Bodies Without Bodies
By Geoff ShullenbergerSeptember 14, 2018
Bodies of Summer by Martín Felipe Castagnet
The possibility of immortality as a string of bits has paradoxically increased the value of bodies. Past generations living in flotation are clamoring to return to the embodied world, but they must compete for refurbished corpses with the recently deceased. Contrary to many transhumanist predictions, the merging of the self into computerized information streams has not rendered the body obsolete; instead, it has converted it into an exchangeable commodity that can be inhabited and discarded at will, at least by those who have the means. In the future envisioned here, flesh is valuable real estate. In one scene, when an attractive figure walks by, “[m]en and women alike turn their heads to look, evaluating the cost of the body.”
Bodiless digital suspension is named flotation after “the Japanese paintings of the floating world.” It’s “[a] place where you only live in the moment,” whose denizens “float like gourds on the current of the stream.” As one character remarks, “there’s no roughness to caress […] nothing to grab onto.” The readjustment from this weightless state to physical existence proves difficult for Ramiro. His new body is lumbering and damaged, and he struggles to get around, encumbered not only by the fleshy mass he inhabits but also by the clunky battery he must carry around to keep it in working operation. (The perpetual problem of battery size has evidently not been resolved.) The text avoids technical exposition, but the rehabilitation and maintenance of bodies seems to rely on a galvanic technique that harks back to Frankenstein. Refurbished bodies that become detached from their batteries decompose instantly.
Castagnet devotes little space to the ineffable experience of flotation. Instead, the novel details the experience of embodiment in a world in which bodies can be shed and replaced like worn-out clothes. The narrative dwells initially on the dysphoric sensations that afflict Ramiro while inhabiting a stranger’s body: its heaviness and clumsiness, the unfamiliarity of its appetites, the experiences of sleep, urination, and defecation, and especially, the absence of a penis, which “felt similar to the phantom limb syndrome that amputees sometimes suffer.” Yet this unwieldy world of bodies is also a floating world: flesh is a temporary appendage. In Ramiro’s case, what seems cumbersome proves insubstantial when his middle-aged female body abruptly falls to pieces upon the theft of its battery. No problem: he migrates to the body of a young black man.
Castagnet’s pared-down sentences and restrained diction mirror the fleetingness of his restless characters’ incarnations. Translator Frances Riddle nicely captures the airy, laconic tone of the novel’s prose, which conveys an uncanny sensation of weightlessness throughout. The scene in which Ramiro’s first body decomposes provides a revealing example: “I crawl on all fours until I reach a post I can grab onto to stand up. Halfway up the pole my arm detaches from my body. I manage to remain upright. Bare bone is exposed down to my elbow and the flesh of my forearm lies on the ground like a discarded glove.” A moment of what might be vintage Gothic horror instead unfolds in a series of eerily light brushstrokes.
As Ramiro’s trajectory suggests, the possibility of seamless movement between genders and races is one of the book’s central preoccupations. Familiar categories have not ceased to exist, but since the body has been demoted to avatar status, it does not offer a sense of stable identity. After transferring into a male body, Ramiro goes to visit Saffron, his wife’s granddaughter from a second marriage, whom he had met previously in his female incarnation. Enchanted by Saffron’s resemblance to his wife, he attempts to seduce her, but she initially rebuffs him as a “lesbian” who “died on purpose just to get a man’s body.” Possibilities like this have become unremarkable. At another point, Ramiro’s middle-aged grandson chooses to die and reincarnate as a woman. A few pages later, Ramiro narrates in a typically breezy manner: “I go to my favorite restaurant with a pretty girl. I feel so proud that it’s my grandson.”
Access to the infinite possibilities of rebirth, however, is not distributed equally. Ramiro’s acquisition of a more valuable body in the second half of the novel depends on his new employer’s sponsorship. The youngest, healthiest, and most attractive bodies go to the wealthiest people, who transfer from body to body recreationally in a strange sort of tourism. Conversely, those who reincarnate in their own refurbished bodies are so looked down upon that they constitute an underclass, reputed to be clumsier and less intelligent. Ramiro’s middle-class family has a domestic servant from this underclass, but they hide this shameful fact from their neighbors. This servant, along with others of his kind, lives in a shanty town built atop a large cemetery that, like all cemeteries, has been decommissioned. In this neighborhood, a black market thrives for stolen batteries, bodies, and body parts. In the poorer districts of the city, life resembles a gruesome zombie movie, while in the richer areas, it’s a slick video game.
