By Darryl Sterk
Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 28, no.2 (Fall 2016), pp. 183-222
Taiwanese writer Wu Ming-Yi’s novel The Man With the Compound Eyes is partly about a natural environment inundated with the detritus of modern material civilization. But while he writes about environmental degradation, Wu does not necessarily accept the dogma of the Anthropocene, in that he describes wilderness scenes apparently beyond the reach of human development, especially in Taiwan’s central mountain range. In his depictions of nature, degraded or pristine, Wu tends toward a sublime aesthetic, the purpose of which is to convey a sense of ecological embeddedness: unlike a beautiful landscape, which can be appreciated from a safe distance, an ecological sublime draws one in, forcing one to experience oneself as part of an ecosystem. Like the recent documentary Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above (Kanjian Taiwan) (dir. Qi Bolin, 2013), Wu goes “beyond beauty,” with a view to reinscribing humankind in nature.
Sterk interprets Wu’s metaphor of a man with compound eyes in terms of the modern western sublime. The modern western sublime originally situated human subjectivity in relation to nature, but has been reinterpreted in terms of man’s technological supremacy over nature and in terms of postmodern media technologies that sometimes seem to ensconce us in radically artificial worlds. Most recently, the sublime has come full circle, except to nature conceived of as an ecological system. Yet, scholars who have discussed the ecosublime could do more to engage with theorists of the postmodern sublime like Fredric Jameson. In this essay, Sterk ecologizes Fredric Jameson’s postmodern sublime by reading Wu’s man with compound eyes as a symbol of the media technologies through which a sense of ecological sublimity (and a feel for nature’s subjectivity and agency) might be communicated to the smartphone generation.
The man is a metaphor for technological mediation because his “ommatidia” – the tiny eyes that compose his compound eyes – are not just vehicles for the gaze of nature but are also described as screens. In the tiny eye/screens play nature montages. Montage, in fact, suggests a model of intersubjectivity in which one can cut back and forth between different perspectives, both human and inhuman. Since the montages that play in the ommatidia integrate into a videomosaic, the man also shows the reader how to cut from an individual to a global perspective in which individual perspectives do not get pixilated. In this way, he suggests ‘hypersubjectivity,’ an alternative to Timothy Morton’s hyperobjectivity that has political potential, inspiring narratives of collective endeavor like The Man With the Compound Eyes.