Science, Family, and the Monstrous Progeny
Science, Family, and the Monstrous Progeny
Abstract and Keywords
Chapter 4 reflects on the creation of the posthuman, concentrating on the genetic manufacture of life in Vincenzo Natali's film Splice (2009). In shifting the medium of the discussion, the more private perspectives of posthuman creation and especially the creature itself are foregrounded by foregoing the larger, social discussion of the consequences provided in chapter 3. Instead, the chapter analyzes liquid modern realities and the loss of stability in its personal dimension, such as love, sex, and procreation. The film, as a biopunk adaptation of the classic Frankenstein-story, makes elaborate use of the metaphor of the monstrous to characterize contemporary society and its desire to liquefy personal bonds and relations. The posthuman becomes monstrous allegory for the liquid modern wish to forego social commitment, especially and most frighteningly reflected in concepts of love and motherhood, where the film warns about the interpersonal consequences of relegating procreation to science and extracting it from stable, secure social relations.
As we learn from 3.5 billion years of evolution we will convert billions of years into decades and change not only conceptually how we view life but life itself.
The twentieth century saw many attempts at social engineering in order to change the face of humanity, just as industrialization and progress in the natural sciences had proven to change the face of the earth in the nineteenth century. For Bauman, the idea of ‘adjusting the “is” of the world to the human-made “ought”’ (Living 150) is not a new endeavor; indeed, creating a ‘new man’ (or ‘new woman’) has been on the agenda since the beginning of modernity – witness the origins of science fiction in Shelley’s Frankenstein and the literary musings on automata, homunculi, and posthuman races in many a well-known story, from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’ (1816) to Goethe’s Faust (1808).
For lack of scientific knowledge about the animating principles of life, though, most human engineering of the twentieth century (in contrast to its fictional mirror) had to content itself with experiments on the social scale, attempting to engineer better social bodies by ‘cultivation’ of specific traits and the ‘elimination’ of other, less desirable aspects: Atrocities such as ethnic cleansings, eugenics, or some of the inhuman machineries of concentration camps and gulags were the results. In the solid modern stage, these attempts at ‘mastery over fate,’ at shaping humanity according to specific plans, were representative of governments, ‘with their powers of coercion institutionalized in the state, that stood for the “human species” capable of accomplishing collectively what humans individually went on trying to do with little prospect of succeeding’ (Living 150). But as state power waned and a liquid modern society came to be, social engineering and ‘adjusting the “is”’ became the responsibility of the private sector and the individual: (p.120) ‘Like so many other aspects of human life in our kind of society, the creation of a “new man” (or woman) has been deregulated, individualized, and subsidiarized to individuals, counterfactually presumed to be the sole legislators, executors and judges allowed inside their individual “life politics”’ (Bauman, Living 148).
In addition to shifting all human engineering from the public to the private sectors of society, liquid modernity also saw an increase in scientific knowledge and its potential to ‘understand life and perhaps even to redesign it’ (Venter). Biotechnology, as imagined by Haldane, has made twenty-first-century reality science-fictional in that it emphasizes the dimension of possibility, rapidly closing the gap between what is possible and what is only imaginable (Csicsery-Ronay, Seven Beauties 3). Creating life in the geneticist’s laboratory is no more the feat of sf’s Doctor Moreau or Victor Frankenstein, but has become reality in Craig Venter’s fully artificially assembled bacteria or genetically engineered creatures such as Eduardo Kac’s glow-in-the-dark bunny Alba – the possibility of getting from there to a fully realized posthuman life seems only gradual and a matter of time, money, and the willingness to ignore the science-fictional dimension of consequence.
No wonder, then, that sf’s earliest incarnation and the paradigm myth for scientific hubris in creating an artificial human being, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818, has found a thought-provoking, posthumanist reading in Vincenzo Natali’s 2009 film Splice. Its appropriation of the material to liquid modern realities is a mythopoeic investigation into the cultural needs specific to its contemporary audience, its anxieties and dominant discourses. Director Vincenzo Natali positions the film along the fault line of horror and science fiction when he refers to Splice as ‘a creature movie for adults because it pays homage to all the things that one would expect from a Frankenstein kind of story’ (‘Behind the scenes’), nonetheless arguing for a more nuanced reading that ‘hopefully breaks new ground […] with the emotional relationship with the creature’ (cited in Captain). The film thus negotiates not only the science-fictional dimension of possibility in terms of a posthuman being, but also the dimension of consequence in terms of the commitments involved towards the newly created life and towards society as a whole.
As the film is not widely known, a brief summary might be in order: Splice presents the story of two genetic engineers and their experiment of creating a human–animal hybrid through DNA resequencing. Clive (Adrian Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), the young and ambitious scientists, succeed in their experiment and then raise their creation in the lab, while hiding her from their employers. Dren (Abigaile Chu/Delphine (p.121) Chanéac), the hybrid being, evolves and grows through mutation, at some point becoming uncontrollable in the lab environment. Clive and Elsa secretly move Dren to an old farmhouse and become more and more conflicted over the ethical implications of the experiment, shattering their own relationship in the process. When Dren rebels against her captivity, Elsa’s own abusive childhood resurfaces and a struggle erupts in which Dren is mutilated and traumatized. The film concludes with Dren evolving, mutating, changing expression of biological sex, and becoming predatory, killing Clive and impregnating Elsa before being killed.
As can be seen from this short paragraph, the film takes Frankenstein’s creation story and adapts it to twenty-first century themes, reworks it to fit the biopunk cultural formation. Splice is an ideal example of a posthumanist negotiation of scientific consequences within the liquid modern world. But before I discuss the science-fictional dimension of consequence, a consideration of the film’s appropriation of the story in terms of its creation of posthuman life, its form and function, will prove to be a necessary and important first step in the analysis.
4.1 The Monstrous and the Posthuman
When Vincenzo Natali describes his film as a ‘creature movie,’ he is most likely unaware of the critical implications such a label might bring with it, and that for example film critic Vivian Sobchack has devoted a whole chapter in her book Screening Space to the demarcation of the sf and the horror genre and films such as his. Sobchack points out that there are ‘frequent cases of congruence’ between the two genres and that this liminal position, this ‘miscegenation,’ is mostly inhabited by ‘what we commonly call the Monster or Creature film’ (30). The difference between horror and sf lies, according to Sobchack, in the genres’ respective emphasis on the personal or societal exploration of limits, and the restoration of the natural or human-made order of things. The creature film disturbs this either/or binary in that it gradually connects the two genres, from the ‘Monster’ of horror films to the ‘Creature’ of science fiction: Whereas horror movies emphasize anthropomorphic monsters, with their own moral struggles and personalized relationships towards both world and hero, physically deformed but ultimately human-like and thus comprehensible, the sf creature is only physically present, as depersonalized abjection, soulless, dispassionate, and without particularity (Sobchack 30ff.). The monster is ideally represented in Frankenstein’s creation – struggling to become human, to find its place in life, and from an audience-response perspective ultimately (p.122) garnering some measure of sympathy, and being given a dominant part in the storyline – whereas the creature is more like the swarm of mutated insects that destroys human society and is motivated only as the incomprehensible force of nature’s wrath. Dren, the human–animal hybrid of Splice, is thus not, as Natali’s uncritical comment makes her out to be, a creature. But neither is she solely the allegorical representation of man falling from grace, the ‘darker side of Man and therefore comprehensible’ (Sobchack 32).
