May 29, 2004



Professor Barker: 'In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud takes a number of crucial initial steps towards mapping the Geocosmic Unconscious as a traumatic megasystem, with life and thought dynamically quantized in terms of anorganic tension, elasticity, or machinic plexion. This requires the anorganizational-materialist retuning of an entire vocabulary: trauma, unconscious, drive, association, (screen-) memory, condensation, regression, displacement, complex, repression, disavowal (e.g. the un- prefix), identity, and person.

Deleuze and Guattari ask: Who does the Earth think it is? It's a matter of consistency. Start with the scientific story, which goes like this: between four point five and four billion years ago - during the Hadean epoch - the earth was kept in a state of superheated molten slag, through the conversion of planetesimal and meteoritic impacts into temperature increase (kinetic to thermic energy). As the solar-system condensed the rate and magnitude of collisions steadily declined, and the terrestrial surface cooled, due to the radiation of heat into space, reinforced by the beginnings of the hydrocycle. During the ensuing - Archaen - epoch the molten core was buried within a crustal shell, producing an insulated reservoir of primal exogeneous trauma, the geocosmic motor of terrestrial transmutation. And that's it. That's plutonics, or neoplutonism. It's all there: anorganic memory, plutonic looping of external collisions into interior content, impersonal trauma as drive-mechanism. The descent into the body of the earth corresponds to a regression through geocosmic time.'

Watching Quatermass and the Pit again last week - Nigel Kneale's masterpiece, and undoubtedly the best film Hammer ever released - I started to think, again, about memory, trauma and the organism.

The film is about an excavation in the fictional London tube station of Hobbs End. Workers uncover what turns out to be a Martian spaceship, filled with the corpses of repulsive quasi-insect beings. Aliens, we think... Yet the genius of Kneale's script is that the Martians turn out not to be aliens at all. Fleeing the destruction of their own planet, the Martians had, five millions years previously, interbred with protohuman hominids in order to perpetuate their species. So the distinction between alien and human is fatally unsettled. As the Quatermass sequence progresses, the alien has become increasingly intimate: The Quatermass Xperiment - the aliens are out in space; Quatermass II - the aliens are already amongst us; Quatermass and the Pit - we are the aliens.

Greil Marcus devotes perhaps the most fascinating and unexpected pages of Lipstick Traces to an analysis of the film, under its US title, Five Million Years to Earth. 'Though there is no consciousness of the intervention,' he wrote,

'there is phylogenetic memory. Freud believed that modern people in some fashion remember, as actual events, the parricides he thought establish human society, and unconsciously preserve that memory in otherwise inexplicably persistent myths and rituals; in Moses and Monotheism he argued that, hundreds of years after the fact, the Israelites carried a memory of their forebears' murder of a first Moses, even though in oral and written tradition the event was completely suppressed. In Five Million Years to Earth the argument is that modern people remember step-parents who, with infinite patience, set out to kill their progeny.'

A darker version of the origin of humanity story told in the near-contemporaneous 2001*, Quatermass and the Pit also shares much with Ballard's The Drowned World: most importantly the theme of what Marcus calls 'phylogenetic memory'.

As I understand it - and I'm really, really keen for someone who knows about science to set me right here (Geeta???) - there is no scientific basis for this notion of 'phylogenetic memory'. Genes are a ROM transmission system; the legacy that you will pass on to your offspring is already determined before your birth (unless you are subject to mutation). Experiences, learning - culture - cannot be directly passed on; such lessons have to be learned anew by each generation.

What then of instincts? How do they fit in? Are instincts a kind of memory?

With Quatermass and the Pit, the memory is a 'literal' memory, a deeply submerged but still accessible mental trace (triggered, in the film, by the unearthing of the spaceship); with The Drowned World, the 'memories' are encoded in they physical form of the human being itself, Ballard's famous 'spinal landscapes.' Quatermass and the Pit is archaeological; The Drowned World, geological. Anticipating Deleuze and Guattari's 'geology of morals' Ballard's innovation lay in collapsing culture, psychology and biology into geology.

Should we refer to Ballard's 'spinal landscapes' as memories at all, or as trauma records? Trauma is anti-memory, non-organic memory, what the organism cannot assimilate but which - according to Freud - makes possible organic life as such. In non-organic systems, there is no distinction between what is remembered and that which remembers; there is no unalterable 'Judgements of God' ROM, just as there is no so 'recording' system that can't itself be 'recorded over'.

