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Review of Slime Dynamics by Ben Woodard

(Washington: Zero, 2011. $14.95 paper. ISBN 978-1-78099-248-8 paper.)

by

Andrew Pilsch

About the Review

Given the fractured nature of my thoughts on this work and the ooze-obsession evinced by it’s text, this review is structured as a semi-rigid collection of cards that break down the book on a number of levels. Follow the directions on each card (“Where to Next?”) to navigate (you can also click on the map).

About the Reviewer

Andrew Pilsch is an assistant professor in the School of Letters and Sciences at Arizona State University.

  • The Thesis
  • How This Was Made

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  • Home

Ben Woodard’s Slime Dynamics is a book largely dealing with cultural, philosophical, theoretical, and literary accounts of life that connect or disconnect from what he calls a “vital creep” (meant in both senses of the word). For Woodard, life’s inherent creepiness reminds us of our own halfway point between the living and the dead as well as our ongoing connections to cycles of birth, death, and decay.

Problematically, however, what could be an interesting discussion of philosophies and theories of the inhuman, becomes a muddle of citations, exemplification, and empty theoretical bombast that, ultimately, feels under-theorized and rushed into print.

  • The Structure of the Thing

Slime Dynamics is divided into three chapters:

  1. “The Nightmarish Microbial” considers the dissolution of the life/not-life binary in the figure of viruses, mitochondria, and other life-like microbes.
  2. “Fungoid Horror and the Creep of Life” considers the role fungus plays as gatekeeper between the living and the dead, further destabilizing easy binaries between life and not-life.
  3. “Extra-Galactic Horror” considers pop culture representations of aliens that represent “superorganic” beings: species-level intelligences that operate as a kind of of cosmic hive mind.

The book attempts to cover a lot of theoretical, cultural, and philosophical ground within these chapters and is partly weakened, as a book, by its theoretical reach exceeding its pratical grasp.

  • Dark Vitalism

Slime Dynamics attempts to make the case for a “dark vitalism,” an extension of Henri Bergson’s vitalism into the realm of emerging speculative realism and, specifically, SR’s interests in cosmic horror.

In the doctrine of philosophical vitalism, the disproved scientific theory that life and non-life are differentiated by a creative force (“élan vital”) explodes into a theory of life that is guided by a creative spirit toward higher and more complex formations.

Woodard offers dark vitalism, and the figure of slime, as a reminder of the suppressed ickiness overcome by humans on their evolutionary course. As such, the book attempts to chronicle these often sticky origins of our own being.

  • Dark Vitalism Defined
  • Speculative Realism for Rhetoricians

Speculative Realism for Rhetoricians

Some rumblings are beginning to be made about object-oriented ontology in rhetoric, including Scot Barnett’s review essay and Alex Reid’s “big idea” video in this journal. However, Woodard’s work draws on the tenets of the affiliated, and equally important, speculative realist movement.

Speculative realism, of which OOO creator Graham Harman is also a founder, emerges around the work of French philosopher, Quentin Meillassoux. Meillassoux’s most important work, After Finitude, argues that the central idea to be overcome in contemporary philosophy is the taint of “correlationism,” a crippling idea that infiltrated all aspects of the discourse following Kant.

  • Correlationism

Correlationism, argues Meillassoux, is the idea that

thought cannot get outside itself in order to compare the world as it is “in itself” to the world as it is “for us”, and thereby distinguish what is a function of our relation to the world from what belongs to the world alone. Such an enterprise is effectively self-contradictory, for at the very moment when we think of a property as belonging to the world in itself, it is precisely the latter that we are thinking, and consequently this property is revealed to be essentially tied to our thinking about the world. We cannot represent the “in itself” without it becoming “for us”, or as Hegel amusingly put it, we cannot “creep up on” the object “from behind” so as to find out what it is in itself – which means that we cannot know anything that would be beyond our relation to the world. (Meillassoux, After Finitude, 3-4)

For Meillassoux, then, all philosophy after Kant has argued that the world and the human cannot be known outside of the relationship between them. Turning over correlationism is the key to producing new and better arguments about reality.

  • Speculation

Meillassoux’s concept of correlationism has produced a widely varied range of responses. From the original idea, many paths have diverged, with object-oriented ontology being the one most widely known (and perhaps most relevant to) rhetoricians.

