Cultural Anthropology Solves Abortion Issue! Story at Eleven!

News Flash!
Cultural Anthropology Solves Abortion Issue!
Story at Eleven!
(Being a Cultural Analysis of Sigourney Weaver’s Aliens Quartet)
Lee Drummond, Center for Peripheral Studies
An earlier version of this essay was presented to the Symposium, “2001/2001:
Cultural Analysis of Popular Movies as Myth/Ritual” at the 2002 meeting in
Montreal of the American Ethnological Society. The piece extends the analysis
developed in American Dreamtime.
(2002, 2010)
News Flash!
Cultural Anthropology Solves Abortion Issue!
Story at Eleven!
(Being a Cultural Analysis of Sigourney Weaver’s Aliens Quartet)
Abortion is perhaps the most divisive conflict within contemporary
American society, with all indications being that both its rhetoric and violence
will intensify over the coming years. This essay proposes that the conflict is not
amenable to any conventional solution: the forces of light or darkness will neither
triumph nor agree to compromise. Rather than American society figuring out
what to do about the abortion issue, in all likelihood the intractable nature of the
problem will prove a key element in transforming fundamental cultural values and
ideas concerning human reproduction, medical science, and the emerging
phenomenon of biotechnology. Given the critical nature of the problem, it is
disappointing that social commentators have done little more than bundle up the
platitudes of “freedom to choose” and “right to life” in more or less strident
rhetoric. The most radical and far-reaching treatment of human reproduction in
a future world of biotechnology has come from a perhaps unexpected source:
Sigourney Weaver’s Aliens quartet. The essay conducts a cultural analysis of
those movies, and in the process identifies a solution to the abortion issue. Story
at eleven!
News Flash!
Cultural Anthropology Solves Abortion Issue!
Story at Eleven!
(Being a Cultural Analysis of Sigourney Weaver’s Aliens Quartet)
Lee Drummond, Center for Peripheral Studies
Introduction: The Evolution of Culture, as Seen from the Cutting-Room
But that train keeps a movin’, and that’s what tortures me.
–– Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues
If Humanity Made Sense, the Human Mind Wouldn’t Need To
It is an ancient Mariner, and he stoppeth . . . Well, he stoppeth a whole lot
more than one in three — we’re talking more like one in three billion people
here, wedding guests and all, or, not to mince words, pretty much the entire
planet. Hey, this thing’s totally global! What thing? Why, movies — American
supergrosser movies that, besides being great fun, are sprawling, brawling, inyour-face engagements with issues that really matter to audiences whose members
— you and me — are picking our way across the conceptual and emotional
mindfields of day-to-day existence in the U S of A.
If Samuel Coleridge were around today, hooking down laudanum and
drifting off in drug-crazed reveries, concocting fantastic and, in The Rime,
nightmarish tales of life way beyond the edge of everyday reality, if Coleridge
were around today, he’d be a screen writer, cranking out scripts for Hollywood’s
latest phantasmagorias. Americans may have entered the new millennium with
their high-tech society in warp drive, with their megahertzs now mounding into
gigahertzs and their new check cards really, finally, taking the place of cold cash,
but we’re not about to give up our movies, in all their weird, otherworldly,
horrifying content. Movies are our combined myth and ritual, and we are every
bit as tribal in our desire and need for their spectacle as the proverbial painted
savage of old. Coleridge and his successors, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas,
Thomas Harris, Sigourney Weaver, Anthony Hopkins are our tribal magicians,
necromancers, shamans, exorcists, dream-merchants whose productions fill not
just our idle moments, but reach to the depths of our souls.
To date our legions of talk show pundits, cultural mavens, social
commentators, and the whole cultural studies rabble have barely scratched the
surface of this deep, rich vein of our collective psyche, of what counts as being
human in this new millennium. Sure, there are stacks and stacks of books and
academic articles on the general theme of “the significance of the media in
contemporary life” but 99.9% of these are so riddled with jargon and equivocation
that they inspire only a great yawning, “So what?”. This army of interpreters lets
us down in the worst possible way: They take movies that are gripping, exciting,
tremendous Fun and wring out all their vital juices, drain that most precious
commodity, a good time, right out on the floor where it congeals into a cold,
lifeless blob. As Nietzsche said of philosophers who preceded him, “nothing real
escaped their grasp alive.” Want to bore an audience to tears, want to trigger the
quick-draw reflex of the American finger on the channel remote? Just say you’re
going to tell the good folks what they should really be thinking about a movie
they loved, Star Wars, say, or E. T. They’ll turn away in droves.