Sobchack’s horror film monster is predicated on early Hollywood examples such as James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), or George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941), and as such needs to be understood only as a first step towards the cultural function of the monstrous today. The monster remains a metaphor for moral struggle, but it becomes much more, as Jeffery Cohen argues, by the end of the twentieth century, as ‘we live in a time of monsters,’ in a society saturated with anxiety and insecurities, which manifest ‘symptomatically as a cultural fascination with monsters – a fixation that is born of the twin desire to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate (and therefore disempower) that which threatens’ (viii). And for Marina Levina and Diem-My T. Bui the continual changes of the twenty-first century and liquid modern reality, with its ‘increased mobility of people, technologies, and disease[,] have produced great social, political, and economic uncertainty’ (1), resulting in an omnipresence of monstrous categories not just in the cultural imagination but in life. Levina and Bui argue that ‘monstrosity has transcended its status as a metaphor and has indeed become a necessary condition of our existence in the twenty-first century’ (2). The monstrous produces meaning not simply as a liminal object, a metaphorical other, but as a ‘fluid category concerned with representation and ambiguity of change’ (Levina and Bui 5), especially in its naturalization of a posthuman ‘becoming’ of a new subjectivity.
Splice elaborates this specific condition of twenty-first-century liquid modern reality as monstrous in that it positions Dren as multiple and hybrid subjectivity, eliminating any option for categorial binaries – human/animal, animal/plant, human/posthuman, natural/cultural, natural/artificial, male/female, prey/predator. As Cohen points out, monsters ‘are disturbing hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuration’ (J. Cohen 6). Dren is thus becoming-posthuman, becoming-animal, becoming-monster: She represents ‘categorial ambiguity, ontological instability’ and is created ‘through hybridization […] the confusion of species […] the conflation of genders and genres’ (Weiss 124).
(p.123) The film introduces Dren as a creation of genetic engineering, her DNA a composite of human, animal, and plant genes. After having successfully spliced two hybrid creatures (non-anthropomorphic, incomprehensible, and abject – amorphous blobs called Ginger and Fred) from seven distinct life forms, Clive and Elsa decide to test their theories by ‘implementing human DNA into the hybrid template.’ But while the film does not specify the genetic traits, their original donor species, or the internal ratio of the mix, in a scene in the film the scientists visualize the genetic make-up of the creatures to consist of DNA taken from a bird, a horse, a fish, a kangaroo, a lizard, a snail, and some part of a plant – assuming the icons in the film’s presentation represent actual species and are not abstract representations of some taxonomic ranks (inconsistently displayed).
The film already enacts Dren’s creation as cyborgian in Haraway’s sense, ‘ambiguously natural and crafted’ (‘Cyborg Manifesto’ 149), by stressing this nature/culture duality in its representation of the laboratory work: On the one hand, the time-consuming and precise scientific process of splicing genes becomes pop culture, taking on a CSI feel in an action montage underscored with hip techno music. The tedious process of several days and nights is reduced to less than two minutes’ screen time. But technoscience and its artificiality cannot complete the task on their own: The DNA strands will not fuse. Clive lashes out in his frustration against the techno music: ‘This retarded fascist uber-musik is the problem! It’s got us thinking in circles’ (Natali, Terry, and Taylor 17). He switches music: In the film, an organic and warm jazz sound fills the room and Elsa is inspired. In the original movie script the roles are reversed (Elsa is frustrated, Clive gets inspired) and instead of jazz music, ‘the room warms up under the gentle strains of FRANK SINATRA crooning COLE PORTER’S, “UNDER MY SKIN”’ (Natali, Terry, and Taylor 18). The result is the same: The two have ‘been dancing to the wrong beat’ (as Elsa says in the film) and now the fusion holds. In keeping with the musical metaphor, Elsa exclaims, ‘They’re changing partners!’ and Clive joins in: ‘Everyone dances with everyone’ (Natali, Terry, and Taylor 18–19). The techno music and its artificial, cold, repetitive, and circular motions are not conducive to the creative process; instead the warm, organic, and free-ranging motions of jazz – even more so than the lyrically meaningful Porter song – allow for the process to work. The almost seductive and sensual quality of the music, evocative of a date and sexuality, is transferred onto the scientific process. The DNA fusion becomes a dance, a fertility ritual with changing partners, writhing to the sounds of jazz music.
Dren’s ontology is both monstrous and posthuman, continuously changing and ‘becoming’ in that she needs to develop from single (p.124) cell to fully grown organism. When she is born, she is still a larva, in a protective flesh cocoon, which she quickly sheds to mutate into a mixture of bird and rodent (probably a manifestation of bird and kangaroo DNA). Her development through different ‘ages’ is presented in the film through evolutionary mutations – drastic physical reactions to her protean ability. Her posthumanity needs to evolve in mutational bursts out of earlier, more primitive stages. As such, Dren embodies the monstrous in her ‘ontological liminality’ (J. Cohen 6), resisting any hierarchical categorization. She epitomizes the monstrous posthuman and the film exploits our reactions towards such a concept in all its contradictions by evoking familiarity, fascination, horror, and abjection. As a signifier, Dren’s monstrous self represents a rejection of the privileged humanist notion of ‘us’ by stripping the human of its essentialist features (Herbrechter 47–48) and undermining ‘our’ understanding of species boundaries. Dren makes explicit the posthuman realization that ‘the human is always already evolving with, constituted by and constitutive of multiple forms of life’ (Nayar 2). As such, the film culturally negotiates a ‘zoe-centric approach’ to posthumanism, reconceptualizing life not as bios but instead as zoe: ‘Living matter – including the flesh – is intelligent and self-organizing, but it is so precisely because it is not disconnected from the rest of organic life […] [Life is] process, interactive and open-ended’ (Braidotti 60).
The film addresses Dren as a posthuman for the first time when she is still characterized both as non-human animal (because she resembles a rodent–bird hybrid) and as inhuman (in Lyotard’s ‘second’ sense of the term as inhabiting ‘what is “proper” to humankind’ (2)). She has not been culturally conditioned to shed ‘the obscure savageness of childhood’ and has not grown into ‘the condition of humankind’ (Lyotard 4) – a notion we have already seen in the last chapter reflected in the Crakers – and is thus not depicted as fully human, but represents something that goes ‘beyond’ these categories. In projecting subjectivity for the hybrid, the film openly engages in a ‘process of humanization’ of the repressed others of humanism: ‘animals, gods, demons, monsters of all kinds’ (Herbrechter 9).
When Elsa and Clive try to kill the monstrous splice after the initial phase of the experiment, they discover its metamorphosis from larva into its next evolutionary stage and the film emphasizes its dominant parent–child motif (more on that later). The scene begins with a typical horror scenario: Elsa hears something in the lab, signaling for help, but Clive in the control room does not notice her. In a rapid succession of cuts between close-ups of the frantically breathing Elsa and her point-of-view shots, restricted by the gas mask she is wearing, the movie orchestrates (p.125)
a surprise moment when we see the splice hanging from the ceiling, Elsa turning around to face it. A hard cut brings us face to face with the screeching splice opening its maw (filmed in an extreme frontal close-up), before it chases through the lab, jumping over equipment and leaving behind a wake of chaos. Editing and mise-en-scène here clearly indicate that we are to read this as an encounter with the monstrous, with the inhuman other – up to this point, we would clearly side with Clive, who wants to kill the potential threat.
