Interaction Designer
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Essays

Through a concentration in Nature, Culture, and Sustainability Studies, Peter brings an eye for psychology, sociology, and the natural sciences.

Toward a New -Centrism // An Examination of Fear, Decay, & Exceptionality

As broadly applied to non-sectarian society, the philosophy of Christianity purports an anthropocentric paradigm, emphasizing the exceptionality of humanity in contrast to the supposed natural world. Despite the radical shift in Anglo-American social structures over the past three hundred years, transitioning from religion to science and industry as primary drivers of society, the tenant of humanity as image of god lingers in contemporary outlooks, emblemized by the broadly accepted social fear of decay. Such fears shape society, both global-historically, in the racist drivers of colonialism or eugenics (also capitalism), as well as quotidian-contemporarily, through the obfuscation of waste, non-human systems, and, most importantly, ‘the other’. Human exceptionality demands a separation from the cyclical decay of living ecosystems and any reminders of decay’s associates: impurity, death, extensively: entropy. At its core, human exceptionality demands anthropocentrism.

While an anthropocentric construction of social values may seem a middle ground to the more extreme and unilateral views of Bio-, Industro-, or techno- centrism, it validates the disastrous paradigm of human exceptionality, further encouraging behaviors which stratify populations while fabricating prejudiced veils of purity. To construct a discussion around the biased history of anthropocentrism utilizing purely the assertions of scientific disciplines, fields dependent on the paradigm of human exceptionality, would be to craft a biased argument. By drawing from fictitious narratives, this essay will dissect the opinions, biases, and goals of authors, explicitly H.G. Wells and Eugene Marten, writing at polar ends of the 20th century. Through The Time Machine, Wells confirms his deep fear of entropy and the devolution of humanity, noting the intrinsic dangers of techno-centrism while substantiating the link between fearing decay and obfuscating ‘the other’. In juxtaposition, Marten depicts contemporary urbanism as the epitome of Wells’ fears while challenging the moral paradigm of the reader and supposing not a fear of decay or devolution, but a fear of constructed systems, their delicacy, and their power. Together, Wells and Marten challenge their reader to consider how social constructs shape and define behavior-building fears, enumerating the flaws and implications of anthropocentrism while likewise challenging techno- and Bio-centrism. Together, they open the call for a new defining –centrism, a new paradigm which dispels inequalities while liberating individuals of constraining, even debilitating fears.

Intrinsically linked to the social atmosphere of the late 19th century, Wells’ The Time Machine is a vivid representation of Christianity’s human exceptionality colliding with Darwin’s theory of evolution, developments in physics and thermodynamics, accelerated advancement of industrial technology, and rationalized colonialism. As a literary work, Wells’ fiction follows many of the tropes of the monomyth. From the time machine itself as supernatural aid, to the protagonist’s descent into the world of the Morlocks as entering the belly of the whale, even the magic flight as an escape with the ultimate boon (recovering the machine) becomes a literal flight through time to the dying days of the earth. Through the monomyth structure, Wells fearfully declares two key changes in society: that technology has replaced divinity, and that techno-centrism is a false savior.

Fundamentally, Wells infers that the divinities whom aided Odysseus, Moses, or Rama, are irrelevant, replacing divine intervention and magic with the power of technological wonders born of human ingenuity. Wells’ bold replacement exemplifies historical shifts towards techno-centrism and the belief that it is not the gods that will rescue humanity, but our own inventiveness, determination, and steady devotion to scientific progress. While Wells’ uses techno-centrism as a keystone to his invented world, Wells views the dogma perhaps not with distain, but certainly a grave caution best represented in the closing passages of the novel. In The Time Machine, the protagonists’ final trial before returning to the mundane is a startling encounter with evolution and entropy. In a moment of nightmarish terror, Wells’ narrator opines:

 

“I cannot convey the sense of abominable desolation that hung over the world. The red eastern sky, the northward blackness, the salt Dead Sea, the stony beach crawling with these foul, slow-stirring monsters, the uniform poisonous-looking green of the lichenous plants, the thin air that hurt one’s lungs; all contributed to an appalling effect.” (Wells, 62)

 

As a closing passage and emotional climax of the novel, Wells emphasizes fear-inducing details as both symbols and logical results of evolution and entropy. Namely, the “red eastern sky” as the sun’s entropic journey towards extinction and the “thin air that hurt one’s lungs” as an inescapable eventuality of a changing earth, the “slow-stirring monsters” a result of life’s adaptation to a new environment. Rather than a return to Eden, Wells depicts to the world an alternate and sobering promise for the end-times of the earth, a planet in which gods were forgotten and the creatures made in their image evolutionarily eliminated.

