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kvond

Seminar on Joy’s Transformation: Cybernetic Achilles

The Serpent, Sea and Fire: Thinking Beyond the Skin

In the comments section over at In the Middle, Eileen Joy mentioned a seminar she teaches that really fascinated me, (and made me wish I could attend it), Bodies-Becoming & Identity Machines: Post/human Literatures, the syllabus of which she posts here. Any synthesis that contains the trinity of Grimm, Carroll and K. Dick simply thrills. In her description she quotes G&D’s ATP on the concept of a book…

. . . contrary to a deeply rooted belief, the book is not an image of the world. It forms a rhizome with the world, there is an aparallel evolution of the book and the world; the book assures the deterritorialization of the world, but the world effects a reterritorialization of the book, which in turn deterritorializes itself in the world (if it’s capable, if it can).

As she announces, referring to Haraway,

“In this course, we are going to explore how, following the thinking of Donna Haraway, the body does not end at the limits of the skin, but is dispersed across a world of affects, intensities, and objects. We will be especially interested in exploring hybridities and transformations of different “selves” that cross unexpected borders, from plant to insect to wolf to human to machine and beyond.”

Thoughts of this unity of transformation of course churn up all kinds of associations, with Kafka and von SacherMasoch heading the list when we are dealing with Guattari and Deleuze. But for me these kinds of trans-skin boundaries conjure up something more ancient than even Ovid. I think of Thetis, the mother of Achilles, for some reason.

The Frayed Threads of Divinity 

If you recall, Zeus was forewarned that if he bedded the sea-goddess Thetis the offspring would come to overthrow him. Wisely so, he forced Thetis to take on a mortal spouse, turning aside the divine fate, weaving it instead into a human line. But like the more well-known story of Menelaus in the Odyssey, who had to wrestle a shape-changing sea god Proteus, Peleus, the soon-to-be father of Achilles, had to wrestle Thetis in order to win her. It is this image that comes to mind, as Apollodorus tells it…

Chiron, therefore, having advised Peleus to seize her and hold her fast in spite of her shape-shifting, he watched his chance and carried her off, and though she turned, now into fire, now into water, and now into a beast, he did not let her go till he saw that she had resumed her former shape.

 

[Above: Peleus depicted as seizing Thetis around the waist, with the attendant creatures of transformation]

Here we have not a constant transmutation into a line of flight, but rather the wrestled hold upon transmutation until it shows its original/constant face. The female element passes through degrees of being. (A description of the late Mannerist depictions of Peleus and Thetis in Athenian vase: here.) So at first glimpse the Peleus/Thetis trial does not seem to hit immediately upon what Eileen is talking about…but give it a moment. Apollodoros continues…

And he married her on Pelion, and the gods celebrated the marriage with feast and song. And Chiron gave Peleus an ashen spear, and Poseidon gave him horses, Balius and Xanthus, and these were immortal.

When Thetis had got a babe by Peleus, she wished to make it immortal, and unknown to Peleus she used to hide it in fire by night in order to destroy the mortal element which the child inherited from its father, but by day she anointed him with ambrosia. But Peleus watched her, and, seeing the child writhing on the fire, he cried out; and Thetis, thus prevented from accomplishing her purpose, forsook her infant son and departed to the Nereids. Peleus brought the child to Chiron, who received him and fed him on the inwards of lions and wild swine and the marrows of bears, and named him Achilles…

The Library, III. xiii 5-6

Here we see the involution of the divine, now sought to be undone by the female power of transformation itself. Out of her shame she seeks to purify her son, burning the mortality right out of him. There is something remarkable about this image of the divine mother hiding her infant in the fire at night, and the infant writhing. The polymorphic materal body becomes not just a transverse cacophony, but a burning torture of purification itself. If we are to grant some sort of  Oedipal (and fatherly) cutting of the jouissance cord of agony/ecstasy, we see that the child is then joined powerfully to the wild/animal world through the surrogate Chiron. Not fires, but beasts feed him, in fact the core parts of beasts, intestines and marrows. The transformation of the child is no longer external, but internal, through nourishment most raw.