That said, the “speculative” nature of this philosophical project is important to understand with regards to both Slime Dynamics and newly emerging approaches to a theoretical rhetoric (Derrida and Deleuze do not cut it anymore). While Meillassoux wants us to overturn correlationism, he does not wish to accomplish this revolt by ignoring post-Kantian insights. Meillassoux’s point, instead, is that while we cannot know the world outside our relationship to it, this does not mean we cannot think about the world. Hence, speculation: we can make claims about the reality outside of our senses.

  • Speculative Rhetoric?

Speculative realism is worth considering for rhetoricians, outside of just the affiliated materialist rhetoric suggested by Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology. It seems that, if nothing else, the ability to speak of a world beyond language is the general trajectory of current thinking in our field. Part of the major thrust of an avant-garde rhetorical theory since at least the 1990s has been point towards a world outside of language and even of a world outside of semiotics, generally.

In thinking through a speculative rhetoric, though, we must remember that this is no easy task. One of Meillassoux’s main points in After Finitude is the difficulty thought faces in speculating beyond the human-world correlate. In thinking about persuasion outside of a system of signs, we must similarly remember the difficulty of this task.

Woodard suggests the following three points in which “dark vitalism” might be thought to be “dark”:

  1. It is dark because it is obscured both by nature … and by time … since the cause of most of the nature we know has fallen back into the deep past.
  2. It is dark because it spells bad news for the human race in terms of our origins … our meaning … and our ultimate fate.
  3. It is dark on an aesthetic and experiential level our psychological and phenomenological existence is darkened and less friendly to us, and to our perceptions, given the destructiveness of time and space. (Woodard 12)

Essentially, and this may be meeting Woodard more than half way (as Woodard’s style often makes it hard to determine what he actually means), dark vitalism is a theory of the Oneness of life but shot through with the slimy and often disgusting actualities of biological existence.

  • Woodard's Method
  • Woodard's Style

When I suggested, in my previous summary, that my understanding of “dark vitalism” might be meeting Ben Woodard more than half way, it has to do with his frustrating approach to argumentation and concept formation.

In a very real sense, Slime Dynamics, is more a tapestry of examples, instead of an actual sustained argument about slime, darkness, or decay. Woodard makes the mistake of many scholars in assuming that exemplification is the same as argumentation.

On numerous occasions, he will be discussing a text and say “this relates to X’s theory of Y” without explanation of how or why such a connection is important. For instance, in an extended analysis of Warhammer 40K, without context Woodard mentions that “this gelatinous origin is invoked by Bergson’s Creative Evolution where he states that if there is a connectivity to all life it is in this original slimy moment” (Woodard 45). Besides implying through the usage of “invoke” that Bergson was somehow thinking of a table-top war game when writing his masterpiece, Woodard’s casual tangent illuminates neither Bergson nor Warhammer.

  • Exemplification is Argumentation
  • Epigraph vs. Blockquote

Given the overall lack of editorial quality in this book (see “Editorial Style”), part of the difficulty of reading Slime Dynamics lies in determining what is intentional typographic experimentation and what is a result of the lack of proofreading present in the volume.

Woodard’s use of epigraphs is emblematic of this blurring. The book’s introduction and first two chapters begin with standard, centered epigraphs from the likes of John Cage and Thomas Ligotti. However, chapter three, “Extra-Galactic Terror” begins with two paragraph-length quotations, not centered, punctuated with quotation marks and provided with citations. While this may seem to be a typographic quirk, the following chapter, “Slime Metaphysics,” confusingly begins with two epigraphs and then a long quote punctuated by the two epigraphs used in chapter three (ie. quotation marks and provided citations). Woodard even alludes to this quote as part of his argument later in this chapter.

  • In Media Res

This can only lead readers to draw the conclusion that two of this book’s chapters begin with quotations instead of introductions. This approach to argumentation is generally indicative of the serious issues with writing and reasoning present in the volume.

Similarly, Woodard has an annoying habit of ending paragraphs with quotations. It seems that, as a whole, he lacks the confidence to say what a quote means to his argument, and instead leaves readers to draw their own conclusions.

Beyond the confusing argumentation of the book, Woodard’s Slime Dynamics offers further evidence for the dispatching of the writing style associated with both Theory in English departments and continental philosophy. In addition to the usual topoi of academic Theory, the writing itself absorbs the more abstruse stylistic quirks often unfairly associated with classical poststructural thought.

The problematic aspect of Slime Dynamics is that it combines a difficult style with an obscure subject matter in order to prove points that often seem obvious, when they arrive. Further, one wonders, how necessary is the style of high Theory in an age that values things like clarity and interoperability? Can we do Theory without all the clauses, big words, and obscure argumentation?

More over, in the case of this book, how much of this is style and how much proofreading?

