Science Fiction Studies
#105 = Volume 35, Part 2 = July 2008
Gazing Across the Abyss: The Amborg Gaze in Sheri S. Tepper’s Six Moon Dance
How does the human/animal interface operate as a story we tell ourselves about our position in the world? We used to spend our energies explaining how we are different from animals, making sharp distinctions between humans and animals. Now we say that we are one species among many. Once we were a little lower than the angels, but higher on the great chain of being than other creatures; now we see ourselves, more and more, as abandoning any pretense of some place in a hierarchy. Once we were the exclusive proprietors of mind, sentience, soul; now we are not sure. Once we had free will, animals had instinct; we were autonomous, they were machines; we had language, they did not. Now we question all those assumptions, and ask ourselves why we think we are at the top of the food chain.
This essay uses Sheri S. Tepper’s Six Moon Dance (1998) to demonstrate the changed view of the human/animal interface. It begins by defining a coinage, the amborg, that allows me to abandon bulky terms such as “human/animal interface” while keeping in mind the dynamic relationship between human and other animals that describes this new megatext or meta-narrative. Next, it considers the gaze as an exchange between subjects rather than as a one-way power trip from subject to object, and how that view dynamizes our relationship with others. Finally, it demonstrates, using Deleuze and Guattari’s model of being and becoming, how these sets of concepts can be deployed in science fiction through their use in Six Moon Dance as Tepper explores the roles of men and women, human and other.1
These days we question the human/animal divide more than ever. This division can be seen as a response to the rise of commodity culture, to industrialization and urbanization—economic causes for our growing alienation from the organic world. Directly connected to those changes is the growing degradation of nature as the globe heats up and temperatures, oceans, and extinction rates rise. As other animals disappear, we must feel their loss and wonder when we will wink out as well, so we identify with the others more and more. As we become anxious about cloning and hybridization, embracing animalkind can seem both a move toward acceptance of changes in what it may mean to be human and a retreat from new demands on that same meaning. As we become just as anxious about virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and their seeming threat to our embodiment and necessity, joining the animals may seem a way to revalidate the embodied physical human being. While Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge imagine our disembodied, virtual, post-singularity posthumanity, the human/animal interface offers an alternative posthumanity rooted in carbon instead of silicon.2 In this era of anti-scientific challenges to evolutionary theory from the religious right in the United States, recognizing our kinship with other animals offers a kinder, gentler version of Darwin’s legacy, with ecology and the study of consciousness, for instance, characterizing evolution as an inclusive rather than a diminishing process. As we ask more and more questions about the nature of consciousness, the answers become more and more suggestive of kinship with other species rather than separation from them.
In the 1990s, developments in physics and cybernetics led to critical and literary explorations that used science and technology in increasingly metaphorical ways, often to the annoyance of physicists, in discussions of, for instance, conspiracy theories, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, cyborgs, and the singularity. As we abandon the myth of discrete categories and accept that of flows and continua, how does this affect the ways in which we employ science to reflect our beliefs? Contemporary physics concerns itself more with dynamical systems than with Newtonian ones and the language of chaos theory provides an irresistible metaphorical tool for discussing our social and literary conditions.3 We are, for example, coming to see sexual differences as occurring along a continuum rather than neatly divided into two pure categories.4 Indeed, this change in thinking permeates everything and constitutes a major shift in world-view, so that the current fundamentalist battles on many fronts may be the death throes of the myth of separation.5 In terms of my concerns, this change in paradigm is reflected in the story we tell about our relationship with animals, and this, in turn, influences the stories we tell about our relationships with human beings. In such fields as evolutionary development and evolutionary psychology, the emphasis has shifted from the differences between humans and other animals to the similarities. Many texts from these fields explore how humans and animals are part of a continuum, a fuzzy set, an interface, and their titles reveal this: Jonathan Marks’s What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee (2002), Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape (2005), Ian Tattersall’s Becoming Human (1998), and Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (1992), to name a few.6
The amborg. Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1990) is another title that reflects this dynamic view of our relationship to other animals. The story of the cyborg that Haraway consolidated for us helps make sense of the postindustrial world by seeing our relationship with animals and technology as one of flows rather than sharp divisions. The word “cyborg” represents the human/machine interface, and I have coined the word “amborg” to represent the human/animal interface. I choose this coinage, not so much because it joins the “a” of animal with the “m” in the middle of human, which is a bit weak, or because it shortens a longer possible coinage —a(ni)mborg—or because “huminal” sounds horrible and “aminal” childish. The word amborg allows me to abandon the devisive and misleading slash of the cumbersome mouthful, human/animal interface. I like my new word because it suggests in “ambi” an organism that can be both human and animal, an ambiguous organism; an organism about which we feel ambivalent; and perhaps an ambitious organism, spanning nature and culture; a new way of organizing the world, an amborganization. Amborg is a word that recognizes that, while we humans are clearly our own species, we are also clearly animals, so it avoids the first problem of talking about the human/animal interface, in acknowledging that we are a subset of the larger group, not a separate category a little lower than the angels.
