Well, I'm going to love it. I don't know what you're going to do.
Alien. Yes, you all know it, you've all see it, (You haven't? What the hell is the matter with you? Get your ass to a video store.) you've all analyzed it.
I mean, there are just so many different directions to take.
-The sexual aspects of the film
-The bio-mechanical aesthetic of Giger, and the other designers
-The literary allusions to Conrad, and others
-The religious (especially the Book of Job, and Genesis--Kane is the one to birth forth the monster, remember?)
-The late seventies, and the noir/industrial/organicism trifecta
-The good old horror movie cross-genre critique
But these aren't any of the routes I'm going to take to introduce you to one of my favorite movies of all time. Oh no.
Prepare yourself for the Marxian, Proletarian-Organic Revolution of the Means of Production Critique of Alien.
This would be a perfect opportunity to excuse yourself back to YouTube or wherever, if you have not done the course reading.
It's long been a desire of mine to write a punk/hardcore song, with lyrics from the point of view of Engineer Parker. The man simply wanted to discuss the bonus situation, and now he is being chased by and un-holy organic horror around the spaceship he has barely managed to weld back together, only to be eviscerated by it. Do you think his benefit plan covers biomechanical terror-organisms? I doubt it. That is real proletariat rage, there.
But seriously--we are well aware of HR Giger's brilliant design of the aesthetic of one angle of the film's antagonist. But what about the other antagonist? The one we never see at all, not even leering at us behind multiple jaws in the dark? This antagonist is Weyland-Yutani, the corporation they all work for, and on who's directive they are taken to the planet, and on who's programming Ash, the android science officer, exposed them all to the alien.
In SF since Alien, the megacorporation is always an instant fall back for an antagonistic enemy, with all the powers of deux ex machina a writer can dream up. Alien was not the first story to make use of such a trope (we see it to some degree in almost every PKD story), but it brought it to the fore, and made it the standard. Imagine if a "dark side" of some "force" had become the trope, such as the specious concept launched in some forgettable movie released two years earlier? Oh, some unfeelable badness? How many movies could you really pull out of that? The corporation, on the other hand, is precisely the sort of modern devil any audience can readily get behind, because if we haven't had a conversation with it at some point in our modern lives, we certainly have met its agents--the professionally-ruled social arena, the backfiring commodity, the insidious brand, the corporate mission statement, and the faceless bureaucracy.
But when we look into Alien, we see more than the consumer-oriented antagonism we experience at the mall, on the interstate, or in the office. We see in the film a unique depiction of the worker, the organic, the corporate, and the technological, all coming together in a situation from which no one will escape alive.
Now, the dry part, which I will attempt to streamline as much as possible. If you could all *cough-cough* please turn Part IV, Chapter XV, Section 1 of your edition of Capital, Vol. 1. *shuffle-shuffle-shuffle* Does everyone have the International Publishers edition? No? Does some one have the page number? Page number anyone? Yes? Okay, let's begin.
Anyone who has taken an undergraduate class on Marx is probably familiar with the idea of his "problematic" view of technology. He is not a fan, because technological advances are often used to increase the relative surplus labor the bosses can withdraw from good ole Buddy Proletariat. In other words, you get a machine that can make twice as many Homborg Hats per hour, the worker gets the same pay, and the boss pockets the extra money made from the extra profit. And the worker might even get exposed to greater danger from the machinery, without being compensated for this risk, nor for the learning s/he had to do to operate the complicated machine.
But like anything Marx discusses, (the book is over 700 freakin' pages long) it is rarely as simple as what he says in the introductory paragraph. And, if it is some fact of capitalism, it stands inthe theme of the project that there is a major aufhebung just waiting in the wings to swing the good to the bad, with a little bit of revolution of the means of production.
Surplus value takes place by alienating the labor from the worker and the relationship between him/her and his/her product. You make it, but for X/hour, and all the product is the property of a boss who never touches it. Classic alienation.
Machinery does the same thing, even if it not the boss itself. Marx, living in the age he lived, connects work to the person via the line of "man as motive power". It all comes back to the hands, in other words. You make something with your hand, or a tool held in your hand, and you are the power, the root of the motion and action, and the laborer.
Here's another, algebraic/vector way of putting it:
Hand (power) x tool (direction) = labor
This is what Marx calls handicraft: work owned by the worker. Now, once the tool has been removed from "man as motive power" and is attached to a water wheel, or a horse, or some other power, the tool has been alienated into an "implement", controlled by a mechanism.
