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