I also mean the word amborg to represent organisms in their most liminal states, not just humans when we acknowledge our family tree, but any animals that interact with, exchange glances with, and acknowledge the presence and sentience of another species. It sounds a bit like animot, Derrida’s coinage in his “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” (2002). In that essay, he explores (among many other things) how troublesome and divisive the word “animal” is, designed to separate us from the rest of the animal realm. Like Derrida, I need a word to join us to that realm.
Haraway’s cyborg, as a paradoxical and ironic creature “holding incompatible things together” (“Cyborg Manifesto” 149) in a both/and rather than an either/or dynamic, is “simultaneously animal and machine” and “populate[s] worlds ambiguously natural and crafted” (149). It is “a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality,” a hopeful monster that offers “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and ¼ responsibility in their construction” (150; emphases in original). It is “a creature in a post-gender world,” unfettered by binaries (150). She sees this utopian creature as an empowering myth and representation for women, since it disintegrates the dualisms that are instrumental in political and social “practices of domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers, animals—in short, domination of all constituted as others” (177). “To be One is to be autonomous, to be powerful, to be God,” but “to be other is to be multiple, without clear boundary” (177). Is it necessary to point out that a cyborg, like a hybrid, need not be a combination of just two things, but of any number of things?
The high-tech cyborg blurs the line between human and machine, mind and body (177). It emphasizes “our sense of connection to our tools” (178) as extensions of ourselves. Haraway asks, “Why should our bodies end at the skin?.... Machines can be prosthetic devices, intimate components, friendly selves” (178)—parts of us, such as eyeglasses, tennis rackets, keyboards, and cars, for which we take responsibility. Rather than women choosing either female embodiment in mothering or male or genderless involvement in technology and science, a cyborg woman can include both and deconstruct the unnecessary either/or choice. The cyborg allows women to step out of the traditional trap of binary power structures associated with patriarchal and hegemonic discourses.
The amborg is a close relative of the cyborg as Haraway imagines it. The amborg, too, is “multiple, without clear boundary,” holding “incompatible things together.” It, too, acknowledges both nature and culture, not by embracing the technology from which women have felt excluded, but by embracing the nature from which all humans feel increasingly alienated. While Haraway’s cyborg reflects our feeling of growing mechanization, accompanied by our separation from the environment and from our embodiment, the amborg recovers our identification with our material world, with our own bodies, and with other living creatures. But amborg, like cyborg, is a hopeful word that is meant to acknowledge flows more than divisions, so the amborg does not represent our “natural” selves communing with nature, somehow returning to an Edenic state. Neither the cyborg nor the amborg is false, neither denies the other; the reflection of each remains as we turn and gaze toward the other.
Both words acknowledge Bruno Latour’s point that science does not occur in a vacuum. He sees knowledge systems as encompassing three subsets: facts, power, and discourse, which he also labels as processes of naturalization, socialization, and deconstruction. The problem, he believes, arises in separating these systems rather than in acknowledging their connections. As he sarcastically describes that kind of segregation, “We may glorify the sciences, play power games or make fun of the belief in reality, but we must not mix these three caustic acids.” Really, though, they are all connected: “Is it our fault if the networks are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society?” (6; emphasis in original). So our task as citizens of the world is not to separate everything into “distinct ontological zones: that of humans on the one hand; that of nonhumans on the other,” what he labels “purification.” It is to combine and thus “create mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture” in the act of “translation” (10-11). The amborg, like the cyborg, mixes those not-so-caustic acids of nature, society, and discourse into a word that allows us to imagine and to be such hybrids of nature and culture.
The amborg gaze. Science fiction allows us to imagine that we see through the eyes of the other—the other sex, the other gender, the other social group, the other species, the other kind of sentience. It allows us to be amborgs, both to gaze at the other and to gaze through the eyes of the other. The other, the not human, stands in for the animal: one delegates the other, who- or what-ever it may be, to the category of the animal by excepting it from the gazing self; one makes the equation that human equals the active gazing self and animal equals the passive gazed-upon other. Laura Mulvey, in her discussion of the male gaze in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), emphasizes this power equation when she says that “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure” (586). This is so in any art where the gaze is predetermined by the artist’s fixed representation, and we learn a great deal as we study how the artist represents the passive object. The act of reading, whether a book or some other medium, can unfix that representation, and the reader becomes free to play with the representation, to wonder how the story/the movie/the painting would be different if the object depicted became the observing subject, for instance. That kind of reading, described in reader-response criticism, dismantles binary splits between active and passive, male and female, subject and object, human and animal, and so on.
