The domestic animal, its synthetic dreams and the pursuit or multispecies f(r)ictions
Published in Animals and Animality in the Literary Field,
Ed. Bruce Boehrer, Molly Hand, and Brian Massumi,
Cambridge University Press, UK, 2018
Finding a telltale streak of life in the grey gravel of a river bed
Klondike. Near Dawson City, Canada’s Yukon Territory.
During the short mining season (end of May through October), borrowing techniques from the eighteenth-century California gold rush, employees of an international digging conglomerate wield large hoses of pressurized water (also called monitors) to blast and wash away layers of agglomerated soil. Collected from snow melt and temporarily stored into big artificial ponds, murky water helps these ‘placer’ miners access the gravel underneath the permafrost and expose its alluvial deposits, in which gold is expected to be found.
In fact, since their discovery in 1897, the Klondike gold fields have produced approximately 20 million ounces of gold, or around 566 tons. As a point of reference, on January 2, 2017, 1 ounce of gold was trading at US $1,151.89 on the financial markets. Yet no significant underground mine has been developed, and none of the estimated 100,000 prospectors who attempted the perilous migration to the remote region between 1896 and 1899—nor any companies operating there since—have located the source of such great fortune.
More than a century after the Klondike Gold Rush[iv], ore prospectors are still searching. In a post-industrial version of the alchemical dream, they search the mud for telltale streaks of shining yellow while reshaping, within their own abilities and limitations, some of North America’s most iconic landscapes. If climate change affects the temperature of most northern territories across the globe, engaging those territories in fast-changing melting processes, so do miners and monitors.
By rerouting an antediluvian flow of subpolar water and projecting it with great force onto the friable hills of the landscape, contemporary mining activities are speeding up processes of both decomposition (of organic matter, of sedimentation, of forest and arctic ecosystems growth) and recomposition (of material capital, of circulation, of market value and resources growth).
In doing so, mining activities also wash away plant and animal matter that has been decaying underground for hundreds of thousands of years, in the process releasing bones into the artificial streams generated by monitors. In this washed-out dirt, remains of Ice Age animals are now resurfacing, offering up fossils of horses (Equus lambei), bisons (Bison priscus), and mammoth skulls and tusks (Mammuthus primigenius) to a handful of paleoanthropologists, who value these fossils as another kind of gold. They too are hunting, but for prized, though seriously deteriorated, organic material. Within this prehistoric magma where frost has, for many centuries, been slowing down the deteriorating process of dead flesh, adventurous scientists now chase nuggets of ancient DNA. Among monitors, miners and mosquitoes, they look for highly regarded traces of past lives potentially stored in this well-aged bone material, hoping to find a telltale streak of life in the grey gravel of a river bed.
Their idea? To use the remnants of paleo-life to reengineer some neo-lives.
This is the story of resurrecting the woolly mammoth: a story made out of mud and dream and decaying organic substance mixed with intensifying oneiric activities. Private sector money, millennial ideology, ultramodern synthetic biology practices, and random luck all congregate once more in the Klondike, this time crystallizing around the remains of calcified bones. At stake is both their past animating potential and their potential for future animations.