Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Monstrosity of Materialism: The Inverted Christology of the Alien Film Series


Horror films are dramatic instruments of fear.  In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle describes how we have reason to fear all evils which might be avoided, and yet might potentially befall us: “plainly the things we fear are terrible things, and these are, to speak without qualification, evils; for which reason people even define fear as expectation of evil.”[1]  If we fear all avoidable evils that may befall us, and take pleasure in only that which is good, then what pleasure might we find in the tragic presentation of evil?  Aristotle describes the pleasure of tragedy as catharsis, which is the purgation of negative emotions such as the fear of death: "Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude... in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.... The spectator recognizes himself and his finiteness in the face of the power of fate."[2]  Through their participation in dramatic catharsis audiences experience their fears, come to know them in the fullness of their finitude, and are satisfied in beholding them as mere objects of disinterested contemplation.  Within the constrained boundaries of fiction, what had been feared for the evil that it may cause is then tranquilly observed, in the simultaneity of its evil and its limitation, in the proud security of a hunter who has trapped his prey.  Due to this limitedness of the representation, tragedy may be said to be a representation of evil that is not genuinely evil but merely our own imagined participation in fantastic evil.   In horror films, imaginative evils are individualized to destroy ourselves and universalized to annihilate all things.[3]  This imaginative participation in evil, evinced by horror, seduces the audience with an evil that promises to become good through the cathartic purification of the dread of evil.  Horror "[f]ilms allow us to believe that we have been purified; they seduce us, but the seduction is safe.  They allow us to risk but the risk is secure, and therefore no risk at all."[4]  Through the constructed artificiality of horror films, the repulsive dread of evil becomes a seductive attraction for some good.  

In Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, Alien, the crew of the commercial salvage ship the Nostromo is directed by the company to investigate a distress signal on an uninhabited world whereupon they discover a mysterious derelict craft of extraterrestrial origin.  The cargo chamber of the wreckage contains thousands of mysterious leathery eggs.  Each egg appears to hatch a spidery-limbed "face-hugger" that envelope human faces, penetrates their oral cavities, and thereby implants an alien zygote which, after a brief period of natal gestation, violently bursts forth from within the bodies of their unwilling hosts.  The infant alien which emerges from within a human host rapidly matures into a murderous beast which indiscriminately assails, assimilates, and annihilates all advanced living organisms within its surrounding biosphere. The alien that is generated through the impregnation and sacrifice of living hosts is born from an individual death toward of the universal death of all.  The evil of the alien monster is three-fold: the face-hugger parasite impregnates its host with an alien fetus; the fetus assimilates its hosts’ essence to generate an alien according to its essential powers and morphology; and the mature alien-monster hunts and murders all life.  It is a viral parasitical contaminant upon life without any essential limit upon its potential for expansion.  Through the collective activity of the alien hive, the alien monstrosity has the overriding purpose to exponentially expand to contaminate, corrupt, and consume all life in an endless entropy of unabated self-annihilation.  Through the assimilation of the essential powers of life, the alien becomes the paradoxical instrument of self-propelled un-life; a life-form that is not living; yet 'lives' to absolutely annul all life.


The alien monster destroy assimilates the appearance of man without his essential reason.  It shares a human figure yet expresses neither pity nor remorse.  It has no visible eyes from which to emit or receive the forms of reason.[5]  We do not find our most refined ideals reflected therein, but merely the most and veracious cruelty.  In the alien, man's physiology and technology are indiscriminately conjoined.  The alien has no definite nature in and of itself but is rather essentially parasitic upon the nature of man.  The technical constructed-ness of human nature, that has been conditioned in and through modern science and industry, is altogether radicalized in an indissoluble fusion of man's naturality and artificiality.  Through this radicalization of man's essence in the alien, the violent exterior battle with the alien dramatizes the interior philosophical conflict over man's essential self-understanding, in which self-consciousness seeks to reconcile the opposed notions of necessarily inherited naturality with contingently produced artificiality, as well as the relativity of mental ideality with the absolutivity of reality.  In the alien, this conflict for human self-understanding remains an unresolved aporia, a monstrous concrete contradiction, and a living paradox which dismembers the integral coherency of life, nature and the human spirit. 

In James Cameron's 1986 sequel, Aliens, the evil of the aliens is collectively multiplied as they are shown to operate from and within insectile hives commanded by an alien queen that gestates the eggs from whence the face-hugger parasites originate.  The alien queen is the mistress of the hive, through whose matriarchal governance, the aliens are gendered as a horrific representation of the monstrous-feminine.[6]  Alien hives are organized into castes of workers, warriors and queens: queens lay the eggs, workers retrieve the living bodies of human hosts to be sacrificed to produce new aliens, and warriors kill all enemies of the hive.  The 'life-cycle' of alien un-life towards the annihilation of all life vitally depends upon the sacrificial death of a host.  Possessing the innate power to destroy all life, the alien is the enemy of life just as it is the enemy of man.  For reason of this hostile opposition, it must be thought to be something that is essentially extrinsic to the universal nature of life.  What is entirely extrinsic, other-than, and alien to life cannot be thought to be the product of life.  Rather, the radically newness of the alien might only emerge by the violent negation of nature, as a poisonous seed from beyond the known world.  Sacrifice is, for religious consciousness, the negation of the sensible entities in our possession for the propitiation and empowerment of the jealous powers beyond the sensible world. [7] "Heaven grew angry with the flesh, and blood could be appeased only by blood."[8]  Just as radically new being-in-itself may not genetically emerge from natural being-for-us, so may the self-propelling un-life of the alien not emerge in and through sensible nature.  It is rather only through the sacrifice of life that the living un-life of the alien may come into the world. 


