Recently, walking along the Berlin Wall near the Oberbaumbrücke: there, at the opening of the bridge, you saw the enormous O2 World arena. I was there at night; it looked like a spaceship. Speaking of spaceships, I watched Prometheus recently with my husband and brother (I feel I should preface everything I’m about to say by adding that I’ve never seen any of the films in the Alien series, and so can’t comment on how Prometheus relates to the original Alien or the rest of the franchise universe), which reminded me that the spaceship is a military-industrial (and so imperial-colonial) apparatus. I was thinking about that scene when Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw admonishes another crew member, bearing a massive firearm, just before they are about to step onto the alien moon they’ll later discover is a military base–that they won’t need weapons. “This is a scientific exploration.” Wince in anticipation: here is the seed of the revelation waiting for her at the end of the film, revelation as horror (“discovery” as horror, truth as horror, knowledge as horror, utopia is hell, they’re not what we thought they’d be like, it isn’t what we thought it would be like, the Others in the Other world). “Not a map but an invitation,” colonial presumptuousness; “scientific exploration” and the logic of progress bulwarked by Christian ideology, concealing (then revealing) the inherent violence and foolish destructive arrogance of the scientific/anthropological/global-corporate endeavor. Corrosive infectious alien disease; syphillis in blankets. Contact is contagion, death. We can’t know each other, we can only kill each other. Subjugate or be subjugated. Also, white men who want to live forever (ruling elite desperate to retain their power), destroy everything, even after they themselves are destroyed.
Though there are exceptions. They called the ship (the film) Prometheus, but I kept thinking that it should be called La Niña, as in Pinta and Santa Maria and Columbus, and (SPOILER ALERT) after Shaw’s ultimate survival as Final (Holy) Girl. The last people who survive are named David and Elizabeth; not David and Goliath (they already killed their Goliath–the original Goliath was Palestinian, remember); but David and Elizabeth. Two royal names. And Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, (thanks, Catholic upbringing that won’t ever go away; actually, from kindergarten until fifth grade, my school was called St. John the Baptist Catholic School) who was barren first. And Elizabeth Shaw in the film, who was barren, but then aborts her implanted alien fetus (she tries to call it a caesarian but the operating table is only meant for cisgendered male bodies, she has to manually enter the procedure as “removal of foreign object”; the apparatus–medical, state, corporate–is literally not equipped for what she needs to do; and even then, the abortion is maybe even only sanctioned in the film because it comes after a rape, the fetus is implanted against her will and even knowledge; still, is this the only American movie where I’ve ever been able to hear a woman saying, with absolutely no regrets or qualms–GET IT OUT GET IT OUT–hear a woman declare that she does not want a baby in her, and do what she needs to do to terminate the pregnancy.)
Shaw as the female believer who is also messianic–or, no, no, not messianic, but apostolic and disciplic all in one. Apostolic: the one who is sent away, the messenger, the one who goes to give the (bad) News to humans (how she runs back to tell the ship Prometheus that the aliens are going to destroy earth, they have to pull a suicide mission to save the world, turns out everyone’s a Christ, but mostly dudes, mostly dudes of color, still means they’re killing them off, though, right, but I guess nearly everyone dies, so). Disciplic: the one who goes forth to learn, the one who chooses not to go back home after it’s all gone to shit, as David offers, but instead to go further out, to the true alien planet, not merely the alien satellite moon, to find out more about why what happened, happened.
I couldn’t decide–wasn’t supposed to be able to decide–whether this was a case of reinforcing the same religious colonial mission, i.e., a woman may be the last survivor but she’s still on the side of knowledge-as-domination; or a case of: traumatized and bad-ass, vaguely otherized woman (interesting how the flashbacks show her child self as speaking with an English accent, but, sorry Noomi Rapace, you have a lovely voice, that said, your accent was not even close to RP English, such that it must have been on purpose; wondering as I was watching, is this a form of decolonization, how does someone become de-Englished, also wasn’t her father a kind of neo-colonialist, don’t remember exactly? an aid worker? died of the Ebola virus, right?), alone with her decapitated android frenemy David.
David, who himself throughout the film practices a kind of imperial-drag-through-cinephilia, combing his hair like Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, but this drag is multidirectional, as David is actually a corporate-imperial product (subject), the narcissistic mirror of the white imperialist-CEO, played out upon and in a manufactured, colonized, subordinate body. If we think the cyborg body as techno-human hybrid and metaphor for raced gendered bodies, how do we think the android commodity body, especially David’s blond Aryan android commodity (David8, it should be noted; meaning there have been others, even if we’re perhaps not yet at the stage of mass production)?