But this is where the scene shifts. The splice hides behind a container, first seen as just a shadow, then slowly emerging from the protective cover, whiskers and snout visible. It squeaks, more threatened than threatening, and Elsa’s mothering instincts take over. She ignores safety protocols, shedding the protective gear of gas mask and gloves to thwart Clive’s plan to gas the room. She kneels down, bringing her closer to eye level with the life form, and tries to bond with the splice based on an instinctive mutuality of fear and pain in this situation.
A slow-paced, low-angle shot of Elsa kneeling and extending her hand, followed by a close-up of the splice emerging from its hiding spot, immediately change the fast-paced action scene of the flight reaction before shifting into an intimate moment of mother–child bonding, or as Elsa calls it, ‘imprinting.’ This encounter of both species is then presented visually as closely resembling that of typical human–human interaction: first an establishing shot from a sideways position in which Elsa remains still and the splice jumps forward, advancing towards Elsa’s hand. Then a shot/reverse-shot combo of Elsa observing the splice and (p.126) the splice feeling Elsa with its whiskers, all of the shots slightly tilted to account for difference in height but slowly zooming in to signal the lessening of distance between the two. This intimacy breaks up when Clive comes into the room, out of focus behind Elsa, in order to drag her out while keeping the hybrid at bay with a broomstick. Here the scene stays close to the splice’s perspective, camera focus changing to acknowledge Clive seen above Elsa’s shoulder and then opening to a wider and higher shot in a fixed position above its eye level of the two figures retreating, before cutting to a zoom out away from the creature, while the door closes into the frame, before the camera is left in darkness.
Just as important as the visual cues that recognize the subjectivity of the hybrid being by changing to its perspective and incorporating it in a conversational shot is the sound design of the latter part of the scene, because it elicits large parts of its effect. On the one hand the splice can be heard cooing and warbling while it is bonding with Elsa – emitting a soundscape that encompasses animal noises like sniffing, clicking, and chirping as well as more vocalized sounds like bird calls or some similar to those of a human infant. These sounds invite our adoration, eliciting feelings of sympathy as we realize that it is hurt, frightened, and helpless. The animal/child noises are designed to emphasize the community of non-human and human in a scene strongly reminiscent of mother–child bonding or the care of young animals, as well as to provide a feeling of familiarity with the non-human. When Clive moves into the room and the splice feels threatened, though, the soundscape shifts dramatically to snarling, growling, and hissing. These sounds combined with defensive gestures, such as a display of jaws, crouching attack position, and prominent stinger movement, shift the atmosphere once more back to a tension, but this time our sympathies are divided. It is Clive that is acting in a threatening manner, disturbing the familial scene between Elsa and the splice. Clive is the intruder into this caring display and the splice’s reaction seems normal, justified. The long dolly out away from the scared hybrid, screeching once more in confusion, and the door blackening the screen leave us emotionally sympathetic with the splice.
The film, in evoking both familiarity and repulsion, cinematically suggests that in the posthuman we see ourselves and the monstrous other at the same time, thus laying bare our notions of humanist subjectivity, while simultaneously inviting a posthuman zoe-centric subjectivity. This challenge to our established notion of subjectivity becomes even more prominent when the human DNA grows more dominant as the splice shifts, morphs, and changes according to its (p.127) hybridized genetic make-up. When her human side begins to show, Elsa names the splice Dren and starts to teach her as a mother would a human child, thus very strongly undercutting any anxieties about the monstrous nature of Dren and strengthening the sympathetic connection of the viewer with Dren.
Nevertheless, Dren remains unsettling whenever non-human aspects of her nature come to the fore. Here, it needs to be pointed out, though, that the non-human aspects cannot simply be grouped together as being ‘animal’ or ‘animalistic.’ In accordance with a human–animal studies perspective (in its approach close to critical posthumanism), one needs to consider ‘the specificity of non-human animals, their nongeneric nature (which is why, as Derrida puts it, it is “asinine” to talk about “the Animal” in the singular)’ (Wolfe, ‘All Too Human’ 567). The grouping of all animals (apart from the human) into a single category functions only to uphold humanist notions of singularity and difference. As Nik Taylor points out, ‘similarity, difference, and significance’ are ascribed to animals only extrinsically with regard to humans – ‘constructing a hierarchy of animal importance’ (3–4) that is used to justify different discourses for (and treatment of), for example, companion species and farm animals, or mammals on the one hand and amphibians, reptiles, and insects on the other.
Since Dren’s genome is somewhat blindly engineered from eight different species – seven from the kingdom of Animalia (six vertebrates, one mollusk), one from Plantae – the film makes it obvious that no specific traits can be isolated and linked to one of the donor species. It’s not a pick-and-mix process, where the geneticists decide upon a trait and implement it. The mutational power of the organism and the unpredictable influences of genes across different species are drastically enacted in the film with Ginger and Fred, who start out as female and male of their genetically created new species. Without the geneticists’ knowledge Ginger exhibits the ability to transform gender, becoming a rival for Fred instead of a mate and resulting in a fight to the death. The scientists’ (and the audience’s) notion of applying anthropomorphic or anthropocentric categories, such as the male/female dichotomy, is revealed to be purely culturally constructed and irrelevant when confronted with the ‘chaosmic’ force of zoe (Braidotti 86).
Dren similarly exhibits features that Clive and Elsa have not intended to be ‘in the mix’ and cannot explain. When examining the splice for the first time and putting it in the MRI, Clive realizes, ‘I don’t even know what half of this is.’ Elsa explains the unidentifiable physical features as expressions of ‘rogue elements. Junk genes pushing through’ and then examines the hybrid’s tail:
Some kind of self-defense mechanism.
Or attack venom.
None of her animal components have predatory characteristics.
Well… there’s the human element.
Elsa gives him a wry smirk.
Dren’s physicality is mysterious and thus monstrous, as Jeffrey Weinstock argues about the monster’s appearance: ‘it may reveal […] the absence of a divine plan governing creation, as well as the limitations of human knowledge’ (1). None of the original donor species in Dren’s genome exhibits a poisonous stinger, defensive or predatory, and Clive’s comment about the ‘human element’ only underscores the scientists’ insecurity in explaining the ‘epistemological threat of confronting that which should not be’ (Weinstock 2). Not even human nature has been fully laid bare and scientifically explained, so Dren’s features feel especially monstrous in their non-human excess. The film enacts this as an escalation of threatening transgressions of the natural order: first the inexplicable stinger, then the co-existence of lungs and gills (not existent in Dren’s mammal, bird, or fish donors but only in amphibians), later the retractable wings made of webbing and not feathers, and finally the regenerative ability to regrow cut-off body parts and phenotypically express different genders.
But the film does not stop on the somatic level when presenting non-human animal features in Dren. Her behavioral patterns are similarly monstrous and it becomes clear throughout the film that Dren possesses uncanny cognitive abilities far beyond the human potential. Her non-human behavior is first presented within the confines of different animal behaviors. For example, she attacks Clive’s brother when he sneaks into the storage room that Dren claims as her habitat, thus forcing her to exhibit strong territorial instincts. Again, the film does (p.129) not explain these as hereditary from any specific donor species, but none of the non-human animals exhibit this kind of behavior. The situation is diffused by Elsa ordering Dren harshly to her place and proving an animal hierarchy of alpha domination, which is just as non-existent in the original species.
