Saturday, 21 July 2012

Skulltopus 12: Come Out onto the Balcony and Wave a Tentacle

Okay, first a quick (well... relatively quick) recap and a few clarifications... because we've come a long way. And then onto some hot Zygon action.

The Story So Far...

If only 'Pirates of the Caribbean II' had looked this good.
According to China Miéville, the tentacular monster was introduced to Western SF/Horror literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the loose style/affect/trend known as 'the Weird'.  Lovecraft, Hodgson, Machen, etc.  They used various new forms of the monstrous, especially tentacles, as a 'novum', unfreighted with previously accreted meanings and associations, which could express something of the unprecedented, inexplicable, inexpressible catastrophic horror that was engulfing modernity with the onrush of world war, mechanised imperialism and endemic economic crisis.  (There were a couple of important pre-eruptions of the tentacular and Weirdish courtesy of SF pioneer H.G. Wells and 'ghost story' writer M.R. James.)  Mieville says that the Weird represents a way of trying to express anxieties that is alternate and incompatible with the gothic.  The gothic - or hauntological - is an expression of something we already know which has been hidden (or repressed) and which haunts us, threatening to return.  The Weird is what we don't - and perhaps cannot - know, erupting without precedent and confronting us with our own incomprehension.  Consequently, the gothic and the Weird exist in "non-dialectical superposition", oscillating back and forth... something which shows in the almost total absence in Western monsterology of the skulltopus, a fusion of skull (gothic) and octopus (Weird) which, on the face of it, would seem to be quite an obvious synthesis, especially given that the central hub of an octopus's body is decidedly skull-like in shape.

Much later, long after the process in Western literary and graphic monsterology that Miéville describes, and long after tentacles had been thoroughly assimilated into the mainstream of Western Horror and SF, tentacles begin to make their presence felt in Doctor Who. In the early days, most of the tentacles that appeared in the show did so courtesy of Terry Nation. For instance, he adroitly selected an octopus as a meaningless plot-device monster in 'The Chase'. He may have done this because the octopoidal carried a residual charge of blankness or meaninglessness. Also, Nation seems to have repeatedly associated a tentacular or Weirdesque monster with economic exploitation. The Brains of Morphoton have stubby tentacles and run an entire economy on hypnotism, making scarcity seem like material abundance; the Slyther turns up when the Daleks are forcing people to mine for them and black-marketeers are taking advantage of the situation. This may be a co-optation of the 'blankness' of the tentacular inherited from the Weird. It may also be that, because the modernity that filled the Weird writers with such nebulous horror was capitalist modernity, there is something in their pre-eminent monster-type that naturally lends itself to expressing horror at economic exploitation. (They themselves would probably have rejected this, most of them being reactionaries... though, interestingly, Lovecraft - who was a disgusting racist, living in dread of 'miscegenation' - once identified himself as a supporter of FDR and the New Deal, even calling himself a 'socialist'.) In any case, surprising as it seems - and I find this as unexpected as you probably do - Nation seems to have laid the groundwork for a semiotic connection within Doctor Who between tentacles and capitalism that later appeared, fully-fledged, at the start of the 70s.

Chiming with Miéville's ideas, while also working differently to the process he describes, there is a peculiar dialectic that gets started in the show between the gothic and this half-remembered version of the Weird.  'The Macra Terror' is the harbinger of what is to come.  It uses a recalled version of the Weird by using monsters that are crabs (the Weird is very maritime; Hodgson employs giant crabs a lot in his stories) and yet also undefined and/or overdescribed to the point of incoherence (this is also a trait of Weird monsters).  At the same time, however, the same monsters are deeply hauntological in that they literally haunt the Colony, representing repressed fears, their very existence denied by even those who have seen them lurking in the shadows.  This happens, I think, because 'The Macra Terror' is the first major attempt by Doctor Who - up to that point - to engage with some of the radical ideas of the 60s.  Like The Prisoner, which it anticipates in some respects, it frets over an apparent convergence between the underlying political structures of the 'democratic' West and the 'totalitarian' East.  The Colony is a political tyranny with capitalist features.  There is brainwashing, surveillance, a secret police force... co-existing with a Holiday Camp style atmosphere, leisure time, makeovers, beauty contests and an ideology of cheerful team-spirit.  This is a very 60s anxiety and ties in with currents of radical thought of the time.  Haunted by this idea, which cannot be openly acknowledged, the text resorts to radically obscuring its hauntological monsters by co-opting aspects of the Weird.

The most politically loaded image in 'Doctor Who'.
Not long after this, at the start of the 70s, Robert Holmes wrote a story with various elements that seemed to converge upon capitalism as a source of exploitation, alienation and hierarchy... and even to connect capitalism with imperialism, racism and sexism.  (I know, you think I've gone mad... well, click the following link to see my reasoning...)  'Spearhead from Space' contains this potential because it concentrates on a capitalist factory, upon the process of production, upon wage labour, upon products and commodities alienated and fetishized to the point of hostile autonomy.  Its monsters - the Autons - work as emblems of alienation and commodity fetishism as described by Marx.  They are hostile commodities, invested with a life of their own, confronting people as an external and dominating power.  They alienate the human image from humans.  They are made in the capitalist factory, by workers, several of whom are Asian women working for a white man making white dolls.  The Autons themselves are white - whiteness seems to be the Nestene idea of the typical human, the 'vanilla' human if you will.  The Autons are expressions of Nestene imperialism; the Nestenes explicitly describe themselves as colonialists.  The Nestenes merge their Autons with the human shopping centre and with a pantheon of white Western political oligarchs displayed in Madame Tussauds (with some non-white opponents of white imperialism - Ghandi, MLK - also on display, for counterpoint).  The plastic replicas of the ruling class stalk out of Tussauds to take over the country.  Meanwhile, the Autons attack in the high street, wearing price tags, gunning people down amidst adverts and logos and shop signs.  It's well understood that George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) is a 'satire of consumerism' because it features zombies staggering mindlessly around a shopping mall.  Indeed, it's pretty much a cliché to mention the fact.  It's time people realised that, once again, Doctor Who got there first - only more acutely.  However, at the figurative centre of 'Spearhead from Space', at the heart of the factory where the Nestene entity itself is being produced, Holmes seems to evade the convergence of these themes by the sudden introduction of radically incoherent tentacles.  The threat was that the themes and signs of the story would converge lucidly upon the capitalist system as a generator of modern nightmares.  The tentacles - harking back to their original Weird blankness - are a redaction, a scrambling, an obfuscation.  Doctor Who relentlessly concentrates upon the modern nightmares that are generated by capitalism - industrialised warfare and imperialism, biological racism, fascism, etc. - but cannot openly acknowledge capitalism as the hub from which they emanate, owing to its status - the children's own programme that adults adore - within the established culture industry.

The ironic thing is that this semiotic evasion almost instantly became a semiotic association.  This may express an inherent instability within any sign that is pressed into the service of the inscrutable or inexpressible.  Evasion of meaning is fundamentally not what signs are supposed to do.  Evasion of truth, sure, but not of settled significance itself.  Such a sign hunts around for a meaning, so to speak.  It must find a telos, even if the one it finds is the very telos it was supposed to be evading.  (This is not idealism, by the way.  When I talk about the sign 'doing' things, I'm actually talking about the people using it... just as one might say that a car 'cruises' when in fact it is the driver doing the cruising.)

In 70s Who, the tentacular sign is employed to evade capitalism, and instantly starts to signify capitalism.  It would be easy to see this connection between the tentacular and capitalism as a mere empty recapitulation of continuity when it reappears in Holmes' sequel, 'Terror of the Autons'... if it weren't for almost immediate appearance of 'The Claws of Axos', which is a development and intensification of the connection, written by different writers.  Echoing the process described by Miéville - and that's what this is: an echo - the tentacular in Doctor Who is, almost from the first, enmeshed in an antagonistic dialectic with the gothic, the show's better-established mode. For instance, in 'Claws of Axos' the tentacular elbows out the gothic (while taking on a hauntological charge). The story was originally about a space 'vampire' in the shape of a giant skull; it became instead about a huge bag of strange, spectacular, writhing, incoherent flesh.

Later, the tentacular is so integrated into the internal sign system of 70s Who that it just rides in on an association with capitalism, even when there's nothing that needs obscuring because free trade-style capitalism is being presented as implicitly good. But even at this point - roughly speaking, 'The Curse of Peladon' - it still continues dancing with the gothic. In 'The Curse of Peladon', Arcturus is very nearly a skulltopus because he's both capitalist (a representative of the Federation with all its trade and progress, counterposed to Pel feudalism) but also a protectionist reactionary who wants Peladon to stay a feudal backwater. (This, it need hardly be said, reflects the arguments about free trade vs. protectionism which flurried around the UK's entry into the 'Common Market' roundabout the time 'Curse' was made, i.e. the dawn of neoliberalism.)