From Jasbir Puar’s “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess: Intersectionality, Assemblage and Affective Politics”:
There are thus numerous ways to define what assemblages are, but I am here more interested in what assemblages do. For my purposes, assemblages are interesting because A. They de-privilege the human body as a discrete organic thing. As Haraway notes, the body does not end at the skin. We leave traces of our DNA everywhere we go, we live with other bodies within us, microbes and bacteria, we are enmeshed in forces, affects, energies, we are composites of information. B. Assemblages do not privilege bodies as human, nor as residing within a human/animal binary. Along with a de-exceptionalizing of human bodies, multiple forms of matter can be bodies—bodies of water, cities, institutions, and so on. Matter is an actor. Following Karen Barad on her theory of performative metaphysics, matter is not a ‘thing’ but a doing. In particular, Barad challenges dominant notions of performativity that operate through an implicit distinction between signification and that which is signified, stating that matter does not only materialize through signification alone. Writes Barad:
“A performative understanding of discursive practices challenges the representationalist belief in the power of words to represent preexisting things. Performativity, properly construed, is not an invitation to turn everything (including material bodies) into words; on the contrary, performativity is precisely a contestation of the excessive power granted to language to determine what is real. Hence, in ironic contrast to the monism that takes language to be the stuff of reality, performativity is actually a contestation of the unexamined habits of mind that grant language and other forms of representation more power in determining our ontologies than they deserve.” (Barad, 802)
David is-and-does both an assemblage, de-exceptionalizing the human-organic, as well as is-and-does a constant performance of the human-organic–the comment he makes to Holloway, after the latter points out his human appearance, clarifying that he has a human body solely for the comfort of humans, because humans prefer to interact with beings that look like themselves. More than assemblage, he is-and-does an agencement, as Puar points out that agencement, not assemblage, is the word Deleuze and Guattari use in the original French: “a term which means design, layout, organization, arrangement, and relations,” from agencer, “to arrange, to lay out, to piece together.” (Also, agentivité, agency.)
Agencement: the way we open unto David maintaining the ship, maintaining his body (as part of the ship’s apparatus), checking on the sleeping passengers, observing (in Elizabeth’s case, at least), their dreams, gradually acquiring the necessary knowledge for their expedition. The word also has martial-organizational associations, to also mean marshalling; no coincidence then, that Deleuze and Guattari’s Nomadology: The War Machine contains a passionage that could very well be a description of David, his behavior and his character, as well as a description of the becoming that the android activates and is (is-and-does):
As for the war machine in itself, it seems to be irreducible to the State apparatus, to be outside its sovereignty and prior to its law: it comes from elsewhere. Indra, the Warrior God, is in opposition to Varuna no less than Mitra. He can no more be reduced to one or the other than he can constitute a third of their kind. Rather, he is like a pure and immeasurable multiplicity, the pack, an irruption of the ephemeral and the power of metamorphosis. He unties the bond just as he betrays the pact. He brings a furor to bear against sovereignty, a celerity against gravity, secrecy against the public, a power (puissance) against sovereignty, a machine against the apparatus. He bears witness to another kind of justice, one of incomprehensible cruelty at times, but at others of unequaled pity as well (because he unties bonds…) He bears witness, above all, to other relations with women, with animals, because he sees all things in relations of becoming, rather than implementing binary distributions between “states”: a veritable becoming-animal of the warrior, a becoming-woman, which lies outside dualities of terms as well as correspondences between relations.
For while David makes himself look like Peter O’Toole’s blond T.E. Lawrence, the words David first quotes in the movie actually come from Prince Faisal’s defiant anti-imperialist sneer to Lawrence:
I think you are another of these desert-loving English. Doughty, Stanhope, Gordon of Khartoum. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. [Edited to add: I believe it is here that the quote stops in the film, but the next lines are the complete citation.] Or is it that you think we are something you can play with because we are a little people? A silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel? What do you know, lieutenant? In the Arab city of Cordova, there were two miles of public lighting in the streets when London was a village.
David’s acerbic, clenched-jaw, faux-courteous responses to various episodes of condescension from the crew members, particularly Holloway, are reminiscent of the nature of colonial power relations: the ruling power upholds the social and psychic subordination of the colonial subjects by repeatedly emphasizing their lack of a real, valid (determined by them, of course) humanity. The speed and breadth and depth with which David learns anything, understands anything, adapts to everything–no matter. You’re still an android, after all. Even at the end of the film, explaining why she wants to continue searching for the truth, Elizabeth tells David: “Because I deserve to know the truth. You would never understand. You’re a robot.” It reminded me of that recording of a Metropolitan police officer that came out here in the UK a couple months ago, a police officer, who had boasted of strangling the young black man who made this recording, saying: “The problem with you is, you will always be a n—er.”
In The Melancholy Android: On the Psychology of Sacred Machines, Eric G. Wilson writes a description of the android that could very well be read as description of the colonial subject–condescended to, racialized and sexualized body policed and remade and fetishized, subjectivity erased or ignored or reimagined, ventriloquized:
In unveiling our hidden fixations on mechanical doubles, these humanlike contraptions manifest our more general vexation in relation to all machines: our entrapment between loving efficient pistons and loathing aloof metal. Since the industrial revolution of the romantic age, this double bind has been especially troublous. Now, in an age that has pushed the industrial threat to human sovereignty to the digital threat to human identity, this bind is more pronounced than ever. We love what undoes us; we hate our essential familiar. To study the android is to get to the core of this classic case of sleeping with the enemy…
The psychology of the android, like that of the puppet, oscillates between miracle and monster. The humanoid machine is vehicle of integration and cause of alienation, holy artifice and horrendous contraption. The android is fully sacred, sacer: consecrated and accursed. It is a register of what humans most fear and desire, what they hate in life and what they love in death.
Homo sacer, andros sacer, when will I be loved? What does David say to the Engineer, before the Engineer snaps his neck and rips his head off? That crucial scene, in which David becomes colonial translator-medium, between the human imperial system and the alien system. A translator is always a suspect body; the proverb of Traduttore, tradittore, translator and traitor, omnis traductor traditor, every translator is a traitor. Like: people who slip between two or more cultures, two or more worlds, people who are multiple, people who have multiple allegiances (affections), minoritized people everywhere, colonial and transnational people everywhere. Everyone wonders: whose side is he really on? It is not difficult to imagine here that David reveals himself to in fact be a traitor, a saboteur; that he has somehow orchestrated the failure of this exploratory mission and the mutual destruction of two military-industrial sovereignties, as well as ensured the death of his power-hungry corporate-colonial master (Weyland).