Much of this antipathy springs from people’s natural reluctance to have an
emotional, even cathartic experience — just the kind of experience a great movie
delivers — reduced to a few trite moral lessons. If a movie touches your soul, do
you really care if it gets a two-thumbs up? From Tipper Gore (remember her?) to
all the afore-mentioned talk show savants, we are lectured ad nauseum about the
deleterious effects of our movies: they promote violence; erode family values;
detract from vital social issues; and just generally deteriorate the fabric of society.
But, for all these commentators and their endless, heavy-handed pronouncements,
we seldom get a detailed, reasoned argument about just how a particular movie
achieves a particular effect in its social surrounding. How do Star Wars and E. T.,
or even James Bond movies for that matter, act on people’s fundamental
understanding of their existence in this complex, changeful world of 21st century
I would make the reckless claim that this last question lies in the province
of the cultural anthropologist or anthropological semiotician, who is or should be
prepared to look closely at a particular cultural production and find in it mythic
and ritual themes of a fundamental generality. There are two parts to my proposal.
The particular, first of all: if cultural anthropologists excel at anything it is in their
tenacious, fine-grained exegesis of events that most people never see or, if they
do, promptly ignore. We are consummate bores, and we compound the sin by
making that our guiding methodology and totemic calling-card: the
method/theory/vocation of ethnography. As flies on the walls of rooms where
nothing much ever happens, we ethnographers are left to our own devices by the
horde of journalists and media commentators who want above all else to be in
rooms where earth-shaking events are occurring. Or, at any rate, events they try
desperately to elevate to the status of earth-shaking (do we really care if Gary
Condit diddled Miss Clairol?). Where the pundit may apply a few well-oiled
phrases to the current supergrosser (phrases which never really deviate from
common sense; that’s why they’re so palatable), the cultural anthropologist, in his
guise as ethnographer, dissects it scene-by-scene, forcing it to yield insights into
our nature as cultural beings that are anything but commonsensical.
Hence the second part of my proposal: cultural anthropology, as I practice
it here, is not out to demonstrate a set of tidy messages supergrosser movies
propagate (violence resolves our social issues; family values are passé), but to
identify fundamental and essentially unsolvable problems or puzzles that occupy
our dreams, nightmares, and many of our waking moments — problems or
puzzles that find dramatic form in movies.
A mistake most scholars make in undertaking cultural analysis, and a
mistake all media commentators seem to make, is that a critical assessment of a
movie will yield up just such a set of tidy messages, will enable us to issue
definitive pronouncements about the moral and aesthetic content or themes of
movies. I think this is just what puts off the everyday (wo)man in the street, who
may go to a movie to have a good time, but at the same time realizes, in her heart
of hearts, that she is engaging dilemmas of mythic proportion that make her life
anything but a tidy truth — a “truth” even such dim bulbs as Dan Quayle and
George W can grasp and serve up to her in their pabulum prose.
If only things were so simple. If only cultural things, such as movies, TV
shows, football games, weddings, and so on, contained meanings we could
identify and then apply to our own lives. After all, isn’t that what anthropologists
and philosophers have been telling us human culture is all about? About
attaching meanings to events and social arrangements, meanings that help us
adapt to and transform our environment, thus giving us a leg up on animals, those
poor, dumb brutes who do not possess symbolic thought and who can only react
to their circumstances?
The following outlook pretty much defines the principal origin myth of
secular America (educated Americans possess origin myths every bit as fantastic
as painted savages): Darwinian evolution took its slow, meandering course until
it produced a being, Man, endowed with consciousness and symbolic
communication. Those faculties enabled Man to accelerate greatly the tempo of
biological evolution by fashioning complex tools, planning hunts, and making
involved social arrangements (such as food-sharing and sexual division of labor).
