Word of the Day: Eukaryotic (viz. a Fly in a Fly-bottle)

Eukaryotic: (of the cells of any organism other than bacteria and archaea) w/ cells that contain complex structures enclosed w/in membranes, especially a distinct nucleus or nuclear envelope wherein reside organelles like mitochondria (genes).

“characterized by well-defined cells (with nuclei and cell walls)” (1957), from Fr. eucaryote (1925), from Gk. eu- “well (formed)” + karyon “nut, kernel” + -ote as in zygote.

(Vs prokaryotic — read prekaryotic, because such organisms are evolutionarily prior: w/o a distinct nucleus with a membrane or other specialized organelles.)

Eukaryotes represent a minority of organisms; in a human body there are ten times more microbes (prokaryotes) than human cells (eukaryotes).


Although the word might be unfamiliar, the idea is not: we are taught (and thus like) to think of ourselves/our selves as eukaryotic — as bodies with nuclear selves or brains “inside” that identify us (our kernels or nuts!), that make us “what we are” (and unique) — and we are at some level anxious that we might in fact be prokaryotic: all surface, or empty or chaotic inside (and as ubiquitous and unexceptional as bacteria).

We — in ourselves/our selves — are flies in fly-bottles . . . but we’re worried that we’re empty bottles (or at best Klein bottles).

For Ludwig Wittgenstein, to philosophize is to unsee ourselves/our selves as such:

What is your aim in philosophy? — To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. (Philosophical Investigations, sec. 309 [1958, 103])

He aims to disabuse us of two artefacts of Cartesianism — solipsism and psychologism:

We are flies stuck in fly-bottle selves (solipsism).

We are fly-bottle bodies with true fly-selves/-brains “inside” (psychologism).

I.e. to shoo the fly — the idea, basically a “grammatical fiction,” that “mental process[es]” are “inner” and thus able to be “private” — out of the (brain-)bottle (see the discussion of the “pain” language game: PI, secs 244-317 [89-104], especially secs 295-317).


David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System — not his best fiction by any means and about a third too long, but funny — attempts to think out this stuff.

There is much talk of membranes (read: fly-bottles), selves, and the drama of inside and outside. Here is a passage describing what happens when someone’s car air-con breaks down in the desert (the G[reat].O[hio].D[esert]):

Self and Other. Difference. Inside-Outside. Except the air conditioner is broken. The Outside is getting in. The heat is the Outside. It’s getting in, because the Inside’s broken. [. . .] The Inside lets the Outside in. [. . .] You sweat. [. . .] What does the Outside do? It makes you unclean. It coats Self with Other. It pokes at the membrane. And if the membrane is what makes you you and the not-you not you, what does that say about you, when the not-you begins to poke through the membrane? [. . .] It makes you insecure, is what it does [etc., etc. ad (paene) infinitum]. (136; see 136-38, 330-48)

In “Big Old Neon” (from Oblivion), DFW makes a better fist of Witt (as he calls him).

The story once again concerns the inside/outside thing, in particular, the problem of other minds, especially (and, additionally, as a fictional device), in Witt’s phrase, how to “find the right expression for our thoughts” to communicate unfraudently — without playing self-serving mind-games — with others (PI, sec. 335, p. 108). The protagonist’s ethical dilemma becomes an aesthetic one as he tries to tell his story as fully as possible (DFW even pokes his narratorial nose in at the end of the story to complete it [180-81]):

[M]any of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc. — and yet we all seem to go around trying . . . to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. [. . .] All I’m trying to do is sketch out one little part of what it was like before I died and why I at least thought I did it, so that you’ll have at least some idea of why what happened afterward happened and why it had the impact it did on who this is really about. Meaning it’s like an abstract or sort of intro, meant to be very brief and sketchy . . . and yet of course look how much time and English it’s seeming to take even to say it. (150-51, 152-53; see 166-67, 178-79)

His maximalist introspections echo Witt on the “speed of thought,” which presents a problem for writers because it generates an excess of material:

Suppose we think while we talk or write — I mean, as we normally do — we shall not in general say that we think quicker than we talk, but the thought seems not to be separate from the expression. On the other hand, however, one does speak of the speed of thought, of how a thought goes through one’s head like lightning; how problems become clear to us in a flash, and so on. So it is natural to ask if the same thing happens in lightning-like thought — only extremely accelerated — as when we talk and “think while we talk.” So that in the first case the clockwork runs down all at once, but in the second bit by bit, braked by the words.

I can see or understand a whole thought in a flash in exactly the sense in which I can make a note of it in a few words or a few pencilled dashes. — What makes this note into an epitome of this thought? (PI, sec. 318-19 [104-05])

Nonetheless, this aesthetic dilemma is the stuff of what we call fiction (which is really metafiction [about exposing the fictional illusion] or fabulation [about violating the reader’s expectations]; see Waugh 148): poioumena [stories about storytelling], stream-of-consciousness, free indirect speech, interior/exterior focalization, unreliable narration, etc.

B/t/w, DFW also genuflects in his essay “The Empty Plenum” to David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which he describes as “a dramatic rendering of what it would be like to live in the sort of universe described by logical atomism,” viz. Witt’s early philosophy in the Tractatus — and “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country” (Blake Butler, “DFW Praise Compendium”; see DFW’s “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress”).



3 thoughts on “Word of the Day: Eukaryotic (viz. a Fly in a Fly-bottle)

  1. Germogen, from germen (sprout, bud, offshoot). “A polynuclear mass of protoplasm, not divided into separate cells, from which certain ova are developed”.

    Also, an infectious pathogen, from outside the body.

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