I am describing a kind of reading that has become more and more prevalent as we have become more and more accustomed to ask ourselves about our own perceptual lenses, to acknowledge that we see everything through epistemic glasses. Jane Tompkins, in her 1986 essay, “‘Indians’: Textualism, Morality, and the Problem of History,” reminds us of these epistemic glasses when she says of Perry Miller’s writing about the Puritans that “what is invisible to the historian in his own historical moment remains invisible when he turns his gaze to the past” (564). Miller simply could not see the Puritans’ blindness to the culture they supplanted: he himself was blind to any subject position but his own. More and more, however, we are training ourselves to imagine what the view is like from the other side. Artists often unfix the binary split between subject and object. I like to think of it as amborg gazing, as in Mark Tansey’s painting, “The Innocent Eye Test” (1981), which shows a cow gazing upon a painting of a cow gazing out at her, while a group of researchers gazes upon the cow. Is she self-aware?—that is what the researchers wonder. But how will they know? She may be seeing things in her own way.
The Germans have the word Weltanschauung for one’s world-view, but in 1909 Jacob von Uexküll coined the term Umwelt to refer to “the environment as perceived by the animal,” its own world-view (de Waal, The Ape 75-76). If the animal has an Umwelt, does that not mean it is looking at the world, and at humans, just as we look at the world and at the other animals? While the perceptions are necessarily different, differently processed and differently embodied, they are perceptions, and that realization changes our relationships with one another. It transforms the Weltanschuung into another Umwelt. In Derrida’s essay, “And Say the Animal Responded” (1997), he questions the distortions of Lacan’s epistemic glasses as Lacan delineates the differences between humans and (other) animals. Derrida summarizes Lacan’s position: “There is no desire, and thus no unconscious, except for the human; it in no way exists for the animal, unless that be as an effect of the human consciousness” (123). For Derrida, “problematizing ... the purity and indivisibility of a line between ... the human in general and the animal in general, risks ... casting doubt on all responsibility, every ethics, every decision, and so on” (128; emphases in original). Once the line between human and animal is blurred, it becomes difficult to shrug off one’s ethical responsibility to the one who looks back.
Emmanuel Levinas speaks of “one’s implementation in a landscape, one’s attachment to Place, without which the universe would become insignificant and would scarcely exist,” as “the very splitting of humanity into natives and strangers” (“Heidegger” 232; emphasis in original). From that splitting comes the violence of the Holocaust, of course, the racism that “shuts people away in a class, deprives them of expression and condemns them to being ‘signifiers without a signified’” (“Name of the Dog” 153). In the Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, whose gaze returns such people to the status of signifier? The dog, Bobby, who, as Levinas describes in “The Name of the Dog, or Natural Rights” (1975), “would appear at morning assembly and was waiting for us as we returned, jumping up and down and barking in delight. For him, there was no doubt that we were men” (153). Not only does Levinas describe the dog as “barking in delight” but he also points to his “friendly growling” (153). Growling is not friendly and how can he know that the barking is in delight at seeing them? The dog gazes upon the man and the man interprets it according to his own need to be recognized as a man, not an animal. As Levinas says in an interview, “One cannot entirely refuse the face of an animal. It is via the face that one understands, for example, a dog. Yet the priority here is not found in the animal, but in the human face” (“Paradox” 169). For Levinas, one’s ethical responsibility is to the other, the stranger, the one looking back, but that one must be human. The animal remains on the other side of an undecipherable abyss, almost faceless, an other.
In Derrida’s “The Animal That Therefore I Am,” it is a cat that looks back. Derrida is naked, the cat watches, and Derrida is embarrassed. Derrida goes on to reflect upon shame and nakedness, and how they are different for humans and for cats, how technology and language separate him from his cat. He acknowledges that “it has its point of view regarding me” (380) but does not speculate on what that is, seeing the relationship between “man” (tellingly) and animal as “at once close and abyssal” (399). Haraway takes him to task for having “failed a simple obligation of companion species; he did not become curious about what the cat might actually be doing, feeling, thinking, or perhaps making available to him in looking back at him” (When Species Meet 20). When John Berger asks “Why Look at Animals” (1977), he is quick to remind us that animals do “not reserve a special look for man” (there that pesky noun is again), that “man too is looking across a similar, but not identical, abyss of non-comprehension,” and that “no animal confirms man, either positively or negatively” (5). Only in recent studies of animal behavior, and in science fiction, do we begin to speculate about what those animals are seeing when they gaze upon us, male or female.
