FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 47, November 1999

 


 

Robert E. Mitchell

Identifying Aliens

The Problem of Difference in _Alien Identities_

 


 

 

 

_Alien Identities: Exploring Differences in Film and Fiction_

Edited by Deborah Cartmell, I. Q. Hunter, Heidi Kaye and Imelda Whelehan

London: Pluto Press, 1999

ISBN: 0-7453-1405-8

197 pp.

 

_Alien Identities_ is the fourth and latest volume in Pluto's Film/Fiction series, [1] and, like the earlier volumes in that collection, it is designed to facilitate 'the developing interface between English and Media studies', [2] and the premise of the volume seems admirably suited to just such a task. Rather than restricting their focus solely to the 'traditional' sorts of aliens that appear in science fiction film and prose, the editors of the book hope to expand the notion of 'the alien' by including essays that engage many other notions of the absolutely other. The resulting collection of aliens in _Alien Identities_ is quite diverse indeed, including essays that range from alien microbes to alien locales, while at the same time including a healthy dose of traditional sci-fi aliens.

 

Unfortunately though, while many of the essays are engaging and quite readable, _Alien Identities_ as a collection fails to deliver on its promise. The basic problem is that the editors simply do not establish any sort of theoretical center or continuity that would relate all of these essays to one another. While it is true that edited collections are often characterized by a certain eclecticism -- a function of the fact that editors and authors must mediate between the demands of the collection and their own interests -- _Alien Identities_ seems a bit *too* eclectic in its choice of articles and topics. The unfortunate result of this is that the collection as a whole, rather than *exploring* differences in film and fiction, tends to *negate* all differences by simply collapsing every form of otherness into the category of 'the alien'.

 

To be fair, co-editors Kaye and Hunter do use their very brief seven-page Introduction to at least hint at some of the filiations they see between these essays. So, for example, they note that the essays have been grouped into thematic units, each of which is devoted to exploring a different sort of alien, insofar as the 'chapters in the first section consider the alien in the sense of the foreigner; those in the second look at humanity's own alien identity; and those in the final part examine ideas of hybridity in the _Alien_ film series itself' (1). Moreover, claim Kaye and Hunter, all of the essays are guided by the more-or-less historical task of exploring 'how various cultures and times have determined their own collective and individual sense of identity through external as well as internal contrast' (1). Yet even these rather abstract criteria do not prepare the reader for the extremely wide range of essays encountered in the book: from an essay on 'microbial pathogens', to an essay on various readings of the sexual relations of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, to an essay on Soviet science fiction, to an essay on nineteenth and twentieth-century treatments of the figure of the vampire, and beyond. While many of the essays are intriguing when considered individually, it quickly becomes clear that this is simply too much ground to cover well in any one text, which is another way of saying that the volume would have benefited from either a more restricted sense of 'the alien', or more restricted chronological boundaries.

 

This problem of this over-ambitious range is compounded by the fact that very few of the authors devote any attention to the question of how the particular form of otherness they engage in their essays relates to 'alien-ness'. But to be fair to the authors, the comparative format and extreme brevity of the essays themselves (most are about 15 pages, excluding footnotes) effectively precludes any sort of sophisticated discussion of notions of 'the alien' within the essays themselves. Thus the real blame for these theoretical omissions must go to Kaye and Hunter, who leave their contributors hanging through their failure to use the Introduction to support these essays with a sufficiently nuanced discussion of the various senses of the term 'alien'. Their very brief two-paragraph 'discussion' of the term 'alien' -- which more or less boils down to what even these co-editors admit is the commonplace notion that 'we define ourselves through defining an other' -- is simply not compelling enough to justify the co-existence of all these essays in the same collection.

 

The almost inevitable result of this theoretical slackness is that these essays are characterized by a loose and disappointing conflation of the notion of 'alien' with other terms such as 'the foreign', 'the strange', 'the new', 'the outsider', and so on. While these latter terms are obviously related to the notion of the 'alien', Kaye and Hunter should really make explicit (what they understand as) the connections between these terms. Are microbial pathogens, vampires, and mutated fly-humans really most usefully categorized as *aliens*? Perhaps, but the reader is given no compelling reasons for assuming that this is the case. The Introduction's failure to engage these sorts of questions results in a strange domestication of the alien, epitomized by bumper-sticker type slogans such as 'alien identity is all we have, since we are strangers to ourselves' (3) and 'the only real alien is the one we carry around inside ourselves' (7). Again, perhaps -- but where do claims such as this really get us? Given that we've heard this all before, to what *new* aspects of the process of identity formation does this collection point?