Astonishingly enough, this character...
...turns out to be evil.
This skulltopusization can occur because 'Curse of Peladon' is a distant echo of the process described by Miéville; a televisual atavism in the 1970s of a process originally found in literature and graphics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The gothic/Weird dance continues, with tentacles always erupting whenever capitalism appears in the show as a systemic presence, throughout the rest of the Pertwee era. In 'The Green Death' - the last Pertweean gasp of the Weird - there is a tentacle which appears at the start, almost as an obligatory afterthought, and there are the Weird-esque maggots. Still, the gothic clings on alongside this recycled, processed version of the Weird. The gothic keeps trying to reintegrate. 'Green Death' works like an M.R. James ghost story, with its material 'hauntings', linked to technological modernity. It will be recalled that Miéville identified James as one of the precursors of the Weird. Reading James, one usually encounters not spectral ghosts but slimey, hairy, icky, chitinous things, or things that seem oddly to emerge from modernity - haunted prints, designs or train tickets, for example. This sort of thing is very apt to happen in Doctor Who because its version of the gothic has always been very material and materialist. 'The Green Death' is a perfect example, with its Jamesean 'ghosts': slimey, hairy, icky, chitinous monsters that emerge from a chemical factory. As James prefigured the Weird even as he wrote in the gothic, so 'Green Death' partially integrates the Weird and the gothic. It joins the Whoish 'material gothic' to its new habit of using the Weird as a way of evading/signifying capitalism. Even its title illustrates this dialectic, with the slimey, gooey 'Green' grafted onto the gothic 'Death'.

And so, we arrive at the Tom Baker years - always spoken of as quintessentially gothic. 

Broton's Zygotic Mynci

"Go away.  You're always hovering.  It makes me nervous."
"I just want to be near you."
"I've told you - not at work!"
The first appearance in the Baker era of anything even faintly Weird or Weird-esque (and it is faint) arrives (as already hinted) in 'Terror of the Zygons'.  The Zygons are covered in suckers.  They live underwater and control a sea monster.  So they're well maritime (as mentioned above, the Weird is frequently maritime in its concerns).  The Doctor even refers to them at one point as having tentacles, which is a bit of a stretch on his part, but still...  Moreover, they are shape-shifters.  This is another of those things which is actually rarer in Doctor Who than one might immediately think.  Apologies for the tautology, but the essence of the shape-shifter is indeterminacy of form. Here, once again, we have incoherence and the tentacular. I don't want to overstate. The Zygons are hardly inscrutable. They state their plans very clearly. They are most obliging with their freely-offered exposition when they capture Harry. There is little to misunderstand about them. They are a terroristic advance-guard of a fleet of imperialistic nomads. But they are tentacular (just about) and they are unstuck from a fixed physical form. Most especially, the inside of their ship is organic in a way not even hinted-at in the show since 'Axos'. With their great, domed foreheads, their name (which sounds so much like 'zygotes'), their ability to 'become' adult humans and their apparent loathing of doing so, their dependence upon the "lactic fluid" of a much-larger organism and their warm, snug, pulsing, fleshy, veined base of operations, it's hard not to notice that they are disquietingly infantile. Monstrous babies were much in vogue in Horror in the late 60s / early 70s. Rosemary's Baby, It's Alive, Eraserhead, The Omen... the original idea of the writers of Alien was that the monster should be like a "monstrous, deformed baby". This is a digression (gee, how unusual here!) but the point is that their ship recalls Axos, though in a much less wild and spectacular form.

The semiotic connection between the tentacular and capitalism is being continued, albeit it in a faint, garbled and undeveloped form. 'Terror of the Zygons' features rigs owned and run by an American oil company which is traumatically bringing on the collapse of an old, feudal way of life in favour of new capitalist development. Seven centuries of 'service' seem not to count "these days". All Forgill's servants leave to work for the rigs. Huckle's men trespass upon Forgill's lands, showing no respect for feudal land ownership in their pursuit of capitalist accumulation of a fossil fuel that will power modern technology. As in 'Green Death', the eruption of the Weirdish occurs in something of a gothic manner - the hidden erupts from beneath - as a result of the intrusion of modern, explicitly capitalist technology.

It's tempting to say that the Zygons are associated more with the 'old ways', the feudal aristocracy. Broton disguises himself as the Duke of Forgill and the Zygon ship is linked to the land by a tunnel that leads up into the dusty old library of Forgill Castle. Speaking in his Forgill persona, Broton seems convincingly to voice the resentment of the obsolete aristocrat in the time of the oil corporation. But this is to impose a clear-cut distinction where in fact there are complex interrelationships. The real Duke's ancestors would probably have been among those making 'improvements' to the land, i.e. enclosing it and evicting people from their homes to make way for sheep. This actually happened to land around Loch Ness. These were among the first steps in the rise of modern capitalism in Scotland. Huge tracts of private land used for bourgeois farming and/or rents, leading to the filling-up of industrial towns with displaced new proletarians and/or the expansion of the 'New World' colonies, vital because of their roles in the slave trade and production of commodities like cotton, or coal - the oil of its day.

Similarly, the Zygons plan a massive exercise in invasion and colonialism... chiming with the invasion and annexation of Scotland by England (re-enacted in a miniaturized, comic mode through UNIT's invasion and takeover of Angus's inn... a process he resists by loudly playing the bagpipes at the occupying, armed Sassenachs). But we can't straightforwardly associate Zygon colonialism with English colonialism. The Zygons are also refugees, driven away from their home and seeking a new one. They plan to colonize Earth using the slave labour of the humans. A great many of the Scottish Highlanders driven out of their homes by the Clearances ended up in the Carolinas in America. The Carolinas were, of course, slave states. If the Zygons work as the echoes of English domination of Scotland, they also work as an echo of the forced migrants who ended up dominating the New World. (Meanwhile, we can't straightforwardly assume a connection between Forgill's old-fashioned Scots aristocratic posture and Scottish nationalism. A lot of those dukedoms were created by the English crown.)

Recycling Experiment

Interestingly, some of these same dynamics - the interrelationship of feudal wealth and modern capitalism, the complex conception of colonial conquest - reappear in Robert Banks Stewart's other script for Hinchliffe and Holmes, 'The Seeds of Doom'.

The National Trust will have something to say about this.
In that story, Harrison Chase is a modern millionaire with a private lab and salaried employees, including a personal botanist and an enforcer with a gaggle of naff private thugs. Chase is entirely immersed in modernity. He is surrounded by modern technology - his private lab, his private plane, his huge climate-controlled greenhouse, his peculiar electronic organ (ooo-er missus), etc. He is also immersed in commodification. He buys officials, information, loyalty, etc. He owns people "body and soul". He owns and buys things constantly. He haggles over and buys a painting on screen during the story. He effectively buys the rights to the pod and everything that comes from it. That's how he sees it anyway. But he is also a relic of feudalism. His is evidently an old family, and his money is evidently old money. His house dates from the time of the Wars of the Roses ("charmingly named") and is haunted by Sir Bothwell Chase. There doesn't appear to be a contradiction here. The one form of power seems to bleed seamlessly into the other. Indeed, it might even go back farther than that. As the lord and master of cultivated grounds, as the Abbot of a "green cathedral", as a landowner and employer of a private army, Chase is almost like an echo of the earliest ruling classes that arose with the coming of agriculture. He's like one of the administrators or priests who came into existence when a new way of making a living - settled growing and reaping - brought surplus and, with it, social hierarchies... along with organised war, which suddenly became worthwhile once there were settled civilisations whose crops and plants you could seize. Chase and Scorby are like the descendants of these first lords and warriors, still fighting over ownership of the greenery all these centuries later. Feudalism and capitalism both seem to have carried this same violent and piratical hierarchy, in turn, down to the present. Chase is like a palimpsest of all these rulers. He's the Abbot, the lordly landowner, the modern businessman - all in one.

