Monday, July 30, 2012

Gender Parasites in Animorphs: The Sickness (#29)

"Acquire her. Acquire her. Become her."

KA Applegate, 
Animoprhs #43 (The Test)


Becoming Trans

Our blood comes from many mothers. DNA is a marshal, an apparatus of capture that receives life indiscriminately and transforms it into us. The sun becomes vitamins, the soil becomes minerals, the plants become tissue, and the animals becomes muscle through the gates of ingestion and the immigration services in our blood stream. Our bodies are at work as we speak, transforming the world into us. I ask: can we claim to represent where we came from once we cross the border?

In KA Applegate's book series, Animorphs, you have a set of humans and one alien (an Andelite, called Ax) that are gifted with the power to acquire the DNA of other life-forms and use it to marshal their bodies into new shapes. Birds, fish, bears, and guerrilla blood joins with their human and alien genetic coding, allowing them the multiplicity of identities to forge a war against an invading species of alien slugs, called Yerks, that enter into the heads of other species, expand across their brain, and take over their bodies. Quickly and secretly the Yerks are taking over all official and cultural areas of human power as their numbers steadily grow.

The Animorphs for many years continue to fight their secret war against a secret enemy. Both sides exist as semi-symbiotic parasites, shape-shifters, and infiltrators in their respective ways using whatever life forms will see them to their goals. While the series draws us in to ally with the Animorphs, to see the Yerks as the bureaucratic planners, and the humans (or Andelites) as the resistance fighters using what tactics they can to flip the enemy's plans on their head, from a distance, we can see that all sides are effectively outlaws engaging in guerrilla combat to capture control over the planet and it's life-forms.

I have selected the two instances in the book series' extensive run where one of the Animorphs "becomes a member of the other gender." The scare quotes are there because the two closest instances of this are in Animorphs #29 (The Sickness) and #43 (The Test). In the prior, Cassie acquires the DNA of and becomes a Yerk, then enters the body of a human-male, uniting with his brain so as to control his body and receive all his thoughts and memories. In the latter, Tobias acquires the DNA of and becomes a human female that is host to a Yerk; however, Tobias early in the series became trapped in hawk morph. He later re-gained the ability to morph, including into his human body, which he must do from hawk form.

Thus in both cases, there is no direct morphing from a human of one gender into a human of another gender, there is in both cases a species in between; with the former demonstrating the parasite model of knowing the other and the latter demonstrating the becoming model. Also, both books feature on the cover one of the Animorphs becoming a member of the "enemy" alien species: Cassie becoming a Yerk and Tobias becoming a Taxxon; in addition to both of them becoming an "enemy" human member of the opposing gender.

While initially looking for a straight forward "trans-gender" moment, Applegate answers our gender crossing questions with pictures insisting we look to see related issues at play in the realm of the "trans-corporeal." We have here : an animal studies question (what does it mean that we can't look at the human outside the question of the animal, and is it merely our "ape" or does it exist in its own dignity?); a object/thing question (can we represent or speak for the alien, which does not exist or relate to us in the way we wish to use it); a disability question (how do we feel for the Yeerk that doesn't live with our mobility or senses but may use our bodies as a prosthetic); an ecological/post-colonial question (what is the violence of borders and are they something which can or should be policed?); and questions of gender (what can or cannot be translated or transformed). Our critical question follows the demands of the literature, which teach us to function in terms of guerrilla war-fare where the battle come from anywhere.


Becoming Infected 

"I closed my eyes. Focused. 
And the DNA of the Yeerk became a part of me. 
The Yeerk. The Yeerk became a part of me" 

KA Applegate, Animorphs #29, 97

Disease is about crossing enemy lines. All lines are about creating enemies, about creating others, so as to create the self. Disease threatens these divisions and like warfare can bring about the destruction of the other and the self.

