?

And a view of time present from time future, a time we have come to see factory farming and meat-eating as genocide proper, ethical atrocity non pareil. Plausible, given the boom in lab-grown and replica meats, given the way ethical growth always chases the economic ease of growing. (Morality as costly signaling?) Less that antebellum Northerners were better; more that they could afford to be. And what when our current progressive unit, projected into the future, calls for statues of meat-eaters to be eradicated, government buildings re-named? Who among us is not spared the judgment of time?

Gendlin’s Litany is singing in my druggy head: 

What is true is already so.

Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.

Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.

And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.

Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.

People can stand what is true,

for they are already enduring it.

But is there a sense in which morals are “true”? Or are they just solutions to coordination problems, forced by the exercise of power by the formerly slighted?

*

Terr eventually escapes, dragging along Tiwa’s info headset, loaded with Traag edu-tech. He’s found by the wild Oms of the Great Tree—no doubt a minor Traag bush—but rather than a welcome homecoming, he’s received with hostility, humiliation. The wild Oms are as provincial, arrogant, and ignorant as the Traags believe them to be. But hard times, hard men—we know where this story goes; to be “civilized” is to be soft; the Fremen always win in this corner of mythology (and so it goes with Afghan tribes so maybe fairly). The wildlings mock Terr’s pet costumes and Traag finery, his flamboyant silks. They’re suspicious of his education, otherwise denied to Oms—the gift of kindly Tiwa. (Illiteracy gives masters a private comms channel, just noise to those they rule over.) At night, he beds down inside the faerie ring of his learning headset, as massive as the head of a Traag. He wakes one early morning to his fellow Oms gone, looks out toward the horizon to catch a secret ceremony. Each Om glows in white-light, full-body haloes; the women strip naked, pursued into the woods (or rather, the mangrove-like roots of giant Traag woods) by Om men. Once again, Terr is an outsider, looking in.

Because Traag knowledge is banned among the Great Tree Oms, Terr winds up in yet another gladiator fight, mirroring those he was subjected to as pet of the Traags. They duel with blue, sharp-toothed, serpentine creatures, held between their legs like hobbyhorses, like proxy champions, and when Terr wins, both creatures are quickly put to death with a knife in the head. Barbarism amidst barbarism. Beasts no longer needed; never more than instruments; never proper ends.

But in shedding blood Terr becomes one of them, a proper member via homicidal initiation. He journeys with a small group across Traag wastelands on an expedition to steal food. The world is a Bosch painting: bushes like nonpareils; birds like a Michelin man. The landscape is living, treacherous; the flora carnivorous. A brutal world. Imagine domesticating it. But isn’t this where our moral theories lead? There’s less of a gap between “intervene in Syria” and Deutsch’s “domesticate the wild” then we like to think. It’s not that Syrians are animals any more than we all are. It’s that intervening in other agents’ conflicts, on the basis of their benefit, is the paternalism of our age. Selfish realpolitik, contractarian realism, starts looking mighty fine in the face of unhindered interventionism. All time is unredeemable. And in the end, it is realpolitik rather than moral enlightenment which wins the day. The Oms repurpose an ancient Traag rocket factory, its machines a pataphysics wet dream; they discover a Traag weakness and exploit it, threatening them with extinction. A political equilibrium is quickly reached. Nothing new is learned, merely the scope of moral worth expanded. Master Sinh, oligarchic ruler of Traags and father of Tiwa, is a Jeffersonian personality, ambivalent on the “problem” of the Oms. He and Tiwa save Terr’s life; he is careful to scold his daughter when she is rough with Terr, teaching her how to be gentle with an Om’s small and fragile body. He is more open than other Traag masters about the possibility for Om intelligence, and is the one to ultimately broker for peace when the Om rebellion succeeds. But from the get-go, before realpolitik forces his hand, he’s opposed to neither the ownership of tame Oms nor the gas-eradication of wild ones. He is pragmatic, moderate, either as cause or consequence of his political position. 

3-MeO is an afternoon drug, not an evening drug. After the initial hour of confusion and dissolution, when things begin to come back together and your brain reorganizes itself is when (it feels like) there’s endless opportunity. Anything as possible. That’s where I found myself, on the precipice of unlimited possibility, living, for an hour, in another world. The meditations of the Traag, their spirits whisked off to a neighboring planet, felt like a metaphor for the mediation of everyday life. Do you know how many hours a day you spend mediated: in text, music, video, podcast, in the passing landscape out the window of a train? I got the idea, which felt insistent and urgent, to dual-boot my Linux into Windows OS, start mapmaking adventure games again—as an art form, obviously—and I pictured the flowing pixel-blocks of the game, fading across an imagined screen, and the miniature avatar navigating the affordances and obstacles of his miniature world.

Perhaps because I’d been reading poetry and training my neural nets to be more self-observant, or perhaps because I’d been doing embodiment training via Twitter.com, or perhaps because it was a long long time since last dissociating, I came away with new phrases to describe the dissociative head- and body-space—all neck crack & knuckle pop & soft fuzz & cold machine. There were mild audio distortions, the sounds of music, coherent melodies top-down projected onto street noise and radiators. Buzzing, whistling, ringing; a Rihanna song from an MTA grate. Wasps circling the skull, making me think of the Sartre thing about—crabs? lobsters? some crustacean we boil alive—which followed him around post-mescaline trip.

The associations were flowing; it was as if I could visualize the web of cultural connections which enmeshed me; I was Neo, manipulating the code of the universe. I wrote on a Rubin events calendar, handed out pre-show: “If I’ve ever believed in fate it’s now”—then added “(or drugs)” after “fate.” I resisted the temptation to repeat a remark to my seat-mates, and logged in my memory instead:  “Sometimes, elocutions SWIM found particularly well-coined SWIM repeated a second time, in case someone had missed it, the first time around.”

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