the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Last Man

In the final chapter of Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel The Last Man, the male narrator—fearing that he may be the last person left alive after most of Europe has been devastated by a late 21st century plague—enters an abandoned dwelling and experiences a shock of misrecognition:
I entered one of the palaces, and opened the door of a magnificent saloon. I started--I looked again with renewed wonder. What wild-looking, unkempt, half-naked savage was that before me? The surprise was momentary.

I perceived that it was I myself whom I beheld in a large mirror at the end of the hall. No wonder that the lover of the princely Idris should fail to recognize himself in the miserable object there pourtrayed. My tattered dress was that in which I had crawled half alive from the tempestuous sea. My long and tangled hair hung in elf locks on my brow--my dark eyes, now hollow and wild, gleamed from under them--my cheeks were discoloured by the jaundice, which (the effect of misery and neglect) suffused my skin, and were half hid by a beard of many days' growth.
Shortly after this moment of misrecognition, then narrator then decides to leave Fiorli for Rome, from which he would then continue on East, ultimately reaching “forgotten Carthage and deserted Lybia, I should reach the pillars of Hercules,” hoping that there, “I may find what I seek--a companion."

It is appropriate the Shelley’s novel concludes with the narrator’s search for a companion, as this was her first major work following the death of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, two years earlier, and as such could be read as an elaborate lament for her departed spouse. In fact, the novel’s title has its origins in a diary entry which Shelley wrote shortly after her husband’s death: "The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being's feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me."

This theme of a “last man” on a quest to find a companion following a global apocalypse has, of course, a long a distinguished history, including, most recently, the animated film Ice Age 2: The Meltdown (Carlos Saldanha, dir.). Here, the part of the last man is played by the aptly-named Manny (Ray Romano), a melancholic mammoth who is haunted by the prospect that he might be the last of his species. As he and his companions (a saber-toothed tiger and a giant sloth) attempt to outrun an impending flood resulting from precipitous global warming, he happily discovers another mammoth, named Elsie (Queen Latifah), only to discover that she is convinced that she is actually a possum. At various points Manny attempts to reason with her, pointing, for instance, to the similarities between their respective footprints, whereupon she asks how he knows the footprint in question isn't his own. Manny then points to the similarity between their respective shadows but she, not missing a beat, responds with delight that Mannie must therefore be part possum.

Elsie’s identity is centered around two moments of projected identification. The first occurs when, as an orphaned calf, she mistakenly imprints onto a mother possum who has adopted her. This misdirected “mirror stage” identification is then “corrected” when, as an adult, the sight of the tree under which she was originally adopted triggers an involuntary memory of that earlier scene, thereby leading her to reidentify with the memory of herself as a baby mammoth—a reidentification which is then clinched when she assertively places her hoof into one of her own mammoth-sized hoof-prints.

In his review of the movie, Matt Zoller Seitz suggests that that Ice Age 2 raises a number of portentous questions, including:
Are we morally obligated to replicate ourselves? Is identity determined by genetic history or conscious choice? Does the likelihood of extinction give us permission to behave unethically? Is inter-species dating okay?
While one might disagree with some of Seitz’ specific formulations, it is nevertheless abundantly clear Saldanha’s film, like many other recent animated features, combines light comedy for its younger audience, with weightier themes for their parents. Ice Age 2, accordingly, speaks to a number of issues of identity formation, desire, replication, and the specter of extinction.

For instance, the romance between Manny and Elsie mirrors, and simultaneously undermines, one of psychoanalysis’ best-known images: Lacan’s description of the “mirror stage”:
The child, at an age when he is for a time, however short, outdone by the chimpanzee in instrumental intelligence, can nevertheless already recognize as such his own image in a mirror. […]
This jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infans stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursing dependence, would seem to exhibit in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject.
In Elsie’s case, she must undergo a secondary mirror-stage identification before she is able to enter into a desiring relationship with Manny. However, significantly, the externalized object with whom she must (at least in part) identify is precisely Manny’s own image (their combined hoof prints; their juxtaposed shadows). This is significant because it runs in the face of a central, and problematic, assumptions upon which Lacan’s “mirror stage” model was erected, namely that, as Diana Fuss observes in Identification Papers, “one of the fundamental laws of psychoanalysis, preserved from Freud through Kristeva, […] holds that desire and identification are structurally independent of one another, the possibility of one always presupposing the repression of the other.”

Parallel with these issues of identity and desire are a cluster of concerns with issues of species replication and possible extinction lying just below the film’s surface (just like, in the movie, the scary sea monsters swim along just below the ice surface on which Manny and his companions tread). It not coincidental, for instance, that the “last man” in Ice Age 2 is actually not a man at all, but rather a hairy mammoth. Ever since the discovery of frozen mammoth remains in Siberia at the turn of the century, the prospect of herds of frozen animals which could be thawed out and cloned has captured the public imagination. The prospect of cloning a mammoth or two in order to resurrect the species inevitably evokes current debates over the ethics of cloning, stem cell research, and genetic engineering. Similarly, the original extinction of mammoths (and saber-toothed tigers and giant sloths…) due to climactic change at the end of the last ice age inevitably evokes the crisis of global warming which we currently face.

These twin themes of identify/desire and replication/extinction, in turn, come together in the broader question of the interrelation of psychoanalytic models of identity formation and scientific models of worldly knowledge. That is to say, how do scientific (or quasi-scientific) theories about race, cloning, genetic engineering, etc., impact our intuitive assumptions about identity and Self/Other oppositions? Similarly, what is the process by which individual “identity” comes to be recognized as co-extensive with the natural environment within which we are necessarily embedded? More generally, how can psychoanalytic models of subject formation be mobilized for a progressive politics?

This dialectic of identification and desire, in turn, returns us to Shelley’s The Last Man. Given that Shelley’s father in law had forbidden her from using the family name in exchange for an allowance (repayable upon inheriting her husband’s estate), The title page of the Last Man therefore identifies the author as simply, “The Author of Frankenstein.” From a novel about the creation of a monster in one’s own image, to a novel about the radical solitude resulting from the loss of all living companions; from the loss of one’s beloved, to the renunciation of one’s authorial identity in order to preserve a legal and economic bond with his family, Mary Shelley’s vision of apocalypse is located within an elaborate allegory of loss and transmutation.

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