Sean Cubitt is Director of the Media and Communications Program at The University of Melbourne. With Zaiudin Sardar he is the co-editor of Aliens R Us: The Other in Science Fiction Cinema (Pluto Press, 2002). As the subtitle indicates, this volume looks at various expressions of science fiction and how the genre has served as a vehicle which portrays the “other,” many times in less than flattering fashion, and in so doing, revealing the worst of Western cultures and those influenced by them. Sean shares his reflections on various aspects of this book in the following interview:
TheoFantastique: Sean, thank you for your willingness to discuss Aliens R Us. I have been a fan of science fiction since my youth, and your book provides helpful materials for reflection on it as an adult in what it tells us about ourselves and our culture. One facet of science fiction that Western consumers of the genre may not reflect on much is the type of culture and civilization it projects into space, the future, and as a representation of humanity. Your co-editor Ziauddin Sardar discusses this in the Introduction to your book with his mention of the “science” of sci fi being that of the “psyche of Western civilisation, its history, preoccupations and project of future domination..” He also notes that sci fi does not exist outside of Western civilisation. Why do you think the West has gravitated toward sci fi as a narrative structure for storytelling, and what does our lack of awareness of its Western emphasis (bias?) tell us about ourselves?
Sean Cubitt: We found in our research that this isn’t exactly the case. Japan is the obvious exception, but Hong Kong has some interesting examples, and there are films and narratives using science fiction devices scattered through Bollywood (e.g. Mr. India where the eponymous protagonist is invisible, a clear political allegory in the film) and Latin American poetic realism. But a major response we heard was “We don’t write about the future because it may never exist for us. Poverty makes you think about survival, not futures”. In the West, we have the long tradition of fantasy as well as science fiction operating as satire, in fact in many of the most famous literary examples (Orwell, Huxley, Zamyatin). What is strikingly western is the space opera, from Edgar Rice Burroughs and EE Doc Smith on down. Some of that is deeply entrenched in colonial attitudes, for example the proximity of Burroughs’ Mars books to his Tarzan cycle. My reading of Zia’s phrase is that the drive of capital in the west is towards not so much domination in the future as domination of the future: the drive to make the future subject to the present, to make it as much like the present as possible. This it shares with Stalinism: both rely on the Five year Plan to ensure that the future is not the future. These Western futures are characteristically either just like the present (Philip K Dick’s hypercapitalist Californias of the mind) or just like the past (all the empires, from Foundation to A.E. van Vogt). There’s an odd convergence between the satirical and the dominating trajectories: both use the future as a way of narrativising the present, though one does it to ensure continuation of the onward expansion of capital, and the other to undermine it, to say that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can usually see the satire, though frankly I always preferred the imaginative aspect over the political or ethical allegories, especially when I got into SF in a big way in my teens.
What we can’t see so much is the normative function of futuristic SF where the ideals carried into the future are so deeply our own – as say in the ‘new frontier’ rhetoric that was so inspiring in the Kennedy era it simply was the new frontier, and critiques that said this was a way of extending the terra nullius doctrine of a genocidally expanding US imperium over the indigenous native Americans to the future would have been at least churlish, and at worst incomprehensible.
TheoFantastique: Another interesting aspect of the Introduction was the recognition that texts like Frankenstein take “up the narrative thread where alchemists, magi and witches left off.” The book even raises the question as to “how important science actually is the genre.” Some have said that sci fiis really the stuff of fantasy and magic but with a thin veneer of technology. Why do you think, in general, that Westerners have been more comfortable with sci fi than fantasy and magic when we consider that there is very little that distinguishes the two subgenres, and that which does separate them is questionable at best?
Sean Cubitt: There is of course Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The continuum lies I think in the power of secrecy. In ancient times, we might like to think, everyone in the tribe shared in what knowledge there was, and all forms of knowledge, hunting and cooking techniques, stories of the gods, healing properties of herbs was equal. Under the regime of the temple, some of that knowledge was removed from the commons, and given special status. The Enlightenment tore open the gates but rapidly professionalised knowledge and turned it into specialism, replacing the temple priests with guilds of experts who separated their knowledge through arcane languages and rituals of initiation like university degrees. In the process we have diminished the ancient respect fro common knowledge how to make things, how to do stuff, any knowledge that can’t be expressed in the mathematical or jargon-clad language of specialisation. That’s why hunters and cooks rarely make it as heroes and heroines in SF where technocrats do. The hierarchy of knowledge is reflected in the automation of the kinds of knowledge we undervalue: cooking by ATM aboard the Enterprise!
