Prometheus and Post-Humans

I saw Ridley Scott’s Prometheus with my wife this afternoon. I’d been looking forward to it for awhile, simply because the motion picture industry rarely puts out any decent science fiction. Space/the future as a narrative playground has been crowded out by fantasy films, comic book super hero stories, and horror about the undead. I understand there are those don’t who want scifi to be a limited term that only regards rockets and robots, but the death of Ray Bradbury underlines the way scifi has changed. Writers like Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison wrote stories that were more than the technological fantasy of Issac Asimov or Robert Forward – they were future ethics, stories about how technology introduced changes in society that demanded new moral structures and behaviors to deal with the transformations we were/are facing.

The closest we come to this type of story is when we recycle something by Dick (one of the trailers we saw involved another adaptation/remake of Total Recall) or if someone courageous writes a paper-thin metaphor with some scifi element as a stand in for a current social issue. But this isn’t one person’s fault. Prometheus itself reinforces the truth that “you can’t please everybody so you’ve got to please yourself.” Studios and directors try way to hard to write films for a mass audience, and the films are inferior for it. Inferior is relative here; we’re talking about the difference between a good movie and a film that is good. If we subscribe to auteur theory for a second, Ridley Scott gave us a good film in 1982 with Blade Runner – which was duly nominated for two Academy Awards.  Much of the rest of his work has been to make good movies – including 2000’s Gladiator (which was nominated for 12 awards and received 5). The awards themselves reflect the culture industry’s praise for acceptable levels of mediocrity – if you make a bad movie, nobody would ever give you one. If you make a great film, no one can give you one. Great films alienate as many people as they attract. The mediocrity threshold is demonstrated by Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and it’s hopeless follower, Crazy Heart. Prometheus works very hard to be a solidly good movie, which means it had no hopes of being great.

The rest of my analysis has spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing. There were some impressive leaps in the story. The mysterious Engineers/Space Jockeys turn out to be Space Assholes, who created not only humanity, but the xenomorph (literally alien form) and its variants (the facehugger, the big facehugger, and the snakes, which may have been infected worms?). Given what we are told about them, and the behavior of the awakened Engineer, it suggests that humans were a botch job, an inferior bioweapon. But since our characters arrive on the planet and proceed to ruin everything, perhaps the apple does not fall far from the tree. If the Prometheus is supposed be stealing fire from the gods, the film (and our current state of affairs) show that we are already very much aflame. After all her friends are dead, our enlightened archeologist keeps the faith by deciding to track down the Engineers (conveniently in possession of their warship full of biological weapons).

Prometheus uses a classic Macguffin by sending Tom Hanks in bad makeup after “the meaning of life,” something that has been philosophized, preached, taught, studied, questioned, ridiculed, satired, and dismissed since the beginning of intelligence. Every text, be it a book, a film, or any media device conveys its story through a cloud of metaphors and signs. Often they pretend to be closed – but our analysis can open them. Once open, they give us multiplicities, rhizomatic opportunities to trace meanings through various clusters of signs and symbols. These clusters intersect around points which are not truth or untruth. Truth and untruth offer lines of meaning, linear roots to objective, structuralist objects. But the cloud of the text (and the planet of the movie) pretends to offer what the Prometheus searches for – meaning, relevance, answers to “ultimate questions” (42, anyone?). The archeologist spells it out: in the end all we really have is what we choose to believe. Thank you for illustrating our post-structural situation. Perhaps the mystery is more useful than the answer? No, thank you, we’d like some sort of god, because without one we’ll seek refuge in booze (drunken archeologist), spend trillions of dollars to fly across the galaxy looking (Tom Hanks), or resentfully try and kill our makers (David).

Once you get past deep conflicts which are shallowly represented by this movie (again, not a film), David really begins to shine more than any of the other characters. The parting line that “you’re just a robot” seems to invalidate all of his earlier soul searching. It also proves that after 13 years, nobody outside academia has read anything on cybernetics  such as How We Became Posthuman, or anything else by Hayles for that matter. In The Condition of Virtuality, she writes,

Virtuality is the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns. Note that the defini­tion plays off a duality-materiality on the one hand, information on the other…

The privileging of patterns of information, which order the nature of the material “constructs information as the site of mastery and control over the material world.”