Donna Haraway has been speculating on that gaze, most recently in When Species Meet, which examines our feedback relationship with companion animals. But she was careful to remind us, in her chapter on “Situated Knowledges” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, of “the embodied nature of all vision” in order to “reclaim the sensory system that has been used to signify a leap out of the marked body and into a conquering gaze from nowhere. This is the gaze that mythically inscribes all the marked bodies, that makes the unmarked category claim the power to see and not be seen, to represent while escaping representation” (188). She calls this gaze “the god-trick of seeing everything from nowhere” (189), the claim that one sees objectively, from some disembodied subject-position so that everything and everyone else is an object, the way the Puritans saw America’s howling wilderness and Perry Miller saw the Puritan habitation. If one acknowledges that the human other, women as well as men, people of color as well as white people, are looking back, perceiving the world, and perceiving it with significant differences, it is a small leap to imagine that other animals are also looking back. Less and less do we congratulate ourselves that we have cornered the market on the Weltanschauung: more and more, it looks like Umwelts all the way down. The abyss is gazing back. The gaze is not only returned, it is exchanged; it is in a feedback relationship—unstable, unpredictable, dynamic, teeming with implications political, social, and ethical about our place(s) in the world. This is the amborg gaze.
Deleuze and Guattari talk about two ways of seeing and acting in the world: being and becoming. If one sees the world in terms of being, one sees it in clearly divided categories: black or white; male or female; human or animal. One can determine on which side of the boundary anything lies, and the difference and the boundary matter. The subject gazes using “the god-trick of seeing everything from nowhere,” without imagining that there are other subjects. If, however, one sees the world in terms of becoming, one sees everything in a dynamic state, moving in flows, inhabiting zones without boundary markers, without a subject/object division: black flows into white, male and female exist along a continuum; animal and human share more than they differ—genetically, emotionally, cognitively, ethically. Hybridity and interfaces matter more than difference and boundary. In fact, the metaphor of hybridity is central to this view. Brian Stross defines the hybrid:
Because changes caused by hybridity occur with relative swiftness, hybridity is not so contested a concept as is evolution, in spite of their scientific connections. This is the Darwinian model of creatures in the act of hybridizing and evolving, constantly adapting to their environment, rather than the Creationist model of sudden and stable creation. Metaphorically, a single glance between two creatures can allow the recognition that transforms, that hybridizes. Amborgs, then, are hybridizing creatures in the state of always becoming, rather than ever being: they must necessarily employ the amborg gaze, and each gaze changes them further—Umwelts all the way down.
The amborg gaze in Six Moon Dance. Like almost all of Sheri S. Tepper’s novels, Six Moon Dance is passionately feminist and deeply concerned with ecological degradation. These twin concerns are, of course, quite commonly linked—as is evidenced by the field of eco-feminist criticism—and they are linked also in animal studies.7 The amborg gaze, which hybridizes Mulvey’s feminist critique with foundational work in animal studies, is prevalent in recent science fiction: Octavia Butler’sXenogenesis trilogy (1987-89), Karen Traviss’s Wes’har series (2004- ), Carol Emshwiller’s Carmen Dog (1988), and Joan Slonczewski’s The Children Star (1998) are a few works that explore concerns with both feminism and ecology by questioning our relationships with other animals and imagining them looking back. Much of Tepper’s other work does also, but here I will concentrate on Six Moon Dance.8 This novel is instructive not only because it illustrates the amborg gaze and the value of dynamic becoming, but because it evidences a contradiction at the heart of the difference between being and becoming: in valorizing the dynamic flow of becoming it blocks that flow by setting up a binary division between being and becoming.
In Tepper’s novel, humans have settled on an alien planet, Newholme, in two waves, a first patriarchal settlement that failed and a second successful matriarchal society. The settlements were begun in the belief that there was no indigenous sentient population—the Council of Worlds to which they belong would have forbidden their colonization of Newholme had that been the case. But, of course, an indigenous population appears and, rather than acknowledging it and leaving, the humans come to a curious and quite familiar arrangement. They use the indigenes, Timmys, as servants while refusing to acknowledge their presence—the indigenes are socially invisible and their sentience, their “humanity,” is denied. The Council of Worlds sends a cyborg emissary, a judge called Questioner, to determine the situation according to a set of rules called “the edicts”: “Questioner was able, in many cases, to bring imperfect societies into conformity with the edicts, and it was also able to dispose of societies which were totally unacceptable” (30). Here, then, is one source of the novel’s considerable suspense. How will the society be exposed; will it be able to conform or will it be destroyed? How can a society that uses, suppresses, and denies the sentience of its indigenes come to terms with its relationship to the world on which it lives?
The rules are outlined with great and obvious clarity. The “Edicts of Equity” forbid “slavery, genocide, settling on previously occupied planets; racial crowding, and the destruction of either habitat or biodiversity.” They “assure personal rights for all races” and that members of the wide-flung network of worlds must not discriminate “on the basis of species, color, hispidity [kind of furriness], gender, age, or opinion.” These edicts apply to all humanity, “defined in terms of intelligence, civility, and the pursuit of justice rather than by species or form” (27). (Tepper’s word for our species is “mankind,” whereas “humanity” is her word for the more generalized and inclusive category.)