In David Fincher's 1992 film, Alien³, the alien is smuggled by the survivors of the events of Aliens aboard an escape pod to crash-land upon on the isolated penal colony Fiorina 161, which is inhabited by only two dozen violent double-Y chromosome inmates.  Their double-Y chromosomes signify a masculinity that is monstrously folded in upon itself to double their hostility towards the monstrous-feminine of the alien.  In order to placate their criminality and in penance for their crimes, the inmates have adopted "some sort of apocalyptic millenarian, Christian fundamentalist" belief  in the imminent end of the world, along with a strictly communally enforced by a quasi-monastic rule.[9]  The meteoric arrival of the alien within their midst, leads them, in faith and ignorance, to understand the beast as an omen of the forthcoming apocalypse.  The alien is dramatically elevated in the thought of the characters to the diabolical enemy of God, goodness, and life.  Their struggle with the alien comes to be understood as an eschatological duel with the demonic embodiment of universal evil.[10]  This diabolical evil is conceived within the body of Lt. Ellen Ripley, the primary female protagonist, and the last survivor of the Nostromo.  She forlornly confesses: " I've got one [of the aliens] inside of me... I get to be the mother of the mother of the apocalypse... This thing inside me can make thousand more - It can wipe out the whole universe." A representative of the company that owns the prison colony offers her a final chance to surgically remove the alien from her body, and therewith deliver its universal evil over to another: "We want to take you home... We know what you've been through.  You've shown great courage... We want to help... We want to take the thing out of you... Let us deal with the malignancy.  We've got a surgery room set up on the rescue ship ready to go... All the potential lost, all the time, you can still have children.  We'll buy out your contract.  Everything you deserve... You owe it to us.  You owe it to yourself."  As the monstrous Madonna[11] and mother of eternal death, Lt. Ellen Ripley is confronted with a fatal dilemma between her own certain death and the potential death of all life.  She stands at the cusp of a molten foundry, in the blazing hearth of human industry, as though she knelt in the Garden of Gethsemane - now utterly desiccated by human artifice - and sacrifices herself as a final holocaust to propitiate the wrath of God and bring eternal peace to the cosmos. 


In Ridley Scott’s 2012 prequel film, Prometheus, the science-vessel Prometheus is dispatched by the company to a distant world to investigate signs of extra-terrestrial visitations to Earth which Dr. Elizabeth Shaw has found in the archaeological remains of many ancient civilizations. Posterior to the whole narrative of human history, the crew of the Prometheus discovers that the aliens have been created as genocidal weapons by an extraterrestrial race of humanoid Engineers possessing bio-technology far more sophisticated than that any technical contrivance of man: "a superior species no doubt."  The discovery of the creation of the aliens by the engineers situates human self-understanding within a hierarchy of creatures halfway between superhuman engineers and the subhuman aliens.  This hierarchy directs reason towards an ultimate genus of all genera, a set of all sets, and an unsurpassable summit of thought and being.  Man approaches this destination as a mountaineer climbing the ladder of creation from inhuman oblivion towards his final fulfillment.  The creatures haunt every step while the creator remains hidden "at a seemingly unbridgeable distance, stand[ing] inscrutably behind it all."[12]  The Engineers are established, within this hierarchy of species, as the Lovecraftian "lesser gods" and proximate creators of mankind. [13]  Like the benevolent titan Prometheus, the Engineers have stolen the fire of creation and gifted it to man by seeding the primordial Earth with human DNA prior to the earliest origins of the human race.  Sir Peter Weyland, the founder of the Weyland Corporation, recounts: "The Titan Prometheus wanted to give man equal footing with the gods. For this purpose he was cast out of Olympus. Well, my friends, the time has finally come for his return." The expedition of the eponymously named space-ship Prometheus embodies this same mythic quest to wrest forbidden knowledge from what is absolutely other-than mankind.  The events which transpire prior to human history have important consequences for the relationship between man and aliens, for the nature of man is what it is prior to human history, just as the nature of an acorn is what it is in an acorn before it grows into an oak tree.  An affliction to a mature oak tree may at best imperil its leaves, bark and branches, but a mutation to the essence of its acorn must affect every organ and member that sprouts in the growth of the mature tree.  The seeding of the Earth by the Engineers announces a wholly new relation between this alien race of supermen and man that, once discovered, transforms our collective idea of human nature, the essence of life on Earth, and the ultimate purpose of human life.  We are not today what we were yesterday: "the world has changed more in the last thirty years than it has since Jesus Christ."[14]  The discovery of the Engineers seeding of life on Earth compels an uncanny re-imagining of the innermost cornel and most intimate necessity of human nature.

