There is something to be said for the new ways we are now imaging the unknown in contemporary science fiction.
Philosophy has often utilised these pulp horror instantiations of the Alien Other and the Outside and put them to work in its thought experiments. Cthulhu in the works of H.P. Lovecraft is perhaps the best known example in this corner of philosphere. The mysterious agency of plant life is another one (and one I think about a lot, as it is found in one of my all-time favourite films, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
John Carpenter’s The Thing may be the best, and it has been used on numerous occasions to describe the outsideness of capital as a shapeshifting, all-consuming but also nefariously stealthy planetary infection, extracted from the earth, having lain dormant for millennia, waiting to pray on the human. This example has long been my favourite and it has various antecedents in b-movies such as The Blob, used brilliantly by Reza Negarestani in Cyclonopedia to connect capital’s “blobjective” nature to Middle Eastern religion, mythology and oil. It is “geotrauma” given a foot soldier — matter will have its revenge on the naive human endeavour of extraction.
There is a new dominant visual for this force, however — one that is perhaps inspired by the “black smoke monster” in Lost.
It shares many of the qualities of The Thing, with its talents for shapeshifting and impersonating human life. It also has a certain templexity, coming from the deep past but signifying a kind of unknown (and somewhat “future”) technology. It is a time-twisting, nanomachinic entity whose primary “form” is one of formless dispersion. It’s “call” — the hyperactive, mechanical but also magpie-like ratchet-click that echoes around the jungle — and its predilection of random deforestation connects it more explicitly to the horrors of reckless industry whilst retaining a fundamental unpredictability that makes it one of the most enigmatic cogs in the plot’s early seasons.
I’ve more or less blocked out the unfortunate turns taken by Lost‘s later seasons from memory but I have strong memories of the fan theories that proliferated online during the first few seasons. The smoke monster remains in my mind as a kind of unknown technology that haunts us from a past future, something we are yet to discover and bend to our will (on this timeline), echoing the fears so often associated with AI and robotics but completely devoid of the human shape common to the figure of the “slave”.
(There is probably a lot more to be said for the racialised nature of the scene embedded above in this respect, reminding me of a previous post exploring the racialised symbolism of Ridley Scott’s Alien, and Arthur Jafa’s analyses of the Alien as the “bad “n*****”.)
The acutely unquantifiable nature of the smoke monster in those early seasons seems to have permeated into all corners of sci-fi, particularly recently. They seem to be all over the place nowadays.
I’m reminded of the Cthulhic variation in Arrival…
…and also the strangely agentic “void” in this new (and bit shit) Netflix film called The Beyond which I watched the other day.
What is notable about these later examples, however — and minor spoiler alert here, I suppose — is that what is repeatedly challenged is our suspicion of their swarm-like nature. Our fear of the hive-mind, or of a more general atomised form of alien, is ridiculed. In each case, these swarms, whether appearing as smoke or as an otherwise unidentifiable collection of agentic particles, are treated with hostile suspicion which later underpins the tragic irony of our (near-)downfall as we attack (or nearly attack) an unknown entity that has, in fact, been sent to save or protect us.
What I find interesting in each of these examples is that they continue to carry the baggage of our fear of The Thing, as an unindividuate being of unknown intent, but this is later supplanted with an egress into a wholly new kind of existence. Arrival is a case in point: the smoke creatures, complete with smoke language, are treated with outright hostility but an understanding of their nature allows the film’s protagonist, linguistics professor Louise Banks, to acquire a new understanding of and way of being in time itself. In The Beyond, this phenomena — which, as it turns out, didn’t really warrant any kind of investigation — is a catalyst for the successful creation of a transhumanist subject.
I wonder: does the use of these aliens as an analogy for capital still hold? Each signals a kind of escape from present (capitalist) existence but suggests that capital itself is the key to its own outside. This suggests the answer is “yes” but nevertheless, does it remain an analogy for capital or is it more of an inbetween (and, as such, eerie) state of capital and that which follows it? There is no “smoke” without fire, of course — without the technic, without capital itself — but it is a product of the process rather than being symbolic of the process itself, a product that escapes as a diffuse entity back into a world that could / would exist without us (as we currently image ourselves). A symbol of a swarm-to-come.
I’m reminded here of the Ccru text, “Swarmachines“, written about the Situationists but abstracted into future (and current) processes of “jungle technics”:
Cut-out romantic revolutionism and it leaves dark events. Autopropagated happenings.
The trauma of exclusions and inclusions was always a spectacular distraction. Only multiplicities, decolonized ants, swarms without strategies, insectoid freeways burrowed through the screens of spectacular time. They have neither history nor its end, neither memory nor apocalypse, neither accidents nor plans, no lines, no points, no infinite loops. No forward plans and no spontaneous combustion, but careful engineerings, out of sight, out of mind. Imperceptible mutations, waiting in the wings, just off stage.
The politicians called them revolutionaries, made them persons, with faces and names, coded these meshes of contagious matters into acceptable human forms.
But they were always tactical machines, natives of the future hacking into the past, trading places, swapping codes, endless replications of micro-situations engineered without sources or ends. Flocks are always flying in the faces; hives of activity behind the screens.
Jungle functions as a particle accelerator, seismic bass frequencies engineering a cellular drone which immerses the body in intensity at the molecular level. The neurotic Cartesian body of evidence with its head-up-top-down control centre is precipitated into a Brownian motion of decentralisation and disorganisation.
becoming snake, becoming clandestine in nights of microcultural mutation. becoming zero as machinic assemblages mashup and crossfade. becoming diagonal as markets lock into guerrilla commerce, ever-decamping nomad cultures, melting in the heat of the chase. Alienated and loving it. Current.