Mechanism (power) x implement (direction) = work
Because, who owns the water wheel? That's right, Herr Boss. In this way, the relations of the production have been slid another inch towards the controlling hands of the capitalist. You, the worker, have even less control over the product, because you now have to come to the factory, use the master's tools, and can't even leave a sweaty finger print on the item by way of signature. You are one step closer to a simple cog in the machine.
Now of course, workers are still totally necessary to run the machines. When a worker is a cog, it means s/he is inserted among a bunch of other cogs. These cogs are both the machinery, and the other workers. All pieces are necessary, within a certain set of relations of the larger, metaphorical machine, for the individual, actual machinery to function. You couldn't get to the factory without the bus driver, you wouldn't get paid without the cashier, and you couldn't run your machine and get paid if the mechanic didn't keep it working. This is the division of labor, which also adds to the steps at which relative surplus value can be extracted (you ever pay a check-cashing fee? or any other bank fee to access your own money?). The larger the machine is, both the larger, societal division of labor or the local hat press you work at, the more diverse the division of labor becomes. Each cog spawns other cogs, which must mesh with other cogs, and etc. To take a biological metaphor, each organ of production now develops its own intra-organs, from town, to factory, to union, to shift, to floor, to position, to hat press.
Marx points out in a footnote, that this is not really a new way of understanding things at all. In footnote 2 of the above mentioned chapter, he states:
"Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature's Technology, i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organisation, deserve equal attention? [...] Technology discloses man's mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them."
This is why I love Marx; it may be the most fertile philosophical ground ever. Just look at that last sentence! What a can of worms! Each piece seperated by a comma, of which there are four, could be its own book, and this is just one sentence of a footnote!
Let's pay a little equal attention to human organs, as well as the organs of material production. Marx already has--remember man's motive power links back, through a functioning net of tools, to his/her hands, or feet as well. These cogs must link in a productive relationship for the production to take place.
In mechanical machinery, when we have separated the tool from the power of the hands, this does not mean the links to the human's productive organs has been severed. Of course, the hands still play a role by throwing switches and levers, but another organ begins to come into play, in a dramatically increasing role. This organ is the brain--the source of a human's motive knowledgeable power.
Of course, it wasn't until the facts of material production became readily aparent in the latter part of the 20th C that any student with a little touch of the prole poesis could raise a fist and say, "knowledge is power!" Of course, Marx gets it (it's all over this book), but he's not raising a fist. In this chapter, it's easy to see; new forms of production simply require a shift in the productive relations, and the intellect takes the fore as the organ of power for the worker.
Naturally, capitalism isn't going to take that sitting down. There are sorts of ways, via extending the division of labor in the productive relations, to take advantage of this. There is the non-disclosure agreement, which doesn't go so far as to call your brain Company Property, but pretty much implies it. There are the publishing and copyright relations of major corporations and universities, telling you if you are on the clock, any original and profitable thought you have is also on the clock. There's Intellectual Property--to make sure you aren't sneaking out of the office with some tasty tidbits for the kids. And the EULA, so all those division-of-labor attorneys can make sure you as the consumer (a very important element of the productive relations indeed) aren't thinking about a product in any sort of illegal way, which might inhibit the Boss' ability to make a profit on it. As production extends into the organs of intellect in both directions, into the worker and the producer, there are many people hard at "work" to ensure surplus value can still be milked from your labor.
Lucky for us workers, materialism is on our side. (hooray!) For one thing, the Boss has worked him/herself into a corner with Intellectual Property. It may be the biggest industrial mistake since slavery--doomed to fail by its logical inconsistency. Also, while they can scan our email, they can't get into our brains (yet). We can glean our own surplus labor back from them, by thinking on company time. Also, our skill, which is a major cog in between our brains, hands, and our tools, is growing in importance as its own source of labor. Seated in the intellect, this is the one tool they can't make us leave at the factory. Proprietary mechanisms try to put a chastity belt on the brain, but again, these divisions of the machinery can't fully separate something so laterally networked as intelligence.
But the glorious worker's future is not here yet. Still lots of work for us to do, comrade. Division of labor, while being a necessary fact of societal existence, is still a source of power for the Bosses--their own anti-production, keeping us working in neat little rows. This is a much more endemic division than the old rhyme of Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Studies Professor. It is in the productive relationship, not just our college major. Plenty of people make their money on the fact of tertiary industries--the meta-labor middlemen. This is not simply to scrape a little off the top; it also serves as a stratification, an ossified layer of industry that is unwilling to change, and difficult to do so. Labor organization is difficult, because it is so easy to set workers against each other. The machine operators may get their contract, but what about the security guards? Or the bathroom attendants? Or the cafeteria workers? These are the sorts of seperations ripe and ready to be plucked by those who wish to consolidate control, or at least make it inaccessible to the worker. The industries are developed along these lines, vertically, or at least in a monocultural view, without considering the vast network of the societal division of labor as a ecosystem, within which all components, machine, human, and mind, must work together, for prosperity, the future, the glorious singularity, whatever.