Weyland and Elizabeth desperately order David to translate their own questions to the remaining Engineer, but who knows if David actually follows those orders, or if he finds a way to circumvent them, and his “directive”? We can speculate on the possibilities of sabotage inherent in every step David makes throughout the film. David, who smuggles the alien element into the highly protected military-corporate environment of the ship (amusing moment at the beginning of the film, when the crew members have landed and are listlessly queueing in line for their first breakfast–it looks like every shitty soulless breakfast in every shitty soulless chain-brand business hotel canteen in the world), and then into Holloway’s body.
David, with his Jeeves-esque alacrity (Nomadology: “celerity against gravity”) and moments of deadpan sharpness passing for humor. Moments which both disrupt the action-suspense rhythm of the film, as well as deepen and darken it; the comic relief David provides is always only an uneasy one–a relief that isn’t quite relief at all, a laughter that’s at all times waiting for the other shoe to drop. David, who is secretive, inscrutable; the crew members wonder, the audience wonders, what are his true motivations? From Lawrence of Arabia (“a film I like,” David says only):
Murray: If you’re insubordinate with me, Lawrence, I shall have you put under arrest.
Lawrence: It’s my manner, sir.
Murray: Your what?
Lawrence: My manner, sir; it looks insubordinate but it isn’t, really.
Murray: You know, I can’t make out whether you’re bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted.
Lawrence: I have the same problem, sir.
Nomadology: “secrecy against the public, a power (puissance) against sovereignty, a machine against the apparatus. He bears witness to another kind of justice”–and what is the justice that David bears witness to, and brings about?
A machine against the apparatus. “Big things have small beginnings,” David says, and it sounds both like a realization and a call. An incitement.
I think there is also a comparison to be made here, too, between David and Captain Janek, played by Idris Elba. Janek’s pragmatism, his lived-in clothes, his race, his accent (somewhere between the American South and Hackney), his embodiment, his sexuality, his noble going-down-with-the-ship-to save-the-world death. The conversation he has with Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), their flirting, the moment when he asks if she’s a robot, and she responds by telling him to come to her room in ten minutes (implying that the sexual act will prove whether or not she is truly “human” or not). Janek’s basically good humanity is never questioned. I wondered if this was another case of “people of color as containers of good old homespun wisdom and goodness, to be dispensed to the grateful white people who still dominate them, but a little more nicely in recent years, sort of.”
The name Janek also being a version of John, as in St. John the Baptist, Elizabeth’s son. Janek the prophet: Janek is the one who realizes and tells the crew members that what they’ve landed on isn’t a planet or a moon but a military base, the one who figures out the nuclear-level biological threat that the Engineers meant to contain on this moon and obviously failed to contain. It’s Janek who plays the squeezebox and references Stephen Stills and sings “Love the One You’re With.” Janek who has the nostalgic materiality that’s often also ascribed to minoritized characters, especially characters of color; their visceral bodiliness, their attachment to the past, their practicality–how many films have the white main character accessorized with a street-smart black friend who informs them about the real ways of the world. In films when people of color are not evil or hyper-sexualized, then they are often comfortingly and refreshingly “down to earth.” And Janek is literally the most “down to earth” character in the film; his reluctance throughout the film to leave the ship is a reluctance to leave the Earth-zone.
What I wonder about is this: if David really can be read as an anti-colonial and anti-corporate saboteur, why does this progressive message, this transgressive messenger, still have to wear the most Aryan body imaginable? I’m aware that casting an actor of color as the android character would have made the slippages that David animates, between subordinate-saboteur, product-producer, and particularly colonial-colonized, perhaps more difficult to represent. (Though not necessarily; you can have Idris Elba imitating Peter O’Toole, why not? I would have watched the hell out of that, actually, can you imagine how fucked up and interesting that would be, the commentaries you could make on the reversal of racial drag, etc.) What I’m trying to say is that it is still impossible for mainstream Hollywood film to imagine a person of color in a role as potentially complex and subversive as David’s. A character of color who could be plotting to destroy the imperial-corporate complex he was created within, and is forced to work for? That would be too radical. Which is to say, that would be too real.
Idris Elba once said himself, “Imagine a film such as Inception with an entire cast of black people – do you think it would be successful? Would people watch it? But no one questions the fact that everyone’s white. That’s what we have to change.”
Towards the beginning of the film, David is seen rehearsing a scene from Lawrence of Arabia in which T.E. Lawrence puts out a match with his fingers. Another man tries it.
William Potter: Ooh! It damn well ‘urts!
T.E. Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.
Officer: What’s the trick then?
T.E. Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.
David repeats this last line over and over. Its estranging quality has an intended comic effect, the audience laughs. The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts. The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts. When David gets his head ripped off, the trick is not minding that it hurts. What does it take, to snuff out a fucked-up, imperial military-industrial system? Does it take your head? You don’t feel it anyway, right? You’re a body that doesn’t feel, or that’s what they assume. And if you by chance do feel the pain–the trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.