Questions, questions...

*Although the Quatermass and the Pit story was, by then, over a decade old. It had been filmed by the BBC back in 1956.

Posted by mark at May 29, 2004 01:46 PM | TrackBack

Great post Mark. I'm certainly no scientist, but I *think* the idea of phylogenetic memory is Lamarckian, ie it relies on the transmission of acquired characteristics, the idea that your DNA can change over the course of your life and you can pass on this altered code to your offspring, as opposed to the Darwinian natural selection model. Instincts *behave as if* they were a kind of species-memory (this idea seems the obvious explanation of them, as of so many other things, hence the erstwhile popularity of Lamarckism) but they're actually just random mutations that happen to have been adaptive.

That's probably all crap though. Please, scientists, tell me why I'm wrong, it's the only way I'll learn!

Posted by: Angus at May 29, 2004 02:56 PM

Thanks Angus!

Yes, that was my understanding too....

btw OT, but the new Big Brother in the UK looks like it's the best yet --- they've got the most obnoxious bunch of ****s in recorded history together in one room.... I was so enraged I could barely watch....

Posted by: mark k-p at May 29, 2004 06:50 PM

Ha, yes, so I hear. I'm warming to the latest Aussie BB too.

Posted by: Angus at May 30, 2004 05:26 AM

I've only seen the BBC version (its great, so mannered and stiff, slowly escalating to this apocalyptic pitch..)- is the hammer one substantially different?

Posted by: owen at May 30, 2004 03:41 PM

The Hammer one loses that mannered stiffness; Keir is excellent as Quatermass. The thing has more pace. The ending is also slightly different; Quatermass and his assistant just stand there in catatonic shock, silent - there's no rousing speech to conclude as in the TV version.

Posted by: mark k-p at May 30, 2004 04:00 PM

ah, that sounds appropriate, though I do like the rousing speech. But surely the sound effects don't rock as much as those by man like desmond briscoe...

Posted by: owen at May 30, 2004 04:31 PM

I have the BBC version, but I haven't seen it for a while. But the sound in the film is incredible --- especially in the 'war of all against all' scenes of anarchic London ----

Posted by: mark k-p at May 30, 2004 05:13 PM

instincts are like those uncontrollable spasms which species selection has left unculled and still operative (ie the ones which also had the instinct to run TOWARDS the tiger and then stand still w.a silly grin on yr face = were gradually left unable to pass this on)

you cd *just abt* make a case for defending the "race memory of trauma" being proposed in Quatermass by arguing that it has in fact been passed on at the cultural level (eg all the cave painting/hobbs lane/trolldoll-type so-called symptoms of the memory are in fact the VECTORS of the memory) (ie Quatermass's own theory is as USUAL completely wrong)

Posted by: mark s at May 31, 2004 04:11 PM

>>> During the ensuing - Archaen - epoch the molten core was buried within a crustal shell, producing an insulated reservoir of primal exogeneous trauma, the geocosmic motor of terrestrial transmutation.

as you know the inner core is not molten in a conventional sense, it's between solid and liquid but not jellified. The core (follow the line from Thomas Gold's masterpiece to the blockbuter disaster, The Core) is the source of our bacterial archeology, the politics toward A-Now (anonymous- until-now or artificial now?)

The core as a protrusive xenochemical insider tries to induce a mass extinction to the earthís body. Richard Muller suggests that the cryptogenic lighter components in the iron ocean of the outer core drift outward and cumulate beneath the solid mantle through topsy-turvy slopes with a very low degree of steepness. The molten iron heap eventually turns into an aggressive slope process as a result of overloading and form a bottom-up avalanche, as if the core trying to slither up the earthís body in a katahuming motion. A large asteroid mass hitting the earth at an oblique angle could make the mantle tremor so fiercely that bottom-up avalanches of vast proportions take place; abruptly, diffusing agitation and disruption through the outer core, and consequently the external magnetic field ... reversing the planetís polarity. The enthusiasm of the core to answer to the xenopulses is beyond limit.

On the other hand, cthelllium is packed with schizoid anomalies: while the outer core is constituted of intensive flows, the inner core also maintains its own type of dynamism offbeat to the earthís rotation, spinning significantly faster than the planet. The inner core appears to have a split personality, with one hemisphere different from the other.

The question posed by this radical insurgency is that how such a rebellion came to populate its polytics inside the earth.

