Fish Man in Cyberspace
by Marcel O'Gorman — University of Waterloo
April 16, 2009 – 00:07
For me, swimming is an exercise in anxiety. I have been working on my stroke for years, and I can struggle through hundreds of laps. But I haven’t reached a degree of expertise that would allow me to feel comfortable, or more importantly, to achieve a state of “flow” in the water. I can tap into this state—a sort of out of body experience—while running, which is a more primitive human activity, rooted in our primal need to hunt and flee danger. But swimming is an unnatural provocation, a willful embracing of risk, a defiance of human limitations.
What leads oxygen-sucking homo sapiens back into the aqueous primordial ooze? Is it an atavistic effect of phylogenesis? Or does it have to do with ontogeny, a deep memory of our universal history as frantically swimming sperm and tranquil, floating fetus? Whatever the case may be, defiance of human finitude is what has turned Martin Strel, the “Fish Man,” into a hero. And I would ague that such heroic defiance is also the driving force behind marathon sessions of Call of Duty 4.
The drive toward heroism is a key component of human nature, if not its essence. Beginning with primal self-preservation, human beings seek recognition; we yearn for evidence of our “cosmic specialness,” which is best achieved in denial of our fleshly, material finitude. For the sake of achieving heroic recognition, we will go to great lengths, even to the point of swimming the Amazon or constructing imaginary digital worlds designed to promote heroic recognition.
What is the relationship between such existential considerations and immersion? The Fish Man is at home in the water. With a few magic strokes, his heart rate settles into a rhythm, and he slips into a state of flow. His mind can wander for hours, explore infinite spaces while his body does its own thing. A physical ability to conjure up self-transcendence has facilitated his flight to heroism.
Now consider the experience of immersing yourself in a digital environment while sitting motionless in front of a screen. Here, you lose consciousness of “meat space” and “meat time,” flying heroically toward infinitude. While you flow as an avatar, you join ranks with Heracles and Orpheus, riding headlong into Hades. Unfortunately, such heroic forays into infinite digital space are followed by a return home, to the body.
Here is the disappointment: to live in a rich and infinitely malleable symbolic world, only to return repeatedly to the body’s stubborn decay, and to the realization that you are “worm food.” Given this state of affairs, and until my limbs are completely useless, I would rather be a Fish Man than a cyborg.
If only I could be both at once.