Beyond his fearful response to techno-centrism, evolution, and entropy, Wells work is steeped in parallels and worries regarding the frenetic pace of industrialization and technological advancement. Wells represents technology, machinery, and, more broadly, industrial processes as a foil to decay. While decay is a process of destruction, returning waste into the earth, industry takes from the earth, producing useful objects for human consumption. When Wells’ narrator first arrives in the future, encountering the diminutive Eloi, he presumes that they have eliminated any un-pleasantry from their environment, that they have constructed a world no longer attached to the non-human systems which govern contemporary social structures. Thinking of humanity on a vector of progress, the narrator imagines that: “things will move faster and faster towards the subjugation of Nature. In the end, wisely and carefully we shall readjust the balance of animal and vegetable life to suit our human needs” (Wells, 22). However, after further observation, the narrator begins to realize the down-side of rapidly evolving support systems, namely that “Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness” (Wells, 23). What could have been framed as the technological triumph of humanity, the end of disease, of war, of discomfort, Wells instead pictures as the devolution of the human spirit, a blemish on the polished reputation of humanity (specifically the humanity of a late 19th century colonial power). By denying industrial progress its potential to become the savior of humanity, Wells not only denies techno-centrism, but questions the relationship between Britain and its colonial subjects,

Colonialism depends upon both the Judeo-Christian concept of a ‘chosen people’, as well as the rationalization of crimes against humanity through projecting the colonized as an inferior ‘other’. Intrinsic to the process of rationalized crime is the self-gratifying attitude of promethean teaching, of portraying the colonial relationship as one of ‘civilizing’ (exemplified by Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”). In exchange for the stealing of resources, culture, and people, the colonizers offer a false savior of industrialization and techno-centrism, the trade rationalized by casting white people as chosen and exceptional and people of color as impure, an ‘other’, almost non-human. By questioning the value of industrialized technology, Wells questions the balance of the colonial exchange.

Adding barbs to his colonial discourse, Wells further substantiates his fear and apprehension of the system through the character of the Morlocks, the ‘other’ to the Eloi’s ‘self’. After an encounter with the lower denizens of the future earth, the narrator reframes his prior model for the result of humanity’s scientific and industrial progress. By adding colonialism and stratified oppression into the equation, the narrator realizes that:

 

“The great triumph of humanity I had dreamed of took a different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general co-operation as I had imagined. Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of to-day. Its triumph had not been simply a triumph over nature, but a triumph over nature and the fellow-man” (Wells, 37).

 

Through the narrator’s remarks, Wells directly challenges the colonialist assertion of “moral education and general co-operation” but also unveils his fear of peoples oppressed by the colonial relationship. Contrasting the Eloi, the narrator casts the Morlocks as impure creatures of darkness, containing their existence to underground warrens while shrouding their culture and social intricacies with a veil of barbarism. The narrator’s description of the Morlocks matches the description of peoples of color necessitated by colonialism to support human (‘white’) exceptionality and a techno-centric model of human progress. As Wells questions techno-centrism, he likewise questions the oppressive relationship of colonialism, speculating that such repression cannot last and eventually, like an ecosystem, will reach an equilibrium of power.

Toying with the commonplace assertions and moral paradigm of his times, Wells crafts an engaging story which, while subjective in its basis, casts doubt on existing social structures through imagining their logical conclusions as a progression of deep time. Writing over a century later, Eugene Marten’s Waste, in many ways, fits as a blip on the timeline traversed by Wells’ time-travelling narrator. While Wells’ fiction invests in the structures of sci-fi and monomyth, Marten depicts a world which is remarkably believable, not a ‘what if?’ but a ‘we are’. Rather than question the ends of contemporary paradigms, Marten challenges the moral perception of his readers while substantiating a fear of delicate yet powerful oppressive systems, most prominently capitalism.

Wells fears for the future of human exceptionality, a future in which colonialism can no longer support techno-centrism, in which evolution and entropy lead to the decay of moral purity and the eventual irrelevance of the human species. Through its depiction of humanity as defined by waste, the non-existence of natural systems, and technology as the harbinger of comfort, Marten’s portrayal of the present nearly fits the bill for Wells’ nightmare. Much of the text of Waste is devoted to the protagonist, Sloper, discovering and imagining the characters of individuals through the objects they have left in the trash. When collecting waste from a cubicle, Sloper remarks “she was either a vegetarian or watching her weight. In her trash can you would find a small tray with bits of fruit on a soggy piece of lettuce” (Marten, 29). To Sloper, everyone he ‘knows’ is defined by what they leave behind, even his relationship with his mother is limited to receiving a sandwich through a garbage chute. Although Wells fears and denies techno-centrism, his perspective remains firmly anthropocentric, his primary terror the decay of human exceptionality through the processes of evolution and entropy. By describing individuals through discarded, mundane objects, Marten challenges anthropocentrism itself, boldly stating that not only are humans less than unique, we are nothing more than garbage. Marten further realizes Wells’ nightmare by depicting the built environment without any semblance of natural ecosystems, the image of Wells’ paranoia towards the conquest of nature and technologically constructed comfort. The replacement of nature with technological comfort is best represented through a passage in which Sloper is removing the blemishes of footprints on the carpet of the executive suite:

 

“It was bright and peaceful up there. You heard only the movement of air from the convectors, an occasional fax, noise from the street. Sloper worked in sections, turning out lights as he went. Even the street sounds sounded different as the footprints vanished—ugly but pure.” (Marten, 50)

 

Rather than birds, through Marten’s world echo the “ugly but pure” sounds of the street. Through the mind-boggling technological wonder of the vacuum, the top-tier of humanity has finally manufactured for itself a pure and untarnished world, a “bright and peaceful” environment which dishonestly hides any semblance of the social structures that support it. It is not hard to imagine how the social structures embedded in Marten’s fictional executive suite could eventually decay into the situation of Wells’ Morlocks and Eloi.

