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Posthuman Art in Richard Powers’ Orfeo

In his novel Orfeo, Richard Powers inquires on the role of art in a society that approaches posthumanism. The story recounts the life of Peter Els, a retired music composition professor and DIY-chemist, who tries to genetically insert musical compositions into bacteria. When his dog dies, Els calls the police: They notice his lab and become suspicious. As they return to confiscate his equipment, Els goes on the run and becomes a suspect of bioterrorism. Drawing on N. Katherine Hayles’ treatment of posthumanism, in which information technologies shift the focus from presence to pattern, I will analyze Orfeo as a depiction of a posthuman society in which art has the potential to be based on patterns of information. With this I will examine how Orfeo posits what Rosi Braidotti calls a post-anthropocentric view, in which these patterns appear as part of nature, or zoe, in general.

In the first place, the rise of digital technology is emphasized as a characteristic of posthuman society within the story. Peter observes the network of mass-culture in the digital sphere: “In fifty minutes, the sun shed enough energy to power civilization for a year. Six thousand people died; thirteen thousand were born. One hundred days of video were uploaded to the Web, along with ten million photos.” (Powers 124). In the internet age, change is more rapid than ever. The same becomes clear when Peter watches a “cyborg” woman in the park, listening to music through an mp3-player: Unlike in a regular music performance, the device enables her to keep changing her songs, and she is part of an online network that contains millions of songs. Later on, as Peter is on the run from Homeland Security for suspicion of bioterrorism, he himself participates in the digital culture by tweeting out his motives on his project. These tweets are scattered throughout the novel, mimicking the fragmented nature of the internet. In a way, the digital world is very useful for Peter: He can find all the information on his chemistry project online, and when he becomes an infamous criminal, the internet gives him an audience. His musical audiences were getting smaller and smaller: in the posthuman world, the audience is found in the digital information networks. Yet, for Peter, the arrival of the “cyborg” coincides with the loss of his music and its traditions, disappearing in the fast-changing and fragmented world of the internet. So in the digital dimension, the posthuman outlook appears in Orfeo as a loss of the person as an individual or as being rooted in a tradition. It is the portrayal of the human as “becoming-machine” in the sense Deleuze conceptualized it: Braidotti describes how this concept “indicates and actualizes the relational powers of a subject that is no longer cast in a dualistic frame, but bears a privileged bond with multiple others and merges with one’s technologically mediated planetary environment.” (Braidotti 72).

This rapid cultural change and fragmentation is paired with similar changes in music. Studying composition in the 1960s, Peter finds music to become increasingly diffuse and experimental. His teachers are revolutionaries with all kinds of diverging musical philosophies, renouncing traditional concepts such as beauty. This experimentalism is revealed to Peter in a kind of culmination when he visit an event called “Musicircus:” A musical event inside a large pavilion in which wild performances take place all around the visitors: “The cavernous oval swarms with people gone feral under the waterfalls of light. Bands, dancers, and actors perform on platforms throughout the space.” (Powers 132). Music here is presented as chaotic and dynamic, as a kind of anarchy. After meeting a senior named Richard Bonner at the event, the same chaos occurs when Peter lets him choreograph his recital: Richard turns it into an absurd theatre with vivid lighting and eccentric stunts. And so Peter finds the music of his contemporaries to be based on chaos and patternlessness. Their compositions embrace the constant change of a virtual society. At one point, the Musicircus is even called “the end of the world” (Powers 137). These same notions of change and finality had been made explicit in an earlier passage on Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which was written and played as its musicians were held captive in a Nazi Germany camp. One of its movements is described as “a sliver between two infinities” (Powers 115). Like the Quartet is rooted in World War II, the avant-garde scene of the 1960s has as its background the Cold War. For these composers, the war further designated the crumbling and falling apart of civilization. And thus the music became part of this: “Even the most magnificent piece would end up as collateral damage in the endless war over taste.” (Powers 91). So the avant-garde musicians came to use music as a tool to fight: Peter’s mentors teach him “how to weaponize art” (Powers 95). The music thus responds to this war of taste by embracing it: With the dynamical, violent, fragmented posthuman world approaching, these composers assert that traditional art will die in the process.

