Friday, August 19, 2016

Aliens, monsters, and revolution in the Dark Deleuze

Visiting assistant professor of emerging media and communication at the University of Texas at Dallas

French philosopher Gilles Deleuze is usually characterized as a thinker of positivity. Consider two of his major contributions: the rhizome as an image for the tangled connections of networks, and the molecular revolution as transform spurred by unexpected quantum drift. These concepts catapulted the popularity of his thought as the digital age seemed to reflect social forms matching each form, namely the world wide web of the Internet and the anti-globalization 'movement of movements' that lacked central coordination. Commentators marshaled his work to make sense of these developments, ultimately leading many to preach the joy of finding new connections to the material world (New Materialism), evolving the human at the bio-technical level (Post-Humanism), and searching out intensive affective encounters (Affect Studies).

In my new book Dark Deleuze, it is not my contention that such "affirmations" are incorrect. Rather, my argument is that Deleuze was ambivalent about their development, and later in life became more a critic than proponent. In updating Deleuze for the digital age, I did more than restore a critical stance – I worked out how his lost negativity could be set loose on this world by destroying it.

Here I expand on the Dark Deleuzian notion of "Death of This World," a term I introduce as an image of negativity, by rendering it here as "the alien." Instead of using well-worn digital examples, I instead explore the greatest looming question for the humanities: the Anthropocene.

Anthropos, Anthropocene, Anthropological Transformation
In a recent talk, I analyzed the discourse associated with the Anthropocene, the scientific fact that recent human development has provoked ecological changes deep enough to be recorded at the level of geological periods. I ended with three mythological figures that illustrate possible responses to the Anthropocene: Gaia, Prometheus, and Medea.

Gaia is a personification of the natural world living in perfect harmony. Hers is a story of unity, cooperation, and reciprocity. Isabelle Stengers's Gaia inverts the image of a fragile earth exploited by the predatory machinations of humanity. This Gaia intrudes to remind us that it is our way of life that is out of balance, not hers. The consequence is clear: fundamental change is inevitable in the Anthropocene, but it will be an anthropological transformation and not a modification to the building blocks of life.

Prometheus: Or, The Monstrous
The tale of Prometheus is about forbidden technology. The most popular tale of Prometheus is that of Doctor Frankenstein's monster. This is obvious enough from the subtitle Mary Shelley gave it: "The Modern Prometheus." Commentators continue to debate the conclusions readers should draw from her characterization of modern science as a monster. A mistake? Is humanity just not prepared? Must human misunderstanding be overcome?

One answer is given by David Cronenberg in his 1986 remake of The Fly. The film depicts Doctor Seth Brundle, who becomes a "fusion of Brundle and fly at the molecular-genetic level" after a scientific accident. The Fly is a literal realization of the "molecular revolution" laid out by Gilles Deleuze and FĂ©lix Guattari that describes political transformation at the micropolitical level. Brundle's own molecular transformation occurs through an "admixture" that adds fly as a minor ingredient to the human. He develops strange physical capacities that replace the normal abilities of a human: he grows hyperactive, gains extra-human strength, walks on walls, eats by vomiting digestive juices, and sprouts extra appendages. Ultimately, Brundle loses his mouth, and with it, the capacity for language that Aristotle says makes us human. Almost immediately, he sheds his human skin to reveal himself as a horrifying six-foot bipedal fly. This final form offers the definitive version of the monstrous: the molecular transformation of the familiar into the abject.

Medea: Or, the Alien
The myth of Medea is an account of domestic revenge. Medea's revenge marks her as a barbarian, the name given to those who blabber in a foreign tongue and whose incivility exceeds local norms. As dramatized by Seneca, in the penultimate moment, Medea mounts a chariot yoked to dragons, and as she flies away, her spurned husband declares that "there are no gods" wherever she rides.

A recent depiction of the alien is Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special (2016). It opens with an 8-year old boy on the run. He inadvertently causes intense seismic activity as if the very fabric of the world was unraveling. "They think you're a weapon," an NSA analyst tells him, "and the ranch thinks you're their savior." "I'm not any of those things," the boy responds, "I belong in another world. There are people there – they watch us. They've been watching us for a very long time. I need to go where I belong." At the climax of the film, we are briefly shown that other world.

Medea and Midnight Special thus exemplify the alien as perceptible but unintelligible. Such impenetrability is crucial for distinguishing the monstrous from the alien. Ridley Scott's "aliens" are knowable monsters because they are amalgams of known animal traits. Testifying to this fact, most "alien" films are really just extra terrestrial monster movies that resolve when humans cleverly decode the monster's animal makeup (Aliens, Predator, Independence Day, Starship Troopers, Pitch Black, Signs). Adding a dystopian spin, District 9 shows how even unknowable space monster strangeness can be entrapped as form of molecular exploitation. The exception that proves the rule is John Carpenter's The Thing, in which the alien monster lacks a distinct form, rendering it unrecognizable, only avoidable.

Why distinguish between the monstrous and the alien? For Dark Deleuze, because they offer distinct images of revolution: one joyous, one dark. The monstrous depicts revolution as molecular drift while the alien illustrates revolution as otherworldly. This molecular is an organization model explored by "quantum theorists" and New Materialists to replace a single punctual event with many tiny revolutions – although those moments may swell into a sweeping society-wide upheaval. In contrast, the alien revolution is the focus of Dark Deleuze, in which I offer a series of terms in contrast to those made familiar by molecular Deleuzians: asymmetry, conspiratorial communism, cruelty, interruption, and the power of the false, to name a few. If the molecular occurs from the inside-out, where the familiar becomes strange, then the alien occurs from the outside-in, with the intrusion of something so unsettling that it forces us to find a fresh orientation. The alien revolution begins by heeding the call of the outside and ends the Anthropocene with "the death of this world."


Andrew Culp is visiting assistant professor of emerging media and communication at the University of Texas at Dallas and author of the new book Dark Deleuze. He would like to thank Eva Della Lana, Alejandro de Acosta, and Alex Galloway for their helpful feedback.

Forerunners: Ideas First is a thought-in-process series of breakthrough digital publications. Written between fresh ideas and finished books, Forerunners draws on scholarly work initiated in notable blogs, social media, conference plenaries, journal articles, and the synergy of academic exchange. This is gray literature publishing: where intense thinking, change, and speculation take place in scholarship.

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