Symbiosis
Featured

02 November 2018
Author   Hugh Ellis
Venom, currently at movie theatres in Windhoek, is a film about symbiosis: it’s about aliens and humans sharing bodies.
It’s a superhero movie from the Marvel Comics stable that memorably brought us such legends as Black Panther and Spiderman. It’s a not-very-deep, feel-good movie; a great date movie, but having the kind of over-active mind I do, it also made me think about some things.
For a start, we are already all symbionts: beings that share bodies with other beings.
Yes, really.
All of us would starve to death if it were not for the bacteria in our digestive systems. On a broader level, we all depend on the bodies of countless chickens and cows. Dogs too, in a different way.
Not to mention a handful of large-seeded grass species (barley, wheat, sorghum, maize, oats) that we humans have plucked out of ecological obscurity, genetically engineered and promoted to the ranks of ‘most numerous plants on the planet’.
The concept of sentient symbiosis is still a bit weird, I must admit. Having a voice in your head discussing the next course of action. And yet, I’m a lecturer, a teacher, and if I’m honest, the voices I hear in my head when I lie down at night alone are as much my students’ as my own.
I’ve also lost count of the people I know for whom Twitter or Facebook on their mobile phone is the first thing they look at in the morning, and the last thing at night. In that kind of space, can we say our thoughts are totally our own? Many people say this is a bad thing, but as you’ll see, this is not my argument.
Secondly, while Venom comes squarely out of the Western superhero tradition, one doesn’t need to dive too deeply into various African mythologies to find stories of human beings being possessed by, and possessing, other humans’ and animals’ bodies.
I think all cultures have these myths, perhaps because we all have times when we act different from what we know as ‘ourselves’. When we get super angry, or when a super tight deadline is pending, Venom comes out and does what is necessary. We might not like this, but, somehow, it’s a fact.
Thirdly, what does it even mean to be human? We humans seems to be obsessed with this question, and even more obsessed by what it means to be a specific kind of favoured human, such as a white person, a Namibian or a Christian.
We’re all familiar with someone deciding to actually kill and maim people who are, according to him or her, not the right kind of human. The cold-blooded murder of 11 Jews at their place of worship in Pittsburgh, USA, last week was just the latest in a very long catalogue of such massacres.
In real life, no superheroes were on hand to stop the terrorist in Pittsburgh. There was no Black Panther of any description to hold back this villain, much less a ‘good’ monster like Venom to keep the evil monster at bay.
So in real life the solution must come not from the action of superhero movies like Venom, and science fiction novels like Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild or Fledgling, but from one of their underlying messages.
Human beings are always symbionts, joint livers with others. If we were able to see this, we’d know no one is the wrong kind of human. Or at least, no one is an ‘other’ kind of human. We’re all part of even the most ‘othered’ person.
Maybe if we had this kind of awareness, if it was not just spoken about loosely, but inculcated in us at home and in church and at every level of school, we’d see that no one could be murdered, or assaulted or raped, without it affecting all of humanity. ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,’ wrote 16th century poet John Donne, and he was only too right.
We need to get the idea that we’re all part of one interconnected whole.
Hugh Ellis is a lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. His book of poems ‘Hakahana’, published by Unam Press, is out now. The views he expresses here are personal (as far as that is possible, it could also be the alien parasite talking, the one he got from that suspicious drink at Fashion Bar). Connect with him on the hive mind that is Twitter @ellis_hugh
 

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