Wednesday, 12 May 2010

"Unclouded by conscience or delusions of morality...

...It's structural perfection matched only by its hostility..."

These were the android Ash's words in Alien, as he confessed his admiration for the creature that was systematically wiping out the crew of the Nostromo. In this post, I'd like to consider some of their thematic implications.

Firstly though, I have a confession of my own to make: sometimes I can be a little slow to post the various things I've seen and heard. So I don't pretend to be breaking the exclusive of Ridley Scott outlining the premise of the Alien prequel he's working on. I also take it as read that the film will be steeped in Lovecraftian lore:

"It's set in 2085, about 30 years before Sigourney [Weaver's character Ellen Ripley]. It's fundamentally about going out to find out 'Who the hell was that
Space Jockey?' The guy who was sitting in the chair in the alien vehicle — there was a giant fellow sitting in a seat on what looked to be either a piece of technology or an astronomer's chair....
[The film] is about the discussion of terraforming — taking planets and planetoids and balls of earth and trying to terraform, seed them with the possibilities of future life".

Less obviously though, I'm also interested in how the hopes invested in the film may be related to the process of rationalisation. Weber's thesis described a situation where charisma would be one of the few means available to break the "iron cage". This can tell us something then about the appeal of auteur theory, with the pantheon of "great directors" acting as circuit breakers on the model of mass serial production that is business as usual in Hollywood. Reading fan reactions and reflecting on my own expectations in light of this most recent event contributes to the sense that the Alien series is one of the most self reflexive ever made: at every level they are obsessed with the meaning of (re)production.

Other readers of Weber's work, not least Habermas, were critically aware of how attempts to manifest the surrealist project in everyday life, as per Bataille, amounted to a horror story (see The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity; but also recall Andre Breton's claim that the simplest surrealist act would be to open fire on a crowd with a pistol). Bataille so feared the utilitarian calculus that he deliberately avoided systematising his own thought, but in so doing, argues Habermas, he provided inadequate contextualisation to prevent it becoming a philosophical wildcard.

It might also be said that Alien is sympathetic to Habermas' perspective as the film makes use of surrealist H.R. Giger's designs to horrific effect to demonstrate the consequences of the surrealist project literally colonising "the lifeworld". Indeed, there is a telling scene in Alien Resurrection where the evil scientists who had attempted to breed the xenomorphs in captivity for their own purposes, find themselves fused to the wall of the hive. But they are so transfixed by the biological/aesthetic qualities of the creatures ("my beautiful butterfly") that it comes as a shock to them when their creation lumbers over to casually bite off the top of their heads. Like Ash before them, these scientists had failed to heed Habermas' words. You might call this "blowback".

If I had the means available, I'd like to write a book on critical theory called Everything I Know About Philosophy I Learnt from the Alien Films. In my version of Alien Resurrection's hive scene, I'd substitute Bataille and certain other philosophers for the scientists. Let the punishment fit the crime, you might say. Another way of putting it is in terms of thinkers committing a common category mistake and being forced to reap the consequences. For example, here is how a recent limited reading of Whitehead's work is taken to task. It could serve equally well as an admonishment by a science court of any number of scientists in the Alien series:

"Consequently, it is one thing to claim, with Shaviro, that from the purely aesthetic perspective destruction (or robbery) is justified by the degree of novelty that is released into the world, but it is quite another thing to pose this justification from the perspective of another living society that has just been robbed to become "food" for the creation of the new beautiful order. According to Whitehead himself, this is where the nature of reflective judgment becomes ethical and concerns the moral issue of creativity that must be "reactively adapted" to fit each living occasion of novelty. Even though creativity becomes "the highest notion of the ultimate generality" in Whitehead's metaphysical system, it cannot serve as a kind of categorical justification for every actual occasion of "craving for intensity", for novelty and adventure, in short, for every act of robbery. It is clear that there is a moral dimension to Whitehead's system as well, a second critique that is hidden behind the first and primary affirmation of the general notion of creativity, and I would even suggest that certain negative and critical feelings (or what Whitehead calls "negative prehensions") can also belong to the creative process in the production of new "discordant feelings." Of course, these negative prehensions need not necessarily lead to new prohibitions against beautiful feelings as in most traditional Marxian critiques, which would be tantamount to a prohibition against eating, and according to Whitehead, would result in the loss of inter-play between living societies and the environment composed of other societies, both organic and inorganic. However, it could lead to a construction of "critical aestheticism" that would be capable of both "creativity" and "critique".

Numerous lebensphilosophie style conceptions of creativity could have served equally well as illustrations of the category mistake. Hans Joas is someone who understands where Habermas was coming from, but attempts to be more thorough in bringing together creativity and critique, to avoid any limitations associated with the aforementioned "traditional Marxian critiques". There is a danger that the creative turn can amount to the same thing as the universal calculus: the only real ground for guilt is a lack of self-interest. Moral behaviour is the acquisition of a value. Certain goods have a higher value simply because others desire what you have. It matters less whether this entails imposing your will on others as long as you make it. This becomes an end in itself, another form of instrumental rationality to legitimate all perversity, strangeness and eccentricity. Again, as Ash said of the xenomorph, "I admire its purity".

This might explain why so many figures in the esoteric underground, including Nikolas Schreck in this unintentionally hilarious clip (and his offsider, here wearing a monocle for effect) for example, develop a social Darwinian philosophy (described fittingly by Anton LaVey as "basically Ayn Rand's philosophy with some ritual thrown in", while Schreck prefers to talk in terms of how "it is difficult to explain something of this majesty and glory to mortal minds"). It also speaks to why provocateurs such as GG Allin felt entitled (while naked, covered in blood, and smeared in human excrement) to stage an afterlife to his performance by inciting a mini-riot in the streets of New York City (Allin died of a heroin overdose several hours after this footage was taken).

I recommend reading Colin Campbell's piece, which I have in part drawn on here, for an intriguing take on how the discourses of decadence used to frame the horror associated with transgressive culture are informed by a serial logic, with reference to C.S. Lewis' The Bell and the Hammer. In this post I have wondered about where and how to situate the popular appeal of the Alien films with respect to the continuum Campbell describes. Does it amount to resistance or complicity?

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