In addition to the first compulsion for the novel’s suspense, the question of whether mankind on Newholme will or will not be condemned, there are at least two other sources for the novel’s propulsive quality. The second source of suspense is figuring out how the indigenes appeared, what they are, and the true nature of sentient life on the planet. The third propulsion is the question of whether a sort of ouroboros, alien to the planet but buried in it, will destroy the world as it wakes from sleep and its egg hatches.
All these plots and all these conflicts make possible a complex network of sight lines—everyone is looking at, evaluating, and trying to figure out everyone else. Everyone gets something right, everyone gets something wrong, and we readers watch them all. Because this is a novel, we finally learn the “right” way of seeing everything—that is how the multiple plots and conflicts resolve themselves, although amborg gazing is more wisely practiced with the acceptance that much will remain ambiguous or unknown—and this “right” way of seeing reveals a contradiction in this novel and in Tepper’s work as a whole.
The patriarchal and matriarchal gazes. The first wave of mankind colonizers, the patriarchal society, reveals blind contempt for women when we see through their eyes: we know not to trust their gaze. The Wilderneers, as they call themselves, represent the worst extremes of patriarchy:
Women are to be seen by men passively, and as seldom as possible, rather than seeing actively themselves; they are animals, tools for breeding. The extreme sexism of the Wilderneers is mirrored by their physiological transformation, through the actions of Newholme itself, into grotesque caricatures of their most unpleasant attributes. The exaggeration of Tepper’s handling of these men makes it easy for us to see their distorted gaze and to dismiss it as an unreliable Weltanschauung. We might say that she describes them as if they were animals, if we remember the trope of describing vicious behavior as animalistic or brutish, rather than humane.
We soon come to recognize that the second wave, the matriarchal society, if not so blind, is still unable to see clearly, although their vision may seem at first more politically sympathetic, reminiscent of earlier feminist-separatist visions in sf from the 1970s and 1980s including Sally Miller Gearheart’s The Wanderground (1978), Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), Suzy McKee Charnas’s Walk to the End of the World (1974), Joan Slonczewski’s A Door Into Ocean (1986), or Tepper’s own The Gate to Women’s Country (1988).9 While the Wilderneers have been pushed to the margins of Newholme, the matriarchal society is its dominant culture. Many of its attributes are reversals of male patriarchy and resonate with practices of the Wilderneers: the men are veiled to hide their allure to women, while women are more prized than men and hold the most powerful positions in religion and government. Other attributes echo the utopian dreams of feminist separatism, of a society “more kindly, cooperative, and productive,” more “fulfilling, productive, and joyful” than the martial patriarchal model (236). The women in power do not see that their relegation of men to minor roles as servants, including being bought and sold as consorts to women, repeats the blinkered vision of the male gaze. Men are hidden away, used as tools, and treated as animals, if in a “more kindly, cooperative, and productive” way.
For each group, the gaze goes only one way: neither can see the world from the other’s viewpoint. The reader, however, sees both views and is privileged with an amborg gaze. As in Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country, we see what the women in the society do not: the limitations of any separatist culture that denies multiple world-views. Mouche, who moves from a sort of “fascinating manhood” role as a consort within the matriarchal society to a more undefined role when he falls in love with a genderless indigene, offers a flexible view, as does Ornery, a young human woman who lives as a man within her restrictive society in order to accomodate her inability to conform to female stereotypes.
While these examples might suggest that sexuality and gender themselves are flexible, negotiable categories in the novel, it does not seem to be the case that the ways in which the characters view their sexuality and gender roles is flexible and negotiable. The lectures of Madame Genevois to her student consorts about male and female difference suggest a more determinist view of sexuality, if not of gender, because she links many behavioral traits to evolution and body chemistry. For instance, she cites “the complex endocrine makeup of women that drives their cyclical biological systems” (85) and makes generalizations about primate males and females similar to those of evolutionary development texts such as Marks’s What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee and de Waal’s Our Inner Ape. “Primate males,” she says:
These theories are linked to a claim that “mankind has a stratified mentality,” with an “ancient lizard brain,” a “mammalian mind,” “a primate mind,” and “a mind adapted to language,” all compelling particular behaviors (85). The latter claim reappears in the novel, in a scene in which a Timmy attempts to explain the indigenous view of the mankind animal (350-51): it seems to be, to great extent, an authorial claim and not simply representative of the limitations of the world-views of those who make it. Madame draws a telling conclusion to her lecture: “Here on Newholme we choose to be human” (88). “Human” is Tepper’s term for all sentient beings, or at least all those who comply with certain ethical standards, as if compliance lifts one from the limits of the primate-evolved “mankind.” Indeed, it is ethics that separates humanity from its animal selves—its lizard, mammalian, and primate roots—in the novel. Yet Tepper is also insistent upon recognizing the worth of animals and the value of our animality, as will become clear in the discussion of being and becoming human/animal in the novel. This exploration reveals an amborg gaze that suggests some resolution to the seemingly rigid divisions between male and female, between human and animal, that Tepper imposes.