Achilles: The First Cybernetic Man

The boundaries of his skin, to take up again the Haraway’s distinction, are consecutively they are permeated unto transformation. The series of his mother has been embodied in a temporal succession of development. But there is more to add to this figure. As Frazer (the Loeb translator and editor) notes there is another legend of this story found in various mythological summations and scholia, as he retells it,

Thetis bore seven sons, of whom Achilles was the seventh; she destroyed the first six by throwing them into the fire or into a kettle of boiling water to see whether they were mortal or to make them immortal by consuming the mortal portion of their frame; and the seventh son, Achilles, would have perished in like manner, if his father Peleus had not snatched him from the fire at the moment when as yet only his anklebone was burnt. To supply this missing portion of his body, Peleus dug up the skeleton of the giant Damysus, the fleetest of all the giants, and fitted it neatly into the ankle of his little son, Achilles, applying drugs which caused the new, or rather old, bone to coalesce perfectly with the rest.

This one is just brilliant. Achilles is not only the birth-son of a divine/human interface, the warp and weft of human excellence, but he is also a cybernetic construction of an ancient past, a grafted inclusion of a lost Age of beings. And it must be embraced that the largeness of the former time is fitted to the infant’s body with a “drugs”. I assume here that Frazer is speaking of a “pharmakon” with is a recipe, a technology (technique), an invention of elements arranged, a potion, a medicine, a poison. Achilles, the first technological man.

There is something about this abberant version of the myth that speaks to just what the trans-human, post-human trajectory of path is. Our technologies are ever through combination beyond our skin’s boundaries, incorporating past and buried powers (those skeletons of flesh), with our own bodies, in novel ways. What is buried in the earth of our mutual past is exhumed and woven in, with pharmakon  magic (readers note of course the Derrida love for Plato’s myth on the origin of writing, calling it indeterminantly, a pharmakon.)

Lastly we understand what happens to this transformative thread, as it has been twisted through a human world. Zeus’s non-born son, is in-born in the human, and lastly, through the various intersections of the lines of flight, enters history. The transformations amid skin are lastly proven out in history itself, from which we get the Iliad

 

Related Post: An Achillean Economy: The Economy of Thymotics and Anger, Sloterdijk

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6 responses to “Seminar on Joy’s Transformation: Cybernetic Achilles

  1. Eileen Joy July 10, 2009 at 10:57 pm

    kvond: thanks so very much for this post, which gives me some new ideas for my course the next time I teach it. I love the idea of Achilles as a kind of cybernetic man. You might be interested in the inaugural issue of “postmedieval” when it debuts in April 2010:

    http://www.siue.edu/~ejoy/postmedieval_vol1no1_Apr2010_CFP.htm

    Cheers, Eileen

  2. anodyne lite July 11, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    This is tangential to your wonderful post, but I find it interesting that the “mortality” of Thetis’ offspring is inherited from the father, just as, in Christianity, “sinfulness” is supposedly inherited from the father. This is touted as the explanation for how Jesus can rightfully be the son of God, and without sin– because his father wasn’t human/mortal/sinful.

    Perhaps there’s a case to be made for a post-human Jesus as well…? Might be fun to slog through a Koine NT somewhere, anyway.

  3. kvond July 11, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    AL,

    As always, I enjoy your comments.

    I like the idea of a post-human Jesus, in fact just as we take Achilles to be cybernetic, perhaps something of the cybernetic is involved in the figure of Jesus, a combination of powers (Jung has a cool idea of why God had to become man, man had become morally superior to God), and a need to enter into history, just as Achilles’s divine thread was woven into history.

    As to…

    “This is touted as the explanation for how Jesus can rightfully be the son of God, and without sin– because his father wasn’t human/mortal/sinful.”

    Is that so? I mean, wasn’t the doctrine of the immaculate nature of Mary (who supposedly was not only only Virgin, but also without sin) designed to explain how Jesus could be without sin?

  4. Amarilla July 11, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    After what Jesus did to the fig tree, I wonder how sinless he was. To think, even he had a bad day, and maybe hypoglycemia.

    As for divine/human interface, the antideluvian nephilim of the Book of the Watchers comes closer than anything I’ve read to reflecting the most dreadful and familiar kind of post-human, and the acts of their parents, those self-indulgent angels, teach too well the dangers of gift-giving.

  5. anodyne lite July 12, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    I would guess that it all comes down to a doctrinal difference between Catholics and protestants. It’s a protestant article of faith that sinful nature is passed on from the father, whereas–you’re right– the emphasis in Catholicism is more on the sinlessness of Mary (via her virginity).

    I’ll try to look it up and see if I can substantiate the claim, but I swear I heard this “sin is passed from the father” claim from a minister (a Wesleyan or Methodist, iirc)…

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