Some Reflections on the Theological Remnants in Snuff Memories
What are we to make of this book? I mean to pose this question in at least two senses: first, to register the confusion I felt when confronted with this text—who? What? When? Similar I think to the confusion we feel when confronted with Samuel Beckett, William S. Burroughs or Georges Bataille for the first time. This initial confusion was somewhat mitigated by reading what David and others have written about Snuff Memories, but it didn’t disappear altogether. In some sense the confusion is the point—we are also in the position of the misshapen and malformed creatures that populate this text.
But I believe there is something more to this question than the registering of my initial befuddlement at this provocative text. The question “What are we to make of this book?” is meant to echo the declaration of the first line of Snuff Memories, “You were always defined by results” (1). To be “always defined by results” provides one way answering this question, “What are we to make of this?” We shall know you not by your fruits, but rather by your results. Of course here I am contrasting the declaration found in Matthew 7:15-17. These verses begin with a warning followed by the declaration:
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore by their fruits you will know them.
“Beware of false prophets” warns the Gospel before explaining how we can distinguish the false prophet from the true one. But we should be careful here: although they bear some resemblance to one another, we should be too quick to equate “fruits” with “results.” The world of the Christian Gospels is a world, like our own, that seeks to carefully distinguish the true from the false, and the authentic from the inauthentic. An all-too-human world, in other words.
Snuff memories presents us with another world, a posthuman world in which we who cling so desperately to the distinction between the true and the false, the authentic and inauthentic and even the human and inhuman are little more than a dim memory. Here’s how David characterizes Snuff memories in a recent blog post:
Snuff Memories, which might be termed a novel of speculative eroticism, effectuates this subtractive desire, a desire nonetheless distended by the pervasive magnetism of things-to-come and their iterated catastrophes: not only personal death, but ecological death, the death of the Sun and (extending this Platonic motif) of all Solar Transcendence.
This book is a montage of texts, genres and perspectives – alternating between the subtractive eroticism of death-driven biomorphic bodies and the disindividuating mesh of all the alienating ‘moral powers’ haunting its ancient, demon-haunted Cosmos (technological, alien, theological).
So, beginning with my opening contrast between the Evangelist’s “fruits” and Snuff memories “results,” I’m interested in tracing some of the threads of the theological remains in Roden’s novel of speculative eroticism.
We might characterize the theological dimension of the ruined landscape found in Snuff memories as “antinomian.” On this reading, posthumanism would be antinomian, or at least it would express itself in the ruins of an antinomian desire. In a religious or theological sense, “antinomianism” designates those religious leaders and sects that break the established laws or norms of the religious sect to which they belong. Hence all Promethean projects are antinomian, though Promethean projects can take religious or secular forms, a theme that has long fascinated writers (I’ll cite just one here: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein explores this antinomian Prometheanism unmoored from its religious contexts) From the standpoint of orthodoxy, these antinomian prophets would be false, and Matthew would warn us that we should pay careful attention to their fruits. In various Christian traditions, antinomianism designates those individuals and groups who, thanks to divine grace, thought themselves beyond the reach of the religious strictures that governed those who weren’t among the elect. I should say that I also find Ryan Reeves’ definition of “antinomianism” amusing. According to Reeves, writing on a site called “The Gospel Coalition,” antinomians are “described as being those who preach sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.” While I don’t know that I completely agree with Reeves’ characterization, it is at least memorable. Various characters in Snuff memories recall these Promethean makers, but these are just dimly remembered fragments.
We get hints of the antinomian Prometheans in this ruined world, though there is no sense that they will be held accountable for what they have done, or even a clear account of how they were responsible. Consider this passage from p. 41: “They are carving out their itineraries unsoundly. What remains will be less like a body, more a procedure for compression and future proofing. The object is a facile corollary of the subject that was or will be, and a kind of bootstrapping lure disassembles us as we look away. The Prometheans believes themselves disabused, but now carry the God they made along the nomad trails at the margins of the Broken, a scarred, sterile waste around Y’s monumental ruin. Latterly the rationalists have become penitents and plague-spreaders.” Whatever has happened to this ruined world, the Prometheans had a role in it.
While there are certainly resonances between posthumanism and antinomianism, the antinomian impulse flourishes within a context of established order and orthodoxy, a clearly defined moral and political order. The shock of antinomianism can only be felt where order reigns. The antinomian prophet flouts this order. If there were antinomian tendencies within posthumanism, they flourished long before the events depicted in Snuff Memories. Perhaps it would be better to say that Snuff Memories depicts a posthuman Gnostic world, but that isn’t quite right either. Gnosticism claims that this fallen world was created by a single evil demiurge, and that we might, through knowledge and spiritual discipline, come to know the true God. The problem is that there is no true God behind the demiurge in this posthuman world of becoming without death. The Things that populate this world, seek only pleasure and the ultimate release of death. The final release of death rarely comes, however—instead, it’s the reconfiguration in a new temporary form of becoming that will yield different results, but no fruits.
For the ripening of fruits entails a teleology, and behind the ripening fruit a whole metaphysics of time that sees time in terms of progress. Christian eschatology posits an end time when the true and false will be clearly distinguished and all will be made known. Snuff Memories’ posthuman timescape posits no progress toward an eschaton. Instead, the eschaton or the apocalypse has already occurred, long in the past and dimly remembered by these posthuman things who continue to cling to something akin to life. Indeed, something akin to eternal life without the promise of death.
I want to close with a final comparison from Kafka. In one of his memorable sketches, he presents us with a Thing named Odradek. Kafka’s sketch begins with a reflection on the etymology of this Thing’s strange name before turning to the Thing itself. “It looks at first like a flat, star-shaped spool for thread, and it does appear to be wound with thread…But it is not only a spool: a little rod sticks out crosswise from the middle of the star, and another one is fitted into this rod at a right angle. With the aid of this little rod on one side and one of the rays on the other the whole thing can stand upright as if on two legs.” We are told that we might be tempted to believe that Odadrek is simply a broken thing, but this initial assumption is false, for it doesn’t appear that this useless Thing is broken. It speaks, though you only ask it simple questions you would ask a child, and it responds simply, like a child when it chooses to respond, which is only rarely.
I was reminded of Kafka’s Thing, Odradek, when reading Snuff memories because of the final lines of his sketch, narrated by the patriarch of the house where Odradek dwells: “In vain I ask myself what will become of him. Is it possible for him to die? Everything that dies has some sort of prior purpose, some sort of occupation, and has worn itself to nothing doing it; that does not apply to Odradek. So will he one day tumble down the stairs, perhaps under the feet of my children or grandchildren, trailing his threads after him? He obviously does no harm to anyone; but the idea that he should still outlive me, does almost give me pain.” The narrator of this short story is a patriarch, a Hausvater who has discovered this strange Thing in his home. The cares of the patriarchs, the creators, the prometheans, who made Snuff memories world of ruin remain unfathomable, and the Things that live after them aren’t completely useless: they are defined by results, but these results are not purposes and they certainly are not final.