The trick is not minding that it hurts; but no, that’s not the trick, the first trick, the real trick, the trick that’s not a trick at all but the truth: is that it hurts. “Certainly it hurts.” You admit first that it hurts. You admit that you hurt. You admit that there are things you’re hurting over, things that hurt you, things that hurt you to do, to live, to tolerate. Not minding that it hurts is the strategy, and it can be used by both sides. The deadening of empathy that makes systematic domination and violence possible; the weary desensitizing that can occur after long and deep resistance struggles. Not minding that it hurts, that’s a learned response. And in any case, how do you “mind” something when you’re assumed not to have a mind? Not minding that it hurts is supposed to be easy for David.
The truth, the truth that’s not a trick, is that it does hurt. The words we say when we’re about to do something grim and vital and difficult that nevertheless needs to be done (acts of revolt, for example), the words you say when you’re about to hit the ground, when shit’s about to hit the fan, when the (colonial) repressed returns, when Janek cheerfully tells his two remaining crew members, just before the Prometheus is going to crash into the Engineer ship and they’re about to die burning: “Hands up!” (the trick is not minding that it hurts…), when Elizabeth is waiting for the surgery-casket to cut her abdomen open and extract her alien fetus (not minding that it hurts…), when after the procedure she is constantly stabbing herself with painkillers to numb the pain, although at one point she cannot avoid zipping her super-skintight suit up over her fresh wound and she nearly screams from it (minding that it hurts…), visceral words, words beyond minding it and perhaps even beyond the mind, people say pain is all in the mind, but the thing is, pain is in everything, and I don’t think the Prometheus of myth was able to comfort himself with the knowledge that pain was in the mind while the eagle fed on his liver, because the real quality of pain is: wherever pain is, there pain is; the words you say when you know it’s over (it hurts…), when you know it’s only just begun: This is gonna hurt.
Also, here’s some boring talk: Prometheus, Titans, Frankenstein’s monster, we created a monster, no, the monster created us, we’re the ones the monster wants to destroy, etc., etc., okay, I’m starting to feel like an idiot. Plus I don’t really feel the need to get into all the cock and vagina dentata talk that’s going to come with watching this film. Then again I do have some things to say about it, though; like the anti-colonial rape revenge logic–rape of anthropological exploration–to the way the genitalmonsters attack the arrogant white males in the film (with their exploration-as-domination/subjugation-including-sexual-subjugation attitudes; the way that one guy who gets attacked first was calling that snake thing “hey baby” and placatingly cooing that “she” was so pretty, the way you catcall a woman; by the way, I remembered the artist I was talking about at the end of that recent post on love and sex and racism in Berlin, it wasn’t Carolee Schneemann who took pictures of men who catcalled her, but Laurie Anderson) by literally feeding their phallocracy right back at them, choking them with it…
Okay, I started talking about it in spite of myself, ugh, what did Kafka write about Prometheus? “Everyone grew weary of the meaningless affair. The gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wound closed wearily. There remained the inexplicable mass of rock. The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable.”
Back to looking at the O2 arena in Berlin. The multinational corporate spaceship it is, the universe it is (O2 World), the stage of evolution it represents: from one totalitarian state to another, commodification of every aspect of social existence, transition complete. The wall having been opened up, now opens up on this immense temple to capitalist spectacle. Advertisements play on a screen high in the sky. In the sky, in the air, in der himmel über Berlin, after Wim Wenders. Only instead of the angels who gaze upon us, we have Madonna and Lady Gaga to look up to (2:06). Before, the terrible angels loved us enough to reject their own immortality, to question and then repudiate the hierarchy that had produced them and that their existence continued producing. They came down so we could live together, love together, die together. Be in the world together. Then, they (we) believed in solidarity. But in this new World, the terrible angels don’t ever come down. They want us to keep looking up. Force us to keep looking up.
A coda for Prometheus. In my world, this would have played over the credits:
YOU CAN’T HIDE FROM THE TRUTH / BECAUSE THE TRUTH IS ALL THERE IS
Edited to add: egregious oversight on my part, the best soundtrack for a potential slave android insurrection with anti-colonial, racialized, gendered, queered, overtones is obviously Janelle Monáe:
PLASTIC SWEAT, METAL SKIN
METALLIC TEARS, MANNEQUIN
CAREFREE, NIGHT CLUB
CLOSET DRUNK, BATHTUB
WHITE HOUSE, JIM CROW
DIRTY LIES, MY REGARDS
I’M AN ALIEN FROM OUTERSPACE
I’M A CYBERGIRL WITHOUT A FACE A HEART OR A MIND
(A PRODUCT OF THE MAN, I’M A PRODUCT OF THE MAN)
SEE SEE SEE SEE
I’M A SLAVE GIRL WITHOUT A RACE (WITHOUT A RACE)
Edited to add (June 25, 2012): found via wretchedoftheearth and iwakeupblack, from Reagan Charles Cook:
It never occurred to me to browse through the credits of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien, to find out who was underneath the monstrous black mask.
The man was Bolanji Badejo, a 7ft tall Nigerian design student picked up from a bar in West London to fill the title role. He worked on the film for 4 months. Spending every day wrapped in a suffocating custom fitted rubber suit, working to exude a presence of pure evil.
Despite his incredible contribution to the film’s success Badejo never received any publicity for his involvement. Ultimately, it would be his only film role.
5 thoughts on “On Prometheus, Berlin’s O2 arena, Wings of Desire, androids, assemblages, agencements, corporate-imperial subjects and rebels, translator-traitors, and pain.”
