I have been thinking about the consumption and market of story telling a lot lately. There is much dis-easing about the commodification of language, identity, art. I recently reread Bhanu Kapil's Incubation: A Space for Monsters. That book nourishes me, it reorganizes the chaos into a frightening kaleidoscope of clarity. If you've read it, maybe that makes sense. I thought I'd share this brief review/meditation on Incubation that I wrote in 2008 for Aorta Issue 3.
In Bhanu Kapil’s attempt to find the difference between monsters and cyborgs, she has created a monstrosity of fiction. But first, what is a monster? A monster will cause an entire village to leave the comfort of their beds and take up flaming pitchforks and hand grenades to hunt and destroy. To quote Kapil, a monster is “anybody different.” A monster “refuses its future” and “refuses to adapt to her circumstances.” And a Cyborg, the monster of science fiction? The cyborg is the citizen. It belongs to the machinery of nations and markets, it is the consumer of factory- made products and ideas.
The metaphor/ reality that Kapil poses to her readers in Incubation: A Space for Monsters is a multiplicity of threaded meanings, and to reduce them to didactic sentiment would be unfair. However, a parallel between her discussions of monstrosity throughout the book, and her own approach to writing fiction is evident. Monstrosity, that which falls beyond the moral and quotidian perimeters of systemic power, is the carta blanca, the newborn baby, the character forming in the author’s head.
Incubation is the creation of Kapil’s character Laloo, the little red girl, through a triangular dialectic. The book opens with a quote by Donna Haraway, stating that biology is a discursive process; Khapil’s protagonist Laloo, the Punjabi hitch- hiker on a JI visa in the United States, is likewise. The discourse is externally imposed on her from the US cyborg culture and from the author who is writing her. Thus, Kapil creates a dialogue between the reader and herself, as author and narrator, as well as a dialogue between herself and Laloo. In a breaking of the fourth wall, the reader cannot hand over her agency to the author to create judgement and catharsis, but rather becomes a component of the book itself.
If fiction has become cyborg, reduced to the seamless telling of stories for the purpose of complacent consumption through the machinery of publishers and distribution, then Kapil's work is the monster lurking in the shadows. The theory of cyborgs, as posited by Harraway, implies a complete amalgamation of being. Though Kapil presents a duality of monster/cyborg throughout her writing, that division is constantly being called into question. She wants to birth a monster, but she must send it forth into the world. Once the creature leaves the incubator, or perhaps, even before it has arrived, it will be written on. Though she publishes with an independent experimental writing press, though she demystifies herself as a writer, leaving her phone number and email address on the pages of her manuscript, she is still sending it to the machines to become not monster, but hybrid. A cyborg.
What does it mean to tell a story? What does it mean to create art for distribution? It means that language is a reproducible technology, language is machine, language is profit. We can birth monstrosity, but it remains so only in incubation. We can only hope that in that period it grows horrible claws and teeth with which to defend/attack the world it is rendered into.
Incubation: A Space For Monsters Leon Works Press 2006