Where biological evolution depended on genes and their slowly accumulating
mutations, human evolution utilized readily manipulated symbols and their
embodiments in language, technology, and social institutions. The name given to
this novel form of evolution, by figures like Oswald Spengler and Edward Tylor,
was “culture.” Several generations of anthropologists, acting as tribal elders, have
passed along this account, or origin myth, until today the average literate
American (whose literacy, of course, makes him none-too-average) takes it for
granted that humans evolved because they possessed something called “culture”
that was, as the litany runs in Anthro 101 courses across the land, acquired and
But should we regard the evolution of culture as an adaptive response to
our environment? Adaptive in that it enabled us large-brained humans to better
control events taking place around us? This canonical vision of humanity looks
pretty good on the surface — after all there are some six billion of us while
chimps, who were dealt a different hand at Mother Nature’s poker table, have
been reduced to a few bands of survivors. Despite this argument’s patent appeal,
however, I would suggest that it is all turned-around, a just-so story that is
comforting for a number of reasons but that completely misconstrues the nature of
cultural processes.
Let me sketch out this little heresy, before proceeding to apply it in an
interpretation of a particular movie-myth of 21st century America: Sigourney
Weaver’s Aliens quartet.
Rather than view the evolution of culture as a triumph of sense or meaning
over the nonsense and arbitrariness of the protocultural (early hominid and
primate) world, I think it must be understood as a continuing and escalating
engagement with nonsensical and arbitrary aspects of life that themselves issue
from earlier cultural or protocultural processes. In brief, culture is mainly about
questions and problems, not about answers. From its earliest stirrings, before
human culture was properly “human” or “cultural,” things have been thoroughly
screwed-up. Culture is “adaptive” in something of the way that, finding yourself
trapped in a narrow tunnel with a freight train barreling down on you, it is
adaptive to run like hell or wave frantically to the engineer. That train’s a comin’,
and you have little choice but to react desperately. Try anything, but don’t just
stand there and get flattened.
The just-so story of culture as a rational adaptation to environment ignores
the desperate and bizarre circumstances our hominid ancestors faced as they
struggled to survive, individual by individual, generation by generation. Instead,
it visualizes a pre-human world in which social arrangements and economic
pursuits already possessed an inherent orderliness, only waiting on us largebrained folk to discern and exploit. This general outlook on the preconditions of
cultural evolution parallels Darwin’s cozy speculation that biological evolution —
the origin of life — began in “some warm little pond.” How very Victorian
country-gentlemanly of him! The palette of Nature was laid out, all soothing
pastels of organic molecules, calm water, a nurturing sun. It was a scene you
might chance upon while picnicking in a summer meadow. And how very, very
different are the well-reasoned inferences of evolutionary biologists today, who
place the origin of life in the Hades of deep-sea hydrothermal plumes, where the
sun never reaches and where the first organisms, far from that warm little pond,
thrived quite literally on fire and brimstone.
The course of cultural evolution I sketch here is as different from the justso story of rational adaptation as the findings of contemporary evolutionary
biology are different from Darwin’s Victorian musings. If the protocultural world
of early hominids wanted only some rational tidying-up with our newly minted
faculty of symbolization, that is, if things already pretty much made sense, then
why would Mother Nature have gone to the trouble of producing and sustaining
an organism as improbable and expensive as the human, whose large brain and
helplessness at birth impose enormous costs in terms of energy use? I suggest
Mother Nature went to the trouble because our hominid ancestors, who already
possessed a long-established protoculture, found themselves up against it. With a
lot of help from an erratic and unforgiving Upper Pleistocene climate, they had
made a mess of things: their lives had become thoroughly screwed-up; that old
train was barreling down the track; desperate measures were called for.
Culture, with its signature traits of a highly evolved language and
technology — the manifestations of a developed symbolization process — was
that desperate measure. It was staying at least one jump ahead of that train; it was
filling an inside straight with all your chips in the pot in that evolutionary poker
An earlier American cultural anthropology, beginning with Franz Boas
and Ruth Benedict and extending right into the nineties, adopted a more
comfortable attitude toward its principal concept, culture, one that kept close to
the shores of its own warm little pond. Anthropologists regarded the densely
packed symbolism of myth and ritual as the vehicle a people utilized to invest
their lives and social institutions with meaning. This seemed a reasonable
approach, and to their great credit Boas, Benedict and their successors
championed it in the face of prevailing academic and public opinion that those
hordes of painted savages, unlike we rational Westerners, danced around and
babbled nonsense because they possessed a “pre-logical mentality.” It was a
happy thing to counter racism with the enlightened view that, if the symbols of
myth and ritual do anything, they carry meaning, and the anthropologist in her
role as ethnographer could proceed to describe a particular society or people as an
interconnected set of meanings.