Also, there is much talk of 'revolution' in the story, and the inversion of power relationships... caused by an invasion and colonisation. Chase conceives of plants and flowers as being an oppressed group, as though they stand in a colonial relationship to animals. Even from the first, long before he seems to be 'possessed' by the Krynoid (not that he ever really is, if you ask me), he whinges to Dunbar about the "mutilation and torture" of plants in the practice of Bonsai, the favouritism allegedly shown towards animals by the World Ecology Bureau and the unnatural criminality of creating hybrids. Later, he talks of animals like a tyrannical ruling elite, about to be conquered and enslaved by the coming of the Krynoid, which he appears to see as a huge, plant-version of Che Guevara. The invasion and colonialism of the Krynoid is like the ousting of a native ruling class. He almost anticipates the doctrine of 'humanitarian intervention' - invade and conquer to (supposedly) free the oppressed - but for the fact that it isn't the humans he wants to save.

It's open to doubt whether 'Zygons' and 'Seeds' work this way because the show is still trying to evade noticing capitalism as a generator of modern nightmares. It feels more like the recapitulation of a settled sign, almost as a matter of habit. It also feels as though the studiedly gothic atmosphere of the Hinchcliffe / Holmes era is squeezing the Weird tentacles into an increasingly small corner. First there are tentacles that are not really tentacles (arms and legs with decorative suckers), then there are tentacles that are actually vines and creepers and roots. Capitalism still tags alongside these almost-tentacles (or is it the other way round) but in a decidedly muted, faint and compromised form. It appears mixed up with feudalism, in a very tangled way.

There is very little else in the Hinchcliffe years which qualifies as Weird or quasi-Weird or even almost-Weird. The tentacular returns with a vengeance, however, in the more political Williams era... just in time to notice that the world is changing, neoliberalism is flowering, class struggle is waning, Thatcher is rising and capitalism no longer anything to be worried about - at least not officially. Consequently, by the near-end of the Williams years, it no longer feels right to wrap capitalism in tentacles. But, as I say, this only happens after the tentacular/capitalist semiotic connection re-erupts... in ways that range from the furtive to the ambiguous to the angrily and hugely explicit.

CORRECTION, 28/09/12:
In the text above, I say that "A lot of those [Scottish] dukedoms were created by the English crown." That's just plain wrong. Factually inaccurate. Sorry. Thanks to Jennings for pointing this out.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Monkey Business

On 'Ghost Light'.

Let's leave aside the aesthetic beauty of the production, with its pattern of oppositions - light and dark, day and night, madness and sanity, stone and wood, feminine and masculine, dead and alive - which alternate until they start to bleed into each other and mingle until we are left with no certainties.

Let's leave aside the willfully abstruse script; the wonderful way it is deliberately constructed as a jewelled puzzle box; something to be studied and pondered and interpreted rather than just passively enjoyed.

Let's leave aside the scrumptious bevy of literary references, sly self-referencing jokes, puns, double meanings, allusions... all of which show an intense and highly self-conscious (though not glib) awareness and playfulness with language, text, genre and storytelling tradition.  You want an example?  How about the use of the word "wicked", which - with wonderful irony - appears in both the Victorian usage and as 80s teenspeak.  It's the last word of the story - the last word spoken by the Doctor in the last-filmed story of the classic series.  And when the Doctor uses it to describe Ace, he sounds like a Victorian moralist (of times past or present) scolding a disobedient child... but, by Ace's usage, and by his own sly wink, he's giving his approval to her pyromaniacal aversion to the house haunted by evil Victoriana.

Let's look instead at what this story says about evolution.

Firstly, it gets things technically wrong by depicting evolution as working teleologically, so that the human is the 'final' stage when the process is finished.

Or does it?

Secondly, it's about homo victorianus ineptus (and his spiritual descendants) railing against a theory they don't understand because it offends their bigoted prejudices. It's about Soapy Sam Wilberforce and our latter day creationists, terrified by the theological and cultural and social and political ramifications of a scientific discourse which emphasizes mutability and materialism.

Or is it?

Let me suggest that, while there's some truth in the above, there's also a lot more to it than that.

I don't think it gets evolution wrong so much as it gets people's ideas of evolution right. It understands that a certain kind of vulgar, reactionary, bourgeois idea of evolution pictures a ladder with the strongest, most ruthless at the top... and the weak at the bottom. It seems to depict evolution as a succession of 'rungs' which are climbed through mutation, achieving progress and reaching a final goal embodied in a human male... but, in its strategy as a text, it represents this as the process (progress?) of exactly the kind of reactionary, bourgeois mind that would view the Victorian gentleman as the pinnacle of evolutionary ascent.

That's why the ultimate punishment for Josiah seems to come from within him. It's his own idea of successive stages that makes it possible for him to fall back down through them; it's his own idea of the superior keeping the inferior as pets that makes it possible for Control to put him on a leash.

"The Ever-Changing Moral Zeitgeist"

I referred to the reactionary 'ladder' version of Darwinism as "vulgar" just now, but this is not quite right.  It is not really a vulgarisation, in the sense of being a popular misstatement overlaid upon the ideas of the original Darwinians.  Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Galton... these were respectable, wealthy, middle-class Victorian gentlemen. Progressive for their time, they were also products of their time, as were their ideas.

Hey, have some quotes.

Here's the young Darwin, in his Beagle diary:

Of individual objects, perhaps nothing is more certain to create astonishment than the first sight in his native haunt of a barbarian -- of man in his lowest and most savage state. One's mind hurries back over past centuries, and then asks, could our progenitors have been men like these? -- men, whose very signs and expressions are less intelligible to us than those of the domesticated animals; men, who do not possess the instinct of those animals, nor yet appear to boast of human reason, or at least of arts consequent on that reason. I do not believe it is possible to describe or paint the difference between savage and civilized man. It is the difference between a wild and tame animal: and part of the interest in beholding a savage, is the same which would lead every one to desire to see the lion in his desert, the tiger tearing his prey in the jungle, or the rhinoceros wandering over the wild plains of Africa.

This next one is from The Descent of Man, Chapter 6:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes... will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

Here's Darwin, writing to the philosopher and economist William Graham in 1881:

Remember what risks the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago of being overwhelmed by the Turks, and how ridiculous such an idea now is. The more civilised so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilised races throughout the world.

Here's Darwin on gender, from The Descent of Man, Chapter 19:

The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man's attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman- whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music (inclusive both of composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, with half-a-dozen names under each subject, the two lists would not bear comparison. We may also infer, from the law of the deviation from averages, so well illustrated by Mr. Galton, in his work on Hereditary Genius, that if men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman. 

This next one is from T.H. Huxley ('Darwin's Bulldog'), writing in an essay called 'Emancipation, Black and White' in 1865:

It may be quite true that some negroes are better than some white men; but no rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man. And, if this be true, it is simply incredible that, when all his disabilities are removed, and our prognathous relative has a fair field and no favour, as well as no oppressor, he will be able to compete successfully with his bigger-brained and smaller-jawed rival, in a contest which is to be carried on by thoughts and not by bites.

Here's Francis Galton - Darwin's polymath cousin - in his Preface to the 1892 edition of his book Hereditary Genius:

The natural ability of which this book mainly treats ['genius'], is such as a modern European possesses in a much greater average share than men of the lower races. There is nothing either in the history of domestic animals or in that of evolution to make us doubt that a race of sane men may be formed, who shall be as much superior mentally and morally to the modern European, as the modern European is to the lowest of the Negro races.

Even today, the wackier fringes of sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology and other forms of biological reductionism continue to lend support to reactionary views on race, gender and economics.

Richard Dawkins' idea of natural selection working mostly at the level of individual genes (which get into cartels) lends itself implicitly to concord with bourgeois ideology. Dawkins is no biological racist (though his animus towards Islam has now tipped over into culturalist racism) but his outlook implicitly supports our economic status quo. Each individual gene becomes a utility maximiser engaged in rational self-interest, each genome is a genetic economy in equilibrium. It's quite a startling resonance. Dawkins himself even uses free market metaphors in his descriptions, explicitly saying that genomes are not "command economies". These are metaphors, but they also turn upon him and start to power his logic.

It's tempting to say that there's a connection between this and his liberalism, which is individual-centred and worries about memetic cartels that threaten the equilibrium in which all the individuals supposedly live, i.e. scary old Islam. Memes may be the connective skein here. They provide an idealist cultural logic (of a very unoriginal kind, actually...) that makes human society work in an analogous way to the gene's-eye-view of biology. Individual people get themselves into cartels via the natural selection of memes. Memes, like genes, are amoral. They succeed if they work. Religion 'works' in some ways that Dawkins attempts to delineate in The God Delusion, hence it reproduces. I think, by the meme logic, religions would be seen as predators. We can see the Darwinian logic whereby their fearsome features accreted, but we still have to defend ourselves from them when they attack.