  • Editorial Style

While it might be possible to look past certain inadequacies in the argument of Slime Dynamics, it is more difficult to overlook what appears to have been a complete lack of editorial control over the manuscript. The book is literally riddled with typos and, I am convinced, that some of the stylistic bending of the prose is actually simple typos that no one corrected.

Ben Woodard claims on his blog that the manuscript was edited by Mark Fisher, author of Capitalist Realism, but I see no evidence it was edited by anyone. Most of my notes in the book have to do with comma errors and other typos, but here is just one example of the quality of this book (and there are several of these errors per chapter): “In regards to the philosophical consideration of contagion, much has been send (sic) but it has tended towards the poetic” (22). These kind of errors are literally on every page (philosopher Ian Hamilton Grant is referred to as “Schelling Ian Grant” on page 12, for instance).

This lack of editorial oversight is sad given that the book could have made useful contributions to our field. Instead, the lack of prose quality will certainly limits the book’s reception.

Woodard is generally committed to a kind of argumentative brevity that makes for a dizzying reading experience not unlike motion-sickness. In the book, each chapter begins by introducing, often in two to three sentences each, a whole host of examples drawn primarily from biology, science fiction, and continental philosophy. These brief introductions to unfamiliar sources offer little illumination, neither of the texts in question nor of Woodard’s thesis. Then, these quotes are discussed by Woodard in a haphazard manner, without the use of transitional phrases, by slicing up the various ideas to which we’ve just been introduce. I have countless notes in my copy of Slime Dynamics where I have circled a last name to indicate that I have no idea who this person is or what I am supposed to know about them.

A kind of argumentative short-hand, substituting quick summations for longer close readings of certain texts, is fine if your audience is familiar with the subject matter, but Woodard’s obscure choice of examples makes this extremely hard to follow.

  • Bergson's Warhammer

I’ve already briefly mentioned Woodard’s discussion of alien races in Warhammer 40K in the context of a confusing interjection of Bergson, but it is also important to mention that Woodard’s use of Warhammer 40K is itself confusing.

Woodard spends much of the third chapter discussing the Tyranids, a race in a board game who’s model of reproduction proves some point about darkness vitalism. However, despite intellectually maturing in both table-top war game and continental philosophy milieus, I could not follow Woodard’s connections between Schelling and these creatures (partly because Schelling and Warhammer 40K are not in my daily mental arsenal).

This problem is ubiquitous in Slime Dynamics. Woodard’s curatorial approach to argument often leads to examples having to speak for themselves, without regard to the fact that the reader may not be familiar with the specific nuances of video games such as Paradise Eve, Dead Space, and Starcraft.

  • Argument in the Blood
  • Insult and Injury

Additionally, there seems to be something insulting about using video games to prove philosophical points, but that could merely be my own high culture bias.

As a further example of this issue, we could take Woodard’s baffling discussion of mitochondria in the first chapter. After explaining the endosymbiotic origins of these organelles, he writes:

The symbiotic is only one step away from the parasitic, a closeness explored via the parasitic and violent potential of Hideaki Senai’s novel, and subsequent video game series, Paradise Eve. Senai makes the odd jump of saying that mitochondria form a kind of super organism (something we will address further on) and that with their generative capacity can cause spontaneous combustion … The most interesting aspect of Parasite Eve is that it points (albeit hyperbolically) to the fact that the destructive capacity of life’s smallest components is in dissociable from its generative capability. (Woodard 15)

This constitutes the entirety of the discussion of Paradise Eve in Slime Dynamics. Apparently this novel and video game series involves a mitochondrial conspiracy? Spontaneous Combustion? Having never played the games, I (and I suspect many readers) have no idea what to take from this section.

Further, what is the “destructive capacity of life’s smallest components”? Surely mitochondria are not actually conspiring to set us all on fire, so how does this example prove a point about the microbial? Overall, the careless use of exemplification in Slime Dynamics highlights an overall lack rigor.

  • Audience
  • Why Is This Book So Short?

I suppose the audience Woodard intended to be writing to would be science fiction nerds interested in continental philosophy, but as someone who fits that description, I still found this book to be extremely difficult to follow. None of his examples are given adequate time to express the points Woodard attempts to draw out of them. The argumentation is almost like a “speed-dating” version of New Criticism: one is left with the impression that Woodard tried to see how many references he could make in the text (quantity rather than quality).