Meanwhile, Els has trouble adopting these anarchistic approaches to music. He is looking to achieve a kind of immortality through music. As one of his tweets reads: “All my music ever wanted was to tunnel into forever through the wall of now.” (Powers 107). The chaotic music of his peers makes such a thing impossible, since they base it on war and constant change: And so they represents the death of music as Peter knows it. He objects to their philosophy of chaos: “Art is not a mobocracy, it’s a republic.” (Powers 138). Where Peter believes art is based on structure, the experimentalists enforce a method that is completely devoid of such things. Peter’s professors are critical of his traditional views: “Week after week, Els tried to revive the once-audacious inventions of the past and make them dangerous again. And week after week, his mentor dismissed his études as pretty sentiment.” (Powers 95).

Moreover, the sense of music’s death is enhanced on a physical level. The aforementioned Quartet is being taught by Els to a group of senior citizens, right before he goes on the run from the police. He meditates on their old age, realizing he is giving a “learning class on dead music to dying people” (Powers 120). And moreover, Peter reckons the rise of virtual technology only precipitates this decline: “People couldn’t hold a thought or pursue a short-term goal for anywhere near as long as they could a few years before, back in the waning days of analog existence.” (Powers 84). Likewise, as he grows older, Els notices he himself cannot listen to music like he could before. He visits a neurologist, who shows him how his brain contains small lesions, “dead spots” due to his old age. His friend Richard faces the same problem when he develops Alzheimer’s. So where the music has died at the hand of the avant-garde composers, Peter notes in himself and in the people around him how the music seems moreover destined to die on a physical level. Neither his “traditional” nor the avant-garde music offer him the “forever” he has been looking for, since in the end both of them depend on the presence of the physical body.

But all the same, Els observes a musicality present within nature all around him. Musical life forms occur throughout the novel: His own dog, Fidelio, was able to recognize and sing along with the music Els played. Els then recounts other composers who were known to have musical pets. Further, on a morning walk Els listens to a bird singing: “A thing no bigger than a child’s fist was asserting a chord as brazen as any that a kid Mozart might plunk out […]” (Powers 76). And in the description of Massiaen’s quartet: “Two birds start a predawn song they’ve sung since long before human time.” (Powers 115). Other instances include tree frogs singing to each other, and even the discovery of musical patterns in plant life: On an oak leaf, Peter “saw rhythms inscribed in the branching veins” (Powers 331). Thus, regardless of cultural changes in music, and regardless of his own physical decline, Els observes a musicality that is present in lifeforms naturally: “Fidelio, that happy creature baying at the whims of Els’s clarinet, hinted at something in music beyond taste, built into the evolved brain.” (Powers 10). Crucially, what Peter enforces here is what Braidotti calls a “post-anthropocentric” view: this is a posthuman perspective which involves “expanding the notion of Life towards the non-human or zoe.” (Braidotti 42). Even bacteria, just as much living organisms, are part of this shared nature: One of Peter’s tweets will read “You carry around ten times more bacterial cells than you do human ones. Without their genes, you’re dead.” (Powers 92). So not only are these life forms part us, but we depend on them; Man turns out not to be superior or even independent as a lifeform. As Braidotti notes: “The posthuman in the sense of post-anthropocentrism displaces the dialectical scheme of opposition, replacing well-established dualisms with the recognition of deep zoe-egalitarianism between humans and animals.” (Braidotti 60). And, significantly, Peter recognizes this shared similarity though music; exposing how music is not a human invention, but part of organic, biological life—zoe—in general. Peter therefore beliefs that music does not necessarily die when the body dies.