So Dawkins, like so many liberals before him, ends up enmeshed (albeit by a more circuitous route than many) in the kind of idealist, culturalist thinking that has always made liberalism into the perfect... well, the perfect 'meme' for bourgeois ideology. Herbert Spencer's notions of inherited genius tesselated perfectly with his libertarianism. The individual must be at liberty to succeed and rise according to his inborn talents and his own capacity to advance himself. Charity is fine, as long as it doesn't hinder the gifted or artificially raise the useless. This is where social Darwinism and libertarianism meet, and provide a perfect cultural logic for capitalism.

Evolving to Fit a Niche

This shouldn't surprise us.  Ideas have a social basis.  It's only to be expected that ideas generated by the enormous industrial, technical, scientific and social revolutions of capitalism should bear traces of it, should fit the niches of the social ecosystem.

Natural selection was born from studying Malthus - who worried about the limits to human progress, since, as he saw it, the poor were reproducing faster than society could feed them, whereas the more continent upper classes were allowing themselves to be outbred.

Natural selection - with its niches into which species have to fit - comes from an awareness of things like specialised tasks and the division of labour: products of the new, industrial, factory society.  As Marx wrote:

It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’.
This, to generalise, is why natural selection is an idea that popped into the heads of two guys, roughly simultaneously, both of whom were from the middle-to-upper classes of mid-Victorian Britain... and not to, say, Democritus.  Darwin and Wallace both lived in a society that was the product of the Industrial Revolution (roughly a century old by the time On the Origin of Species was published), a society where all the manifestations of capitalism adumbrated by Marx above had arisen and changed life radically.  Darwin and Wallace both read Malthus, both explicitly naming his Essay on Population as providing them with eureka moments.  Like most educated men of his time, Darwin was highly influenced by Political Economists like Adam Smith, who provided the theoretical basis of laissez-faire capitalism (though to associate Smith simplistically with today's ultra-free-marketeers - who fatuously profess to venerate him - is to do him a great disservice).

On this matter, it's worth quoting (at length) from Darwin's finest biographers, Adrian Desmond and James Moore.  Writing about Darwin's thinking in the late 1830s, they say:

Malthus had rarely been more topical. In the depth of the depression, with unprecedented distress, the poor law and pauper riots were on everybody's lips. Workhouses were still being attacked, commissioners still being pelted. Malthus had denounced charity, and the rioters abominated anything Malthusian that propped up the New Poor Law. By now the dissident groups had come together under an umbrella organization known as Chartism: they supported the People's Charter, a list of demands for universal suffrage, annual elections, and salaried MPs. This was a countrywide mass movement, and the New Poor Law was one of its prime targets. Christian Chartists denounced a system that would deny 'the distressed poor their God-given right to a dignified support on their native soil.’ They were marching under banners in September that proclaimed with the Psalmist, 'Dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.’ Chartist speeches, lambasting the 'cruel and detestable doctrines of the Malthusians,' were heard by tens of thousands in the manufacturing towns, and reported in The Times. Love him or loathe him. Malthus could not be ignored.

Darwin knew the theory. With Martineau his dinner guest, how could he not? Getting the poor off welfare increased competition among working men and reduced taxes. Competition was paramount, making Malthus a Whig free trader's godsend in the 1830s. But it was Malthus's statistics that struck Darwin with a vengeance in his primed state. Malthus calculated that, with the brakes off, humanity could double in a mere twenty-five years. But it did not double; if it did the planet would be overrun. A struggle for resources slowed growth, and a horrifying catalogue of death, disease, wars, and famine checked the population. Darwin saw that an identical struggle took place throughout nature, and he realized that it could be turned into a truly creative force.

He had thought that only enough individuals were born to keep a species stable. Now he accepted that wild populations, too, bred beyond their means. Like the architects of the poor law, nature showed no charity; individuals had to scrimp and struggle, like the growing gangs of scavengers on London's refuse heaps, with starvation staring them in the face. Darwin gained a unique understanding from Malthus.

In Darwin's nature, the many fall that the few might progress. Death acquired a new meaning, and there was enough of it around: with rising joblessness and homelessness, medical statisticians were compiling their 'ledgers of death' (mortality statistics) among the slum dwellers. Nature's ledgers were always open; the Reaper sat, draped in black, with scratch pen permanently in hand. Progress was not so much a hymn to divine beneficence as a dirge accompanying the savage struggle. Both Darwinian science and poor law society were now reformed along competitive Malthusian lines. Ruthless competition was the norm; it guaranteed the progress of life and a low-wage, high-profit capitalist society.


Emigration might solve the pauper problem at home, but others saw these boatloads of rejects wreaking havoc abroad. Dire predictions accompanied this tidal wave of flotsam. European settlers had always been 'harbingers of extermination to the native tribes,' and it was prophesied that all the 'aboriginal nations' would be wiped out within a century. At every outpost the Beagle crew had witnessed the destruction: the Tasmanians were all but exterminated, the aborigines were dying from European diseases, General Rosas's policy was deliberate genocide. But Darwin believed that colonial warfare was necessary 'to make the destroyers vary' and adapt to the new terrain. Destruction was becoming integral to his Malthusian view of humanity:

When two races of men meet, they act precisely like two species of animals. — they fight, eat each other, bring diseases to each other &c, but then comes the more deadly struggle, namely which have the best fitted organization, or instincts (ie intellect in man) to gain the day.

The 'stronger [are] always extirpating the weaker,' and the British were beating the lot. This imperial expansion ended the isolation of the indigenous races, and thwarted their development in other ways. As whites spread out from the Cape, the black tribes were pushed together in the interior, blending races and ending their species-making isolation. Had this not happened, Darwin speculated, 'in 10,000 years [the] Negro [would] probably [have become] a distinct species.'

With emigration in the headlines, Lyell was convinced that animals too are driven by overpopulation to migrate. He agreed with Darwin that burgeoning species become colonizers, invading new terrain and defeating the natives. But Darwin's population pressure was pushing species to the limit in other ways. The crush was a creative force. The overcrowding that sent boatloads to the colonies meant that only animals with a competitive edge survived.

Darwin's biological initiative matched advanced Whig social thinking. This is what made it compelling. At last he had a mechanism that was compatible with the competitive, free-trading ideals of the ultra-Whigs. The transmutation at the base of his theory would still be loathed by many. But the Malthusian superstructure struck an emotionally satisfying chord; an open struggle with no hand-outs to the losers was the Whig way, and no poor-law commissioner could have bettered Darwin's view. He had broken with the radical hooligans who loathed Malthus. Like the Whig grandees - safe, immune, their own world characterized by noblesse oblige — Darwin was living on a family fortune, and thrusting a bitter competition on a starving world for its own good. From now on he could appeal to a better class of audience — to the rising industrialists, free-traders, and Dissenting professionals.

So you see, nothing I'm saying is original or controversial. Moreover, none of this casts any doubt upon the empirical truths of Natural Selection. To locate the intellectual roots of a scientific theory in the political and economic context of its time... or, indeed, in the Political Economy of its time... is not necessarily to cast the slightest doubt upon its truth value (nor do I). Furthermore, a theory that arises even in the direct context of another theory need not be permanently bound to it. As Engels wrathfully wrote, defending Darwin from idiot reproaches:

However great the blunder made by Darwin in accepting the Malthusian theory so naively and uncritically, nevertheless anyone can see at the first glance that no Malthusian spectacles are required to perceive the struggle for existence in nature...

(My italics.)

Darwin delayed publishing his thesis partly because he dreaded the prospect of bolstering the radical sectors of society who might use evolution as ammunition against church and state. He was a thoroughly respectable gentleman, terrified of the mob and of radicals.

Galton pioneered eugenics, and ideas about hereditary genius or greatness.  He considered 'greatness' to be a heritable trait, advocating financial incentives to 'great' people to marry and procreate.

Spencer, often unfairly maligned as a "social-Darwinist" was actually more a pioneer of what we today would call libertarianism... which, in the hands of the ideologues of capitalism, has become an ideology of free market freedom at all costs.

Of course, all these progressive, liberal, forward-thinking, modern-minded men were pioneers of the new world that was coming to replace the old, the new world of free trade and mass capitalism.

Victorian Veneer

That's what Josiah is. He's the new man. He's the forward-thinking, liberal, progressive, modern Victorian scientist. He's the guy who wants to "restore the blighted British Empire to its former power and vigour" by doing away with the obsolete old aristocratic figurehead (the Crowned Saxe-Coburg) and replace it with himself, the ultimate self-made "man of property"... whose advancement is built on keeping the poor down and helpless, locked away in the darkness.