Woodard is an avid blogger, as are many young scholars, and I cannot help thinking this book would have worked better as series of blog posts. The ubiquity of search technologies would have made reading this online a breeze, but having to constantly look up plot details of video games I am not familiar with is more work than I’m willing to put in for a book, especially when the examples Woodard cites are coupled to the thinnest of explications. It isn’t even worth knowing the plot of Paradise Eve or Warhammer 40K.

  • Nerds Who Like Theory

How does one build a theory on a nerdy foundation, though? A problem of criticism and theory that revolves around speculative cultural works is always the problem of plot: can you make an argument without your audience knowing the plot? If not, how fast can you explain it to them?

Woodard, unfortunately, does not seem to have considered his audience and their needs at all, in composing this book. Unfortunately, his work hinges on understanding the plot of Dead Space and Paradise Eve, but he doesn’t bother to tell you what you need to know (and who wants to Wikipedia a book?). Given this lack, Woodard’s text, more than being the fun “let’s all talk about nerdy stuff and Bergson” project that the book could have been, reads like a scholar’s notes to himself: Woodard out nerds nerds by creating a private language of reference in which the plot knowledge he needs is contained within his head.

In other words, Slime Dynamics reads like the first draft of what could have been a really fun and interesting book (who wouldn’t want a discussion of Starcraft and vitalism to teach in the Theory classroom?).

Overall, the problem with Slime Dynamics is that it gives off the feeling of being rushed. Not only does the reader feel rushed from one example to another and another with nary a chance to pause and digest, but the overall brevity of the book (68 pages) draws glaring attention to what was left out (one suspects a lot) and what probably needed to be thought about in more depth.

This foreshortening imparts a great sadness when concluding Slime Dynamics. The idea of a dark vitalism implies a possibly malevolent, gooey rewrite of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome, but, instead, it gives the impression of the poor last presenter at an MLA panel: trying to shout out all his brilliant ideas in the 5 minutes left in the session.

  • The Thicket of Ideas

While I have been harping on Slime Dynamic’s many issues with engagement, it is important to note that there is a core of at least one (and possibly) several good ideas buried in its pages. At the conclusion of the last chapter, Woodard’s writing about slime and evolution is particularly eloquent:

Evolution is not only the stretching of our thinking, to absorb the components and capacity of the ooze of life but also the recognition that thought is only one outcome, one strata of nature itself and not the necessary end of nature’s work-towards-life. Whether life comes from elsewhere as a trans-galactic spore, or whether life’s individual configurations on separate worlds always lead to similar results, this does not account for the feedback of space and other forms of existence both organic and inorganic, on how we think life and how thinking life emerges of fails to emerge from ponds of swirling muck.

The teeming biological, if beginning from a unity and moving outwards, dividing into ever more chaotic and divergent forms creates a creeping abyss of biology, where reason is only one feature amidst a taloned and toothed pandemonium. (Woodard 52)

Woodard’s account of thought and reason as accidents of evolution, not inevitable outcomes of life itself, suggests a vector of exploration for a non-human rhetoric. Moreover, the overarching commitment to and passion for revealing our humanness as an accident, not a goal, does animate much of the writing in Slime Dynamics.

  • Getting Out of the Goth Table
  • Philosophy as Science

A current vogue amongst speculative realists is to be shocking. In addition to Woodard’s connection between horror and philosophy, there are also recently published projects by Eugene Thacker and Graham Harman on the horror of materialism. Woodard, along with Thacker and others, have participated in the growing community of thinkers working on “black metal theory.”

How interesting/productive is this impulse to shock, given that our world and our media increasingly renders shock a daily aspect of our cultural landscape? Can talking about Burzum’s Deleuze be a path to serious scholarship?

The first Theory boom in the 1990s was also marked by this impulse toward the shocking, but what was the ultimate payoff? Is there anything less shocking than being shocking?

Speculative realist philosophy offers a path to engaging with the material and the real that has been foreclosed in continental philosophy for decades. No longer merely about the play of linguistic signs, SR points to the concrete reality beyond language and beyond perception. This materiality holds out the possibility to discuss material conditions without the authorizing stamp of science or even of politics.

While Ben Woodard’s Slime Dynamics fails to deliver on the promise of its big ideas, it is also an interesting attempt to use SR to do this kind of material critique. Ultimately, Woodard’s book captures the excitement of our present intellectual moment and the whole world of non-linguistic phenomenon opening up to serious and engaged inquiry in the various disciplines that can use SR as a new critical theory.

As rhetoricians, we can easily find fault with the various problems of Slime Dynamics, but, I think, we should take to heart the impulse that exists behind its flawed methodology.