Anthropic Alienation:

self-conscious text in Cosmicomics  and Solaris

Janet Bruesselbach

Science Fiction

Katherine Hayles


Humanity is qualified by limitation, and limited by interior perception.  Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics returns to this theme through the use of contradictory and self-conscious language as it explores the imaginative narration of scientific theories.  The same theme appears, using the similar juxtaposition and interposition of mind and science, in Lem's Solaris.  In the former case language's content is aware of its position as sign (at some times more consciously than at others), while in the latter at least one character becomes communicated as being conscious of a representative nature shared with language.  Both texts utilize sections of apparently objective scientific description that frames the sometimes more obscure sections of narrative in which the whole text is necessarily anthropocentric.  The absurdity of the mind's confrontation with what it perceives as independent matter manifests as a matter of alienation, that is the separation of a world necessarily perceived by an individual consciousness into self and non-self.  Alienation is illustrated literally (a figure of speech) in the form of the presumably alien consciousness that is Cosmicomics's unpronounceable narrator Qfwfg, and in Solaris as the para-conscious alien being of Solaris's ocean.  Cosmicomics will ultimately come to emphasize the anthropic nature of a written text, dependent on the reader's cognitive structure, their knowledge (scientia) and their imagination.  The Anthropic Principle dictates essentially that the universe exists because we can see it, and, taken in its strongest dose, that the universe exists for the sake of human consciousness, bordering on justified solipsism.  Thus Cosmicomics's distinctively anthropomorphic, possibly author-morphic (or consider automorphic) narrator deliberately directs the reader's attention, all postmodern-like, to the presence of a physical, spatial text, while at the same time experimenting with the limits of human comprehension of theoretical physical reality.  The focus will be on two stories by Calvino: "A Sign in Space" and "The Form of Space", with discussion of the development of a concept of communication throughout all the Cosmicomic stories.  Then the theme will expand universally to similar themes in Solaris.  How would a person perceive if one paradoxically perceived outside the limits of a person's perception?  And more importantly, demonstrates Qfwfg, how would one describe it?  The answer manipulates fundamental qualities of contrast, difference, chaos and order inherent in its own communication.

"A Sign in Space" indebts itself to Saussure's semiotics and in many ways to Derridian philosophy, and can even serve as a lesson itself in semiotic theory even to the mildly versed.  It concerns the creation of name or sign, and signs are defined by difference, although the relation of this theme to the extraordinarily brief quasi-objective introduction is complex at best, relying mostly on impossible Qfwfg's free association: "Right, that's how long it takes, not a day less, -- Qfwfg said,--"(31).  The assumption of consciousness poses a conundrum in describing the decisive event, because it can be argued backward's from the story's conclusion that consciousness doesn't exist without differentiation, and a sign marks a difference.  The problem is more pronounced in "All at One Point", which addresses Lacan as the universe is created through personal desire and thus expansion (a collapsed Empedoclean strife via love), against which an objective path would deny the existence of consciousness without temporal or spatial form.  Semiotic precedent determines that Qfwfg's "sign in space" can relate to all other signs and to the post-transitional situation of the narrative, which is necessarily all signifiers with an implacable signified.  It also sets the stage for Calvino's continuing context for differentiation, itself an intrinsically scientific term.  Mathematical thought is close to pure sign, and the "space" in this story's title rises to importance in the reader's visualization of Qfwfg's significant situation.  The important thing in viewing the world scientifically is to note changes, change being a variety difference over time.  Throughout Cosmicomics, it seems that change is simply a movement between one homogenic state and another, perhaps addressing creation in a way that reveals steady-state (with which Calvino experiments in "Games Without End") as having an element of truth: from the undifferentiated "all at one point" to time-death with entropy (Qfwg's only hope in "The Light Years").  In "A Sign in Space", Qfwfg describes the end result of his signing as "a continuity...with no precise boundaries" and "a general thickness of signs superimposed and coagulated"(39), a description which invokes a similar space in the reader's mind to "nothing could be distinguished from anything there"(31) as the pre-conscious world is described. This statement begins to be highly contradictory in context with the system of the story's meaning: the word "there" is obviously a simpler, overused sign, as are the rest of the words used to describe their lack.  Yet Qfwfg's jealousy over the false signs and the false signmaker follows the comic form. When Qfwfg oberves his sign to be erased, he characteristically, paranthetically attempts to refute post-semiotics:"the erasure was the negation of the sign, and therefore didn't serve to distinguish one point from the preceding and successive points"(35).  Kgwgk's palindromic name is similar to Qfwfg's the way an unsigned universe resembles an infinitely signed one. Thus language confronts Parmenidean boundaries of discussing anything without discussing itself.  Comedy is defined by a story's optimistic resolution of conflict, and this story ends with a sensation of nostalgia not for the similarly homogenic original state but for the moment of identifiable change, although with a comedic non-recognition of the static similarity.  Cosmicomics, incidentally, seems to be an attempt to hold together the most inhuman of stories with the anthropomorphic comic format.  More importantly, the story's conclusion depends upon a variety of anthropism, which already slips when Qfwfg casually demonstrates the ineffability of his "first sign":"Visible?  What a question! Who had eyes to see with in those days?"(31) -- a question that will be fully played out in the concluding story "Spiral". Often Qfwfg uses anthropomorphic, story-genre terms when he has already described the setting as outside human comparison:"day followed day"(34)"Independent of signs, space didn't exist and perhaps never existed,"(37) one reads, and realizes that the only space that exists is the space in one's head, or a somatic space belonging to one's unconscious (as in Solaris).  It is true that the mental spaces in which we imagine Qfwfg's story could not exist without the signs of Calvino's language; Qwfwg hints toward his sign as "the thing that had caused me"(35).  Just as changes in the universe could not exist without Qfwfg's independent consciousness, the illusory "fourth dimension and everything"(38) of stories cannot exist without the reader.  The changes in the story, un-self-contained, can only be described because they occurred, and in order to illustrate this comparisons and descriptions are made of a history that could not describe itself.  Qfwfg is quoted describing his sign as the"first opportunity I had had to think something,"(31) so it is only the creation of the sign that can be described, yet described within the current "consistency" of narrative signage.  It is ambiguous as to whether it is possible to make a memory of such events without the entropic state they caused.  These are but elements of the greater paradox of the stories in Cosmicomics; only ones such as these that deal as figuratively with universal matters of perception highlight this problem.  Like the universe in which it is an image, Cosmicomics makes an image of itself ("the world was beginning to produce an image of itself"(36)) via internal contradictions that bring the observer's consciousness to the consistency of its semantic medium.  The impossibility of Qwfwg's experience reveals the possibility of Calvino's writing towards the observer's imaginary space.  The absurdity of Qfwfg's universal perception resolves as the primacy of consciousness in even the broadest objectivity, and the futility of perception without sign.