He manifests a seemingly sincere horror and terror of Control.  He calls her "a depraved monstrosity", "quintessence of wickdness, corruption incarnate", "a foul and base creature pitted against me".

Like the men of progress who herded workers into the new urban hell holes of industrialisation, crammed them into infested hovels so they could slave in factories, sweated their children on production lines, etc., Josiah must neutralise the reality of this oppression - to himself as much as to anyone else - by demonising the people he is oppressing.  If the person you've consigned to a dark hole is evil and threatening, then why be ashamed of cheating them of their lives, of their chance to progress and advance?

Of course, like Josiah, the men who built wealth and power on the factory system and the slum were also terrified of the people they crammed into those factories and slums.  Their ideology was that of enterprise, of ruthless competition, of the Malthusian struggle, of the rightful victory of the most effective self-seeker and self-maker... and they were only too aware that these ideas cut both ways.

Remember that Control tries to rise through social mobility. She also becomes a ruthless self-seeking dealer and eventually becomes Josiah's mirror image and even takes over from him. Fashioned by Josiah's system, educated by reading The Times, she is a product of the hierarchy she was trapped under. Control was left behind, but she became integrated into the power structure by being dominated by it. She taught herself using the imperial paper of record, learning to aspire to upward social mobility, wanting to "be a ladylike", wanting to steal Josiah's power and take his place.

The people in the dark holes could just as easily seek for themselves and ruthlessly compete.  Most avenues to escape were closed to them by poverty and prejudice and religion, or thwarted by drink and oblivion... but, lurking at the corner of the eye, there was always the escape offered by the mob, the riot, the rebellion, the revolution.

Those modern, progressive, liberal, forward thinking Josiahs were all perpetually haunted by spectral tumbrils and baskets, by the downward whooshing sounds of slanted blades. The English had achieved their bourgeois revolution without any unfortunate eruptions as in France... but they all knew how close they'd come.  They all remembered Tom Paine.  Hell, like Sir Leicester Dedlock, they all remembered Wat Tyler.  They trembled and sobbed (literally, in the case of Spencer Walpole) when the Chartists took over Hyde Park.  And, much as they resented the aristocracy and the relics of the old ways, they hated the common people more.  Even as they sympathized over poverty, they hated the idea of the poor unifying to remedy their own situation.  The memory of the guillotine was, for the respectable Victorian gentlemen, a symbol of the mob slaughtering their proper rulers.  The new men of the Victorian industrial era didn't want that kind of thing happening again, any more than did the old aristos. They wanted the poor to stay poor (maybe less poor but still poor) and the workers to stay acquiescent as they - the new men - gently ousted the old landowners and Lords and Tories from the top spot. At best, there would be some reforms and alleviation of the worst suffering... but it should come from above or not at all.

Darwin, for instance, wanted Tories to die out. He wanted slavery done away with. But he wanted these remnants replaced with the Liberal 'poor laws' and 'reform acts': measures to squash the poor still further into industrial servitude, to create a kind of charitable penal system for paupers and placate the Chartists with compromises that simply extended the property qualification for the franchise. These were the modern ideas of the modern men. Meanwhile, the people were to be protected from dangerous ideas that might chip away at the ideological power of church and state... while the modern men used these dangerous ideas as the ideology of ruthless competition, free trade and industrial exploitation.

Josiah is a great reformer. A modern, Whiggish, propertied imperialist. He is the Survey and he has taken such good stock of the world he was sent to assimilate and copy that he has become a part of it. He is Victorian England, with all his rotten hypocrisy, his callous disregard, his arrogant self-promotion. He poses as an enemy of the stuffy, out-of-touch clerical backwardness of the old order. The natural laws of evolution are turned, by him, into an ideology of ruthless self-advancement. If Darwin's scientific inquiries lead him to understand that natural selection worked as 'reproduction of the best adaptation' then the society which quickly embraced his ideas comprehended them as an ideology of 'survival of the fittest', with fittest always meaning strongest and richest and harshest. Darwin himself was not, as we've seen, averse to seeing the hierarchies of his own time and place as being buttressed by the theory he had developed. That's Josiah. He's the man who still uses evolution as apologia or acceptance of the unjust, imperial, neoliberal status quo (either in crude ways like every market raider or in superficially more sophisticated ways like the sociobiologists).

Fitter, Happier, More Productive

'Ghost Light' shows the society mirrored in the system set up by an entity that has shaped itself according to this society and its new ideology.

The commercial nature of the society that has perverted this alien experiment into a miniaturised and essentialised portrait of Victorian bourgeois society shows in the way the Doctor is offered money to be an assassin, and how he eventually has to make a "deal" with Control.

The racist nature of this society shows in the imperialist ramblings of the Rider-Haggardian lunatic Redvers... in the bigotry of Inspector Mackenzie, whose diatribe about gypsies also refers to the essential idea of social-Darwinism, that it's "in the blood".

The sexist nature of this society shows in the way Josiah is served by a houseful of women, including the wife and daughter of the man he murdered, two women that he has simply inherited or appropriated in a ruthlessly Darwinian property takeover. They are literally part of the household, they come with it like the fixtures and fittings.

And the Victorian science which runs rampant and insane within Gabriel Chase is the perfect picture of a bourgeois society... a discourse of totalising taxonomy that wanted to collect, name, label, categorize, quantify every part of nature; arranging them all on hierarchical tables that mirrored its own conception of itself as a pyramid of power, desert and worth; anatomising specimens as though itemising the components of industrial machines; explaining the functioning of living things as though constructing them anew from cogs and pistons; killing and silencing and stilling and transfixing everything natural and chaotic with the pin of authority, displaying them all under the glass of respectability; crystallising knowledge of nature into the ideology of power; reserving such knowledge into cultural capital, to be distributed by gentlemen of largesse to the extent that they thought good for the multitude.

Cleansing Fire

Meanwhile, Light is a perversion and denial of both the Christian angel and the evolutionist scientist. He is the drag factor that pulls everything back. He is the worst aspect of the science that has to disrupt and destroy in order to understand things. He stands over the dead, dismembered body of a maid and says "I wanted to see how it worked, so I dismantled it". If he's religion holding back science, he's also science taking things apart and being unable to reassemble them. Reductionism run mad.  Unable to cope with a barrage of change, flux, imagination, fiction and nonsense, he seizes up until he becomes a stone idol. A statue of an angel, or of one of the DWEMs that line the inside of the Nat Hist. Doesn't matter. He reveals their fundamental similarity. It is impossible for him to cope with reality as an immensely complex web of dialectical inter-reactions.  He can travel at the speed of thought but he can't think.

(The irony being that Natural Selection ultimately supports this - to use a risky phrase - 'dialectic of nature', at least to an extent, by revealing that all species are transitional, snapshots taken from an endless chain of change, isolatable only in theory from the relationships in which they nestle, always influencing and being influenced by their environment and their contact with each other. The little changes imperceptibly become massive alterations, thus transforming quantity into quality. The apparent opposites actually exist in unity. And so on.)

The Doctor, meanwhile, sides with the anarchy of teenage emotional and political anger. He can't be a scientist in the Josiah or Light sort of way. He loathes bus stations, with all their timetables and categories and delineated waiting areas... with their hierarchies and schedules and zones and order. He sides with those who want to blow up the Victorian edifice for what it shares with the kind of thinking that leads racists to firebomb the flats of Asian families.

(While we're on the subject, lets dispense with this notion that the line "white kids firebombed it" is an embarrassing clunker. I lived near Southall in the early-to-mid 80s. I remember, as a child, hearing discussions about what some of my fellow "white kids" were getting up to in the area often called "Little India". I remember the racism of the "white kids" in the dark blue uniforms, protecting National Front "white kids" while arresting Indian youths on the assumption that their bikes were stolen.  I was aware of the "white kid" coppers who'd killed anti-racist protesters with impunity. I found out, as an adult, about the riots and protests that were the inevitable result of such racism. So, basically, if you cringe at the line "white kids firebombed it" then I submit that you have missed the point.)

The Doctor sides with those who just want to explore the catalogue rather than fix everything into place and create a static tyranny of categories and labels and authority. That's why the story concentrates on the binaries that bleed into each other, on the transgression of categories. Ace and Gwendoline put on male clothes and it causes a hell of a stir, but it demonstrates that such fixed categories are just snapshots of evolution. And, of course, people can change because they exist in a social context rather than just a biological one. Humans self-create meaning. Meaning self-creates meaning. Dialectically.