 

This conflation of terms (alien, foreigner, stranger, Other, etc.) is unfortunate, not least because it hints at what _Alien Identities_ could have accomplished by taking on the relations between these terms. The last quarter of the century has seen the emergence of a number of different, though potentially related theoretical notions that stress the role of 'the other' in the formation of identity: e.g. Said's 'Orient', which serves as imaginary ground for the identity of the Occident; Levinas's Other, which is prerequisite for the ethical self; Lacan's Other, the condition of both the Subject and ego; Kristeva's figure of the 'mother' (and more recently, 'the stranger'), both of which haunt subjective identity from within; Harraway's 'cyborg', which is both within and without identity; Lyotard's 'inhuman', which lies at the heart of the human, and so on. Some of these figures -- e.g. Lacan's Other -- have been particularly important for certain methods of film criticism, and it would be useful and satisfying to see the authors of _Alien Identities_ make some attempt to relate all of these (perhaps only marginally) different types of 'difference' to one another. While the explicit focus of _Alien Identities_ on film and fiction naturally precludes a purely theoretical relation of all these terms, the editors could nevertheless have initiated such a task, rather than implicitly condoning the continued conflation of all these terms. [3]

 

One suspects that this unwillingness to clarify notions of difference is in part a function of the historical emphasis of this collection, an emphasis that is not necessarily at odds with 'theory', but which nevertheless tends to be in practice. Yet even the historical rigor of this collection is a bit slack. Some of the individual essays are historically respectable -- Nick Freeman's discussion of the use of stock footage of foreign locales in ITC television productions is a good example -- but many of the other essays lapse into embarrassingly ahistorical claims. For example, in his discussion of 'microbial pathogens as alien invaders', Peter Hutchings suggests that he is revealing a 'species-wide crises of self-confidence' (12) -- a claim that seems a little extreme, and definitely beyond the bounds of a 20-page essay. Even Kaye and Hunter engage in a bit of pop historicizing, claiming in their Introduction that the role of 'E.T.' in the films _E.T.: The Extraterrestrial_ (Steven Spielberg, 1982) and _Independence Day_ (Roland Emmerich, 1996) serves as a register of popular attitudes toward aliens in the 1980s and the 1990s. Thus, according to them, Will Smith's claim in _Independence Day_ that he couldn't wait to 'whup E.T.'s ass' in fact says 'much about popular culture's hardening attitudes towards 'aliens' of all descriptions' (1). While this sort of claim certainly makes for a catchy Introduction, it seems a bit simplistic, and is incapable of accounting for the range of aliens encountered in 1990s films, which certainly do include the hostile aliens of _Independence Day_ (and the even more sadistic alien of _Event Horizon_), but also include the bumbling aliens of _Men in Black_, the opaque-but-Socratic ('know thyself') alien of _Sphere_, the benevolent aliens of the extremely popular film _Contact_, and so on.

 

Perhaps not surprisingly the most rewarding essays in _Alien Identities_ are those that deal with 'traditional' sci-fi notions of aliens, if simply because the authors of those essays do not have to justify that their subject is usefully thought of as engaging questions of 'the alien'. Martin Flanagan's 'The _Alien_ Series and Generic Hybridity', for example, presents a very interesting account of the history of the 'genre shifts' of the four _Alien_ films, while Karin Littau's account of the various 'Fly' texts and films in 'Adaptation, Teleportation and Mutation from Langelaan's to Cronenberg's _Fly_' is probably the most theoretically sophisticated treatment of 'otherness' in the volume.

