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Daphne’s Posthuman Bodies: Reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses as Science Fiction

Benjamin Eldon Stevens

Ovid has been ranked among the most ‘modern’ or ‘postmodern’ of ancient poets (Ziolkowski 2005, Martindale 1990; cf. Calvino 1993). In this talk I argue that he may be read as resonating with a characteristically modern genre: science fiction (henceforth SF; Jameson 1991). The case for considering classics in connection with SF is not only historical, in that certain ancient texts (e.g., Homer’s Odyssey, Vergil’s Aeneid, Lucian’s True Histories) have demonstrably exerted an influence on modern works (Roberts 2006). The connection is also epistemological: as suggested in a recent article (Rogers and Stevens 2012), at a deep level ancient classics shares modern SF’s creation of “estrangement and cognition” via “an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s [or reader’s] empirical environment” (Suvin 1979: 7-8). Examples of SF are therefore not necessarily limited to contexts involving “distinctively modern” technoscience as such but appear in relation to a wider range of ‘technologies’ or processes for changing ‘natural’ materials into ordered cultural products (Heidegger 1954). Insofar as they ‘estrange’ or ‘defamiliarize’ the reader’s “empirical environments”, then, certain ancient classics may thus productively be read as SF.

Ovid would seem to be ripe for this sort of reading insofar as he generates “estrangement and cognition” by focusing on images of a particular ‘technology’, viz., physical changes, especially transformations of the human body. The work of Ovid’s in which this “imaginative framework” is most fully developed is of course the Metamorphoses. (Suvin’s influential theorization of SF, cited above, is in fact called Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, consciously after Suvin’s engagement with Ovid—although he playfully turns away from Ovid to adopt a ‘Lucretian’ view of a materialist cosmos.) The Metamorphoses’ abundant examples of physical transformation may be read not only as prototypes or sources for similar moments in modern SF, but more importantly as constituting a meaningful kind of SF in their own right. With emphasis on how bodies, consciousness, and identity interact, Ovid’s poem resonates with modern interest in the ‘posthuman’, i.e., in how our relationship to technology, especially information technology and cybernetic ‘systems of communication and control’, affects our understanding of what it means—or might yet mean—to be human (Hayles 1999; cf. Latour 1993, Lyotard 1984).

To make this argument in this talk I focus on Ovid’s Daphne (and Apollo; Met. 1.452-567). Daphne’s ‘naturally’ fluid body and, as it were, free-spirited mind are subjected to what are, fundamentally, cultural technologies of fixity and control. First, Daphne’s behavior is a matter of perception and opinion, marked by her father as aberrant and brought under social pressure to conform with his and others’ gendered projections onto her (near-)human form (Butler 1993). Next there is a shift into physical action, as Daphne, her father’s ‘permission’ notwithstanding, must flee Apollo’s more literal attempts to control her by possessing her body directly. Finally, there is the famous transformation from swift nymph’s body to immobile laurel tree whose leaves will serve the god and others.

Certainly “alternative to [Ovid’s] empirical environment”, the story thus virtually diagrams a cybernetic system, in which Daphne is an unwilling cyborg, her body and therefore her being reconfigured against her will by technologies beyond her control (Haraway 1991 and part IV of Zajko and Leonard 2006). At the end, Daphne remains an ambiguously hybrid being, a non-human body that may retain traces of her previous consciousness. Ovid thus invites us to read the world for traces—call them ‘ghostings in the machine’ (after Keen 2006)—of cultural technology at work to transform the raw material or “standing-reserve” (Heidegger) of human beings into ‘posthuman’ products. In an Augustan culture officially committed to just such a reconfiguration of mores, this mode of storytelling, clearly “imaginative”, could also be taken as subversive, its invitation to “estrangement and cognition” threatening the epistemological foundations of the contemporary cultural project. This would be only one meaningful consequence of reading Ovid, among other ancient classics, for resonance with modern SF.

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Ovidian Poetics, Ovidian Receptions

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