David didn’t register with me as an anti-colonial saboteur, at least not completely—I think he falls too neatly into genre filmmaking’s stable of vaguely feminine, vaguely European schemers for that. And yet I wonder if the casting of a person of color would have effectively foregrounded his anti-colonial qualities or provoked a different sort of distraction; he’s also an Other with possible designs on Shaw’s white womanhood.
Side note: the recently concluded season five of Mad Men, of all places, nodded to the potential for exploring master-slave dynamics and telling insurrection stories implicit in sci-fi about robots, as well as the complications inherent in telling compelling (or in the case of character Paul Kinsey, even competent) sci-fi stories about race and power – and without any of the bombast of Scott’s film.
Hi Greg, thanks for your comment. I don’t think David “falls neatly into genre filmmaking’s stable of vaguely feminine, vaguely European schemers,” if only because the film practically bludgeons you with his affection for and performance of Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, a very specifically English-colonial military figure with conflicting loyalties. Not vaguely European. The other influences on David were apparently David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Dirk Bogarde in The Servant, both English actors playing characters with English accents, Bowie’s effeminate alien still speaking fairly RP English, Bogarde’s servant’s working-class Manchester accent.
I do understand that “vaguely feminine” and “vaguely European” are often interchangeable in many viewers’ eyes, especially when those gendered and racialized assumptions are determined by the codes of martial-rational American masculinity and the way those codes are variously embodied by Holloway, Janek, Milburn, Chance, Ravel, who do make a sharp contrast to David–with his RP English, his deference. However, I wonder if you find him “vaguely feminine” if only because he’s in a subordinate position? Or because of his closer relationships (without calling it affinity) with the two women in the film, Vickers and Shaw? Subashini, at The Blog of Disquiet (http://disquietblog.wordpress.com/2012/06/23/the-panic-the-vomit-god-loves-his-children/), on the politics of reading David as effemine:
“Fassbender’s David inhabits his android body with soft, gentle, yet very precise actions—not a gesture is wasted. He is, on the surface, an ideal disciplined subject. This particular manner of inhabiting the male body is often read as effeminate (particularly in discourse on racialised/colonised subjects). And in this movie, his presence is in contrast to the wayward, raucous, contemptuous masculinity of the human men. Yet there is the bare fact of David’s physical presence: queer android, perhaps, but in a masculine-presenting Aryan body.* Far from a paranoid android, he is a supremely confident one. ”
Also, re: male beauty and the “vaguely feminine,” Noel Coward did say of Peter O’Toole’s male beauty in Lawrence of Arabia: “If you had been any prettier, the film would have been called Florence of Arabia.” And as Subashini points out, casting Fassbender in this role now comes with its own complications about male beauty and sexualization, diegetic and extra-diagetic, given that so much of the attention around his performance in Shame centered around discussion of his genitals.
I also think it’s interesting to compare David’s RP English with Sean Harris as Fifield; Harris, whose performance in Prometheus replicates in many ways his role as the assassin Micheletto on the Borgias, not least of all in his accent, a kind of East London Cockney (sometimes I think it slips into South London, though?), with all of its British genre film associations; gangster, working-class, sinister, tough. (And Harris was in a recent crime thriller with Michael Caine, Cockney actor par excellence!) So those already are two fairly historicized, fairly class-specific English accents being portrayed and held in tension within the film, not to mention the various Englishes being held in tension in David.
Fassbender, when talking about the accent he wanted to use for the character, said at some point he wanted to try South African (talk about bringing in the spectre of anti-colonial revolution!):
Fassbender on the visuals he got of David as he read the Prometheus script: “For some reason I got this visual image of Greg Louganis walking toward the end of a high diving block… This economy of movement. Total efficiency. If you’re going to move your hand, it’s for a reason. I thought it would suit the character of a robot—everything is totally relaxed, until you need to pick something up and move it over here.”
On almost giving David a South African accent after a (joking) suggestion from Charlize Theron: ”I just thought [the South African] accent was so unusual. For me the accent is like German in a way—very masculine, very precise, but also kind of clunky, something off about the rhythm which I thought would maybe translate quite well to the robot.”
On expressing the idea to Ridley Scott: ”‘He started laughing,’ Fassbender says, ‘and I was ‘No, no, no, I’m serious.’ And I could see the fear in his eyes. But full credit to him.’ Scott and Fassbender made a deal—they agreed that they would start shooting and, for the moment, capture two versions of each piece of dialogue: one with a South African accent, one with a clipped English accent… Fassbender says that Ridley Scott patiently filmed the movie with these dual English and South African dialogue versions for about two weeks, until one day Fassbender came up to him. ‘I’ll kill the South African, shall I?’ Fassbender asked, as though it was no big deal.”
“Very masculine, very precise.”
“I’ll kill the South African, shall I?”
If anyone’s accent and character portrayal could be read as vaguely European, it’s Noomi Rapace as Shaw; as I wrote in the post, it’s interesting that in flashbacks she is shown to have a very clear RP English accent, and yet in the film, Rapace’s Swedish inflections, along with the effort to tamp down on those inflections and speak RP English, the active struggle therein, make for a very peculiar voice. David’s voice is far more specifically English than hers is. (Though Fassbender might also be described as bringing in “vaguely European” implications, being half-Irish and half-German, but his accent as David is much stricter.) So the slippages between the varieties of English in play in this film are interesting to parse out; what is the native accent, the imitated-native accent, the foreign accent, the working-class accent, the accent of the wealthy and privileged; then of course there’s the Scottish actress Kate Dickie playing Ford; plus all the American accents and their slippages, Theron’s American-by-way-of-South-Africa, Guy Pearce’s American-by-way-of-Australia, Idris Elba’s American-by-way-of-Hackney, etc., etc. Sometimes, along with La Niña, I thought Prometheus could also be called “Commonwealth.”
