If you’ve been at all puzzled by the recent discussions and disagreements surrounding xeno- prefixes and alien outsidenesses, this new essay published by Amy Ireland on her blog — “Alien Rhythms” — is an absolute must read.
Alienness — and the alienation that results from a confrontation with alienness — is the genesis of novelty and change. Wherever one encounters the alien, a mutation or a transformation isn’t far behind. And yet, because alienness involves an aspect of unknowability and unpredictability — an erasure of the familiar and the homely — it is also one of the things in the world which makes us most afraid. We fear the different and the strange, yet we require these things in order to evolve. This makes for a paradoxical affective relationship with the notions of otherness and difference that alienness encompasses — a bizarre and complex orientation unifying dread and desire. Already there is a kind of geometrical confusion in this: desire drives you forwards, while dread forces you back. As Mark Fisher writes in The Weird and The Eerie, it’s not a simple case of ‘enjoy[ing] what scares us’. Rather, ‘it has … to do with a fascination for the outside, for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience’, an affect that involves terror and distress, but isn’t wholly described by them. Fisher’s invocation of ‘the outside’ immediately brings into play the prefix ‘xeno-’, a denotation nominating what follows it as foreign or alien — an ‘outsider’, someone or something that arrives from the outside.
Rebekah Sheldon offers the following extended etymology of the term alongside some of its contemporary applications. […] She concludes ‘[e]tymologically, xeno is trans. As graft, cut, intrusion, or excession, xeno names the movement between, and the moving entity. It is the foreign and the foreigner, the unexpected outside, the unlike offspring, the other within, the eruption of another meaning’. Xeno- describes both a vector and an alteration: the coincidence of transition and transformation. It thus involves a relationship between an inside and an outside, divided (or linked) by a threshold which becomes the object of a crossing.