Increasingly, however, it has begun to dawn even on cultural
anthropologists that a society’s meanings are interconnected and consistent to a
very limited extent. A man wraps his body with high explosives, walks into a
pizza parlor filled with kids, and sets off an unspeakable horror. The next day
crowds are parading in the streets with banner-sized photos of the man,
celebrating the hero who has gone to his just rewards. An American executive
lives his affluent life in an oak-shrouded suburb, commuting to the factory where
he is CEO, a factory that manufactures anti-personnel bombs (charmingly called
“toe-poppers” and “bombies”) that kill and maim tens of thousands of African and
Asian children every year. Faced with decades of atrocity and hypocrisy, the old
“symbolic anthropology” inaugurated by Benedict has lost its bearings, along
with its lunch.
“Der Irrtum ist zu sagen, Meinen bestehe in etwas.”
Wittgenstein, Zettel). But if symbols don’t mean, what do they do? What are the
elaborate cultural productions of myth and ritual for? I would propose that
images and symbols don’t mean in any conventional sense; they do not knit
together an idea and a social practice in a tidy, coherent element of culture or
social structure. Instead, the symbols of myth and ritual are boundary disputes,
skirmish areas, flash points, danger flags, indications of where and how badly
things have gone wrong in the course of living a collective, human life. Social
theorists and their politician apes have got it wrong: culture is not consensus;
elections decide nothing. Hail to the Thief.
If cultural anthropologists have played it safe in describing culture as
adaptive and consensual, it is intriguing that the cultural productions of that
peculiar tribe of painted savages known as “Americans,” and in particular some of
their supergrosser movies, have let out all the stops. Educated Americans are
more likely to find insights into their lives and their culture at the local theatre
than in the pages of the American Anthropologist (assuming they would ever
come across an issue of that staid organ’s minuscule 8,000 print run). I suggest
that we all, anthropologist and non-anthropologist, movie-maker and movie-goer,
are perpetually engaged in the cultural analysis of our lives and our society. Not
because we delight in constructing theoretical models and authoring reams of
unreadable prose, but because we are beset, in our anything-but-ordinary human
existence, with deeply troubling issues. Our lives, in Simon & Garfunkle’s
ancient lyric, are “a floating question ‘Why’?”. We look to, as well as at, our
When an anthropologist looks to as well as at our movies, (s)he is doing
ethnography. Granted, there’s a lot of schlock out there in movieland, and when
it comes to science fiction movies, a lot of xenophobic schlock: from Earth
Versus the Flying Saucers through Independence Day, our movies have fed an
unhealthy American appetite for carnage visited on Them, those slimy, bug-eyed
monsters out to eradicate humankind and the American Way. Still, for purposes
of this essay, it is important to focus on science fiction movies. Without
bothering to justify the claim, I would argue that the history of American film
contains a thread of science fiction movies that are truly mythic in proportion:
The Day the Earth Stood Still; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Starman; Close
Encounters of the Third Kind; Star Wars; E. T.; 2010; Jurassic Park; Terminator;
Contact; and, the focus here, the Aliens quartet.
Lurid escapism? Knee-jerk xenophobia? No, in the examples — the
movie-myths — at hand, our supposedly easy acquiescence in a commonsensical
reality evaporates, replaced by an engagement with fundamental questions of
existence and identity. Faced with the cinematic spectre of the Alien, we are
forced to suspend our everyday concerns — the spouse, the lover, the kids, the
job, the mortgage — and confront other issues: What is humanity? How did we
come to be? Where, if not to extinction without a trace, are we going? Would an
alien intelligence be utterly different from our own? If so, how would we even
begin to communicate with it? How would we even recognize it as an
“intelligence”? Sci-fi movies are not philosophical tracts, but for that very reason
their action-packed, cathartic episodes engage us in a Dreamtime world in which
fundamental questions possess an immediacy and substance they never had in
“Intro to Western Civ.” class. As true tempests, Shakespearean tempests, those
movie-myths hurl our frail craft far from the sheltered coves and warm little
ponds of daily existence.
Aliens/Aliens: A Cultural Analysis
From ancient times until about the nineteenth century, it
was taken for granted that some special animating force or factor
was required to make the matter in living organisms behave so
noticeably differently from other matter. This would mean in effect
that there were two types of matter in the universe: animate matter
and inanimate matter, with fundamentally different physical
properties. Consider a living organism such as a bear. A
photograph of a bear resembles the living bear in some respects.
