Following on from the most recent Westworld post, I’ve been reminded of this old draft written about Arthur Jafa, Black studies and Ridley Scott’s Alien.
It feels more whole now, when read in light of these recent Wild West discussions.
The alien is a monster, but in my reading of it, I think the first time I saw it, I realised that I was that alien. You’ve got a company that’s out there mining, or whatever they’re supposed to be doing in space, and you’ve got two… it’s funny using this term in mixed company, but I have to because it’s the appropriate term — it’s two niggers. There’s the good nigger and the bad nigger. The good nigger is Yaphet Kotto, who works for the company, and the bad nigger is the alien. When they first start to confront this xenomorph, is when John Hurt is at the dinner table, eating, and he’s like, ‘I’m feeling fine’, and then suddenly he starts having this seizure until the alien, in its first permutated state, pops out of his chest. If you look closely, there’s this moment where the whole crew is pulling back, except for Yaphet Kotto, who’s pushing forward with a knife in his hand. I always felt that that moment, where the baby version of the alien and Yaphet Kotto are facing each other, is a moment of recognition. This was the brother who couldn’t be reasoned with; the brother who said, ‘No, I come to rape and pillage and procreate with you whether you want to or not.’ It’s a sort of primordial vision of Black people in a way.
Over the years, I’ve been struck by the additional information that came out, which verified my feelings about the alien. For example, there was a 6′ 9″ Sudanese guy named Bolaji in the alien suit. Remember that this is Hollywood, where if a Black person gets a job, there’s a very specific reason why they’re getting that job. It struck me on some primordial level that it’s not an accident that they put this 6′ 9″ Sudanese guy in this suit. I also remember seeing one of H.R. Giger’s books in his studio, which had a picture of a Yoruba staff, an Elegba staff. If you look at that staff in the book, you actually see the alien’s head and where the design came from. As is often the case with great science-fiction films, ‘Alien’ is bound up with these ideas of the Other. And the Other, as far as it exists in the Western imagination, is bound up with who Black people are imagined to be. [via]
I’ve been enthralled by Arthur Jafa’s reading of Alien since seeing Bolaji Badejo skulking around the set of the Nostromo in a screen test featured in his blockbuster exhibition from last summer.
Following this blog’s various explorations of the role of fragmented identities within patchwork, and most recently the integral role racial otherness places in American fictions via Westworld, the thread that Jafa has picked up on here — integral to much of modern black studies — warrants further considerations in taking the Alien analogy to its various conclusions.
In recognising the alien, and in framing the moment as a battle between “good …” and “bad …”, it suggests that Yaphet Kotto (who plays the character of ‘Parker’) is wrestling with a kind of dual consciousness.
Lest we forget, he is a disgruntled worker, resisting the unnecessary risk of investigating a distress signal — a request that, he believes, is way outside his job description — for no additional pay. One of only two working-class crew — the other is ‘Brett’, played by Harry Dean Stanton — his suggestion is to nuke the alien’s planet from orbit and have done with it.
In the end, he cows to the threat of voiding his contract.
How is Kotto supposed to “do battle” with the alien under the thumb of the Corporation? How is he supposed to attack that which he is “imagined to be”?
W.E.B. DuBois says:
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.
And yet, in Alien, this “Negro blood” is unquestionably something to fear. As we all know, you can’t attack the alien in conventional ways — its corrosive blood burns with a horrifying intensity. If you attack the alien, you threaten burning a hole in your “world” (or at least the ship’s hull, as the crew of the Nostromo almost find out when they succeed in injuring their stowaway), threatening the sudden influx of the voidic black outsideness of outer space.
The only solution, as happens repeatedly throughout the franchise’s various films, is to invert this threat and jettison the alien into outer space through the airlock.
Towards the end of the film it is revealed that the Nostromo‘s science officer, Ash the android, is acting on secret orders from the company to keep the alien alive for research purposes, with the rest of the crew deemed expendable.
Ash is, of course, “white” but he is nonetheless wedded to the Corporation in an even more extreme fashion than his working-class counterparts. Parker and Brett are able to, at least superficially, resist their programming. Ash is, however, “purified” — racially and ideologically. He suffers no internal dual consciousness like his “colleague”. His loyalty is ontological — not just contractual.
The extent of his programmed loyalty is nevertheless acutely dehumanising. Ash is the opposite of the alien, embodying the other side of its violent extremity.
I wonder if, following Jafa’s good/bad reading, Ash rather than Kotto is the “good …” to the alien’s “bad …”. Both are, of course, as dangerous as each other. Kotto is stuck in the middle, resisting both, stuck between a black-and-whiteness.
This, in turn, injects a dual consciousness into the film itself. The “mind” of the film — if we can think of a film as having its own social consciousness — fears the Absolute Other and likewise that Other who has “assimiliated” with horrifying efficiency: the android as robota and “slave” to whiteness, an extension of the Corporation that seems devoid of consideration for human life.
Susan Bordo describes the alien — and its periods of gestation — as reflecting “the werewolf genre” in this way: “a new, alien, libidinous, and uncontrollable self literally bursts through the seams of the victim’s old flesh.”