Plainly stated, much of Marten’s Waste ranges between disgusting and purely disturbing. While Wells captivates his readers with inventive fantasies and sci-fi wizardry, Marten takes a blunt approach, enthralling with disgusting imagery and Sloper’s repulsive behavior. By degrading and objectifying the human body through the act necrophilia, Sloper is revealed as a morally decrepit character. However, by describing the deeds of Sloper’s corruption with extraordinary candor, Marten calls the reader to reflect on their own moral paradigm while bilaterally supporting and questioning bio-centrism.

Using Sloper’s internal monologue to depict the act of necrophilia, Marten crafts a brusque voice which views the girl on 24’s decaying corpse as off-handedly as a reclaimed burrito:

 

“He rolled onto his side and turned her over with him, spooning her against him so he could hold her front. She wouldn’t warm up but he liked how she looked in the TV glow, bluish, a vampire hungry for his heat. He liked holding her. He liked one skin touching another skin, and the third thing they made. He squeezed her and she farted on him. He closed her eyes again. Maybe an electric blanket.” (Marten, 47)

 

If written through a moral lens grounded in anthropocentrism, in which human matter is held sacrosanct, above all other forms of existence, the quoted passage would be saturated with judgement. By refraining from condemnatory language, Marten purports a morality of bio-centrism, a morality in which Sloper’s ‘re-use’ of a discarded body might even be considered an action deserving merit. Marten’s proposition is deeply controversial, perhaps to the point of extreme misogyny. Such controversy, while unsettling, does open the debate as to the weaknesses and merits of bio-centrism. Marten both questions what virtues may come of banishing the social fear of decay: of allowing the footprints to remain on the carpet, of de-obfuscating waste, and of elucidating the lives of oppressed peoples, as well as the potential result if such arguments are taken to their logical extreme.

In contrast to Wells’ fear of a decaying humanity, Marten literally embraces decay and its conclusion, death, instead shifting fear to the powerful structures governing society, revealing hidden frailties in their ostensibly polished veneer. Beyond depicting the harsh conditions which result from capitalistic social stratification, Waste criticizes capitalism and government through a plethora of characters seeking to profit from such imperfect systems. From Sloper utilizing the disabled woman next-door as a means of securing Medicaid, or Sloper’s replacement “flinging the barrel down the aisle” to “save us some steps”, to Bernie’s wife who “used a birth-control device years earlier, some kind of shield, and it planted something in her that wouldn’t let her sleep or eat or work… A class action was pending,” very few characters live by the regulations of the systems intended to construct a better and brighter future for all (Marten, 108, 76). Sloper is even rewarded for his irregular, creepy, arguably immoral behavior as a janitor by being named janitor of the month. Somehow the hyper-capitalism of Marten’s paradoxically believable office-building world rewards masturbating into a shoe with excessive fanfare and a $50 check (Marten, 102). In tandem with his bilateral questioning of bio-centrism, by emphasizing the obfuscated, by depicting not the triumphs but the strange irregularities of contemporary social structures, Marten seeks to shake capitalism and anthropocentrism to their cores, presenting an outlook on contemporary life while asking his readers to further extrapolate, re-envisioning the present through a lens of critical bio-centrism in which the barriers of social systems are both ignored and exploited.

In tandem, Wells and Marten illuminate how humanity’s paradoxically irrational yet justified fear of decay drives society towards a false comfort of human exceptionality, techno-, and anthropocentrism, a practice which stratifies, oppresses, and obfuscates populations. While Marten supposes, yet rejects, the virtues of bio-centrism, neither author presents an argument for a defining centrism which could remedy the injustice of anthropocentrism without falling to the potential depravity of biocentrism. While fearing decay, a forerunner of death, may seem logical, perhaps dissolving such fears could lead to a new moral hierarchy: a hierarchy which emphasizes the cyclical nature of life and humanity’s role as conscious yet temporary stewards for our extraordinarily unique planet. Perhaps we need a hierarchy founded on Earth exceptionality.

"...Wells and Marten illuminate how humanity’s paradoxically irrational yet justified fear of decay drives society towards a false comfort of human exceptionality..."


Bibliography

Wells, H. G. (2012-05-23). The Time Machine (Dover Thrift Editions) (p. 38). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.

Marten, Eugene. Waste / Eugene Marten. Brooklyn, N.Y. : Ellipsis Press, 2008., 2008.

Peter SchwartzComment