This is what really bugs Light, I think, just as it bugs Josiah and Matthews in different ways.  Light, of course, is the apocalyptic intensification of their joint horror at the transgression of categories... particularly by those who had no part in drawing them up and making them law.  That's the deep reason for the apparently over-the-top description of Light and his Survey as "an evil older than time itself".  Light is evil in the senses that Terry Eagleton identified.  We ask in vain what his survey was supposed to achieve.  There was no purpose.  It had the "lethal purity" of pointlessness.  Light is against 'Being' because he doesn't understand that Being is all about change.  Ultimately this was always going to lead to an attempt at negation, at annihilation.  Meaningless in himself - because he does not change... or at least doesn't think that he does - Light wishes to expunge all meaning.  He's the angelic cleanser.  All information that is not him must be burned away.

As that eminent Victorian Gerard Manley Hopkins put it (quoted by Eagleton):  "Flaws, loose ends, and rough approximations are what evil cannot endure. This is one reason why it has an affinity with the bureaucratic mind. Goodness, by contrast, is in love with the dappled, unfinished nature of things."

The irony with which the Doctor defeats Light is that very "unfinished nature" of all 'Being', even his own.  Light ("Imagination, comma, lack of") cannot conceive that any information can be invented, reworked, recreated by people.  The very dialectic of change within himself is enough to ossify him from within.  He is literally out-evolved by himself.


Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Prometheus Underground

Warning: Triggers and Spoilers.  And waffle.

Sex & Monsters

In Prometheus, the Engineers are ancient Titans who created humanity... and, it is implied, seeded the galaxy with their DNA. There is something very noticeable about them: they are all men. Meanwhile, there is a definite vaginal look to a great many of the alien bio-weapons they created and which then subsumed them. However, I don't think its really possible to read the battle between Engineers and their bio-weapons as a battle of the sexes. The weapon creatures are also phallic and penetrative, as in previous iterations of the Alien universe. All the same, it's true that presenting the creators of life (in their own image) as exclusively dudes does imply that generative power resides in the male alone. It is enough for one Engineer to dissolve his DNA into the waters of a planet to kickstart the process that will lead to animal life (if that's how the opening scene is meant to be read). The Engineers are male but apparently sexless, capable of asexual reproduction. The deadly runaway bio-weapons, which seem hermaphroditic, look like the intrusion of sex into a male but sexless world. Sex is thus a terrifying eruption that destabilises a male utopia. The sexual nature of the weapons suggests that the Engineers - we might even be tempted to facetiously re-christen them the 'Mengineers' - find sexual reproduction to be inherently threatening. They set about devising weapons of mass destruction and what do they come up with? Biological goo that sets off a chain reaction of tentacle rape, fanged vaginas and violent monster pregnancy.

Foz Meadows at her blog Shattersnipe (which I heard about from Jon Blum) has made some apt observations about the film's dubious concentration upon highly impractical female underwear, grueling 'ladypain' and forced impregnation. She goes on to say:

Insofar as the alien attacks go, I’ll give Scott some credit for trope subversion: twice in the course of the film, male characters are violently orally penetrated – and, in the process, killed – by phallic alien tentacles. This is visually disturbing on a number of levels, but given the near universal establishment of tentacle rape as a thing that happens to women, I’m going to give him a big thumbs up for bucking the trend. That being said, what happens to Shaw is awful on just about every level imaginable.

And so it is.

One of the interesting things about the original Alien is that it is a man - Kane (John Hurt) - who is the victim of the facehugger rape and the violent birth of the phallic infant Alien. So, although the alien pregnancy also suggests infection, cancer, parasitism and other horrors attendant on life, there is clearly a way in which the original Alien is a personification of sexual violence. This violence is directed at both sexes and emerges through the violation of a man and a subsequent male pregnancy... however, the creature itself is also intensely male. It has that famously phallic head and yet another phallic symbol springs out of its mouth, this one complete with a snapping set of teeth. Even its tail is like a barbed cock which gropes Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) before killing her. Later on, when Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is menaced by the creature in the escape shuttle, she has stripped to her underwear. This scene is the film at its most sexploitative. In many ways, it's a textbook example of lingering over needlessly-exposed female flesh. But even in this scene it seems that a trap is being set: encouraging those who are so inclined to leer... before showing them their own reflection in the creature when it reappears, languid, slowly playing with its phallic inner jaw, dripping drool/jizz, forcing Ripley to run and hide like someone stalked by a rapist.

As a man, I want to be very careful about declaring that Alien is or is not dodgy in its depiction of sexualised violence against women. If it is, then I also think there is a distinct ambiguity about it. The sexualised, phallic vileness of the Alien itself seems to have been the intention all along. If the film wallows in the sight of a half-naked woman threatened by a monster that is, essentially, an evil penis with teeth, then it also seems aware of the queasiness of what it is doing. The very obscenity of the Alien suggests an awareness of the obscenity of sexual violence... beyond what is arguably the film's more general concern about the horror of physicality itself, with all its attendant violation, infection, pain and predation.

There is something of the same horror of sex in Prometheus. Fertility seems to be the terrible mistake that the Mengineers made, the mistake they wish to erase. They made the infertile fertile (their weapon specifically does this to Shaw) and set in motion the end of their outpost world. But note how the 'fertility nuke' the Mengineers developed actually works. With men, it gets in through the mouth. The Generic Asshole Biologist with Glasses gets done in by a kind of phallic worm with a cobra hood which penetrates his suit and then dives into his mouth. Holloway inadvertently drinks some of the goo and begins to turn into a kind of rampaging mutant (we see the final stage later when Fifield turns up again). Shaw, however, is impregnated in the regular way. She is impregnated via sex - with her husband, no less! That this is a kind of rape-by-proxy committed by David (who spikes Holloway's drink with some of the black goo) doesn't change the point. The creature inside Shaw gestates in what looks like a placental sac, complete with a umbilical cord. I'm not sure if we're meant to think the squid thing was going to exit Shaw violently via the belly... but, the undulations of the entity beneath her skin notwithstanding, there's actually no reason to think it wasn't going to be born via the vagina. So, the Mengineers' weaponized sex gets into the man via an orifice that does not play a specific biological role in sexual reproduction and turns him into a beast. It enters the woman via sex itself, gestates like a baby in the uterus and may even be born vaginally rather than bursting out. I'm almost fearful to think how this system is supposed to work. Once the infected male has become a mad monster, does he go on a rape rampage? If so, I'm glad it's left undepicted and undescribed. In any case, it looks uncomfortably as though the Mengineers specifically decided to use the female as a vector in the progress of their bio-weapons. They chose to use female fertility as a part of their attack. Sex is the weapon; the female is the delivery system.

Race & Monsters

The other thing about the intense un-sexual maleness of the Engineers is that it seems to suggest a monastic warrior brotherhood with fascist overtones.
Image / Reality.
The Engineers look like the camp, macho, pseudo-expressionistic and/or neoclassical fascist statues which decorated Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. They are utterly white, with blank eyes, as though made of marble. They represent a kind of aggressively male, body fascist ideal, with all their bulging muscles and rippling pectorals. Neoclassicism, as it was co-opted by fascism, reproduced the physiques of Michaelangelo's David and Adam as an actual physical ideal rather than as an emblem of human beauty, uniqueness and capability. Humanism became the worship of the allegedly biologically 'perfect', embodied in fascist ideology by the white, male, sexless warrior.

The Engineers tie into this in another way. They are like the giants of Norse myth as it was recycled by Wagner and then by later anti-Semites. There is something of Nazi mysticism about the story of the Engineers. They are the perfect giants from before history who supposedly founded all the life and culture of the human age, their chosen people being, of course, the Aryans. Vickers is a blonde ice maiden, which either implies the Aryan credentials of the Weyland family (if she is Weyland's biological daughter) or his fetish for the Aryan type as representing perfection (if she is an android of his design). David (interesting choice of name there) is also an image of superhuman white European 'perfection'. He dyes his hair blonde to seem even more Aryan and models himself on Peter O'Toole's portrayal of T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, a chiseled white European hero who is presented as overcoming pain and taking upon himself leadership of the Arabs. (Incidentally, this paradigm - whitey becomes the leader of the natives - recurs in popular SF. Think Paul Atreides in Dune, or Jake Sully in Avatar.)

There is yet another element of the film that ties in with this.  The concentration on language.  David studies ancient human languages, explicitly including 'Indo-European'.  His fez-wearing, English-accented holographic teacher says "...whilst this manner of articulation is attested in the Indo-European descendants as a purely paralinguistic form, it is phonemic in the ancestral form dating back 5 millenia or more....".  I'm not knowledgeable enough to know if this means anything, but it still specifically mentions Indo-European.  It is also possible that Sanskrit is explicitly mentioned or alluded to in the film.  There is some disagreement (here, for instance) most of which is well above my head.  But, in any case, David is studying Indo-European languages in an attempt to find some kind of 'root' language which will enable him to communicate with the Engineers, if they do indeed prove to be the progenitors of humanity. The implication is that the Engineers - our ancient creators or ancestors - will have bestowed language upon us. Our languages will be descended from them, just as we are... therefore, the further back into language David can go, the better his chance of finding some way of comprehending the language of the Engineers. And it works.