TheoFantastique: Before we talk about a couple of sci fi staples in the form of film and television, a statement by Jan Mair in the book struck me in connection with the process of “Othering” that goes on in sci fi (and horror too). Mair states that “The pornography of spectacle reigns supreme, and we are all voyeurs now desperately seeking out images of the unthinkable and unspeakable.” I think this is certainly true in certain expressions of horror, such as so-called “torture porn,” or road-horror films. What is it about our late modern or postmodern condition and context in the West that contributes to our desire for voyeuristic spectacle?
Sean Cubitt: Jan is drawing on some critical concepts in European social theory of the last fifty years or so. Guy debord’s Society of the Spectacle argued that capital no longer circulated in the form of money (exchange value in the expert jargon of economics) but in signs: some US sociologists called them symbols, or noted a move to buying things for status rather than use. Reality, Debord went as far as to argue, is a sham: like the stage sets in some of Dick’s novels. We are all rats in a maze of adverts and logos. Jean Baudrillard picked up this theme in the 1970s and 80s. His take on pornography is that it is excessively visible. In the first instance, this means making things visible that are normally hidden like the sexual organs.
But like debord he went much further. The excess of visibility concerned making everything visible all the time, not just sex or violence but everything everyone does everywhere all the time. So the idea of seeking out the unspeakable is a way of forcing the excessive visibility, the pornography of everyday life, to reveal its limits. If we are all voyeurs, and if we all present ourselves as intimately visible, there have to be limits, or the system can’t function. That at least is the theory. But this theory is wrong. It’s based on the idea that western civilisation represses sexuality and violence. Sadly, this is the exact opposite of what’s really the case: the West has, in the entire period since the Enlightenment, devoted itself to genocide, torture and rape on a global scale, from slavery to the genocides in Latin America, Australia, NorthAmerica . . . in a process which continues today in untreated pandemics and the industrialisation of death by drugs. There’s a great SF novel waiting to be written about the connection between the US’s last remaining great industries: software, entertainment and armaments. (And just to balance that out, let’s recall that software and kalashnikovs are not that far apart either).
I’ver never really liked horror. Suspense maybe, but I’m too squeamish. And I think the reason may be that I’m the son of a doctor. My brother is a doctor too. I have the hugest respect for their profession, but no desire to enter it. The respect and the lack of training go hand in hand to produce ignorance on my part. I don’t think that’s entirely autobiographical. My belief is that fewer and fewer of us in the developed world, and perhaps especially the teenage boys who are the biggest market for horror, have any inkling what goes on under our epidermis. Women have a different experience: their bodies have been thoroughly medicalised. But ours aren’t. They are in fantasy at least entirely without orifices (whence the recurrent threat of anal penetration as demeaning and terrifying). Body horror plays on this fantasy of integrity. It shows us bodies inside out, with the wet parts on the outside. This triggers feelings of disgust and shame, feelings that can be conquered. the pleasures of horror are, I think, sociologically about conquering disgust and shame at our own bodies and their frailty. People who are closer to death, who live closer to animals, are used to killing them, who see people die at home rather than in secure, separate spaces surrounded by professionals, have no need for that management of emotion.
TheoFantastique: Let’s talk about a few specific sci fi films to draw out what they tell us about ourselves. Mair’s chapter discusses Independence Day. The film did well at the box office in 1996, but in critical reflection it presented images of America as world redeemer and stereotypical characterizations of African Americans, homosexuals, and women. How is it that we are able to Other our fear of alien invasion (extraterrestrial or terrestrial) but not recognize the Othering of our national bravado and stereotypes that reveal some of the worst aspects of the American psyche?
Sean Cubitt: I can’t really talk about the ‘we’ of North America. I lived in Montreal for four years, but French Canada is very much not America; and I spent a stint at the University of Chicago. An odd institution, packed with Nobel prize-winners, it’s situated in the heart of the South Side ghetto. You can’t help feeling that the US is an apartheid state there so talking about an American psyche seems odd to me, though from news reports and movies, etc. we non-norte americanos do have a sense of what you mean.
So let me come at it a different way: In the West today, we live in a deeply managed society. From traffic regulation to the management of crowd movements through malls and stations and airports; from statistical aggregation of behaviour to the management of supermarket stock, our societies work on probabilistic predictions that tomorrow will be pretty much the same as today – within statistical variations which themselves can be planned for. In this kind of world, action is incredibly difficult. It’s even more difficult because we are told over and over in our stories that only individuals can take action. But how can little me make an action that changes global warming? I can’t. We feel like action is impossible. In SF, action is possible, heroism, sacrifice, generosity, making a moral choice, changing the course of history.