As for casting a person of color in the David role as “provoking a different sort of distraction,” i.e. the racist panic about hyper-sexualized men of color and their threat to White Womanhood–I don’t actually think that would be the primary effect produced by casting a person of color as David. And in any case, that panic can already be easily read in how the film frames Janek’s flirting with Vickers, how he goads her into admitting that she wants to get laid (the frigid, repressed woman only needs a good fuck to humanize her again), until he finally asks if she’s a robot. Later Janek confirms his hyper-heterosexuality, jokingly warning against the spectre of gay sex to his crew members stranded on the alien moon (the Other has multiple avenues of infection; might turn you queer!).
Furthermore, I don’t read David as simply having “designs on Shaw’s white womanhood,” and again I think Subashini astutely points out the complicated power relations between David and Shaw:
“After the procedure, Shaw stumbles about bloodied and disoriented and no one around her actually cares or even attempts to portray some semblance of human concern. It’s clear that she’s undergone some form of physical trauma because it’s written all over her body i.e. blood everywhere. It’s only David the android who hands her a robe, or maybe it was a towel, I don’t know. Granted, he is the only one who knows what she’s gone through because he basically engineered this non-immaculate evil conception by introducing alien goo into Shaw’s boyfriend’s system (thereby killing the boyfriend). In the larger scheme of the machinations of corporations and capital, Shaw’s body is used and discarded as a birthing device; the physical and emotional demands placed upon her female body are secondary. In fact, it’s barely an issue. The body must get back out there and perform.”
The body having to get back out there and perform, the body used and discarded as device; all the parallels that can be made between David-as-android and Shaw-as-woman under patriarchy, the social relations produced by the destructive and disembodying logic of scientific-technological progress justifying and making possible imperialist exploration, etc.
Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks is helpful in thinking David’s colonial subject body, using the voice and wearing the face of the Master (and why his recourse to T.E. Lawrence is telling), his role as translator:
“The problem that we confront in this chapter is this: The Negro of the Antilles will be proportionately whiter—that is, he will come closer to being a real human being—in direct ratio to his mastery of the French language. I am not unaware that this is one of man’s attitudes face to face with Being. A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language. What we are getting at becomes plain: Mastery of language affords remarkable power. Paul Valery knew this, for he called language “the god gone astray in the flesh.”
“In a work now in preparation I propose to investigate this phenomenon. For the moment I want to show why the Negro of the Antilles, whoever he is, has always to face the problem of language. Furthermore, I will broaden the field of this description and through the Negro of the Antilles include every colonized man. Every colonized people—in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality—finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country. The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle. In the French colonial army, and particularly in the Senegalese regiments, the black officers serve first of all as interpreters. They are used to convey the master’s orders to their fellows, and they too enjoy a certain position of honor…”
“The black man who has lived in France for a length of time returns radically changed. To express it in genetic terms, his phenotype undergoes a definitive, an absolute mutation. Even before he had gone away, one could tell from the almost aerial manner of his carriage that new forces had been set in motion. When he met a friend or an acquaintance, his greeting was no longer the wide sweep of the arm: With great reserve our “new man” bowed slightly. The habitually raucous voice hinted at a gentle inner stirring as of rustling breezes.”
And, in relation to David’s potentially insurrectionary ambitions, his desire to be recognized (Fassbender has said in interviews that David “wants to be acknowledged and praised for his brilliance”), and thus the reactionary cruelty of Shaw’s final line to him, reinforcing the master-slave, human-inhuman, colonial-colonized dynamic:
“Man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose his existence on another man in order to be recognized by him. As long as he has not been effectively recognized by the other, that other will remain the theme of his actions. It is on that other being, on recognition by that other being, that his own human worth and reality depend. It is that other being in whom the meaning of his life is condensed. There is not an open conflict between white and black. One day the White Master, without confl ict , recognized the Negro slave. But the former slave wants to make himself recognized.
At the foundation of Hegelian dialectic there is an absolute reciprocity which must be emphasized. It is in the degree to which I go beyond my own immediate being that I apprehend the existence of the other as a natural and more than natural reality. If I close the circuit, if I prevent the accomplishment of movement in two directions, I keep the other within himself. Ultimately, I deprive him even of this being-for-itself. The only means of breaking this vicious circle that throws me back on myself is to restore to the other, through mediation and recognition, his human reality, which is different from natural reality. The other has to perform the same operation. “Action from one side only would be useless, because what is to happen can only be brought about by means of both. . . .”; “they recognize themselves as mutually recognizing each other.”
In its immediacy, consciousness of self is simple being-for-itself. In order to win the certainty of oneself, the incorporation of the concept of recognition is essential. Similarly, the other is waiting for recognition by us, in order to burgeon into the universal consciousness of self. Each consciousness of self is in quest of absoluteness. It wants to be recognized as a primal value without reference to life, as a transformation of subjective certainty (Gewissheit) into objective truth ( Wahrheit ).
When it encounters resistance from the other, self-consciousness undergoes the experience of desire—the first milestone on the road that leads to the dignity of the spirit. Self-consciousness accepts the risk of its life, and consequently it threatens the other in his physical being. “It is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained; only thus is it tried and proved that the essential nature of self-consciousness is not bare existence, is not the merely immediate form in which it at fi rst makes its appearance, is not its mere absorption in the expanse of life.”