A similar scene in which the film enacts Dren’s monstrous behavior occurs when Clive and Elsa take Dren to her new home, the abandoned farm of Elsa’s youth, and Dren escapes their custody, overwhelmed by her curiosity for the new environment. When the scientists finally find her, Dren has hunted a rabbit and eats it raw – looking up at them with blood covering her face and her hands full of entrails. Dren’s inexplicable predatory side is unacceptable for Elsa, who resorts to imposing her own (human) values and norms on Dren for hunting the rabbit: ‘That was bad. Bad Dren!’ The human and the non-human clash and thus expose the genetically created posthuman as monstrous. Natural order has been severely disturbed and the result is frightening. What remains unexplained throughout the film is the origin of the monster and thus the origin of our fear and repulsion.
In terms of cinematography, the film seems to undercut the superimposition of humanist subjectivity on Dren, though: After the bunny incident, Dren stands in the hayloft, elevated by at least 12 feet, back turned to Elsa, who needs to crane her neck and keep a distance from Dren. The camera keeps the focus on Dren, shown in close-up, her facial features seeming to suggest she is pondering the verbal scolding with just as much curiosity as remorse (and this, of course, is a strongly ‘humanized’ interpretation). The light is also solely on Dren; Elsa’s position in the frame is diminished by either the long focus or the darkness she stands in.
Adding irony to the scene is Elsa’s jacket, which displays a white bunny on its lapel, right above her heart – involuntarily marking Elsa just as much as prey, foreshadowing that the power dynamics will radically turn. This is even more emphasized when Dren does not accept the human gesture of care, an offered blanket, but in an aggressive and sudden move jumps from the hayloft to a large tank of water, where she can stay thanks to her amphibious nature. The visual presentation of this scene here turns the linguistic assertion of human superiority (‘Bad Dren!’) around and establishes the posthuman as becoming-animal with a power to respond – this power for Derrida being at the crux of the central wrong of a humanist argumentation for a subjectivity, that ‘the animal is without language. Or more precisely unable to respond, to respond with a response that could be precisely and rigorously distinguished from a reaction, the animal is without the right and power (p.130) to “respond” and hence without many other things that would be the property of man’ (400).
Splice positions Dren as a prime example of the complication of categories that the ‘subjection to and constitution in the materiality and technicity of a language that is always on the scene before we are, as a radically ahuman precondition for our subjectivity’ (Wolfe, ‘All Too Human’ 571), brings to the fore. If language – the semiotic system of response to other creatures – is supposed to draw boundaries of human and non-human, then Dren is the transgression of this boundary, a redefinition of the meaning of language, as Derrida describes it: ‘if one reinscribes language in a network of possibilities that do not merely encompass it but mark it irreducibly from the inside, everything changes. I am thinking in particular of the mark in general, of the trace, of iterability, of différance’ (cited in Wolfe, ‘All Too Human’ 571). The human/animal distinction is negated by Dren’s cognitive skills of response – her ability to express herself by using Scrabble tiles is not simply her human side affirming itself but a subversion of human linguistic superiority. When Elsa tests the hybrid’s cognition, she wants to assess not only iconic association (using an image of a teddy bear to associate with the real teddy bear) but also symbolic association using Scrabble tiles. She spells out her own name ‘E-L-S-A’ and taps her chest: ‘That’s me. Elsa. Show me Elsa!’ What she does not realize is that she gestures towards her T-shirt, imprinted with the company name ‘Nerd.’ When asked to show ‘Elsa,’ Dren responds with iconic association: After a short hesitation that possibly signifies the thought process in realizing the task, she swipes the superfluous letters aside and picks out the correct letters to spell out ‘N-E-R-D’, identifying the word on the T-shirt and thus undermining Elsa’s speech act, which superimposed on the already existing iconic semiotic sequence a symbolic one. Human language is revealed to be one of several possible systems of semiotic meaning production – and not the most logical at that.
Over the duration of the film, Dren’s cognitive abilities become more and more human-like and the film complicates the issue of a human/non-human distinction. She wears clothing, learns language skills (she spells ‘tedious’ to express her boredom), and is shown to mimic human behavior (expressing frustration by pounding on the table with her fists). She closely observes Clive and Elsa’s behavior, but whenever the film reveals her desires to be accepted and loved by the two parental figures, it also provides a complicating motion in the scene. In one scene, for example, she discovers a box of Elsa’s childhood things and the film humanizes her reaction as she realizes her separation from her ‘parent.’ Splice enacts physiological difference as a marker of exclusion: In Dren’s (p.131) case, Elsa’s long blonde hair is singled out as a feature that connects her to other humans and a cultural tradition. Dren is excluded from that tradition and by extension also from any human lineage. In the scene, she finds a tiara and places it on her hairless head, and confirms its look in the mirror – observed with human expression as reference, Dren seems confused at the purpose of the tiara. Then she discovers the photograph of Elsa as a child, with her mother holding her. The strong family connection is enhanced by their embrace and their long, blonde hair, which seems to flow from mother to daughter in a straight line where their heads are touching. Lastly, Dren discovers a Barbie doll with long blonde hair, touches it, and then holds the doll to her face, stroking the blonde hair against her cheek.
Her look projects a certain longing, and the framing of the shot underscores this as Dren is staged in mirror images, reflections of her self through human self-obsessive cultural artifacts. Dren – the scene seems to promote this reading – realizes her exclusion from humanity because of her physiology. But the scene does not end here: Dren hears a cat and in a flash motion turns around, her interest completely taken over by the new discovery. She grabs the cat, swiftly runs with it into her hideout, and holds the cat up, staring right into its face. She studies the cat, looking similarly confused as before. She then cuddles with the cat, once more displaying a longing look. Taken together, the two parts of the scene reveal Dren’s liminality and monstrosity. She does not fit the category of human, nor that of animal (as broad and inclusive as that may be otherwise presented in the film) – the scene thus does not humanize her longing for companionship but rather enacts and emphasizes her monstrousness, as Weiss argues: ‘The logic of monsters is one of particulars, not essences. Each monster exists in a class by itself’ (124). Dren’s behavior is thus deliberately left indistinguishably human/non-human for most of the film.
But the film goes further in blurring the boundaries, even transgressing into uncanny realms of post- or superhuman ability. In a scene late in the movie, Clive is watching Dren through surveillance cameras. When he finds her, switching through different cameras, Dren is swimming in the tank and suddenly begins to perform a slow, sensual dance underwater, intently looking at the camera, showing off her body. Clive reacts with desire, intensifying his gaze, and reaching out with his hand towards the monitor. As his hand moves forward, Dren reaches out towards the camera, mirroring Clive’s movement. The two hands seem to touch, a connection through the mediated image. Clive realizes the impossibility of the situation and jerks back his hand, slamming down the top of his laptop to rid himself of the (p.132) inexplicable image. The film here hints at the possibility that Dren might evolve beyond the capacity of natural human cognition without actually confirming or denying Clive’s experience.
