Karen Holmberg's Reading Reflections

Monday, May 16, 2022

The Man with the Compound Eyes, by Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi, has been a favorite of mine since it first came out in English translation. For me, the takeaway point is that data does not equal control and that the human gaze may be returned by Nature in ways that are discomfiting, unexpected, and outside of quantification or technological capture. I admire its merging of climate disaster, indigenous perspectives, scientific understanding of geoscience, and a surrealism stitched onto a lining of magical realism. In short, the novel details an event in which a tsunami sweeps up one of the garbage patches - composed mainly of plastics - and dumps it upon the coast of Taiwan. Everything that people thought they had discarded returned again in one catastrophic event. Also dumped onto the coast is an indigenous teenager, Atile’i, whose island home lacked the resources to permit him to stay. Like all second sons in his culture, he set out in a canoe on what was meant to be a journey not to death, per se, but to death followed by transformation into a sperm whale. His unexpected deposition onto the coastline interrupts the suicide plans of a middle-aged professor, Alice.

In the book, which has no easy or clear-cut resolution, a deep sense of loss is paired with the sudden realization that the human gaze is not the only one that is significant. Importantly for me, the coastline and the water itself - and especially the mountains - become actors and agents of change as much as any human. The stones of the mountains are given voices and attempt to communicate when dynamited for tunnels or plumbed for mining. Nature itself - or the Earth - is looking at us in ways that we find difficult to understand due to the complexity and non-humanness of that vision. Our eyes are miraculous but relatively simple mechanisms; the ones that Nature uses to look upon us are deeply non-human and both more primordial and more complex than we might assume. The book, in sum, is full of ghosts and loss and sorrow and memories. All of those components haunt me, years after reading it for the first time.

Per the topic of haunting, the Tomás Saraceno show that I saw at the Palais de Tokyo in 2019 has stayed with me in a very visceral way. The show was revelatory for me in its merging of sensory material and non-human actors. In a 2022 show in New York, Saraceno conveyed some of the same work as well as a new piece called ‘Free the Air: How to hear the universe in a spider/web’. In it, he put the human body into gigantic technological spiderwebs intended to make us aware of the senses of vibration and sound that are more important than sight for arachnids. A part of me was drawn fully into the eight-minute ‘concert’ that this experience, lying on metal webbing, created. At a certain point, I had the strange sensation of turning into a spider mother. I no longer feared being predated on the web; it was my web. As fascinating as that felt, though, I wished to be surrounded by real non-human life and real smells and not lying indoors on metal with an electric orb inside a balloon taking the role of the sun. I’m grateful to be privy to a large-scale Saraceno show, but I also want to be surrounded by life and sunlight and the smell of air that hasn’t been behind an airlock chamber. That is the strangeness of our period, this ability to mediate between those by choice, I think.

It’s a new mediation and option that was not present in the past and may not be present in the future. It is what makes me love the Compound Eyes book; it does not create conflict between those choices or extremes but it also doesn’t flinch from their surrealism. Technology mediates much of how we identify and understand newly-forming, dynamic components of the anthropogenically-altered Earth. Much of how we perceive and understand new physical entities, such as the five garbage vortices/plastic gyres now present in our oceans, comes through remote sensing and new ways of ‘seeing’. This technology entails us - from a distance - looking at Nature and the human impacts upon it. No matter how advanced, though, our sensors are not capable of genuinely controlling any of the phenomena they encounter, only observing them. Another maddening paradox to the magic entailed with our rapidly evolving technologies is that it is impossible to quantify the elusive, experiential components of the human experience of the geophysical planet. Our bodily sensoria are far more complicated than any technology yet developed.