So do other inanimate objects such as a dead bear, or even, in a
very limited fashion, the Great Bear constellation. But only
animate matter can chase you through the forest as you dodge
round trees, and catch you and tear you apart. Inanimate things
never do anything as purposeful as that – or so the ancients
thought. They had, of course, never seen a guided missile.
–– David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality
Nor, to continue Deutsch’s thought, had the ancients seen any of
Sigourney Weaver’s four Aliens movies, in which some decidedly animate beings
differing fundamentally from both bears and guided missiles do a great deal of
chasing around and tearing apart. If Aristotle’s classic identification of life with
“some special animating force or factor” no longer satisfies 21st century
theoretical physicists and even us lesser mortals, Deutsch’s reference to the
guided missile does introduce an aspect of the classic definition that is as critical
today as in Aristotle’s time (and long, long before): people everywhere and
always have shared a deep fascination with two very different sorts of animate
beings: animals and machines. Bears, bows and arrows, and, later, guided
missiles occupy prominent places in that complex of cultural production and
consciousness we call “humanity” because they embody antithetical processes of
being which continue to shape our destiny.
In and of itself, “animation” is not as fundamental a property as what
underlies it: the profoundly interesting feature of animate things is that they don’t
just move around willy-nilly; rather, they are creative, generative, they make
things happen, change the look and outlook, the feel of life. Animate things come
into the world, perform purposeful actions that would otherwise be inconceivable,
then age and die. The creativity or generativity of animals, humans, and machines
is not, however, of a piece. Bears beget bears through a reproductive process we
typically gloss as “natural;” bows and arrows beget bows and arrows through an
intermediary “cultural” process; and humans bring other humans into existence
through a process . . . Well, just what are we to call that process? Natural? Not
really. Cultural? Certainly not entirely, or, bowing to the biotechnological future,
not yet. How is the phenomenon of human reproduction tied to the distinct
generative processes of animals and machines?
In an attempt to answer this question, and even to establish that it is a bona
fide question, this essay develops an argument in four parts. First, the basic
premise here is that human reproduction, far from being a natural phenomenon,
simply the sort of thing that bears do, constitutes an elemental dilemma for an
emergent and continually evolving human consciousness. Although we might
like to concentrate on just doing it the old-fashioned way, reproduction is in fact
an enormous conceptual problem whose attempted resolution has helped shape
humanity, has made us what we are (or are not). Second, we can recognize that
problem and its attempted resolution in a wide variety of cultural productions and
practices: origin myths; obstetrical rites; and, of specific interest here, movies
such as the Aliens quartet. However frivolous sci-fi thrillers may at first appear, I
would urge that some of them are among our most important vehicles of mythic
thought. Third, a close examination of the symbolic processes in Aliens
illuminates the wider issue of the general nature of human symbolization, of how
we make sense or fail to make sense of the world. And fourth and finally, I would
make the presumptuous claim that a cultural analysis of Aliens, far from being a
mere intellectual exercise, is a key to one of the most vexing social issues
confronting us today: the increasingly divisive and violent issue of abortion.
A Plea: Prelude to Analysis
Here I would make a special plea, one traditional ethnographers are rarely
in a position to propose (although that is changing with the growing practice of
“studying at home.” E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Godfrey Lienhardt, and Raymond
Firth could hardly encourage their readers or respond to their critics with the
admonition, “If you don’t accept my account of Nuer, Dinka, or Tikopia society,
then go see for yourselves!”. The classical “peoples” of traditional ethnography
were classically remote, all but unreachable by anyone but the most dedicated
researcher (who, besides the problem of travel would need to attend to the
incidental matters of more-or-less learning the language and spending a year or
more in a remote, inhospitable locale). Not the sort of “fact-check” to which we
(post)moderns have become accustomed. But in the present case I can indeed
make such a plea, and would ask in particular that, before you read another word
here, “See the movies!”. Since the Aliens quartet has long since left the silver
screen for video archives, you won’t even have to pony up the outrageous
admission fees the purveyors of the American Dreamtime charge for their little
hits of movie-myth. Just go to any movie-download site and have them beamed
right into your media room at home. Supply your own Orville Redenbacher and
two-liter Coke and you are set! Besides, the movies are all in English, so, with
that DVD, popcorn, and Coke, you have all the equipment and credentials
necessary to start your own little cottage industry of cultural analysis.