This particular outlook leads him to find a solution to his music’s demise: He finds it in chemistry. Regarding living organisms as being similar to music brings Peter to a cybernetic view in which zoe, just like a virtual network, is made up of sequences and patterns; and therefore capable of being that can be programmed or adjusted. And Peter beliefs art to be a part of this zoe: “To Els, music and chemistry were each other’s long-lost twins […] The formulas of physical chemistry struck him as intricate and divine compositions.” (Powers 57). So when he faces the withering away of his body and music as he grows older, Els can negate this physical dependency by inscribing his art into the genetic sequences of bacteria. Here Els presents art as something pattern-based, i.e. virtual, giving it a place in post-anthropocentric world. As Hayles notes: “The contrast between the body’s limitations and cyberspace’s power highlights the advantages of pattern over presence. As long as the pattern endures, one has attained a kind of immortality […]” (2176). Thus Peter finds his musical “forever” through the medium of bacteria. Furthermore, Els works with a bacterium called Serratia marcescens, which is a pathogen: The fact that it can be harmful to humans reinforces the notions of post-anthropocentrism; that the human is not at its center. The similarity between music and chemistry is also underlined by the fact that Els is using science—which is by definition fact-oriented and independent of human taste—as a musical medium. Thus, with his work of BioArt, Els is able to follow the avant-garde principles of breaking habits and creating “dangerous” art, while also preserving his idea of music as based on pattern and structure. Where the digital virtual world is based on connection, Peter’s music here is not connected at all, and yet it will thrive within the bacterial culture. Just like in the virtual world, the music shared automatically through the bacteria; only it does not get replaced by new content like in the digital world. Precisely because no one is listening at all, Peter thus finds a kind of freedom. As he tells his daughter: “Little girl, anywhere, without an audience: so long as no one listens, you’re better than safe. You’re free.” (Powers 202). And so, with his BioArt, Peter makes the posthuman, post-anthropocentric statement that music, or at least its essence, takes place outside the human subjectivity: That humans come from these patterns, rather than just these pattern coming from humans. As media artist Natasha Vita-More states: “The directive of BioArt is not to eliminate fear but possibly to offer a means by which both visionary and objective ideas concerning life, nature and design can be explored and expressed.” (184). Protagonist Peter Els thus acts as Orpheus, after which the book is titled: Where the fragmentation and digitalization of culture represent a kind of death of the music, Els represents the bringing it back from the dead, by revealing it within coded patterns. He summarizes this when he notes: “Music isn’t about things, he says. It is things.” (Powers 189).

In this same vein, the narration contains many instances of ekphrasis: Several pieces of music are described in careful detail from start to finish. This way of conveying music echoes Els’ views on its nature: If the sounds can be described using just words, without the reader directly sensing them, then the art might consist mainly of information. And likewise, Powers often describes both human and animal voices in musical terms (e.g. “Her voice was thick with sardonic notes.” (146)). These passages follow the logic of Els’ bio-artwork: they form to some degree what Hayles calls an “information narrative”, in which “pattern tends to overwhelm presence, leading to a construction of immateriality that depends not on spirituality or even consciousness but only on information” (2175). And accordingly, we deal with a “cyberspace pov” here, which is characterized by the fact that physical presence is not implied (2177). In this sense, the fictional BioArt is not just a statement about music, but a statement about the potential of art in general; Powers puts forward the different faces and possibilities of art within a society of virtual information and connection.

And so Richard Powers offers a view of art as potentially posthuman, taking it out its traditional anthropocentric frame. This shift opens the possibility of art as present in a posthuman, post-anthropocentric world; by revealing it as something that can be based in a network of informational patterns just like a virtual network, and as something that transcends the subjectivity of the humanist perspective.


Works Cited

Braidotti, Rosi. “Post-Anthropocentrism: Life beyond the Species.” The Posthuman. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013. 47-83. Web.

Hayles, Katherine N. “From How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. 2165-2187. Print.

Powers, Richard. Orfeo. London: Atlantic Books, 2014. Print.

Vita-More, Natascha. “Brave BioArt 2: shedding the bio, amassing the nano, and cultivating posthuman life.” Technoetic Arts 5.3 (2007): 171-186. Web.