Thus human reality in-itself-for-itself can be achieved only through confl ict and through the risk that confl ict implies. This risk means that I go beyond life toward a supreme good that is the transformation of subjective certainty of my own worth into a universally valid objective truth. As soon as I desire I am asking to be considered. I am not merely here-and-now, sealed into thingness. I am for somewhere else and for something else. I demand that notice be taken of my negating activity insofar as I pursue something other than life; insofar as I do battle for the creation of a human world—that is, of a world of reciprocal recognitions. He who is reluctant to recognize me opposes me. In a savage struggle I am willing to accept convulsions of death, invincible dissolution, but also the possibility of the impossible. The other, however, can recognize me without struggle: “The individual, who has not staked his life, may, no doubt, be recognized as a person, but he has not attained the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness.”
I’ve never seen Mad Men, so I can’t comment on it; though I think the cold bombastic spectacle of Scott’s film is grimly appropriate to a film about the cold bombast of imperialist-technological ambition and the disaster wrought thereupon. A monster film that is also the monster it’s filming.
Elaine, I’m grateful you’ve responded in such detail, and I only wish I were able to respond in kind (but as it happens, I’m off to the movies again very soon).
I do think that David will register with most American viewers as a slimy European-ish baddie first and foremost, although I concede that ‘vaguely’ was a poor choice of words given his specific pedigree; I was thinking also of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from this summer’s Avengers, who, as a alien of sorts, and a figure drawn from Norse mythology but with touch-and-go Shakespearean affections (as well as a touch of Bond villain sneering) is Vaguely European indeed. I had largely written off David’s fondness for Peter O’Toole has a function of a specific screenwriter’s crutch–writing about characters who are cinephiles because film is a language in which the writer is already conversant–so credit to Scott or Lindelof, and to you as well, for blowing my impressions of that wide open.
My readings of David’s actions w/r/t Shaw (retroactive reading, anyway) have been informed by screenwriter Lindelof’s suggestion in interviews that David has a crush on Shaw–and I can only believe that his affinity for Shaw, or how we read it, would have been further complicated were David to have been an android of color, i.e. perceived by many audiences as something more cleanly predatory, less opaque, the story’s resemblance to a captivity narrative overriding the colonial-insurrectionist elements.
I found David ‘vaguely feminine,’ a choice of words I stand my more comfortably than ‘vaguely European,’ as much because of the film’s decision to show us his grooming habits as anything else. This is a loaded choice–showing Fassbender coloring his roots has implications beyond showing us David’s desire to emulate O’Toole. One could argue that Holloway moves to emasculate David in a few early scenes, but for viewers I think Holloway’s five o’clock shadow does much of the work. David’s otherness is at its most pronounced during his conversations with the brash, unshaven Holloway–he’s an Other in contrast to a very familiar sort of filmic manliness. David’s position as a subordinate is relevant of course, but so too the basic cosmetic contrast with Holloway. Even the crew’s the slovenly, cowardly biologist seemed to inhabit a more normative sort of masculinity. The film prods us with the idea that David’s Olympian polish is not normal, his smooth contours a reflection of the fact that he’s not a real male human.
Hi Greg, I apologize also for not being able to respond fully, also about to run out, but oh god, don’t get me started on Loki in the Avengers, and the mess of masculinities, the sissy-shaming, that happens around there; and Tom Hiddleston’s posh Oxbridge accent and the homosocial and homoromantic associations with that accent, and Loki as kidnapped-adopted queer Other (he practices sorcery–gender implications, feminizing–while Thor and Asgardians value and worship male physical prowess, etc), Hulk’s brutal beating of him at the end, putting the sissy “European” in his place, reducing him to rubble, “puny god,” the whole of which I found entirely horrific, though everyone around me laughed, etc…; I’ve considered writing about the Avengers, but find I don’t have the energy to parse through the onslaught of martial-nostalgia porn, at least not now, or yet.
Even if Lindelof suggests that David has a crush on Shaw, that the possibility of casting an actor of color in his place would make it easier for an audience to immediately see him as “cleanly predatory” reflects more to me about the racism of that audience, than anything else–if we can only see men of color who have crushes on white women, as simple predators. I don’t think it’s a conflict that David could have a crush on Shaw, while also sharing kindred and even allied experiences as raced-gendered-sexualized-colonial subjects, or that it somehow diminishes or overshadows his revolutionary potential. I’d like to think it’s possible–considering my entire life depends on it–to have a complicated affective life that is intertwined with, even inseparable from, one’s radical politics; that desire, or love, doesn’t depoliticize you; on the contrary. I agree that were David an android of color, there would almost certainly be a more specifically racialized discomfort around his indirect impregnation of Shaw (though people should be disturbed by it no matter what), but as you point out, the primary conflict is between David and Holloway; David reacting to Holloway’s repeated instances of macho condescension and emasculation by infecting him. Though I’m not sure where a reading of a captivity narrative would come in were David an android of color?