The sickness in "The Sickness" may refer to the Tria-infection, an alien ailment, which the Andelite "Ax" shares with the rest of the Animorphs, except for Cassie, leaving her alone to run the next mission. It is an illness which is a kind of a meta-illness, an auto-immune-like disease. Preparing to care for him, Cassie asks the delirious alien to give her more information on what is wrong. <"Disease,> Ax answered. <Disease organisms collecting in my Tria gland... Tria gland keeps disease organisms away from the rest of the body...but if it bursts. Bad. Disease organisms get must take it out. Or I will die>" (#29, 30-31). In the end, it is a part of the self, that part which polices the line between self and other that must be removed in order for the ecology of the body to survive.

It may also refer to Cassie's mission, which requires her to acquire the DNA of a Yeerk, become one, and enslave a human host, Mr Tidwell. The group feels their bodies' battle-lines crossed by micro-organisms, which fight with their immune system to maintain a sense of self and other. Cassie feels herself cross over to join the enemy and as the enemy cross into a man's body, past his defenses, and wage war to define who controls his self. She undergoes, like Ax, the removal of that part of herself which policies the line between self and other, human and Yeerk, parasite and host, in order to survive.

We learn throughout the story, how a Yeerk's integration into a human's body infects both parasite and host with each other's knowledge. Cassie, herself having been an unwilling host to a Yeerk, worries over her old captor's safety as it waits imprisoned in the hands of Yeerk leadership on trials for treason. Cassie worries about the leadership finding out about her and the others. "She would end up telling the Visser everything she knew. Which was everything I knew. Aftran had been inside my head. She unlocked all my memories." (#29, 24). Some cognitive scientists as well as philosopher's contend that it is our memories that make us who we are. In a sense, what Cassie fears is that in the end she will be the one sacrificed to the Yeerks along with her former parasite.

This connection and exchange of memory, we also learn, can bring about such a strong sense of identification, that it can radically change our allegiances. One Yeerk rebel tells Cassie through the mouth of its now willing host, Mr. Tidwell, "It was partly experiencing Mr. Tidwell's distress that led me to join the movement," Illim continued. 'His howls of fury and agony forced me to accept what I had done to him. At the same time I began to hear about a group of Yeerks who thought it was wrong to take an unwilling host" (#29, 71)


Becoming Parasite

"I focused my mind. The changes began. 
Any morph is frightening. Any new morph doubly so.
This morph... this was the enemy. 
This was a parasite. This was a slug" 

KA Applegate, Animorphs #29

A fundamental concession which many Object Oriented Ontologist's (OOO) make, have to make, is that their theories on "What It's Like to Be a Thing" (as Ian Bogost puts it) are largely based on speculation. The premise of the question, "what is it like to be the Other" precludes an answer. If we could know the experience, without essentially changing the knowledge through its translation into "the self", then it would not in fact be " the other."

There is merit however in the speculation, because it begins to change the premise of the question and the questioner. By allowing the self to become, however contingently, the other, they might be brought closer together, or at least share a trajectory, so as to improve relations. It is this sort of imaginative task which Cassie takes on before she conceives of it as a physical task; and in both, she brings the reader along on the crossing. "You must be thinking the Yeerks are pure evil. But let me tell you what its like to be a Yeerk who isn't a host. Yeerks are basically gray slugs. No hands, no legs, no eyes, no ears. If a Yeerk wants to be free, free to really move, free to see the beauty of the world around it, free to hear music or even the sound of the rain on leaves, if a Yeerk wants that, it gas to have a host. If a Yeerk wants to be free, it has to make another living creature a slave." (#29, 3). We see how the question changes, or is suggested to change, through speculating on it. We begin to re-conceive "the Other," what it means "to be" the Other, and discover we may need to be asking better questions.