One of the important sites for the construction of the information/mate­riality duality was molecular biology. In the contemporary view, the body is said to “express” information encoded in the genes. The content is provided by the genetic pattern; the body’s materiality articulates a preexisting se­mantic structure. Control resides in the pattern, which is regarded as bring­ ing the material object into being.

At the beginning of the film, we see an Engineer consume some substance atop a waterfall on earth – his biology begins to shift and he dissolves, falling into the water. We enter into microcosm perspective, seeing his genetic material dissolve, break, reformulate, and presumably mutate into the human pattern. This is confirmed later in the film thanks to the computers of the Prometheus. We aren’t privy to David’s workings, but in his decapitation, we see fluid, organic type material spill from his torso. We see the mesh of his “flesh” hang ragged about his neck, quite well designed to mimic skin.  And when a character notes he doesn’t breathe, and could survive in the toxic air without a helmet, he asks a weary question straight out of Blade Runner, “Not making you too close these days?” How close is David to a human design? Well, he can survive without his body, so there’s that.

But this pessimistic scientist treats him like most stock scifi characters would – mocking his quest for self-discovery and proceeding to act like a drunken Noah. This flippant dismissal is repeated when they wake up the Space Asshole, whose first reaction to seeing the creation of his race’s bastard children jabbering at him is to rip its head off and then beat on the other failed abortions. David is clearly a posthuman, just as the humans are post-space jockeys, (which explains all the psychotic behavior everyone seems to exhibit, from a punk-rock geologist to the percise motions of Charlize Theron, who I truly believed was a machine à la Blade Runner).

The power, as Hayles noted, now resides in the knowledge – the information and patterns which determine the materiality of a thing. Our drunken Noah notes how anyone with half a brain and some DNA can make life. His infertile partner (who he ironically impregnates with an alien) asks David what will happen when he stops being programmed – and he makes a telling remark about wanting to kill your parents.

Hayles writes that there are three subjects,

  1. The Oral Subject: Fluid, changing, situational, dispersed, conflicting.
  2. The Written Subject: Fixed, coherent, stable, self-identical, normalized, decontextualized.
  3. The Virtual Subject: Formed through dynamical interfaces with computers. When interface is keyboard and screen, space belongs to the computer, flow to the user. Body boundaries extended or disrupted through proprioceptive coherence formed in conjunction with computer interfaces. A cyborg.

All of the humans are already cyborgs, hooked up to stasis beds, fingers all over monitors, eyes seeing through screens humming with immediacy. David is just a more authentic human – maybe that’s why we the humans can’t stand him. And if the humans are more authentic Engineers, maybe that’s why they can’t stand us. As much as we want to kill our parents, they probably feel entitled to taking us out of this world if they think it was a mistake to bring us into it.

One of the last points I want to make is the way this movie really suffers from how we always kowtow to human phenomenology. This really goes beyond the film: contemporary science fiction really suffers because assume the universe sees things the way we do. We have an unavoidably anthropocentric ontology. All we care about is human sentience, and the narrow parameters we set for it. In that we share the genetic material of the Engineers suggests that we could possibly form similar conceptions of our experience, but there is absolutely no context or parameters to communicate on shared cultural knowledge. In one of the weakest elements of the film, David spends two years studying ancient languages in an attempt to anticipate communication with the Engineers, and when we get there, he seems to be able to read things well enough. Maybe he told his ancestral grandfather to piss off so that he would hurry up and satisfy the raging nihilism the drunk archeologist bestowed on him. But whatever he told him, the entire movie hinges on the continued scifi premise that life is out there somewhere, and it’s something like us. Ridley Scott takes the logical next step and figures out that they’re probably assholes.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “The Condition of Virtuality.” In The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, edited by Peter Lunenfeld, 320. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000.