In "The Form of Space" mind again generates mental space in, so to write, a figurative literalization.  The comic narrative confronts the frustration of (signed) Euclidean space, Newtonian physics and Democritian theory, resolved by scientific changes to these theories that dictate the definition of parallel lines.  Eventually the text reaches the most direct form of self-referentiality just as particular entities, named characters, self-dictate their space-time through their mass; generate their relations and their relativity.  Another brief introduction carries some subtle semantic easter eggs: ostensibly addressing relativity, it accidentally refers to its own basis for objectivity, "common knowledge", a historical force subject to human comedy.  The human element of a narrator's imagination warps the non-reality in which he travels just as human civilization defines its science: this story is about the primacy of substance over content: form in two dimensions as subjectively complex as...well, incomparable, but obviously differentiable.  For pages, the narrative reality and the reality of the text travel on parallels, confronting further and further limits of observation and imagination.  Similarly, the presumed Qfwfg travels on an structurally uncertain parallel to the object of his desire, and his similarly cosmicomically necessary rival.  Our sympathy with the narrator and our awareness of his alienation is another manifestation of the shape of imaginary space, like how he says he "felt her as an alien being for so long, a prisoner of her parallel route"(116)  This shape has a concrete physical form, as well, subtly hidden right before our eyes in Ursula's solely graphical surname (Calvino's use of proper names without instinctive pronunciations is an ongoing marker of self-conscious text) which illustrates the temporal development of the narrative: first the H of a comparative, tense parallel, then the jump of a simple, uncertain apostrophe, comparable to the first "sign in space", and finally x, the crossing of a parallel and comic resolution, although the conclusion is the true meta-resolution.  Interestingly enough, elements of experimental physics demonstrate themselves personally through the narrating voice; a tendency for waves to naturally synchronize displays itself as a dance in which characters express particle/wave interdependent ambiguity: "The Lieutenant then also started swaying, trying to pick up her rhythm, as if he were following the same invisible track..."(119).  In a spherical non-Euclidean formation of the universe, Ursula H'x and Lieutenant Fenimore, having met, could only meet again, and if Qfwfg hadn't been there then he wouldn't be on the next circuit.  "The line each of us was following was straight in the way only a straight line can be straight: namely, deformed to the extent that the limpid harmony of the general void is deformed b the clutter of matter, in other words..."(120)  Those last three words are used notably several times in this story, perhaps demonstrating that different permutations of a single line can express the same character.  This is a uniquely literary manner of combining quantum physics and relativity, in which the interaction of matter and spacetime produces"every possible print of every possible thing"(120) while the particular characters  manipulate such effects in order to interact, as is their Feynmanesque tendency, in every possible way.  After Qfwfg and Ursula's special tryst, each path "continued on its own as if nothing had happened"(121), a reversion implied by the cleanest version of quantum physics, in which particles move and interact in all ways possible within the constraints of the same energy output on the macro level.  A single photon can be observed traveling two distinct paths at once, and an observed photon, more importantly to literary meaning, is affected by the observation as determined by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.  Yet this theory depends on the consistency of consciousness and observation with physicality, and would imply that the story's narrator (never actually named or quoted in this story, although consistent with Qfwfg's character) changes Ursula's path as he observes her; the presence of consciousness decays the observed perfect parallel.  Now, when Qfwfg pursues the conflict of the story, the conflict between signifier and signified comes to light, Calvino goes self-referential, and the words imagine themselves:

"What you might consider straight, one-dimensional lines were similar, in effect, to lines of handwriting made on a white page by a pen that shifts words and fragments of sentences from one line to another, with insertions and cross-references, in the haste to finish an exposition which has gone through successive, approximate drafts, always unsatisfactory..." (123)

Now this student can't begin to pretend that she is close to the signified action (using fragmented type on a digital machine, whose binary basis may at least have the informational complexity within uni-dimensional quanta of which the narrator speaks), nor to the original text it referred to, that is, Calvino's Italian handwriting itself.  The closest  writing can come to conveying reality is to apply itself to the reality of writing, or to itself.  Yet the matter of "close" or "far" is implicitly relative and relatively negligible, as the content of "The Form of Space"'s narrative communicates.  The climax of the comedy becomes somewhat absurd, as we begin to imagine the anthropomorphic characters interacting directly with the shapes of letters before us: "hiding behind the loops of the l's, especially the loops of the word 'parallel'."(123)  Theoretical terms addressed by the story are now its landscape, useful not only in recursive reference to literary form but as consciously manifested players in the action:"the u's and the m's and the n's which, written all evenly in an italic hand, became a bumpy succession of holes in the pavement (for example, in the expression 'unmeasureable universe')"(123)  The last term, more than just a setting for a rousing nonexistent fight sequence, refers to the limitations of human observation just as its presence on the page implies the limitations of language.  The final sentence addresses this objective tropism by which humans believe they can see what anything "really" is, as all the complexity of space returns to a one-dimensional figuration of visible words:

"naturally the same lines, rather than remain a series of letters and words, can easily be drawn out in their black thread and unwound in continuous, parallel, straight lines which mean nothing beyond themselves in their constant flow, never meeting, just as we never meet in our constant fall: I, Ursula H'x, Lieutenant Fenimore, and all the others."(123)

Thus this story shares its return to a state comparable to its introduction with "A Sign In Space", as well as a certain word.  Of course these characters never meet: not only are their names referentless, but thir names are each different from each other; how can names really meet, but in the imagination, the anthropic consciousness upon which all signifying shapes depend for meaning?  All the events imagined by the narrator are so much as the potentialities of any particle in the universe, relatively brief as neuron connections although not as infinite.

The question arises as to whether that which is imagined is inferior to that matter which causes the imagination.  Although only the scientific texts of Lem's Solaris are referential to its literary form, the dilemma of Rheya's presence resembles that to which "The Form of Space" has sensitized the reader.  Like Rheya, Solaris inspires reactions in a reader through a different consistent medium; in her case neutrinos, in its case words.  Rheya is a manifestation of that region in which the meaning of a book, in a non-fictional perspective, usually remains.  By bringing the contents of his character's mind into physicality in a story, Lem deconstructs human limitations the same way Calvino had by bringing his characters to play with the words representing them.  Kelvin demonstrates a readerly stubbornness in maintaining the faade of narrative reality the way a critic inevitably discusses characters as she would friends.  Rheya's own self-consciousness, although philosophically favorable to her believing "the thing that created" her, to borrow Calvino's term, is a futile, negligible attempt to break the determinism of her medium: the medium of our mind, of the ocean's mind, and of Lem's narrative decisions.  She can't break her nature the same way Qfwfg can't break out from behind this "l" and give you a big Italic kiss.  Self and other is a difference transcendable through the illusion whose moral equivalency paralyzes Kelvin, that of communication between sympathic people through a sign system; this difference, between the alien ocean and human consciousness, between the human subconscious and human consciousness, between what Qfwfg isn't and the character he is, creates the anthropic universe. The "imperfect god" Kelvin describes closing Solaris is a metaphor for humans, burdened with the universe they observe, create, and justify by engraving its image in self-consciousness. Despite its power, it is human consciousness to which an isolated reader/observer is confined to know these self-referential words, a human consciousness restrained by signs and by the levels of reality such that another consciousness, capable of manipulating what we can only perceive as unbreakable boundaries between mind and matter, can ultimately only be regarded as unmotivated nature, to which the causality inherent in sign has no sympathy.


index Radical Relativity Terracentrism Joyce's Polycymbolism and stuff