From an ontological question, Cassie moves into conceiving of her crossing into Yeerk-dom, more phenomenologically. In doing so, she transforms the Enemy, the Other, the Yerk from an abstraction of the very dividing line which defines it from her, and makes it into a physical, living thing. Cassie contemplates how it feels to be a Yeerk, "When they enter a host they get hit with thousands of new sensations. I can hardly wrap my mind around what it must feel like. I have to narrow it down for myself. I'll pick one thing, like color. Then I'll close my eyes and try to imagine I have never seen any color of any kind. When I open my eyes the array of colors around me makes me dizzy. And color is only one part of sight. And sight is only one of the new senses Yeerks experience in a host" (#29, 11-12). Contrary to many critics of such speculative realism, there does not seem to be real danger of Cassie totally forgetting the divide that exists between her and the other she is imagining she is. Trying to imagine across this divide, underscores the divide, and in turning back to look at the self, underlines how different and alien her experiences are to the other.

At last, through the transformation described above, Cassie crosses the enemy line physically and becomes a Yeerk (soon to do Yeerk things). The abstract divisions of self and other, ally and enemy, are put aside or collapsed and she dwells on the overwhelming phenomelogical experience of being a Yeerk. Cassie tells the reader, that while a blind alien slug, "I realized that I could do something kind of like a bat's echolocation. Or like sonar. The Yeerk threw out some kind of electrical waves, then analyzed the way they were bouncing back at it. They gave it an idea of the size and shape of things" (#29, 101). In other words, just like how sound and light waves hit us and bounce back to animals or sensory instruments that can digest the changes, Yeerk's emit an energy from their bodies, which joins with their surroundings, and rejoins it, bringing back traces of the other. Once on the other side, Cassie has found that there had been more regular correspondence between their sides than she expected.


Becoming Human

"[The Yeerk] was so right when she told me humans live amidst splendor and magnificence. Mr. Tidewell's red and white checked tablecloth was a sight to be relished and lingered over...I could have stood in Mr. Tidwell's kitchen all night. Allowing myself ti feel the Yeerk's joy at every new sensation" 

KA Applegate, Animorphs #29, 102-103

By the time Cassie, the Yeerk, enters into Mr. Tidwell's head and crosses yet another boundary of identity, she has already inverted the question of becoming the other. As in her abstraction, she moves from crossing into the existence of the other, to crossing as the other into the existence of the self.

And the different between the mental practice of closing her eyes and the physical act of morphing makes a case for the trans-corporeal and the multiplicity of actants involved. Rather than seeing the self/other divide psychoanalytically, in which would insist in this divide as a necessary dualism which allows the pysche to produce subject and object simultaneously as mirror images of each other (via the double pass); what we have here is a physical unity (played by protagonist narrator) which is the Becoming itself, passing through the state of Cassie, then Yeerk, then Mr. Tidwell, and back again. The divide is not a wall, a mirror, or any sort of impermeable surface, but a threshold of tension which she passes through and thus alienates herself from one form and identifies more with another. She always exists in tension and movement towards and away from these points (which are more than 2 in number, we can count at least 3). This tension is what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call "the double bind."

Moving again from abstraction to experience, this double-bind, is expressed in the rich description on her transformation into a Yeerk and then the Yeerk's transformation into a human:

"My sonar picked up a new shape. The Yeerk instincts kicked in. Hard. I stuck out two little protrusions. Felt around until I targeted the small opening. Then I was moving in. Slithering right into Mr. Tidwell's ear canal. It was a tight fit. I squirted out some kind of painkiller to deaden the canal and squirmed, stretched, pushed bones and tissue aside with surprising strength.

I penetrated. Deeper. Puncturing flesh now. Deeper inside. I inched along until I felt the tinge of electricity. Yes! This was what I was looking for! The brain! The neurons fired microvolts around me as I stretched. I was paper thin. Spread like hammered-down silly putty. I pressed myself into the cracks and crevices of the brain. Ah! Now I could feel it. The neurons were connecting to me. Making me a part of this strange, wondrous new body.