The promise of the human/other amborg gaze. Tepper’s “mankind” may be locked into rigid gender roles and controlled by rigid sexual determinism, but the indigenous others who already inhabit Newholme have a much more flexible existence. Well before the humans are aware of their existence, the indigenes observe them. The beings of this planet are not species separate from the world itself, but many parts that operate both independently of one another and as part of a coherent living whole, like the Gaia notion of the earth as a living organism. When the colonists first arrive, the natives are literally invisible to them, even though they are watching mankind. They are part of the planet, part of the landscape: mankind cannot see the trees for the forest. The planet’s “eyes” are the Timmys, whom the humans eventually are able to see (although they pretend not to) and treat as non-human servants, while the Timmys continually spy on the humans in order to attempt to understand them. The humans can see the indigenes only from their own competitive, socially-Darwinist world-view or Weltanschauung; but from the perspective of the indigenes, this is the humans’ Umwelt, the environment as perceived by this particular animal, one Umwelt among many. The humans cannot see the indigenes (they literally behave as if the Timmys are invisible) because the indigenes’ Weltanschauung, or their Umwelt, is one in which “Everything lives for the purpose of everything” (368). Only when Tepper moves from the Darwinian determinism of her vision of mankind does she show the gaze moving from a fixed one-way line of sight to a feedback relationship, a synthetic ever-changing amborg way of seeing, in which the hegemony of a Weltanschauung gives way to a decentered acknowledgment that it is Umwelts all the way down. Tepper uses these multiple viewpoints to explore gender issues and to begin a discussion of the human/animal interface as well.
If the mankind society on Newholme can only function with rigid gender roles for male and female and rigid determinations of who does or does not conform to sexual norms, the native species, as represented by the Timmys, manage without sexual determination. They demonstrate a state of fluid becoming rather than static being, to return Deleuze and Guattari to the discussion. They are sexually indeterminate, work and play communally, and act as part of a larger whole rather than being defined as a differentiated species. All varieties of Newholme indigenes are connected as an interdependent, sentient, and ethical whole: together, they fulfill the Council of World’s definition of humanity, even if the individual parts might not. The planetary consciousness describes its creed: “Together we will live or we will all die, as is the way of worlds” (328). The Questioner expands on this understanding by explaining how the planet evolved: “It was not life arising by differentiation and selection, which we are more familiar with. The life here had ... grown by ramification and accumulation” (375). The evolution described here, with its emphasis on change and branching, is the involution of becoming-animal as Deleuze and Guattari describe it:
Mankind, with its evolution “by descent and filiation” to lizards, mammals, and apes, its geneological tree, represents a state of being while the indigenes of Newholme, symbiotic and rhizomatic, represent becoming. Tepper, like Deleuze and Guattari, makes it clear that becoming is vastly preferable.
Mankind imposes differentiation—being, essentializing, into a fixed and separate stasis—on the Timmys, the only part of the indigenous sentience with which they interact. When the the Timmys appear, the humans must separate them from the protected and essentialized category of human in order to continue colonizing Newholme, so they define human as having a brain. Definitions, of course “are rarely neutral; they mirror entire world views” (de Waal, Ape 25), and, since “narrow definitions neglect boundary phenomena and precursors” (26), they largely serve to divide and essentialize. In this instance, since the Timmys do not have a central brain but a neural net under their skins, mankind can deny the Timmys their humanity, keep on colonizing the planet, and avoid any ethical responsibility for them. Having exempted the Timmys from the general ethical category of the human, mankind further denies their existence through consistent refusal to see them, using them as “invisible” servants, hiding them behind walls and in small shelters, and ignoring them. Mankind feminizes the Timmys: small, brainless, powerless, there to serve, to be neither seen nor heard. This is how the patriarchal first colonizers see women, and this is how the matriarchal second settlers see men. The reader sees that the first colonizers essentialize women, and that the matriarchal second colonizers essentialize men and Timmys. Mankind, in all these cases, gazes upon the defined, essentialized other without exchanging the gaze with whomever it has exempted from its own state of being: the one-way gaze refuses to recognize becoming. Mankind, then, sees human and other/animal as fixed states of being rather than as a fluid relationship; this is how they gaze upon Newholme, their new world. This way of seeing, a gaze that is rooted in stasis, objectifies the Timmys and subjectifies mankind, allowing the sort of ethical exceptionalism that permits colonization.