More lateler ... in the massive update at cold me website ( in july.

Posted by: Reza at June 1, 2004 05:02 AM

These "genetic memories" sound a bit more like Jung's collective unconscious to me. I doubt that there's a consensual hard science theory. Rupert Sheldrake's theory of morphopgenetic resonance is probably the closest stab. He still hasn't been disproven as far as I can remember.

Oh and the usual caveat w.r.t. appeals to the authority of science -- the book ain't written yet. Whatever our current scientific model is, it will look laughably naive in a thousand years time. Scientists -- fans of scientism -- hate hearing this, but it's true. Their irritation is the mark of the juvenility of scientism's worldview.

Posted by: paul "Essex boy" meme at June 1, 2004 10:22 AM

Gordon Rattray Taylor in his 20 year old book "The great evolution mystery" gives some examples of apparently Lamarckian transmission of "learned" characteristics - adaptations that contradict the strictly Darwinian model of characteristics derived from random genetic mutations being naturally selected by the trials of life. Many examples (for instance the development of complex organs like the human eye and ear) are given as evidence that the random mutation/natural selection (i.e. strictly Darwinian) model of evolution was insufficient and outdated, even in 1980 and in back to the beginning of the 20th century.

Mr Rattray Taylor concludes that there must be other processes at work and speculates that the genes of all living things may have a more or less finite "repertoire" of latent potentialities for change that are activated by external stimuli. What these potentialities are, and where they come from is of course the great mystery of the book's title.

Unfortunately I am not that widely read on the subject so I can't be very authoritative but it's clear that this theory opens up the question of evolution and the potential of living things.

BTW The book also mentions how Darwin himself had many doubts about his own theories. Despite pooh-pooing Lamarck loudly Darwin apparently proposed thories in his time which were Lamrckian and therefore in contradiction to what we understand as "Darwinian" dogma.

Posted by: Dan at June 1, 2004 11:50 AM

Thanks guys, this is exactly the kind of feedback I wanted and/ or needed.

Mark S: yes, the notion of cultural memory vectors would square the circle, but this actually contradicts what happens in the film which, as Marcus said, maintains that human beings have _actual_ albeit repressed memories of the Martian genocide.

Reza, fascinating stuff....

Dan, I like Taylor's theory a great deal, partly since I find the idea of phylogenetic trauma (a la 'Moses and Monotheism' as well as Quatermass) an attractive and fascinating one. Maybe it's possible to square a 'cultural Lamarckism' with a biological Darwinianism; for instance, Darwin is surely right that there is no way in which an animal can pass on _biological_ characteristics it acquires during its lifetime (e.g. giraffes stretching the neck until their offspring are born with longer necks); however, it may be possible to pass on _cultural_ experience in some way? I'm obviously casting about here...

Posted by: mark k-p at June 1, 2004 12:15 PM

well a nice testcase for [cultural->genetic] wd be literacy - if there is genetic disposition in some ppl towards finding the state of literacy easier to achieve (and i mean signposts not pomo novels), cd this (over however many generations - 10? - reading has existed as a significant minority option in certain geographical regions) begin to have a genetic presence? ie does being literate give you any kind of breeding advantage? (it may give a disadvantage!!) (u can't pull so easily in the library!!) (i don't actually know what percentage of earth's pop'n is literate currently anyway)

there's a straightforward old-skool darwinist explanation for the evolution of the eye (i read it in stephen jay gould): the ear i don't know abt

from what i remember of sheldrake, he never proposed any morphic resonance phenomenon which can't be explained by the species in question having some level of culture - as opposed to just "instinct" all down the line

this is somewhat heretical in current mainstream biology, but not in any way counter-darwinian

(also there's all those ppl who "remember" when hypnotised that they were egyptian princes or princesses - but that doesn't seem to have been passed on in a very usable way)

Posted by: mark s at June 1, 2004 04:52 PM

(by culture i think i probably mean a minimum-level "language")

(in fact language is a stronger better test-case than literacy, but in a way it's too big and too strong and too liable to collapse in definitional argt straight away: viz is a dog or cat or skunk marking its territory an example of language-use?)

Posted by: at June 1, 2004 04:58 PM

Some of this reminds me of D and G 'On the Refrain' which I've just been puzzling my way through (again); they say animals have religion, never mind language!

Posted by: mark k-p at June 1, 2004 07:24 PM