I felt the Yeerk's jolt of awe and pleasure at its new mobility. At its new size, and strength, and power. It was a visceral, nonconscious, nonintellectual, animal pleasure. I touched the brain's center of hearing. Ahhhh! It was like being alive again. The sound of water dripping into the sink sounded beautiful. Then, I touched the centers for sight. It was lights-on after being forever in a min shaft. Overwhelming! Joyful! It was dazzling, dizzying delirium." (#29, 102-103).

The feeling of awe and wonder at the world which Cassie, the Yeerk, the reader, and perhaps even Mr. Tidwell experience here comes through a degree of alienation. The Yeerk needing the human, the human needing to hear the Yeerk seeing through him, Cassie needing to become a Yeerk to see again as a human, and the reader needing Cassie all signal that we need intermediaries to put distance between us and our objects in order for us to see them. It is hard to see the self except by a mirror or to see the hand if it right in front of the face. It almost makes a case for us to welcome the alien invasion or brain parasites.

This is at very least might be true from an OOO perspective. Aliens, alienation, phenomenology, "what is it like to be a thing" all come in one form or another from Bogost's book, which concludes making such a case for awe and wonder; perhaps he read his Animorphs. From a gender and animal perspective, we may not yet be done with our analysis, because subjectivity troubles our ability to identify with our aliens. A question remains: You may take on my body, but can you take on my mind?


Becoming Man

"I allowed it to open sections of Mr. Tidwell's brain. Some sections controlled physical functions like moving muscles. But some held memories. "

KA Applegate, Animorphs #29, 103

Gender politics has had a long and troubled relationship with disability issues. Transgender politics has had a particularly tumultuous time wanting to avoid the stigmatization of being classified as a disorder and wanting the benefits (such as prosthetics and medical care) which may come from identifying as disabled/crip. Where social constructionism fails, where it has to admit a divide between gender and sex, is the place where certain gender crossings are impossible without physical reconstruction of the body. Then again, debates are raised as to whether the post-operation trans body can be said to experience or represent their gender. Really, this again returns to any sort of border setting or cross, where the self claims an alienated identity which the other cannot breach. It can shrink all the way down to the individual, where you may say, "unless you take over my mind, you will never know what its like to be me." Of course, that is the very line Animorphs #29 threatens.

The self becomes the prosthetic for the other. All boundaries of privacy appear to fall down as the Yeerk is able to explore the constructed self without resistance. The body snatcher will remember your childhood as you do, all the moments which you claim "made you" your gender will be theirs. They will appear before culture to be your gender and they will exist in, with, and as your body as well. The crux is that they can separate and leave.

Transphobic rhetoric is trans-formation obsessed. Its conclusion is the same as its assumption: you are one gender and are trying to become another, but you can't, don't act as though you can freely chose to one moment be one thing and the next moment the next. The logic of the claim collapses on itself. It invokes essential identities and condemns the trans for breaking these forms. It claims that the self has something precious which no one else can take, and then arrests the trans for trying to steal it. Put another way, it is rage against the premise that "I" am bounded by certain borders and the trans is not.

Indeed we see Cassie, as character and narrator, attempting to minimize her plundering of these divides. "As I tapped into these areas I was flooded with images from Mr. Tidwell's life....I didn't want to see that. I didn't want to go pawning through Mr. Tidwell's memories. I wished I could apologize to him, but even though I could hear his thoughts, I didn't know how to send him my thoughts back. I continued searching his brain, backing away any time I hit memory. But memory was everywhere. I was invading every secret, destroying all privacy. I felt ashamed. I tried to move a hand. It moved. I tried to form speech. It was easy" (#29, 103-104). As a trans-gender, trans-corporeal, trans-former, Cassie has the ability to represent her self and many others at once and thus take control of them. It is her choice not to scandalize either Mr. Tidwell or her own sense of taboo that keeps her from digging through his memories. But the trans cannot help but cross borders, because it exists there. As a brain-slug, Cassie cannot help but run into memories, because they are everywhere in the brain. Connecting with them is what she does.