But. . . But in my experience, it is more difficult to convince
anthropological colleagues to undertake such a research project than to enlist
them in a follow-up trip to the hallowed stomping-grounds of Evans-Pritchard et
al. The “different strokes for different folks” ethic which pervades the
community of oh-so-politically-correct cultural anthropologists in the United
States stops short when those folks are people they bump into on the streets
everyday, ordinary Americans who cut a wide swath past the lecture halls and
seminar rooms of universities as they beat a path to movie theatres showing the
latest supergrosser. If you’ve ever tried to describe a scene from a movie you
liked to someone who not only hadn’t seen that movie, but was unfamiliar with
the actors, director, and even similar movies, you know something of the
frustration one experiences in presenting an in-depth analysis of such scenes to a
readership (most definitely not a viewership) that is mostly ignorant of and
adamantly unreceptive to your material.
I know from long and frustrating experience that proposing to do a serious
treatment of the unserious fare of popular movies almost invariably draws blank,
or hostile, looks from those I propose it to. Hardly any serious types have seen
the movies, or will admit to having seen them. American “intellectuals” (using
the term with Tom Wolfe’s derogatory intent) can sit for hours parsing Foucault
or stirring polysyllables into a conversational mush (“globalization,” “commodity
capitalism,” “technoscience”), but become instantly uncomfortable if someone
suggests they sit through a ninety-minute screening of a popular movie, watch it
intently, then discuss it at length. Although prepared to go on and on about the
“cultural significance of the media,” they rarely engage themselves in the visceral,
blow-by-blow scenes of our movies. Hence, their interpretations are arid
scholastic exercises, not the substantive accounts of the ethnographer working in
the “field” of the neighborhood theatre.
My plea here is particularly important because, even with the best
intentions, the anthropologist-ethnographer is almost always a dismal failure at
narrative (and, regrettably, I am no exception). We are not bad at saying, but we
are really awful at telling. Our keen interest in the cultural symbolism of
narrative/myth is rarely communicated with any vitality or literary skill; we are,
again, consummate bores.
Think about this question: Read any good
anthropology books lately? Or even any bad anthropology books? The educated
American (wo)man in the street is invariably stuck for an answer. She can
mention popular works in the most arcane disciplines (cosmology, elementary
particle physics, mathematics, evolutionary biology, linguistics), but draws a
blank when it comes to anthropology, that “science of humanity,” which, one
would think, should have a tremendous appeal. But no. The blame for this most
peculiar situation rests squarely with the cultural anthropologist. For reasons that
need not be gone into here, we have abandoned accessible popular-science writing
and the educated public in favor of internecine wranglings and postmoulderings
over our own subjectivities, poor old Napoleon Chagnon’s fieldwork, the purview
of anthropology — anything but a gripping narrative account of people
confronting their lives in basic ways.
Yet just such narrative accounts are to be found in origin myths, whose
principal themes, despite tremendous variation in content, are the same
everywhere and always: the boundary between what is human and what is not;
and the transformations of identities (animal-human-deity-machine) that have
generated those boundaries. Our sci-fi movie-myths, including most especially
the Aliens quartet, are origin myths of a peculiar sort. While traditional origin
myths focus on how humanity has become separate from an animal world, Aliens
explores the continuing process whereby We become Something Else, a human
world evolving into an other-than-human condition.
So, in the likely event that you have not acquiesced to my plea and
watched the four movies, here is a rough, non-hyperlinked synopsis of that origin
myth, as collected by an ethnographer in the Dreamtime cathedrals of movieland.
The corpus, presented here in the traditional format for narrative analysis, consists
of four Aliens movies [Alien (1979); Aliens (1986); Alien 3 (1992); Alien
Resurrection (1997)].
---------------------------------------The Story of Ellen Ripley (Aliens 1 - 4)
The people of the future have mostly abandoned Earth, their lives
spent on journeys through deep space to hostile, uninhabitable planets
where they extract resources, or on enormous space stations, metropolises
really, where their government and industry are based. Early life on Earth,
our life, has become as unimaginable for them as the lives of the first
humans are unimaginable for us. Nowhere in the far-flung worlds of
Aliens are there verdant landscapes and rivers, nothing green and growing
from the soil. Those have receded into that place in memory where our
own memories reside of Paleolithic forests with their game and daring
hunters, of Paleolithic caves with their overwhelming sights, sounds, and
smells of life. The “terrain” of Aliens is the technoworld of ships in deep
space, and the “human” occupants of those ships are as different from the
occupants of those Paleolithic caves as their starships are from the caves
of Ice Age Europe. In Alien Resurrection (A4) Johner (Ron Perlman)
sums it up in his disgusted reaction upon learning that their escape vessel
is programmed to fly to Earth: “Earth! Oh, man. What a shithole!”.
