Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Prometheus: the Sublime Chaogony of Xenoarchaeology?

Well, I suppose I might be expected to pass comment on the new trailer for Prometheus (which I watched a couple of days ago but have been slow to respond to). It's noteworthy how much it appears to be foregrounding xenoarchaeological themes through the discovery of pictographs and so forth.

This in turn raises a big question for me: as a science fiction film, does this mean it will break with the discourses of primitivism that have been traditionally applied to ancient religious cultures? Whereas the "official" imperial discourse has attempted to define modernity as a western project in contrast to its alleged primitive "Other", the "poetic primitivism" associated with, for example, the College  de Sociologie, drew on anthropological studies of non-western myths and "primitive" religious practices, to invoke a kind of contretemps (i.e. counter-time) to contrast with Occidental instrumental rationality.

Notwithstanding these superficial differences, the fact remains that each of these discourses were a byproduct of colonialism: remember anthropologists could only write their ethnographies by arriving on the scene after the territories in question had been conquered. I can start to move this discussion a little closer to Prometheus then by referring to the work of H.P. Lovecraft. As is well known by all hardcore Alien fans, screenwriter Dan O'Bannon explicitly drew on Lovecraftian themes. I would argue then that Lovecraft's fiction is "weird" by virtue of its  melding of these twinned discourses of primitivism into what can be described as a kind of "monstrous sublime". My hunch is confirmed by any number of studies of Lovecraft that go to considerable pains to detail his aesthetic in Kantian terms of "transcendental monstrosity". But such authors for the most part fail to provide a genealogy that can critically contextualise either Lovecraft's or their own reading strategy.  This lack of reflexivity makes them complicit with the object in question, which although irreducible to, is by the same token inseparable from, the historical emergence of the sublime as a category of aesthetic judgement that developed as an alternative to beauty in European descriptions of Indian religious iconography from the middle of the eighteenth century onward. I have been drawing on Timothy K Beal's Religion and its Monsters here, which is itself heavily indebted to Partha Mitter's study entitled Much maligned monsters: a history of European reactions to Indian art.

As Beal ruefully notes, by way of Edward J Ingebretson's Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King, the irony regarding Lovecraft is that the religion denied so forcefully by his materialism returns with equal force in his fiction, in effect making Lovecraft a "theologian without a theology". His alien races are recognisably "chaos monsters" in biblical terminology--and reminiscent of the paradoxical immanence and transcendence of God--or as Lovecraft put it, "Not in the spaces we know, but between them. They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen..." However, I hasten to add, Beal is careful to qualify this point with reference to a wide range of religious traditions, so that the reader can understand how chaogony is not exclusively characteristic of  Christianity.

Suffice to say, there is also plenty of material in Beal that could be used to challenge the author who is known as the world's leading authority on Lovecraft, namely, S.T. Joshi. I usually find reading Joshi  a frustrating experience as he is quick to make assertions about Lovecraft's materialism as somehow "disproving" Christianity. Another sticking point for me is that I've never read anything by Joshi on colonialism and non-western chaogony. If indeed he has never engaged with this topic, I suspect it would have to do with the fact that Joshi is so obsessed by writing/editing books on authors who proudly proclaimed their atheism. Mr Joshi himself is of Indian descent, but it would of course be unreasonable (and even bordering on racism) to suggest that this would necessarily make him receptive to Partha Mitter's work. Thus my only point here is that it would be interesting to have those two sitting on the same conference panel and hearing whether they would have any points of agreement about the origins and effects of the discourse of primitivism--especially in relation to Lovecraft's work. I imagine a heated discussion would quickly follow.

To sum up, if I was writing a detailed critical study of xenoarchaeology, you can take it as read that I would be using Beal et al to determine the extent to which the genre does or does not recapitulate the tropes of primitivism. Regarding Prometheus more specifically, of particular interest for me will be seeing if and how the film's "sense of wonder"--which is a defining characteristic of the sci fi genre--bears comparison with the Kantian sublime, in the context of its story of encounters with previously unknown races and possibly also their icons (i.e., art with a religious function). I obviously can't say too much though about Prometheus and primitivism on the basis of a trailer. But there's already plenty of other fascinating material out there, especially representations of "hyperspace as hell". Think the invisible entities that attack the ships in Larry Niven's Ringworld series, Event Horizon (which Warhammer fans describe as "a prequel"), and so forth. In an earlier post on Prometheus I cryptically  alluded to my ideal meld of horror and science fiction, and if you acquaint yourself with what I've mentioned here, you'll soon see where I'm coming from.

After all that, for those who still haven't seen this viral video, here is the new trailer for the film in question.

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