 

Both Littau's essay (and to some extent Patricia Linton's 'Aliens, (M)others, Cyborgs: The Emerging Ideology of Hybridity') hint at the importance of modern genetics to contemporary notions of 'the alien', a topic that is probably worthy of a volume in itself. As soon as human life is defined as 'code' -- a code that happens to be 'naturally' contained in certain acids, but which presumably can be translated into other storage media (say, the binary code of a computer) -- it becomes difficult to distinguish aliens from humans at the level of ontology, since we're all 'just code'. How then can one distinguish us from them? Both Littau and Linton suggest that Cronenberg's _The Fly_ (1986) and Jeunet's _Alien: Resurrection_ (1997) quite deliberately highlight this aporia. One only wishes, though, that all the authors writing on 'traditional' sci-fi aliens had had the opportunity to read one another's essays, for despite the emergence of several common themes in this part of the book, there is really no crosstalk between the essays. [4]

 

In conclusion, _Alien Identities_ does deserve praise for its attempt to expand the notion of 'the alien' in film and fiction beyond its usual science fiction boundaries. Earlier edited collections devoted to the theme of 'the alien' have tended to restrict themselves to science fiction, and _Alien Identities_ at least hints at how one might break out of that mould. At the same time, though, the editors could themselves have taken a few hints from some of these earlier volumes on how one adequately supports one's contributing authors -- Annette Kuhn's thematic introductions in _Alien Zone _, for example, are exemplary of the sort of efforts that one expects from editors. (And, incidentally, Kuhn does a much better job of engaging the relations between film and popular culture than do the editors here.) Perhaps the best light in which to regard _Alien Identities_ is as a sort of propaedeutic for a future, more theoretically sophisticated collection that will take seriously the task of exploring difference via the notion of 'the alien'.

 

University of Washington, Seattle, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. The previous three volumes in the series (all edited by the Cartmell, Hunter, Kaye, and Whelehan) are the following: _Pulping Fictions: Consuming Culture Across the Literature/Media Divide_, _Trash Aesthetics: Popular Culture and Its Audience_, and _Sisterhoods: Feminists in Film and Fiction _.

 

2. From the series description on the unnumbered page that precedes the title page.

 

3. Another theme that receives surprisingly short shrift is that of 'alienation'. While two of the essays -- Sharon Monteith's 'America's Domestic Alien: African Americans and the Issue of Citizenship in the Jefferson/Hemings Story in Fiction and Film', and John Moore's 'Vagabond Desire: Aliens, Alienation and Human Regeneration in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's _Roadside Picnic_ and Andrey Tarkovsky's _Stalker_' -- make gestures at relating notions of 'aliens' to 'alienation', neither essay gets much beyond common-sense notions of the latter term. This is a bit disappointing, as one would have hoped that 'alienation' -- a term that is intrinsically related to questions of identity, and which has borne quite a load in nineteenth and twentieth-century critical and cultural theory -- would receive a thorough discussion in a collection that is apparently dedicated to understanding representations of 'aliens' as misrecognitions of 'internal' hopes and fears.

 

4. A particularly egregious example of this lack of crosstalk is the treatment of the trope of 'motherhood' in the closing two essays on the _Alien_ series. In 'Aliens, (M)others, Cyborgs: The Emerging Ideology of Hybridity', Linton first notes that, as in the other _Alien_ films, 'the most important characters in _Alien: Resurrection_ are females' (180) and then goes on to point out that all of the female figures in this latest _Alien_ film are at least metaphorically 'mothers'. Linton seems to understand this trope of motherhood as typified by a desire to nurture and protect, which is an interpretation that may be valid for the fourth film, but one which seems to ignore completely Martin Flanagan's brief analysis of the 'bad mother' in the first _Alien_ film. Thus, in 'The _Alien_ Series and Genetic Hybridity' -- the essay that immediately precedes Linton's -- Flanagan points out that the Company ship's computer in the first film is called 'Mother', but this is a mother that attempts to destroy her charges, and is only prevented from doing so by dint of Ripley's matricidal ingenuity. While Flanagan's analysis of the 'mother' in the first film certainly does not invalidate Linton's analysis of the same trope in the fourth film, one wishes that each of the two authors could have engaged the claims of the other.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Deborah Cartmell, I. Q. Hunter, Heidi Kaye and Imelda Whelehan, _Pulping Fictions: Consuming Culture Across the Literature/Media Divide_ (London: Pluto Press, 1996).

--- _Trash Aesthetics: Popular Culture and Its Audience_ (London: Pluto Press, 1997).

---- _Sisterhoods: Feminists in Film and Fiction _ (London: Pluto Press, 1998).

 

Annette Kuhn, _Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema_ (London: Verso, 1990).

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

Robert E. Mitchell, 'Identifying Aliens: The Problem of Difference in _Alien Identities_',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 47, November 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n47mitchell>.

 

  

 

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