As I have shown, Splice deliberately presents the posthuman as monstrous in that it revels in the transgressive potential of a posthuman becoming-animal. Dren is a categorial hybrid and the metaphorical representation of zoe, of chaotic, forceful, and ever-adaptive life: protean, self-organizing, and adapting to its environment. She is evolving and changing, not just physically but cognitively. She is transgressive and post-anthropocentric in that she completely surpasses any categorization into human/animal, amphibian/avian/mammalian, male/female, natural/artificial. In Dren’s monstrosity the film enacts twenty-first-century anxieties, fears, and insecurities, and as Levina and Bui argue, monstrosity becomes a ‘[process] of identification [for the viewer] […] a fluid category concerned with representation and ambiguity of change’ (5). The posthuman subjectivity is presented to the audience as an alternative; Dren’s adaptability and instability regarding categories – as unnerving as it is – imagines ‘change as a primary ontology of the twenty-first century’ (Levina and Bui 7). Splice thus radically enacts a posthuman subjectivity ‘of multiple belongings, as a relational subject constituted in and by multiplicity, that is to say a subject that works across differences and is also internally differentiated, but still grounded and accountable’ (Braidotti 49).
4.2 Motherhood, Commitment, and Liquidity
The monster as embodiment of ambiguity, change, metamorphosis, mutation, and the fluidity of categories is thus an ideal representation of liquid modernity and its social anxieties of insecurity and unsafety, as imagined by Bauman. And as Jeffrey Cohen argues, monsters are specifically born ‘as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment – of a time, a feeling, and a place’; their bodies are literal manifestations of the zeitgeist: ‘The monstrous body is pure culture’ (4).
Thus, as Natali has stated (see Captain) and as I have argued elsewhere (Schmeink, ‘Frankenstein’s Offspring’), Splice is a mythopoeic re-appropriation of the Frankenstein myth that is deeply connected to the zeitgeist of the twenty-first century. What is interesting about it, though, is that it emphasizes the familial bond at the heart of the original story and transports it into liquid modern society. Instead of Frankenstein’s father/son relation, which most readers understand as a ‘“perverse;” “abnormal;” inverted, “debased;” against nature, “narcissistic” breach of (p.133) “the boundaries of the benevolent family”’ (Hirsch 125), the film explores a mother/daughter relation from a different outlook – that of the origin of the monstrous inherent in parent–child relations.
In terms of its science-fictional dimension of consequence, Frankenstein has, on the one hand, often been read as depicting an abnormal monstrous creation, which is a symptom of Victor’s gynophobia. On the other hand, the novel can be understood to emphasize ‘a failure of postpartum bonding’ (Hirsch 124), in that Victor does not provide ‘sustained guidance, influence, pity and support’ (Hustis 845; see Schmeink, ‘Mythos’ 235) for his infant-like creation and thus fails as a parent. Splice inserts itself into both arguments but adapts the discussion of family, procreation, and responsibility to liquid modern realities in consumer society. The first aspect of the thematic complex that Natali adapts to liquid modern reality is the idea that human procreation has become a specific market within consumer society and that human life itself is a commodity to be traded. Bauman argues that consumers will be able to change themselves and their offspring as they see fit: ‘Genomics and genetic engineering may be viewed as the ultimate dream of homo consumens, as breaking the last border in the modern consumer’s career, as the last, crowning stage in a long, tortuous yet in the end victorious struggle to expand consumer freedom’ (Living 143).
In the film, this is expressed broadly in Clive and Elsa’s motivation for creating Dren, driven by their desire to test their own limits, to create something new and unique – an individual and temporary life choice: When pitching their proposal for splicing human DNA into a new hybrid creature, Elsa argues that they are practically gift-wrapping ‘the medical breakthrough of the century’ for their employer, that they will be able to cure an array of severe illnesses such as Parkinson’s, diabetes, and even cancer. Confronted with the objection that policy and public opinion would not allow such research, and that moral outrage would immediately stop any work undertaken, Elsa coolly replies: ‘If we don’t use human DNA now, someone else will.’ When the CEO refuses the offer, Elsa and Clive decide they don’t want to work as practical engineers (i.e. finding applications for their research), mainly because that work would be tedious and do very little in terms of their reputation. They are more interested to follow the ideals of Bauman’s hunting utopia, in a constant search for new opportunities, new challenges, new options for their own life choices. Wanting to reap the glory of their work, they are now no longer interested in the practical consequences, but rather seek new ways to remain on top. Doing scientific grunt work for several years seems to neglect all of the thrilling new choices that developing the hybrid offers.
(p.134) That the ethically more than dubious experiment with Dren has changed very little in terms of this drive towards new challenges, towards making more and more aspects of life part of consumption, is obvious at the end of the film, when the artificial birth and life cycle of Dren is evaluated in terms of economics and then replaced with the natural birth of a human–posthuman hybrid for the next round of commodification. As Braidotti argues, ‘advanced capitalism both invests and profits from the scientific and economic control and the commodification of all that lives’ (59). First, the company CEO explains that Dren has turned out ‘to be a cauldron of unimaginable chemical mysteries,’ which will have the company ‘filing patents for years.’ The death of the posthuman thus becomes economic opportunity for its owners – the multinational pharmaceutical company. In this, the treatment of human and posthuman bodies echoes the commodification of zoe in both Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and Bacigalupi’s Windup stories, as discussed in the last chapter. Second, Elsa’s pregnancy, which she signs away to the company’s research machinery, is then ‘the next stage’ in this ultimate commodification of Life. Elsa’s words ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ have repeatedly framed the experiences of the film and are here ironic commentary about the continuation of the consumption process. In the script, different words downplay Elsa’s resignation and rather emphasize her conviction: ‘This is what I want,’ she says, before giving in to the company’s (in the form of its CEO’s) ‘motherly embrace’ (Natali, Terry, and Taylor 113).
Wanting a child and taking responsibility for it as a life-long commitment is then the second aspect of this thematic complex challenged by the film. In liquid modern times and consumer society, as Bauman argues, children are just as much objects of consumption, in this case of an emotional nature:
Objects of consumption serve the needs, desires or wishes of the consumer; so do children. Children are wanted for the joys of the parental pleasures it is hoped they will bring – the kinds of joys no other object of consumption, however ingenious and sophisticated, can offer. To the sadness of the practitioners of commerce, the commodity market cannot supply worthy substitutes, though the sorrow finds some compensation in the ever-expanding place the world of commerce gains in the production and maintenance of the real thing.
But Bauman’s argument goes further, for the emotional consumption of children is problematic for a society that cherishes freedom of choice and flexibility of movement and keeps constantly changing, sampling (p.135) life choices instead of fully committing to one. Consumers might not like the ‘strings-attached’ aspect of parenthood:
‘Creating a family’ is like jumping headlong into uncharted waters of unfathomed depth. Forfeiting or postponing other seductive consumer joys of an attraction as yet untried, unknown and impossible to predict, itself an awesome sacrifice stridently jarring with the habits of a prudent consumer, is not its only likely consequence […] One may become, horror of horrors, ‘dependent’. Having children may mean the need to lower one’s professional ambitions, to ‘sacrifice a career’ […] Most painfully, having children means accepting such loyalty-dividing dependence for an indefinite time, entering an open-ended and irrevocable commitment with no ‘until further notice’ clause attached; the kind of obligation that goes against the grain of liquid modern life politics and which most people at most times zealously avoid in the other manifestations of their lives.