The novel does not dwell much on the conflicts between haves and have-nots that one might expect such a situation to generate. This may surprise some readers, because in the post-Occupy era, the Silicon Valley fantasy of living forever that Castagnet uses as his starting point has become controversial on precisely these grounds. Once seen as an eccentric hobby, the pursuit of eternal life through the fusion of humans and computers has lately come to symbolize the ultimate intensification of contemporary socio-economic inequality. When billionaires fund startups that plan to sell immortality to the highest bidder, it’s not hard to imagine a world in which the one percent fashion a literal heaven for themselves, and only themselves. Would those excluded from this deluxe ethereal realm revolt? Perhaps not, Castagnet suggests. Instead, they might strive to work their way up by whatever means necessary, as his characters do. The ideology of individual striving might stymie unrest in such a world much as it does in ours.
Although acquisitive individualism continues to prevail in Ramiro’s world, his story also seems to point toward the ultimate dissolution of individuality — and consequently, of novelistic narrative itself, traditionally tied to the unfolding of finite individual lives. This implication is clearest from the equivocal outcome of the vaguely noir story line that initially drives the novel’s action. Ramiro has returned to bodily existence from flotation to track down his former best friend, who betrayed him many decades earlier. The nature of the friend’s betrayal is not revealed until late in the narrative, by which time the entire enterprise seems futile. The friend can’t be killed in any definitive way, after all, and the finite loss he once caused Ramiro seems trivial in relation to the endless possibilities now available to him. Both the original injury and the act of vengeance have little substance in the new conditions of life. This part of the story — the closest it comes to a linear plot — fizzles out because the disappearance of mortality deprives it of its stakes. The singularity seems to demand new narrative conventions.
Bodies of Summer is a slim volume, barely more than 100 pages. The book’s concision is appropriate to the vision of temporality it offers: life has become eternal, yet endlessly episodic, punctuated by migrations from body to body to flotation and back again. In the process, the kind of attention deficit induced by toggling between tabs and windows has extended to all of existence, leaving each incarnation as cursory as an hour’s aimless web browsing. If narrative is inexorably bound up with time, and the closed form of the traditional novel mirrors the arc of a natural human lifespan, what narrative forms might be adequate to a life of infinite extension and infinite divisibility? The novel’s concluding section, in which Ramiro’s identity teeters on the verge of total dissolution, raises this question, but leaves the answer indeterminate.
In exploring how new technologies upend our relationship with time, and how that transformation affects narrative itself, Bodies of Summer follows in the footsteps of another brief but profound Argentine novel: Adolfo Bioy Casares’s 1940 masterpiece The Invention of Morel. The latter is arguably the very first novel of the singularity, albeit in an analog version suggested by the emergent technologies of Bioy Casares’s own era, particularly cinema. All of its characters save for one (the narrator) turn out to be three-dimensional mechanical projections, living out the same week on an infinite loop. Castagnet, in a sense, has inverted the implications of this classic speculative exploration of time, eternity, and narrative. The advanced recording technologies of Invention eternally preserve a perfect simulacrum of the living, breathing body, leaving the narrator to ponder the question of whether a soul persists within. In Bodies, in contrast, the soul endures permanently as a string of bits, making readers ask what bodily existence becomes when it is no longer a limiting factor but a space of infinite malleability.
Like its influential predecessor, Bodies of Summer is a simultaneously playful and trenchant meditation on the consequences of technologically enabled immortality for the experience of life and love, and perhaps especially for narrative itself. Its ambiguities make it ripe for multiple readings. I suspect this remarkable book will have a long afterlife — or several.
Geoff Shullenberger is a scholar of Latin American and comparative literature, and a writer on technology, culture, labor, and higher education.
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