Yes, I agree that the aesthetic differences between Holloway and David are crucial (why I wrote: ” those gendered and racialized assumptions are determined by the codes of martial-rational American masculinity and the way those codes are variously embodied by Holloway, Janek, Milburn, Chance, Ravel, who do make a sharp contrast to David–with his RP English, his deference.”). However, I read the emphasis on his grooming, on the coloring of his roots etc., not only as indicative of his difference from the other male crew members (I suppose people do think European men are effeminate because of their perceived over-grooming, that old ugly joke, “gay or European?”; I’m watching the Euro Cup right now and having to listen all the time to people’s homosexual-panic and suspicion around certain players being too good-looking is a bit tiring)–but also, as emphasizing his entire character as a performance; his assemblage/agencement, as I described in the post. How David both is-and-does an assemblage, how his entire being is a construct in every way. And the moment when he tells Holloway that the reason he looks the way he does is because humans feel more comfortable around someone who resembles them, can be read in multiple ways: that humans feel better around the human-bodied; that this mostly white crew feels better around a white person, and furthermore, a white man; and even, I think, that normative masculinities actually thrive upon having a “vaguely feminine, vaguely European” Other to differentiate itself from, and to ultimately dominate and defeat, which is perhaps why that characterization shows up in so many genre villains, as you point out? The fantasy of the “vaguely feminine, vaguely European” villain is like homo sacer; the killable accursed one outside the law that nevertheless the law requires, in order to know itself and affirm itself as law.
Perhaps if “the film prods us with the idea that David’s Olympian polish is not normal, his smooth contours a reflection of the fact that he’s not a real male human,” we could even say that this could lead us to think of him not just as “vaguely feminine,” but as representing a kind of Deleuzian becoming-woman? Furthermore, the queer and trans potential of David, of the android figure, is definitely all there, and it’s in that way that I think he destabilizes the normative masculinity that the other male crew members (and even Vickers) variously represent; we are reminded that he is not a cisgendered white male (“a real male human,” as you say) despite his appearance. (I can also see your point, David-as-cleanshaven-ephebe bringing in that subordinate sexualized received association.)
I do mainly think his performance through both a drag framework and a transgender framework (important not to conflate the two), as I wrote in the post. David is genderfucking, racefucking: he emulates O’Toole as Lawrence, who is a English martial-imperial figure (macho, dominant class), but who is also so “pretty” as to be teased as “Florence of Arabia” by Noel Coward. He dyes his hair blond like Lawrence, but then his first quote from Lawrence of Arabia comes from the mouth of an anti-English “Arab other,” Prince Faisal. (Insert here attendant racist and Islamophobic anxiety around Arab male hyper-sexuality.) David turns the idea of a normative racialized masculinity inside out by playing it to the max–my temptation is to say camp, here. And his repetition of various lines reminds me of Judith Butler’s “strategies of subversive repetition.” From her Gender Trouble :
“The performance of drag plays upon the distinction between the anatomy of the performer and the gender that is being performed. But we are actually in the presence of three contingent dimensions of significant corporeality: anatomical sex, gender identity, and gender performance.
“In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself–as well as its contingency. Indeed, part of the pleasure, the giddiness of the performance, is in the recognition of a radical contingency in the relation between sex and gender in the face of cultural configurations of causal unities that are regularly assumed to be natural and necessary. In place of the law of heterosexual coherence, we see sex and gender denaturalized by means of a performance which avows their distinctness and dramatizes the cultural mechanism of their fabricated unity…
“The notion of gender parody defended here does not assume that there is an original which such parodic identities imitate. Indeed, the parody is of the very notion of an original; just as the psychoanalytic notion of gender identification is constituted by a fantasy of a fantasy, the transfiguration of an Other who is always already a ‘figure’ in that double sense, so gender parody reveals that the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without an origin. To be more precise, it is a production which, in effect–that is, in its effect,–postures as an imitation. This perpetual displacement constitues a fluidity of identities that suggests an openness to resignification and recontextualization; parodic proliferation deprives hegemonic culture and its critics of the claim to naturalized or essentialist gender identities. Although the gender meanings taken up in these parodic styles are clearly part of hegemonic, misogynist culture, they are nevertheless denaturalized and mobilized through their parodic recontextualization. As imitations which effectively displace the meaning of the original, they imitate the myth of originality itself.”
Imitate the myth of originality! That sounds appropriately Promethean.
And given that David is of course remains a deeply problematic character, only potentially subversive (but I suppose that’s part of “becoming,” too: potentiality): I think Butler’s qualification/warning re: the politics of drag and parody is helpful:
“Parody by itself is not subversive, and there must be a way to understand what makes certain kinds of parodic repetitions effectively disruptive, truly troubling, and which repetitions become domesticated and recirculated as instruments of cultural hegemony… What performance where will invert the inner/outer distinction and compel a radical rethinking of the psychological presuppositions of gender identity and sexuality? What performance where will compel a reconsideration of the place and stability of the masculine and the feminine? And what kind of gender performance will enact and reveal the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire.”
With all that in mind, it’s interesting to me that David survives as only a head, without a body (even “a body without organs”). How could we read David’s decapitation as the next step in political trajectory of his performance, his destabilizing and denaturalizing of sex and gender? First he dramatizes that unity, and then that unity is literally torn apart, fragmented; the performance challenges the law of coherence, and then the performing body itself no longer “coheres.” His body is a construct and then he’s literally disembodied (how I said his performance turns normative masculinity “inside-out,” how his insides are outside/become exposed.). I wonder, where does the performance go from there (and how/where do we read it)? The what-happens-afterwards of David and Shaw (now to be imagined only in fanfiction, I suppose, unless Scott and Lindelof are reading this and taking notes…) might provide the answer to Butler’s last question in the above passage.