Splice then interjects at exactly this point of discussion in exemplifying an alternative to natural/traditional parenthood: posthuman genetic creation. In terms of natural procreation, Elsa makes it very clear that she is not ready to have a child and accept the responsibility that goes with it: ‘I don’t want to bend my life to some third party that does not even exist yet.’ ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ Clive asks and Elsa deflects the question, which reemerges in the film several times, a running gag until its final utterance in the CEO’s office on both parenting and the scientific endeavors undertaken. The liquid modern horror of continuous commitment looms large in this discussion – and in the film – as Jonathan Romney points out in his review:
The film is very funny in its dark jokes about parenthood and the horrible dawning realisations that come with the job: that babies are very noisy, demand endless attention and totally mess up your work habits. The funniest line – ‘We’re biochemists, we can handle this’ – could speak for the delusion of all new parents that no small, helpless creature could possibly be that hard to manage.
Elsa’s rejection of natural parenthood is based in her suffering massive abuse as a child at the hands of an overly controlling and yet powerless parent. She strongly resents the power relations of the parent–child dynamic as well as the underlying issue of the controllability of the child. The only natural parental relation the film describes is thus abusive, (p.136) transgressive, even monstrous in its own right, leaving Elsa terrified about any such commitment of her own.
As an alternative, she prefers the rigorously regimented scientific experiment, which she has power over and which does not come ‘in a package deal with the sorrows of self-sacrifice and the fears of unexplored dangers’ (Bauman, Liquid Love 44) – or so she believes. And in a sense, this is true for the beginning of the film, which shows Clive and Elsa as ‘parents’ of Fred and Ginger. The birth of Fred opens the film and already sets up the dichotomies of experiment/child, of scientific research/parenthood. We are introduced to Clive and Elsa via a subjective camera emerging from darkness to extreme light, then shifting to a fish-eye view of the creature. During the first minutes, the creature painfully struggles to life, the camerawork and editing of the scene deliberately staying close to the infants’ experiences. For a few moments survival is uncertain. The scene ends with Clive and Elsa placing the creature in an incubator, removing their masks and smiling down on their ‘child.’ The attitude of both parents then markedly announces a gender role inversion: Elsa coldly and scientifically states, ‘No physical discrepancies,’ allowing herself only a faint smile. Clive, on the other hand, bears a wide grin and emotionally proclaims, ‘It’s perfect!’ The scene establishes the central conceit of the film: In technoscientific culture, genetic splicing may replace pregnancy and childbirth, the scientists thus become ‘parents,’ and the ethics of scientific conduct problematically merge with the ethics of childrearing.
And whereas Clive expressed interest in having children with Elsa, during the artificial procreative process, it is his voice in the early stages that counsels against carrying out the experiment. After having created a successful splice, Elsa overrides Clive’s objections (‘We will go to jail for this!’) and prepares the injection, arguing that they both need to know if they are scientifically able to create hybrid life: ‘We won’t take it to term. We just need to find out if we can generate a sustainable embryo. Then we destroy it. Nobody will ever know.’ When Clive wants to abort the experiment later on, showing empathy for the creature (‘Do you think it is in pain? […] It’s not formed right’), Elsa again argues in scientific terms that they can learn more, get data on the ‘sustainability’ of genetically engineered life.
This emotional struggle repeats, but Elsa becomes more and more confused between science and parenthood. For example, after Elsa ignores safety protocols and makes contact with the splice, Clive gets her out of the room, before a fight erupts about the hybrid’s fate. Clive wants to terminate the experiment and kill it, but Elsa has already become more emotionally attached than she would like to admit to (p.137) herself: ‘We can’t do that! Look at it!’ she exclaims and sedates it instead, once more hiding behind scientific curiosity as a motivation to keep the experiment running. The scene ends with a cross-cut between the splice’s slow struggle against the gas, its helpless bouncing around the room, falling to the floor and labored breathing, and an extreme close-up on Elsa’s emotional reaction, shot from behind, angled so as to only reveal her in partial profile on the right edge of the screen before a black background, glancing coldly but intensely at the splice and at last swallowing down hard her own discomfort with the situation. Both editing and composition here suggest Elsa’s attempt to detach herself from the emotional responsibility for the life in front of her – which is later in the film revealed to be her own biological offspring. Sarah Polley’s acting in this scene is minimalistic, showing strong emotional restraint and thus revealing Elsa’s failed attempt at distancing. Already at this stage, Elsa’s scientific distance and neutrality have been supplanted by feelings of motherhood and emotional attachment – all notions of control, objectivity, and liquid modern fluidity have fallen away.
As Dren grows, she more and more becomes Elsa’s surrogate child. At this point, Elsa’s acceptance of Dren’s human subjectivity is still contrasted with Clive’s continuous attempts at distancing, but the ethical argumentation has switched and he now tries to uphold scientific neutrality, scolding Elsa for letting Dren out of the lab: ‘Specimens need to be contained,’ he argues. Elsa is horrified and exclaims: ‘Don’t call her that! […] Her name is Dren.’ Elsa, blinded by motherly love, cannot see Dren as an experiment any longer and completely falls for the emotional commodity of having a child.
When Dren starts exhibiting rapidly growing needs in regard to movement, interaction, and emotional relations, the parental bonds start to shift. As Bauman argues, in liquid modern consumer society, commodities only have a certain lifespan before they are discarded and replaced: ‘The usability of the goods as a rule outlives their usefulness to the consumer. But if used repeatedly, the purchased commodity thwarts the search for variety, and with each successive use the veneer of novelty rubs away and wipes off’ (Liquid Love 50). With Dren becoming more and more independent, starting to exhibit more complex human traits, the mother/daughter relationship loses its emotional appeal for Elsa and she is growingly frustrated with her ‘purchased good.’
Whereas Elsa had strong motherly feelings as long as Dren was small, she now feels like she is losing control of Dren. After Dren throws a fit, demanding freedom, Elsa becomes overbearing, aggressively pushing and hitting Dren into the role of the inferior. ‘She is getting so hard to control,’ Elsa realizes. From here on out, Elsa’s ‘parenting’ becomes (p.138) more and more erratic, with Elsa sometimes trying to bond (by teaching Dren about make-up), and in the next moment exerting fierce control (taking away Dren’s pet). It is Clive, who rejected the ‘experiment’ and did not bond with the small child, who now takes on the role of caring parent and tells the insecure, emotionally unstable Dren what she needs to hear: ‘Dren, we need you. … Dren, we love you!’
The situation escalates completely when Elsa tries to make a last attempt at consoling the angered and frustrated Dren by confirming the biological connection to her and bringing a gift. Elsa and Dren face each other in the barn, and Elsa soothingly says: ‘You’re a part of me. And I’m a part of you … l’m inside you,’ thus admitting to Dren her human heritage and the parental relation, which Elsa through her violent outburst had just proven broken. Bauman argues that in liquid modernity, when human bonds become frail and easily untied, when stability and security might be negated by the person you love, then life becomes a ‘daily rehearsal of death and of “life after death”’ (Liquid Fear 44) as the loss of human bonds becomes the daily experienced simulacrum of the final loss of life. Elsa’s words are thus doubly hurtful, confirming Elsa’s genetic dominance (through parental lineage) and betrayal (in the easily cast aside human bond) at the same time.