Likewise, we see an effort by the narrator to NOT tell us what the experience of this morph is like for Cassie, particularly where gender is concerned. We read all about what it is like to become a Yeerk and what the Yeerk feels through the eyes and nose as Mr. Tidwell, but not what it feels through his legs. In this book, we are given no description, it is practically ignored, that Cassie has effectively become a human male. Any sense of his body's particular gendered characteristics, its genitalia, its chest, its fat distribution, its hairiness, its sexual impulses, all variety of qualities which are read as having gendered significance are absent from the narrative. It is as though Cassie is sheltering her reader from crossing this line, even imaginatively. She has the power to tell us, but she chooses not to remain silent.

Now, this book series is aimed at children, which may be one case for the removal of gendered overly descriptions; as gender differences are for the most part valued because of its sexual significance. This reinforces the taboo of transgender persons as erotic, even kinky taboos, and the proliferation of images of them in media as sex-workers. Shielding young readers from these experiences then bring in a Age Studies question: are children without sex or gender, and if we are guarding them from it, doesn't that demonstrate that they are? Of course, despite our posturing, we do infuse children with gender and sexual codes. Animorphs abound in them as well, but we hardly need to look further than color coding and the "romance" and "martial" atmosphere cultivated among girls and boys to see it at work. In Animorphs #29 we in fact get to see Cassie cringe in relation to crossing norms of what might make her a woman, or a man, and no longer a blank-canvas (such is our fantasy of a child) and then to see her go ahead and cross all of them by starting the book with Cassie getting all done up in a dress and make-up for a dance and ends with her waging a solo war deep across enemy lines in the body of a man. As a child, Cassie is hardly an innocent and as children's literature, Animorphs at most plays lip service.

What we see in Animorphs, is an imagining of the Trans as enacting guerrilla warfare, crossing lines and taboos all across the board to plunder the systems resources, counting on their enemies timidity when falling back across the borders while continually working to collapse those divides. Secrets, borders, and mechanisms of violence can all be manipulated by the tactics of the trans-guerrilla fighter to perpetually make due.


1 comment:

  1. I thought this was a really interesting analysis of morphing like crossing borders, and it was a good point that two of the instances of the Animorphs crossing gender borders featured enemy aliens on the covers. However, you didn't include the example of Marco morphing the governor in book 51, The Absolute. This was a direct instance of an Animorph morphing directly from one gender to another, staying human the entire time. Was it a purposeful decision to not include this? Since most of your analysis surrounds book 29, I don't think this example would have changed any of your points there, but I'm curious if it affects your analysis of this portrayal in the series.

    There are a couple of other examples of the Animorphs crossing genders in morph, but not over human lines. In book 3, Marco and Jake fight over who's going to morph the male wolf since Cassie reasons it would be bad to have two males fighting for dominance in the same group (whether this is accurate zoology now is probably besides that point since in the 90s alpha-male hierarchies were the understood form of wolf social dynamics). Marco and Jake are extremely reluctant to change genders even with just the wolf morph, but then Marco goes on to morph the governor without flinching in 51. Additionally, Tobias and Rachel change genders when morphing into Hork Bajir in book 13 without thinking anything about the decision. Tobias and Rachel are also in the unique situation of trying to navigate a relationship when one of the members is trapped in a hawk body. Maybe this nature of their relationship helps them deconstruct the bodied forms of relationships and gender and focus on the mental parts for why they like each other's company, or maybe it's another example like Cassie ignoring the physicality of being in Tidwell's body. Maybe the series didn't want to delve into the physical side of teen relationships or make readers think too deeply past the tragedy of dating a hawk.

    In another book though, Tobias mentions that he and Rachel in her bald eagle morph couldn't be mates because her morph is a male eagle, but then there's no same barrier around the fact that he's a hawk besides the fact that he can't attend her awards ceremonies or gymnastics events. The inconvenience about the situation is emphasized more than the physicality of it all.

    These are all the thoughts that this post made me think about as an Animorphs fan and aspiring literary writer. Do you have any thoughts on these too? Do you think these examples complicate or complement your piece?