This one-way gaze results in a rigid stratification whose effect is evident not only in sex and gender roles, but in class as well. Whoever claims the gaze also claims the power in the mankind realm of the novel. The stratification that Tepper sees as inevitable in human evolutionary makeup is reflected in the class roles that men and Timmys play. Newholme society is not only sexist but—and it is suggested this is also evolutionarily determined—capitalist: Newholme women divide their men into “men of business,” “supernumes,” and a few consorts. The women form ruling and priestly classes; the men of business a merchant class; the supernumes, who have no families, a working class; and the consorts provide entertainment and companionship as wife-substitutes. Beneath this stratified set of classes are the Timmys, an invisible/untouchable underclass who do the grunt work. The use of Timmys as an underclass causes an economic imbalance: “Had the Timmys not been so ubiquitous all those generations, likely there would have been no such things as supernumes” (228). Likewise, if the women had not artificially limited the female population by sending female infants off-planet in order to raise their own value on Newholme, there would have been no need for consorts, either. As the Timmys see it, then, mankind “buy everything, churn it around, increase the price, then sell it back to the people who made it,” running a capitalist system that seems linked to the very stratification that marks their evolutionary “genealogical tree.”
For the Timmys, however, the gaze does not go in one direction only. While mankind looks out, seeing, defining, and insisting upon rigid states of being, with only their Weltanschauung, the Timmys look back, analyzing mankind, interacting with them, drawing some conclusions, changing, interacting, forming a feedback loop, becoming, recognizing Umwelts all the way down. They came into existence because the planetary consciousness wanted to observe mankind, the addition to its biosphere. They change and adapt in order to observe and to be observed, to exchange the amborg gaze. This is involution by “ramification and accumulation,” a rhizomatic becoming-animal way of seeing and evolving in which “everything lives for the purpose of everything.” Economically and socially speaking, “it seems sensible to make what everyone needs and let everyone use what he needs.” This evolutionary and social model10 requires that “all creatures must live, changing together, else all the world dies” (Tepper 328).
And change they do. It is eventually revealed that one mankind person, Mouche the consort, and one indigene, Flowing Green the Timmy, are actually human/indigene hybrids. They—one male and one of undifferentiated sex—fall in love and form a hybrid marriage meant to point the way forward to a more hopeful future for mankind and the indigenous consciousness on Newholme, a hybrid, becoming-animal, becoming-human, dynamic future.
The contradiction: insistence on becoming. One might be tempted to find great consolation in this vision of Newholme’s future, but readers may see certain contradictions, especially as they consider the artificial intelligence in a grandmotherly body known as the Questioner. She has been programmed using the intellects of abused human women, but those women’s memories are deeply submerged and denied, so she believes that she is an objective observer, one who will “be immune to influence” (30). She represents an ultimate authority, the Council of Worlds, with life and death power over individual societies and species. If a species does not meet her criteria for the human, which places it in the realm of the animal, then it is expendable. She believes that her gaze is authoritative and objective, but we see, and she comes to recognize, that her gaze is distorted by her own dominating Weltanschauung. This distortion includes a tendency to see patriarchal patterns of abuse where they may not occur, a bias for the so-called inhuman objectivity of an artificial intelligence, and an unexamined assumption of the correctness of her primary directives: she may be a cyborg, a hybrid becoming-human, but hers is the “conquering gaze from nowhere” (Haraway “Cyborg” 188) of the rooted being. Only when she moves beyond “objective”observation to dialogue with those she observes does she recognize that hers is one among many world-views, an Umwelt, not the Weltanschauung —and that the others are looking back at her, with their own Umwelts. For her, humans, indigenes, and all other living creatures are the other.
In Questioner lies the contradiction at the heart of everything by Sheri Tepper. In all her work she lays out the damage done by fixed world-views and fixed definitions, by the tyranny of being and of a domineering Weltanschauung. In her passionate explication of the damage of such tyranny, however, she transforms the dynamic, flexible becoming of the amborg gaze into another domineering Weltanschauung. Questioner makes a series of assumptions in the course of the novel. She assumes her ethical infallibility: “When I make a judgement, I always feel I am doing right.... If I do not feel it is right, I cannot do it” (57). She claims that “Putting right is my business,” but sees no ethical contradiction in then admitting that “Unfortunately, when things are put right, often the innocent suffer with the guilty” (424). She claims to be “immune to influence” (30). Nevertheless, she makes a number of errors in situations she observes. In the case of the alien asleep at the center of the planet, the Quaggi, she assumes that the male is the abuser of the female although the reverse is discovered to be the case. She assumes that the missing female children in the mankind population are the result of infanticide rather than of emigration, and therefore is ready to destroy the matriarchal society until forced to listen to the explanation. In both of these cases, the buried memories of the abused women that make up her own consciousness make her far from “immune to influence.” In her ability to let “the innocent suffer with the guilty” in spite of her vulnerability to influence, she is far from an infallible judge. These faulty assumptions are caused by Questioner’s denial of the hybrid nature of her consciousness, including those abused women whose memories may be buried but whose attitudes are not.