In a gesture that feels like appeasement of parental guilt, Elsa then presents Dren with the cat that she (Elsa) had taken away during their altercation earlier. While handing the cat to Dren, Elsa says: ‘You can keep her. Why not? It’s nice to have a pet.’ Her words clearly reveal her feelings of human superiority, reminding the audience (and Dren) of the hierarchy embedded in human–animal discourse and the human-related function that animals fulfill. It is also a doubling of Clive’s words of warning, when he finds her too closely bonding with Dren: ‘You’re talking like … You’re treating her like she’s a … a pet.’ Elsa’s words thus reveal the categorial problem at the heart of her relationship to Dren: scientist and experiment, owner and pet, or mother and daughter? Dren reveals her understanding of the situation by looking Elsa in the eyes and then killing the cat violently with her poisonous stinger. She then attacks Elsa, proving her posthuman physical superiority and asserting her right to freedom by taking the key to the barn. The film conveys the shifting power relation here by providing an intimate close-up of the overwhelmed Elsa on the ground, Dren leaning over her and threatening her with the stinger. The scene flaunts the irony of the mother–daughter intimacy that Elsa wanted to evoke and through the prominence and threat of the stinger turns it into outright rebellion. In the end, Elsa has to once more resort to violence, this time in extreme measure, to capture Dren. (p.139)
Realizing her new emotional ‘dependence’ (and inferiority), Elsa rejects her role as parent completely and reverts to a purely scientific position, reclaiming control over her experiment with full force. Just like Victor Frankenstein when he wants to destroy the monster, Elsa exercises her ‘right’ to curtail the experiment – literally. She determines that Dren is exhibiting ‘erratic behavior’ due to a ‘disproportionate species identification’ and that Dren needs to be dehumanized. Elsa restrains Dren on the examination table, psychologically humiliates her (by forcefully removing her clothing), and in the end even physically maims her by cutting off her stinger – all in the name of science and a desperate need for control. During the whole scene, the script describes Elsa as ‘utterly devoid of emotion,’ ‘detached, clinical,’ and having a ‘frigid disregard’ (Natali, Terry, and Taylor 91–92) for Dren’s feelings of terror.
But Elsa’s drastic act of parental transgression is not the only one. When Dren starts to show strong sexual desire for Clive, he cannot resist and gives in (more on this below). The scene is extremely disturbing in its implications as we read a complex brew of ethical transgressions in Clive’s behavior. Elsa, who discovers them, and Clive later realize that their violations of Dren have been too numerous, that they have failed on many levels. Both realize that as parents their relationship with Dren is broken – they have abused her, maimed her, transgressed any parent/child boundary – but that as a scientific experiment there is a solution to the situation and to their responsibility: ‘The experiment is over, responsibilities end.’
In using the biopunk metaphor of the posthuman genetic creation, the film intelligently conflates scientific experimentation with parenthood (p.140) and reveals liquid modern anxieties about the monstrousness of becoming a parent: Children are incomplete, are ambiguous in their potential to find subjectivity, continuously change and adapt; they are the ‘abjected fragment that enables the formation of all kinds of identities – personal, national, cultural, economic, sexual, psychological, universal, particular’ (J. Cohen 19). On the other hand, children are monstrous in that they are reminders of what is prohibited in liquid modernity, ‘polic[ing] the borders of the possible, interdicting through [their] grotesque bod[ies] some behaviors and actions, envaluing others’ (J. Cohen 6). In liquid modernity, the concept of parenthood becomes representative of inconvenience, inertia, rigidity, and the loss of choice. In a world that shuns any form of dependence, Bauman says,
motherhood, conception, birth, and all that follows them (such as, for instance, an indefinite marital/parental commitment, a prospect of children being loved and cared for ad infinitum at a price and self-sacrifice impossible to calculate in advance), are not just a narrow fissure in the cocoon that was promised and craved, but a wide hole, impossible to stop up; a hole through which contingency, accident and fate, so deeply resented, might flow into the interior of the fortress that had been laboriously built and lavishly armed in order to keep them outside its walls.
The film presents this self-sacrifice by using the posthuman splice as a surrogate child. The compressed nature of Dren’s life cycle allows the film the unique opportunity to heighten the emotions of parenthood, the dependencies and, of course, the accidents and contingencies. The selfish-individualistic lives of Elsa and Clive are completely shattered; their liquid modern ‘fortress’ of convenience evaporates. And just as Frankenstein had to pay the price for his hubris and neglect, so do Elsa and Clive. After having decided to end the experiment, they return to the farm, only to find Dren dying. They bury her, not realizing that the next mutational cycle in her evolution begins with her death (as some others before had done too). Dren emerges radically changed from this process, having switched genotypic expressions of biological sex, becoming what the audience (from a binary view) perceives to be male and growing much more aggressive, territorial, and predatory in the process. The new Dren then goes on to eliminate all perceived threats, that is, killing anyone that might challenge his dominance over the territory. This includes, in the final battle between Dren and the scientist couple, impaling Clive with a final blow from the stinger, before being killed himself by Elsa in a desperate struggle to survive.
The splice is not only a cultural metaphor for childrearing turned monstrous; also and even more chillingly it comments on another aspect of human bonding that has shifted in meaning with the advent of biotechnology and genetic engineering. As Bauman states, in liquid modernity ‘medicine competes with sex […] for the charge over “reproduction”’ (Liquid Love 40) – and clearly medicine has partnered up with technoscience to win the competition. In effect, in the biopunk depiction of the film, Bauman’s vision for a near future has fully come true, with all its consequences: genetic engineering makes possible a complete and utter ‘emancipation of procreation from sex’ (Living 123).
In Elsa and Clive’s relationship this separation has become a dominant factor, as their procreation becomes technologically enhanced and fully automated through genetic engineering. On the other side of this demarcation line, their sex life has become a mere commodity that they forget about, getting lost in their many other life choices. As Volkmar Sigusch announces, ars erotica is not an achievement of liquid modernity: ‘Today, sexuality no longer epitomizes the potential for pleasure and happiness. It is no longer mystified, positively, as ecstasy and transgression, but negatively instead, as the source of oppression, inequality, violence, abuse, and deadly infection’ (cited in Bauman, Liquid Love 39). In Clive and Elsa’s life, sex has been completely de-coupled from reproduction and lost its central appeal. The only scene in the film that depicts the couple having sex with each other emphasizes this de-coupling, first by their own realization that sexual attraction has not existed between them for a while (‘It’s been a long time,’ Clive says. ‘Oh God. I didn’t even notice,’ is Elsa’s reply) and then by Elsa’s joking (but ironically fitting) explanation that this is what happens when couples ‘work too hard.’ It is also fitting, then, that their intercourse in this scene is marked as a resurgence of old cultural associations with sex (reproduction, long-term commitment), because it temporarily restores the capacity to produce offspring: ‘I don’t have any …’ Clive admits (meaning condoms), and Elsa answers jokingly: ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ Clive turns away, frowning upon the answer, but still accepts the seductive act. But their sexuality becomes transgressive as Clive realizes that Dren is watching them. Before he can react, he and Elsa climax, and he cannot see Dren anymore – for a moment a doubt lingers whether Dren was there or not. In the script, the scene is more explicit in its sexually deviant feelings, at which the movie only hints: ‘Clive is about to put a stop to their passion when something catches his eye […] He sees her. Dren. Peering through the curtains. […] The (p.142) moment is surreal. Clive continues to watch Dren watching. He says nothing. Sexual momentum builds. Strangeness’ (Natali, Terry, and Taylor 62). After Elsa tells him that she is willing to risk pregnancy, the script suggests, Clive is unwilling to go on having sex, but seeing Dren arouses him. The sexual momentum is based on a potential transgression, on the promise of an act that is intensely complex, shaded with infidelity, incest, pedophilia, and bestiality.
