Reliquary for the Digital in Nine Key Words ι or V. or □ / The Index Has No Referent: On Saturation and Hierarchy / John Landreville

In Canadian artist David Altmedj’s installation, The Index, mirrored crystalline growths burst through the ground in angular protrusions. Trees, mushrooms, birdmen in business suits, werewolves, and other mutant hybrids, seem to be coping with the destruction of their world by either carrying on with business as usual or trying to hold ontological ground in losing battle.

Walking through the installation, you are caught in pieces: mirrors fragment and distribute you, spilling you across surfaces and distribute bits of you with other organic and non-organic beings.

FIG. 1. “David Altmejd, The Index. (2007) Canadian Pavilion, 52nd Venice Biennale.”

Altmejd’s work is illustrative of a wider interest in what I am calling weird flesh. To my mind, The Index is of a piece with a variety of art works concerned with exploring the materiality of the nonhuman world—flora, fauna, and technical objects—possessed of a vitalism that is irreducible to human apprehension.1 Other examples of weird flesh include: the tentacular horrors and form-defying creatures (e.g. Shoggoths) in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction; Rachel de Joode’s flabby flesh stretched into arches and mounted in sagging masses; the queer, transhuman mutants and bulbous homunculi that appear across the work of the musical artist Arca (specifically his collaborations with video artist Jesse Kanda).

Weird flesh matters because it challenges the epistemological self-assurance of the human subject and produces a feeling of ontological insecurity by presenting the bounds of embodiment as unstable. The Weird seeks this instability and exacerbates it by dramatizing the permeation of the body by efflorescent and intentional materiality.[Note]Weird fiction author Jeff VanderMeer uses the suggestive phrase “intentional fetishism” to describe how writers imbue things with a kind of agency or power in order to grasp the world with “greater granularity and complexity.” The key is that intentionality is not exactly consonant with anthropomorphism but not divorced from it either.2 But weird flesh is not just about deconstructing the “bounded” subject. Critically, decoherence and destabilization occur in a way that prevents a surreal “bliss of transformation,” tending instead toward transformation experienced as dehiscence, debility, or abjection.3 Weird flesh maintains that there is no escaping the biological materiality of sensing and feeling even when imagining fantastically de-subjectified bodies in the Anthropocene.

Moving through The Index produces in me a sense of “ontological saturation,” typically a hallmark of speculative fiction but here rendered in sculpture.4 The work complicates my understanding of it as either as an object effervescing into being through my activity as a beholder, or as a scene soliciting my absorption. These art historical poles defined by Michael Fried hinge upon the role of a coherent viewing subject doing the seeing, whereas the Index captures, fragments, and distributes me across its reflective surfaces, mixing me with organic, non-organic, and mutant elements circulating through its ecological system. To understand my situatedness in relation to the work is to admit that The Index forces me to descend deeper into materiality’s vitalism and agency, rather than try to transcend the scene and adopt some objective perspective.5

I am attuned to the sense that the whole of the thing recedes or refracts beyond my grasp the more I look. But while there I feel the tension between my vision and my submission and I lose my place in the hierarchy of human-non-human. I lose conviction in depth-erotics as I discern some flatter organization of being. De-anthropocentric interventions like The Index lateralize ontology, though we might also say “flatten” or “democratize.”6  I’m arguing that in doing so, they challenge the privilege of the human subject to be an organizing principle of thought and experience without destroying or reifying the structure of “human” either way. In The Index, I am an incidental entity in a vast, multi-scalar field of non-human actants and overlapping systems. Put another way, “flattened ontologies” and wading through scenes of “ontological saturation” complicate how we think of hierarchy, invoking an intensified sense of being “enmeshed” in extra-anthropological interrelations, networks, rhizomes, and ecologies.7

Mel Y. Chen’s thinking through animacy hierarchies is one way of formulating lateralized perspectives and engagements by enabling us to (re)imagine how bodies are “affectable” and why.8 I take Chen’s line of thought to enable new assignments of power, agency, and difference, even in the absence of a human subject’s centripetal organizing power.

The problem is whether sundering “the index” and depth models as we have conventionally understood them has also caused an erosion of accountability, or at least complicate our understanding of accountability and power as a vertical relation—and therefore call for a renewed consideration of how hierarchy has co-evolved with ecological, speculative philosophy, and new materialist thought.

FIG. 2. “David Altmejd, The Index. (2007) Canadian Pavilion, 52nd Venice Biennale.”

Altmejd’s Index exhibits itself without gesturing to a referent. Instead, the vertical tiers of the chain of being dissolve weirdly beside us along with the molluscs and muskrats in a flattening scene of hybridity, permeation, and circulation.

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  1. Weird fiction author Jeff VanderMeer uses the suggestive phrase “intentional fetishism” to describe how writers imbue things with a kind of agency or power in order to grasp the world with “greater granularity and complexity.” The key is that intentionality is not exactly consonant with anthropomorphism but not divorced from it either. VanderMeer, Jeff. “Jeff VanderMeer on Johannes Heldén’s Astroecology and Storytelling in the Anthropocene.” Environmental Critique. April 5, 2017. Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. (Durham: Duke University Press 2010).
  2. Perhaps the best illustration of this is VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. As Mark Fisher explains, weird fiction produces processes of “unworlding,” an “abyssal falling away of any sense that there is any foundation or a touchstone, securing and authenticating what is ultimately real.” Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater, 2016. 48. Miéville, China. “M. R. James and the Quantum Vampire: Weird; Hauntological: Versus and/or and and/or or?….” Collapse. Vol 4. Urbanomic: Falmouth, 2009. 113.
  3. Bachelard, Gaston. Lautréamont. Trans. Robert S. Dupree. Dallas: Dallas Institute, 1979.
  4. Damien Broderick has argued that science fiction is best suited to account for experiences of “ontological saturation and intensity.” Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction. (New York: Routledge, 1995), 34.
  5. Alaimo, Stacy. “New Materialisms, Old Humanisms, or, Following the Submersible.” NORA—Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research. 19 No. 4 (December, 2011), 280.
  6. DeLanda, Manuel. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. New York: Bloomsbury. 2002. Bryant, Paul-Levi. Democracy of Objects. (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2011).
  7. “[A] newfound attentiveness to matter and its powers will not solve the problem of human exploitation or oppression, but it can inspire a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are kin in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations” (Bennett, 13).
  8. Chen, Mel Y. Anamicies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. I am borrowing the term “affectable” from Denise Ferreira Da Silva. Toward a Global Idea of Race. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).