This is a reiteration of as aspect of the imperial ideology of Aryanism. To quote Richard Seymour in The Liberal Defence of Murder:

The Aryan idea has its origins in the heart of the British Empire. It was a result of the Company's growing control over revenue-collecting and the need to develop an understanding of the texts and languages of the colonized. Not merely a suppuration of imperialism, it became an important fact about the way the empire was organized, and eventually it was offered as the reason why the empire had come about. Essentially, it posited an Indo-European race based upon certain philological affinities between Sanskrit and the Greek and Latin languages. The thesis was that the world's populations could be divided into 'races' descended from Biblical figures - Aryan, Semitic and Tartar. The Aryan race had, it was maintained, invaded and inhabited India during the Vedic 'golden age' and formed a precocious civilization. The post-Vedic age in India had been a sustained period of degeneration: by contrast, the Aryans of Europe were in rude health. These categories not only provided an argument for empire; they also helped to cement British power with the caste system.

(Seymour's notes refer to a book called Orientalism and Race by Tony Ballantyne, which looks both illuminating and dauntingly scholarly.) Note, by the way, how Seymour refers to the East India Company as "the Company".

The concept of Aryanism later found its way into German Romantic occultism and, from thence, into Nazism. The whole idea of an Aryan 'master race' responsible for the primordial foundation of Western civilization - and just about all subsequent Western cultural achievement - is bound up with the theory that the European languages can be traced back, via commonalities with Sanskrit, etc., to a root language: Proto-Indo-European. The subsequent supposed 'degeneration' of the East as the West thrived was put down to several possible influences. In the 18th and 19th centuries, especially after upsurges of rebellion, the intellectuals of the British imperium (including the liberals, by the way) put it down to the malign influence of Islam, and this notion is a direct ancestor of modern liberal Islamophobia. In the even more delusional line of descent which culminated in Nazism, biological notions of Teutonic superiority came to the fore. The biological and culturalist variants of racism have never been as separate as some claim. And both are aspects of imperialist ideology.

Tropes & Implications

Now, this is really as old as the hills. In many respects, it is a slightly more elaborate version of the von Danikenism that has infected so much SF. There is a kind of Eurocentric paternal condescension built into von Danikenism. Ancient peoples, particularly in the Middle East, Africa and South America, are assumed to have been incapable of creating their own cultures and languages. This trope has been widely used in SF. In Doctor Who alone, it has appeared in 'Death to the Daleks', 'Pyramids of Mars', etc.

But it goes further. In Prometheus, the Engineers created all humanity and all human language from their own selves. This 'strong version' too has been utilised before, though possibly never quite so explicitly. In Quatermass and the Pit, we humans have race wars because we are the genetically engineered creatures of Martian insects who went in for ethnic cleansing.... but we don't speak a language descended from theirs, at least not explicitly.

In Prometheus it is not just ancient cultures that owe their technology, design sense, religion and language to aliens, it is all humanity - possibly all life in the galaxy. Taken literally, this obviates humanity's claim to have made its own history. The various revolutions of history - argicultural, urban, industrial - are simply developments towards greater and greater convergence with the culture of the creators. High technology becomes a telos, preset in our chromosomes. The impetus is the pattern within humanity that matches the Engineers. Human biological origins lead to human historical development from cave dwelling to space ships. Our Engineer DNA leads us to develop their language and their technology. The information in our genes makes us create the corresponding information in our culture. This is a kind of biological determinism (rampant in SF) that, through the issues mentioned above, ties the film to a view of human history which stems from the primal influence of godly progenitors who seem associated with patriarchy, imperialism and Aryanism. (By the way, it also explains the film's obsession with information. The star charts; the DNA sequences; the concentration on language and hieroglyphs; the way the two ships both project massive holographic displays that map out space, geography, cartography and architecture. The film depicts a stream of information flowing from the Engineers' genes all the way up to the humans' maps.)

To an extent then, Prometheus adapts an ideologically imperialist, patriarchal, sexist and racialist view of of human history and presents this as a truth. The truth underlying human biology and also, in a deterministic way, the history of human civilisation, is that all our information stems from a kind of Aryan master race who also speak Proto-Indo-European, represent camply fascistic ideas of physical perfection, seem like a monkish warrior brotherhood and look like an all-male group mortally threatened by any other gender but prepared to use rape as a weapon delivery system.

Yet it's hard to say that this makes the import of the text reactionary in a straightforward way. After all, the character of the Engineers seems to be genocidal, ruthless, cruel, sterile, entropic, capricious.... and they are also defeated by their own creations. Moreover, their ship is brought down by a black man and their last survivor (at least on their weapons planet) is outwitted by a woman. It doesn't look as though the film is asking us to worship them or admire them. And the film definitely expects us to be pleased when their plans are thwarted by those more sexually and racially diverse. (On a basic level, it's just nice to see a genre action movie where the black supporting character doesn't die in the second act.)

The Engineers are like the Eurocentric, patriarchal, white, imperial 'origin story' made flesh. They are the idea of the herrenvolk, literalised so that it may be rejected. Weyland's dying words imply that, as gods, they fall short. They have no answers, no meaning. Indeed, they seem to seek the eradication of meaning. They conceive of information - whether it be sexual reproduction or the mechanics of travel - as ways of erasure. They are an idea that seems inimical to other meanings. This inimical idea is then negated by the return of the meaning it tried to revoke and erase. This happens to them, so to speak, twice. They wish to eradicate the first meanings they created - life/civilisation on Earth and perhaps elsewhere - by creating new, deadly meaning in the form of weaponized sex... but this new meaning again turns upon them. (They are, by the way, quite reminiscent of Light - the white, male, authoritarian scientist/angel that wishes to eradicate meaning when it cannot be controlled and classified - in the Doctor Who story 'Ghost Light'.)

If the Engineers are white, male, imperial gods - and redolent of fascism, which is the ultimate syncresis of all these reactionary power principles - then it must be said that they hardly reflect well upon these principles. They are exterminators, stockpilers of biological weapons, purgers of meaning and information when it fails to meet their inscrutable and vindictive standards, etc.

Gardeners & Engineers

In Prometheus, just as in Christian mythology, we are banished by our creators to wander alone, even as everything that we are comes from them/Him. But Prometheus not only reiterates this mythology, it also does that other quintessential job of SF: it ponders the autonomous (alienated and fetishized) product.

It's no shock that SF continually tells stories which reiterate Genesis while also thinking about the alienation of humanity from the produce of their labour. Genesis is about the alienation of humanity from nature brought by the rise of agriculture, surplus and class. SF reiterates Genesis because it is the modern cultural genre that most directly addresses the unprecedented alienation brought by capitalism, modernity, industry and technology. Genesis is about the relationship between humanity and nature, altered by tools. SF is about the constantly changing and decaying and threatening relationship between humanity and the tools themselves as they careen out of our control.

Genesis is, as noted, hardly the first myth to tread this path. Prometheus brought fire to humanity. Fire is knowledge. Science. Technology. It is the first discovery, the first tool, the first weapon, the first product. In so doing, Prometheus dared to suggest not only that humanity should have knowledge, but also that humanity should have the ability to create. More than it destroys, fire transforms. It is the basis of chemistry. It reveals that matter may change its state, be split in various different states, when altered deliberately by humanity.

Prometheus is far from the first SF story to reiterate these matters. It treads directly in the footsteps of Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein was the 'modern Prometheus' because he revealed the next stage of what may be done with matter by human hands. Frankenstein fails because he does not take social responsibility for his creation. His 'son' is the first product-monster, the first great monster in the history of European culture that is manufactured. But it is only dangerous because it is abandoned, left without care or justice. Frankenstein's monster is the foundation of SF, which is obsessed with the autonomous product that threatens its creator, the manufactured monster. It is terrifying because it is, ultimately, our responsibility and our punishment.

We humans auto-generate. God is our attempt to infer a 'first cause' in this chain of auto-generation and to spiritually imbue it. Modernity is the rising of the productive forces to an unprecedented level, in which we may produce things of unprecedented power at unprecedented speed and in unprecedented numbers. Frankenstein the book appears at the interface of

i) our awareness of ourselves as biologically generated entities,

ii) our idea of ourselves as the creations of God, and

iii) our dawning realisation that modernity - industry, science, technology - allows us to create things more powerful than us, i.e. things more powerful than our bodies or even our gods (which are themselves our creations, after all).