In this, the film emphasizes Dren as transgressive, posthuman, and ‘chaosmic’ and once more as monstrous, embodying ‘those sexual practices that must not be committed, or that may be committed only through the body of the monster’ (J. Cohen 14). The film presents this monstrous sexuality in a drastic doubling, enacting the monster both as ‘too sexual, perversely erotic, a lawbreaker […] [that] must be exiled or destroyed’ and as desirable ‘fantasy’ through which transgressions ‘are allowed safe expression’ (J. Cohen 16–17).
In her article on ‘transgressive sexuality,’ Patricia MacCormack argues that perversion is a transformative tactic of becoming, a potential to subvert ‘presumptions of subjects conforming to established subject positions, genders and sexualities rather than simply a deviation from heterosexual intercourse.’ Perversion is a destabilizing tactic similar to posthumanism and monstrosity, embracing a hybridized and flexible ‘becoming’ of the body, represented in sexual desire: ‘Theorising the body as existing not purely as a spatial subject, but in time as a series of open reconfigurations and constant change suggests other ways of understanding the self and the subject as being in permanent flux’ (MacCormack).
Dren’s sexuality is perverse in MacCormack’s sense: it is a monstrous sexuality that enables the film to destabilize normative subjectivity. Key to this monstrosity is that Dren’s biology, reminiscent of Braidotti’s definition of the monstrous, is ‘in between, the mixed, the ambivalent,’ making Dren ‘both horrible and wonderful, object of aberration and adoration’ (Braidotti cited in MacCormack). As discussed above, Dren is categorically instable in terms of her species, incorporating parts of non-human animals.
When Clive gives in to his desires and has sex with Dren, the film highlights her non-human biology. She appears behind Clive, with wings extended, and embraces him. Then she pushes him against the water tank, with her kangaroo-like hind legs pinning him in and her tail balancing out her body. Clive looks at the odd angle of the leg with fascination, then struggles out of his clothes, helped along by Dren with her feet while he mounts her. When Dren sits on top of him, she stretches out her arms and her webbed wings extend to full (p.143)
spread. Clive is enthralled and unbelieving. He rolls her over, pushing into her. The camera focuses on Clive from below, with Dren’s tail seen behind and above him, emphasizing the regeneration of her stinger, which hovers threateningly above Clive while he climaxes. Horror and fascination are closely linked in this scene, enacted in the non-human biology of Dren.
In addition to the non-human sexuality enacted here, the film also hints at the transgression and monstrosity within the complex triad of infidelity (Clive is cheating on Elsa with Dren), pedophilia (technically speaking Dren is a child, only a few weeks old – even though her physiological development is that of a teenage girl), and incest (at least culturally, Dren is Clive’s daughter).
In drawing upon the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Bauman remarks that ‘the birth of culture’ is strongly tied up with ‘the prohibition of incest,’ and that the ban on having sex within a biological family was an attempt to ‘impose on Nature a distinction which Nature itself had failed to make and would not acknowledge’ (Living 122) – a cultural demarcation that was supposed to facilitate order and control. When Clive realizes Dren’s genetic make-up includes Elsa’s DNA, the cultural boundaries seem to evaporate. Seeing aspects of the woman he fell in love with in Dren confuses him. Culturally, he has been acting as a father surrogate to Dren, which would morally foreclose any sexual desire. But biologically he is not related to Dren, and her genetic resemblance to Elsa further enhances his desire – for him, thus, sex has become re-infused (p.144) with ‘emotion, ecstasy and metaphysics from which the seductive power of sex used to flow’ (Bauman, Liquid Love 47).
As the avatar for metamorphosis, the monster literally becomes the secondary body through which to safely express transgression, a body offering ‘an alluring projection of (an Other) self’ (J. Cohen 17) for Clive and for the audience. Incest here is revealed as a cultural imposition based in taboos and mandates that regulate, structure, and limit life force. The monstrous acts as a reminder that zoe-centric subjectivity negates cultural boundaries. Displaying sexual perversion in this way ‘acknowledges the instability of the integrity of the subject,’ as MacCormack has pointed out: ‘Through the destabilising effects of pleasure and perversion subjectivity shifts away from being defined through what it is […] and is more appropriately addressed through what it does and what is done to it.’ Clive and Dren’s desire for each other subverts the subjective positions we ascribe to them – they are no longer limited by their relation as father/daughter, human/non-human, scientist/experiment.
Splice nevertheless does not simply equate the monstrous with a repressed and transgressive desire, but rather embraces its inherent protean nature: The monstrous is both vicarious transgressor and enforcer of boundaries. In its policing function lies its potential for dystopian warning, as Jeffrey Cohen argues: ‘As a vehicle of prohibition, the monster most often arises to enforce the laws of exogamy, both the incest taboo […] and the decrees against interracial sexual mingling’ (15). The monster as enforcer of boundaries functions as warning against the dystopian consequences that a science-fictional reality of posthuman genetic engineering will bring. Its origin story is a reminder that scientific hubris brings forth horror and destruction. Dren is the ultimate product of xenogenesis and thus the metaphoric monstrous transgressor of technoscience. Dren attempts to kill anyone involved in the process of breaking the taboo, thus direly warning against any such transgression. But in engaging in one last monstrous act, in once more breaking the incest taboo, this time from both a biological and a cultural perspective, by raping Elsa, the genetic parent, Dren also firmly establishes that monsters always escape and return in the form of new life. Even though Dren is killed, Elsa is pregnant with Dren’s child and thus the monstrous lives on. Monsters are never fully muted, as they are manifestations of the repressed. As a dystopian warning, then, they are ideally adapted to the liquid modern present.
As I have shown, Splice engages the posthuman as monstrous, depicts it as becoming-animal, and adapting to a zoe-centric subjectivity that undermines the humanist notion of superiority of the species. Further, the (p.145) film reveals the monstrous as inherent ontology of twenty-first-century liquid modern reality. Evaporating human bonds, technologically assisted childbirth, the separation of sex from procreation, an incompatibility between parenthood and individualistic life choices, and the commodification of children are aspects of the posthuman becoming-monster. The monster in Splice thus simultaneously stands for the posthuman utopian possibility of an alternative subjectivity and for the dystopian reminder that such science-fictional transgressions bring with them consequences that cannot be ignored. As Jeffrey Cohen points out, ‘monsters must be examined within the intricate matrix of relations (social, cultural, and literary-historical) that generate them’ (5). In Vincenzo Natali’s adaptation of the nineteenth-century Frankenstein myth of artificial human creation in terms of a twenty-first-century biopunk cultural formation, the posthuman thus hints at the inseparable connection of the science-fictional dimension of possibility with its counterweight dimension of consequence.