So what was I talking about?
Oh yeah, Alien!
The first character to speak in the film is technology. In a cold and dark spacecraft, looking already burnt out by some sort of industrial accident, causing all signs of life to evacuate, a computer switches on, and begins to click and hum, making intellectual calculations. After some minutes, a human is born from a white womb of light (or is it a coffin?), and the workers are born.
This is a workplace, after all, and we are quickly introduced to the stratification of labor. There is a commander, an executive officer, a science officer, a warrant officer, a navigator, and couple of engineers. There is some disagreement about pay, but no, let's discuss that later! We have a mission here. This is the greatest element--we never really find out what the "bonus situation" entails, other than that Parker and Brett are getting less than everyone else, though they seem to be doing a lot of the work.
In fact, it seems as if the amount of work done is inversely related to the crew's standing. The captain spends a lot of time chatting with the computer, called, "Mother", interestingly enough. The science officer broods a bit, speaking of "research", Ripley flies the ship with the navigator, but also is saddled with the task of bitching at the engineers for not working fast enough, and continuing to make trouble about the "bonus situation".
In the end, we find out the truth, which is that the entire crew was lied to. The corporation, via their proprietary computer, and their own scabby plant of an android, invented a situation in order to grab at a potential profit, putting their workers at horrible risk. The computer system is alligned with the antagonists to the last, presenting a danger of being lost in space if not expelled into a vacuum, faulty diagrams and systems allow the alien to stalk them more effectively, and even sabotage, the only weapon Ripley has at the end to trap the beast, becomes a liability as the countdown goes out of her control.
But how exactly does this technology wind up at odds with its users? Because, it is divided from them, clearly property of the bosses, and therefore easily set against the workers forced not simply to use the equipment, but live within it. It is protected from their access by chains of command and secret codes, and even infiltrates their relationship with their own bodies in the form of the simulacrum, Ash. This is technology working against them--invasive, alienating organs, not implements they can graft to their own bodies, extending their own motive power. (Speaking of invasive organs, how about the scene when logical conundrums send Ash spiraling into a living-blender of synthetic organs? How gnarly-awesome is that!)
And then, we are left with the biomechanical fetish symbol in the room: the alien. When the corporation has set workers against workers, installed dangerous prototypes, and insinuated proprietary psychological warfare against its employees, it is not enough. The biologic-horror enters, right out of the stomach.
The alien is the singular point of contact with the alienated system these workers have been born into--it is not its metaphor, so much as its defining moment, its quintessential attribute, and the axis of the web of control the corporation has woven. There is no hope for the crew against such an enemy, and alienated as they are, they have no fate but to die alone, one after the next.
It is a biological entity, a parasite, an organ working against the network of organs, for its own benefit. And what is its own prime motive force? It's destiny to be commodified and sold as a weapon. A biological weapon, its function too horrible to be conceived by those forced to work with it. It incubates in the belly, the negative space of the worker, which s/he works to fill, and it the pinion point of the bosses' shackles since time immemorial. It is the danger, the death, and the suffering, lying dormant in the warehouse until tapped by the employer for production. Each worker is converted into a machine, extrapolated to the final extent of his or her body, exploited mechanically until the limits of pain cause them to slip into death. From the remains is borne a new alien, which will stalk, ensnare, and kill another worker, until every worker everywhere is gone. Once they are all consumed, it simply goes dormant again, until the next time the relations of production allign, and it can leap from its egg, and begin again. In this film, it is the mining industry. In the second, the army. The third, the prision-industrial complex. In the fourth, scientists and mercinaries, the line quite thin.
So what's next? Not sure. I had an idea for a SF film once, which pitted machines against humans, but also had a third set in the equation of cyborgs, who never really won any battles, but never really lost any either. Call them the anarcho-syndicalists of the anti-capitalist SF universe. I had a pretty good cosmos drawn up for the story. But it's one of those things, you know, who wants to hear a story about politics? I swear though, I had some pretty kick ass vehicles conceptualized, as well as some great body-mod ideas for the cyborgs. Not just lens eyes or claw hands, either. I'm talking about losing your bipedalism. Take that, Vitruvian Man!
Stay-tuned for our next episode of Hollywood Critique/Self-Critique - Outland: Connery and the Cops of Capitalism!