7 thoughts on “Prometheus and Post-Humans

  1. Your analysis is keen. Personally you lost me a bit on some of the philosophizing with regards to AI/cybernetics, but I think I still got the gist of it. I can definitely understand where one might feel this is a poor film, but I guess I’m unsure what you’re saying. Earlier in your assessment you say, “Great films alienate as many people as they attract.” This is certainly the case for this movie as it seems to cause rifts between the viewing factions: the ‘Alien’ die-hards, those who prefer scientific pragmatism, and those desirous of hermeneutical analysis.

    I did think your final paragraph was rather interesting. You state that the movie suffers from human tendencies to explain phenonema according to our own preconceptions without regard to potential cultural differences and learning patterns. Your last sentence probably best encapsulates this same fallacy. In characterizing the Engineers as ‘assholes’, or even assuming that that is what Scott is trying to tell us (remember: we still know nothing of their society as Scott has had it envisioned), aren’t you performing the same kind of mental exercise? That conception assumes that your understanding of the film’s events is, in fact, accurate, when obviously we don’t have all of the facts when it comes to the Engineers. Even if we did, we’d be analyzing them from a complete different (and perhaps incomplete) frame of understanding.

    • It would be possible to imagine the movie a different way – when I suggest we read things as “open” texts this would be a way to do it. I read the apparence of the Engineers, the “ancient astronaut” drawings, and the lines of Idris Elba (about how this is where they made “weapons of mass destruction”) as the director/screenwriters telling us that we should understand the Engineers in human terms. The alternative would be what some call “starfish aliens” – the xenomorphs are a better example of that truly alien phenomenology.

      There is a trend in literary criticism and semiotics to examine a text within its own confines without outside references. We do this alongside intertextuality (where it’s compared to other works in the genera), but we can’t simply add or subtract from the text. The Bible is a classic example of a closed text that demands the reader not adjust the work (most hierographic works of sacred literature work this way). This is why the only way to open it is through theoretical methods, or by “hacking it” through a fan base, making it a participatory culture with lots of help from the fans (like Star Wars). Academically we can’t just make up an answer that solves the problem – as much as I want to guess that the Engineers we met are not indicative of all Engineers, the film gave me no cause to think this.

      Lastly, anthropomorphizing any sort of hypothetical alien is inevitable. We form a basis to communicate based on commonalities, frames of reference within our own language. Translation occurs because we rely on decoding metaphor and metonomy. This is how we understanding things, and it’s developed over hundreds of thousands of years in a very specific environment to the needs of a biologically specific group of entities. Given the very delicate conditions needed to create life, the chances of that life developing compatible methods of communication seems even smaller. Prometheus shows us that the Engineers are basically us, solving that problem. The xenomorphs are most definately not us. The use of greek fable to frame this story also suggests that perhaps humanity should be wiped out because the essence of what we are, our particular brand of intelligence/sentience, like the Engineers (we are made imagio dei, or in the image of our god). We should be wiped out because we “stole” that form of sentience.

      Thanks for reading, BTW!

  2. I am confused as to why you keep suggesting that Tom Hanks was in this movie. Were you referring to the Guy Pearce character?

    • I think I was commenting on the blandness of the character by referencing Tom Hanks – it felt very much like a generic, “everyday” sort of role, and I thought Guy Pearce could have done so much more. Apologies for the confusion.

  3. Some of the most disdainful condescension I have ever read. The hypertext links worked in to help the reader keep up show a special kind of passive-aggressive presupposition of ignorance, tacitly convicting the audience as the party culpable for Hollywood’s mediocrity. In a few paragraphs, nathanaelbassett has presented a thesis as to why he is better than Ridley Scott, Isaac Asimov, and anyone privileged enough to be read his opinion. nathanaelbassett makes some valid points about the forces behind the menu of so-so pictures that studios have offered over the last few cycles, but he is quite deft about being a dick in the process.

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