The alien other in cinema is always a special effect (even if the effects are sometimes cheesy). In one perspective, the alien is a technological artifact of the cinema who has to be somehow brought into relation with the human part. That might simply be a matter of explaining. It might be a wonderful; marriage of the species, as in ET. Or in can come as conquering. I always thought of Independence Day as a remake of Dr. Strangelove: it is a comic pastiche of the kind of heroism we know that US presidents are absolutely incapable of. On the other hand, it might also be that like the Black presidents of the TV series 24, they point towards a future we all wish was going to come true lots of commentators say it’s because of these fictional presidents that it became possible to imagine Obama in the White House. There’s no doubt that the aliens of Independence Day are images of the colonial relation, and as Native American artist Jimmie Durham says, the Indians are always shown as the ones who do the scalping, raping and burning, when historically it was the colonisers. A film that to me is far worse ideologically and morally is Mars Attacks, where we are invited to identify with the attackers, and in my mind to identify with Columbus and the Conquistadors, to laugh at how simply we can erase the colonised other.
Alien mvies were often said to be about fears of communist invasion. I always thought they were about fears of immigration. Catholics coming and breeding all over the place. Nice quiet applicants turning into gremlins the minute they hit Manhattan. It’s odd because some of the most generous-hearted and inspiring SF is about aliens: I’m thinking here of Brin’s Uplift saga, one of my favourites. Really convincingly specific species, but with the extraordinary capacity to help one another. I’m a bit of a softy, but I like my future to have a little hope in it.
TheoFantastique: Christine Wertheim’s chapter looks at the film Star Trek: First Contact. As a Star Trek fan going back to the original series as a kid this was perhaps the most enjoyable chapter for me, and yet the most troubling in terms of the discussion of the human relationships with The Borg and with the android Data. Throughout the lifetime of the Star Trekfranchise it has claimed to present an idealized expression of future humanity that has “arrived” and moved beyond 20th and 21st century foibles. And yet Wertheim points out that in the character of Data the Other is the machine who seeks to be human, and yet in Data’s quest for humanity it is usually a quest that is only tolerated by humans when it is convenient, as in the example of Data expressing the emotion of fear generated by his emotion chip, and yet Picard suggests (commands?) he turn it off until a more convenient time. Doesn’t the Othering of Commander Data reveal, at least in part, our continuing struggle to come to grips with our interactions with technology, and in particular, issues related to the trans-human?
Sean Cubitt: Absolutely. Data is fascinating. He’s there in the same way Spock functioned in the original series: so there was someone to whom the others could explain what it is to be human. That seemed to be the central purpose of the first two ST‘s. In the best of the movies, First Contact, there’s a stunning scene when Data gets a skin graft from the Borg Queen. You could read that for weeks and still be extracting new layers of meaning and social significance, from the sexualisation of technology (and vice versa) to theories of humanity’s specifically sensual mode of cognition, and on and on. Again, the technology of cinema is driven to daring escapades to pull off the illusion, and part of the fun is that we in the audience are both convinced by the story and at the same time connoisseurs of the special effects. In one way every human actor who appears on a cinema or TV screen is a hybrid of human and technology. And of course actors don’t ‘really’ feel the emotions of their characters: they already have an emotion chip!
Then again it’s fascinating to think of Data in terms of Fanon’s analysis of the experience of being colonised; to be constantly aware that you will always be “un noir” before you are or can be anything else. Data has all the qualities of Fanon’s colonised people except their desire to rise up.
In the Cantos, Ezra Pound says something like “I don’t know how they can stand it / with a painted paradise at the end of it all / without a painted paradise at the end of it all”. SF strikes me like that. The utopias it offers are usually just pretty pictures, and we know they are, but we need those pretty pictures to hope. Hope is believing that the future will be different. Not knowing what it will be or how it will be different, just knowing it will be. Much of the time, the management of capital suggests we have no alternative except Armageddon. SF says no. That’s why I think Vivian Sobchack is right in Screening Space when she says the starfield is the science fiction image of all images, the highest, the most open to all possibilities. The satire, at its best, is razor sharp about what’s wrong with today. But what’s most inspiring is the sense not only that the future can be utterly otherwise, but that we can make it so (to coin a phrase). Without going to the descriptive lengths of an Olaf Stapledon, we can sense, in those images of deep space, the capacity of our species to be utterly different to what it is today. Transhuman themes are for the most part satirical. But in some deft moments like the skin raft sequence, we can sniff at a more indefinite and infinitely more inspiring future.
TheoFantastique: Sean, thank you again for discussing this book. I found its chapters intriguing, and they added new considerations to my reflection on science fiction.
Sean Cubitt: And thanks to you for a great site.