The Alien film series terrifies audiences because it inverts, through contamination with the negativity of evil, the idea of the supremely personal relationship of man with the Absolute.   The Absolute is the supreme Platonic Idea (§II) of the instantaneous unity of all being, goodness, and beauty.  From within but a pin-hole of thought, it pierces through the whole manifold of intuition as a welcome jet of light, of song, and of laughter from beyond the world.  From this inhospitable summit, in which all reasoning and intuiting coincide in an identity of form and content, we must summarily traverse the whole genealogy of being and non-being, in the full tapestry of their intertwining fibers, cords and sinews, beginning with the earliest mythical ratiocinations in Uranian superabundance of being and concluding with its complete dissolution in modern Materialism.  In our space-faring future, we discover a sub-human alien contagion that attaches to a human host, assimilates the essence of man, and is birthed with the cancerous potential to destroy all life.  In the pre-historical past, the natures of man and alien have been designed by the superhuman Engineers.  The continuity and coherence of human nature is therewith doubly threatened by negation at both its original beginning and its final end: the essence of man is formally conditioned by a monstrous material artifact, just as man's future purpose is consumed by material monsters.  The beginning and end of man is thus altogether enveloped in matter and determined by the logic of Materialism.  Materialism suppresses form within matter, and then negatively individuates material atoms from one another and within themselves (§III).  The alien is the embodiment of this nascent negativity of Materialism, which is consummated within a future dominated by Scientific and Economic Materialism, and among men bitten by the paradox of Materialism (§IV).  The fruition of Materialism is the genealogy of the negativity of being, in which every idea that is thought to be is also thought in some way not to be, so that being is altogether negated, divided and annulled.  The furthermost negativity of being terminates in the nothingness of absolute non-being, so that the logic of Materialism becomes the logic of nihilism.  The horror of the alien is nothing less than the anthropological nihilism of the furthermost negation of the human nature from itself, in and through the absolute negation of its logical condition and final purpose (§V).  Mortal fear of the alien thus becomes immortal theological horror.  Through the incarnation of Materialism in the alien, the Alien Film Series presents the horrific inversion of the logic of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, which is Christology. The genuine dramatic conflict of the Alien Film Series lies in the resulting spiritual battle of opposed christologies, in which the narrative drama of horror may only be resolved in and through the theological drama of Christianity(§VI).



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[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk.III, vi
[2] Aristotle, Poetics, Part VI
[3] Sontag, Susan. Imagination of Disaster, in Against Interpretation, 1966, p.212: "[Horror films allow us to]participate in the fantasy of living one's own death and more the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself."
[4] Byars, Jackie. Symposium on Alien, Science Fiction Studies, vo. 7 (1980) p.280
[5] Cameron, James, Director's Commentary, Aliens, Alien Quadrilogy Boxset
[6] Creed, Barbara. “Alien and the Monstrous-Feminine,” Screen, Vol. 27, No. 1 (1986), also Kuhn, (ed.) Alien Zone (1990).
[7] Caillois, Roger. Man and the Sacred, University of Illinois Press, 2001 p. 28: "Through sacrifice the believer makes himself a creditor; he expects the powers that he venerates to settle the debts they have contracted on his account by granting his wishes. In doing so, they furnish the response that all unilateral acts demand, and restore the balance that a self-interested  generosity has disturbed to its profit."
[8] De Maistre, Joseph. Enlightenment on Sacrifice
[9] The setting of a monastery was preliminarily conceptualized by one-time director Vincent Ward as a neo-luddite religious community inhabiting the "wooden world" of an orbiting space colony, constructed in wood using pre-industrial techniques. This monastic theme was diluted under the direction of David Fincher. The modern dualisms of faith and reason, from within whose interstices the monster emerges, were meant to be represented in the conflict of this religious community with modern industrial civilization. See Wooden World: Vincent Ward's Alien III: http://alienseries.wordpress.com/2013/12/14/wooden-world-vincent-wards-alien-iii/
[10] Scott, Ridley, Interview with Don Shay, "Creating an Alien Ambience", in Alien: the Special Effects: “We’d always talked about and played around with the idea of the absolutes - of good and evil. And if the Alien was really … what was it? Was it the face of the Devil; was it the face of the demon? Because if you look at historical manuscripts, engravings, and pictures, from wherever they come from, whether it’s China, whether it’s Europe, whatever the nationality, there’s a kind of continuity of the idea of the demon, as there is about the dragon. So, [Alien was] like taking off the mystical aspects of it and saying it’s nothing to do with [myth]; it’s a biological fact, it’s a biological creature, and it’s been here before.”
[12] ibid.
[13] The Engineer Mythos, http://alienseries.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/the-engineer-mythos/comment-page-1/: "Though Prometheus’ title and central metaphor points towards Greek myth, it also parallels, perhaps even more strongly, the work of Lovecraft."
[14] Charles Péguy, French Poet (1873-1914)

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