Eventually, Questioner learns to see all the viewpoints of the sentient beings on Newholme with the exception of those hopeless patriarchal males from the first settlement, and acknowledges her own hybrid nature. She does not, however, learn to question the edicts of the Council of Worlds or her prime directive, which is to destroy those who do not conform. Indeed, the males from the first settlement are destroyed: because they have been judged outside the family of humanity, they are expendable. Since these men are so hateful, and since they have been transformed by the planetary consciousness into hideous parodies of their worst characteristics, we have no sympathy for them, and it is easy to ignore what is happening. They have been relegated to the category of the animal and therefore outside the realm of ethical responsibility, even though most of the thrust of the novel has been to reject rigid definitions and to valorize inclusive and fluid states.
I suspect that we are not meant to question the Council of Worlds since its edicts coincide with Tepper’s consistent stand in all of her work: in The Gate to Women’s Country; in Grass (1989), Raising the Stones (1990), and Sideshow (1992); in the magnificent Beauty (1991), The Family Tree (1998), and The Fresco (2000); even in her mysteries written under the names A.J. Orde and B.J. Oliphant. As Michael Levy succinctly describes this stand in his annotation of The Fresco in Anatomy of Wonder: “The novel features Tepper’s trademark liberal social criticism and caustic humor at its most powerful, though some may disagree with her faith in the power of social engineering” (410). That social engineering is the worrisome source of inconsistency in Tepper’s championing of a flexible, rhizomatic vision by employing an obdurate and rooted set of edicts for proper conduct. Here I want to return to Questioner’s official role and to the edicts described above. She brings “imperfect societies into conformity,” suggesting that perfection is not only possible but also attainable through conformity. Further, when a society refuses the “perfection” of conforming to the Council’s edicts, then the Council can “dispose of societies that are totally unacceptable” (30). There seems to be no recognition of the coercive nature of this language and its similarity to such historical examples of striving toward perfection through the disposal of unacceptable groups as the Nazi genocidal project.11 The Council’s “Edicts of Equity” are very specific about what is forbidden—“slavery, genocide, settling on previously occupied planets; racial crowding, and the destruction of either habitat or biodiversity”—and on what basis—species, color, gender, even hispidity—but vague as to whom the edicts protect, using words such as “intelligence, civility, and the pursuit of justice” (27) to define the protected category of the human. Thus, the ideological justification for the Council’s own policy of genocide is disguised by the vagueness and prophylaxis of its language and the novel’s dangerous rigidity is hidden as well. In her thought-provoking Bloodscripts: Writing the Violent Subject (2003), Elana Gomel claims that “ideological killers.... find no difficulty in explaining the ‘why’ of their actions. But they stumble, stutter, and often fall silent when it comes to the ‘how’” (xvii).
This is the ellipsis I see in Tepper’s novel: both Questioner and the arguing consciousness of the novel are eloquent, even persuasive about the rightness of their liberal social agenda, one which seems open and welcoming to multiple definitions of the human; but they are euphemistic or silent on how to attain that agenda and unable to recognize the inconsistency at its core. The novel’s rigid division between humankind and other life denies and contradicts the epiphanic realization that there are multiple subjectivities, multiple Umwelts. Humanity is defined through the Council’s, and Tepper’s, ideology, in as rigid and unscientific a way as “race” was defined by the Nazis, and for the same purpose: to halt ethical obligations and concern beyond the species barrier. It is a curious blind spot in the novel’s otherwise amborg gaze, since Six Moon Dance, like all of Tepper’s work, is extremely sympathetic to other animals of the biological rather than the ideological sort.
Conclusion. I began with a quote from Nietzsche: “If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” In terms of the amborg, the abyss here represents the unfathomable view of the other, and the quotation reminds us to remember that the other has a viewpoint as well—we trade Umwelts rather than locking down a Weltanschuung. But an abyss has its dictionary definition. It means a bottomless pit, or chaos—the great emptiness looks back at us, becomes us. The tyranny we hate becomes a part of us, through the passion that clouds our gaze. That is what happens in this novel. Tepper valorizes the becoming-animal fluidity of the Newholme indigenes, their ability to change and adapt in a rhizomatic involution rather than a hierarchical geneological tree and offers that as a healing vision, but, in doing so, she establishes a rigid binary between the erection of binaries in being and the rejection of binaries in becoming. In the urge to bring into being the hybrid vigor and generosity of rhizomes, networks, synthesis, involution, dynamic systems, and an amborg vision, we may fail to recognize that the act of bringing into being works against the urge to become. The amborg gaze is a process rather than a goal, a means rather than an end. There is no end in sight. The story of our place in the universe continues.
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