Personally, we all encounter the book at this interface. This is because the book was written at the moment when European civilisation reached such an interface in history.

Humanity has always been quintessentially productive. The ability of our front two feet to leave the ground and become organs of manipulation is what drove the rise of the human brain. Humans are, above all else, the animal that makes tools. Capitalist modernity thus deeply effects our view of ourselves because it revolutionizes the way we produce. The products of modernity are - simply by virtue of their greater numbers, power and speed, if nothing else - more fetishized, more alive, more able to dominate us and run out of our control. They are more able, at least potentially, to mesh with our biology. Mary Shelley saw this potential meshing in the electrode that made the dead convict twitch and clench his fist. It is also implicit in the machine that steals labour, or which sucks the labourer into its embrace, needing to be set in motion by the workers and expressing this by encircling and towering over them. Today, the intrusion into biology becomes ever more clear. We now have cameras that can relay images directly to the brain, cloned creatures, and other wetware. And there are now more ways than ever in which the worker is towered-over and encircled by the hardware and the software.

Since Frankenstein, SF has harped on these issues. SF is a litany of robots, androids, gynoids, computer sentiences, of thinking weapons, of tools that rebel, or scientific experiments that lash back upon the experimenter. Within the settings of 'space' or 'the future' - which represent the dizzying possibilities of modernity, technology and science - the human as a producer of marvels is also a producer of nightmares than cannot be controlled. The line between the producer and the artifact is always being attacked, if only by some new technical innovation. This is the real reason why the robots attack us. This is why so many of the artifacts claim parity with humanity and demand this parity be accepted... and we're lucky if parity is all they want. Also, in SF humans seem to seek unity and merging with the machine, with its uncontrollable power. The machine seems alive; the living thing tends towards the mechanical. The boundry line between the territories is heavily disputed. Like any such border, there are wars over it.

Beyond its Freudian dimensions, Alien ponders these issues covertly.  Its ancient spacefaring aliens (the ones that created the derelict ship) seem inextricably both biology and technology, their pilot looking like an extrusion of beast and engine that has grown within a ship of bones and bulges and arterial corridors and vast hot stomachs in which parasites have laid their eggs.  The thing that is born from Kane's chest is a thing of tendons and pulleys, veins and cables, phallic symbols and skin criss-crossed with what look like the outlines of circuits.  What people often forget is that the 'Xenomorphs' live up to their assigned name.  Their shape morphs to resemble the 'other' in which they grow.  The Alien in the first film has taken on the bio-mechanical nature of the pilot on the crashed ship, and it has also taken on the humanoid size and shape of Kane.  The machine has penetrated the DNA and is now biologically heritable as a trait.  The 'Xenomorph' is the terrifying vehicle/product of this penetration.  And don't forget Ash, with his android-madness apparently triggered by resentment and frustrated sexual hatred, his injuries dripping hydraulic fluid that looks like milk or semen, his synthetic innards looking like white and blue plastic intestines.

Prometheus ponders the same issues overtly.  Just as Frankenstein displaced God by doing what God does, so the Engineers displace God by being what He is supposed to be.  But they also displace Darwinism, at least in the opinion of the biologist.  And they displace Frankenstein again because, by having created us artificially, they trivialize the achievement of Weyland in having made David.  They even displace Tyrell in Blade Runner and the crisis of simulation that his simulacra have triggered.  The simulacrum becomes nothing of the kind when the creator of the simulacra proves to be as engineered a thing as his simulation.  Deckard may have had ambiguous dreams about unicorns but Weyland knows, unambiguously, that he is as much a manufactured entity as David.  This state of having been manufactured is his new normality.  In this state of affairs, who cares that the simulacrum is indistinguishable?  The internal distinction that makes this collapse of distinctions significant has been neutralised.  Just as Natural Selection is overthrown by the revelation that all life is a product of technological engineering, so is Artificial Creation.  You can engineer life at all levels.  Creation dissipates.  The Engineers have manufactured micro-organisms and macro-organisms.  Microbes in the goo, all the way up to giant squids.  They have manufactured not only life but life-cycles.

Of course, these biological manufactoids get 'out of control'.  Creations always do in these tales.  That story goes back to Genesis and before.  Long before.  As noted, SF has continually retold these ancient stories as a way of grappling with the modern era of technological mass-production.  In Frankenstein, the process turns runaway because it is abandoned.  In The Island of Dr Moreau, the process turns runaway even though, possibly even because, it has not been abandoned.  As China Mieville puts it, Frankenstein says that we are failing the Enlightenment and Moreau says that the Enlightenment has failed.

The project of modernity is unstable, uncontrollable, dangerous because even the best efforts to control it founder on the autonomy of the product.  What we might, in political terms, characterise as Mary Shelley's 'reformist' project - drawn from her situation amidst Wollstonecraft (her dead mother, present in her life as stories and texts), Godwin (her father) and Percy Shelley (her husband) - is to nuture and care for the product so that it becomes socially responsible, an agent of justice rather than one of horror.  Frankenstein is her prescient caution of what will ensue if this is not done.  The product will annihilate us.  Mieville says that Frankenstein and Moreau mark opposite ends of the trajectory of Fabianism, mapped out in advance.  Moreau is the despairing terminus of Fabianism, written before Wells joined the Fabians.  Wells says (without knowing it) that, contra Shelley, the 'reformist' project to nurture and care for modernity is doomed to failure because the product will not be controlled, even with the best efforts.  The autonomous product - which is what industry and capital and the fetishized commodity look like in SF - is too much for us to control.

David in Prometheus is, yet again, the autonomous product.  At first, he seems tame because of his position.  He's been subject to a stringent attempt to integrate him into Weyland's Western, capitalist, patriarchal hierarchy.  Like Ash and Bishop, David is a white male.  Unlike those untrustworthy agents, he has been fashioned as an heir.  Weyland shows him preference over his daughter (if she is a biological daughter).  David is "the closest thing" Weyland has "to a son".  The daughter doesn't count.  It's like Dombey, forgetting Florence and putting "only child" on Paul's tombstone.  But still David moves beyond control.  On the contrary, he is in control of everyone else, all the way through the film.  The story happens because of David's agency and actions.  He is evidently not working for Weyland.  Little he does directly serves Weyland's interests.  When he finally does serve Weyland, he gets the old man killed.  How are we - or anyone - to know what David says to the Engineer before the Engineer kills Weyland with David's severed head?  David is unsurprised by Weyland's dying declaration.  David knew better than to expect answers from a manufacturer-god who has been attacked by his own autonomous product.

Prometheus makes the gods themselves into Engineers. Their name itself appropriates the tool, manufacture, industry, technology. It makes production into our master. We become the object of production not the subject. It expresses alienation. We do not make the engines. We are the engines. The engines we do make (David) are therefore the products of products, made because we were made to make them. Our evolution, our social and agricultural history, become products of alien engineering, made by us because we are machines designed to make them.

When we become the autonomous product (as we do in Prometheus), we become as alienated from our manufacturers as any commodity. But that isn't necessarily bad. Why should we care that something is 'out of control'? Whose control? And, as noted, in Prometheus our alien/ated manufacturers are Eurocentric gods. They are Aryan gods. Fascist myths come alive. Patriarchs and warrior elites. It is as though the problems identified in Frankenstein and Dr Moreau have finally been blamed on somebody. Should they be in control?

Is it conceivable - I ask this tentatively - that, in Prometheus, Hollywood has accidentally created a parable about the need for the alienated to revolt against the alien/ating gods of the era of technology? To reject a power that is conceptualised as the ultimate in white, male, imperialist, theocracy? To reject a power that is, furthermore, a personification of the alienation of humans from their ability to freely produce themselves, their lives, their sexuality, their language and their culture?

These are not profundities that were deliberately crafted into the script of this massively expensive bit of commercial entertainment. They are complexities, intimations and ironies that may be teased out of the text and willfully construed because the text stands as a garbled synthesis of many of the tropes of SF, a genre that has been pondering the issues of modernity for so long.

The best way of looking at it is to say that the film Prometheus itself is an autonomous product that seems to have partially and furtively escaped the control of its reactionary manufacturers.

But then, don't they all?

EDIT:  In the original version of this article, I wrongly used the term 'Caucasian' as a synonym for 'white' and/or 'European'.  I have amended this.  JG, 4/4/14