A1 (Alien, 1979). Ellen Ripley is crew aboard a deep-space freighter,
Nostromo. She and her half-dozen shipmates are encased in cryogenic
chambers, sleeping away the months of dead time between ports.
Suddenly there is an alert: the ship’s computer, “Mother,” has received a
distress call from another vessel. The crew is automatically awakened and
instructed to investigate. The vessel has crashed on an uninhabited,
hostile planet; three crew members of the Nostromo are sent to investigate
the craft and immediately find it to be extraterrestrial — the first such
civilization ever encountered. One of the scouting team discovers a
peculiar scene in the bowels of the immense, deserted ship: a floor is
littered with what turns out to be an egg clutch of the alien monsters that
killed the ship’s original occupants. The eggs contrast dramatically with
the shipboard environments: unlike their high-tech, sterile surroundings,
the eggs teem with a sinister organic vitality. Then a pod opens and a
horrible, octopoid life-form propels itself out of the pod, smashes a
hapless crewman’s face plate, and sends its tendrils into him. Taken back
to the ship, the victim remains in a coma, then mysteriously revives. But
shortly afterward the first terrifying episode of the alien’s reproductive
process is revealed: the victim’s stomach swells and moves under his skin;
he screams in agony; an alien head bursts out of his body, its multiple sets
of teeth gnashing at the horror-stricken onlookers. The alien escapes and
proceeds to kill the other crew members one by one, until only Ripley and
the ship’s cat are left. It turns out that the Company owning Nostromo,
with the aid of the ship’s android, has conspired to infect the crew so that
it could obtain a specimen for its weapons program. Ripley and the cat
manage to escape in the ship’s “lifeboat,” only to discover the Alien has
slipped aboard. In a final terrifying battle, Ripley manages to eject the
monster out the air lock, where it falls away, shrieking in the blackness of
space. Adrift in a trackless interstellar void, Ripley and the cat seal
themselves in a cryogenic chamber, where they will sleep until rescue
hopefully arrives.
A2 (Aliens, 1986). Ripley’s lifeboat is not detected until it has been
underway for two hundred years; miraculously she and the cat survive
their cryogenic slumber. Hospitalized aboard an enormous city-in-space,
Ripley begins to have a recurring dream: she sees her own stomach
distend, the skin writhe horribly, and, as she screams, “Kill me!, Kill me!,”
a little alien bursts out of her body. Something of a living fossil, Ripley
tries to adjust to life in her new surroundings, where her old nemesis, the
Company, has effectively become a galactic government. Her new
masters propose a mission to her: she is asked to accompany a military
detachment being assembled to investigate a new outbreak of the aliens on
a remote planet. This time the alien egg clutch has claimed hundreds of
victims, killing or cocooning all save a little girl, “Newt,” who becomes
Ripley’s guide and surrogate daughter. The aliens have become a colony,
with dozens of attacking soldiers that feed and protect an enormous,
hideous queen with its rapidly growing egg clutch. After the platoon of
hardened commandos is destroyed by the aliens, Ripley, Newt, an android,
and one surviving commando make a desperate escape aboard another
lifeboat. This is possible only after Ripley has had a dramatic standoff
with the alien queen, rescuing Newt and incinerating the queen’s egg
clutch in the process. Again, the lifeboat is not the final escape: the
enraged, vengeful queen has made her way aboard. Ripley and the queen
engage in an epic “mother-against-mother” battle when the queen goes
after Newt (“Get away from her, you bitch!”). Donning a futuristic suit of
armor, Ripley manages to dispatch the queen, again through an air lock.
Ripley secures Newt in a cryotube and retires into one herself, to sleep
again until rescue comes.
A3 (Alien 3, 1992). Again, Ripley’s vessel drifts aimlessly until it
encounters a bizarre prison-world whose all-male inmates are serving life
sentences. Although rescued, there are immediate signs of trouble: it
appears that her cryotube was breached during flight by an alien, and that
one other alien remains hidden. Indeed, Ripley is herself impregnated,
and with the embryo of another queen, which can establish a new nest on
the prison planet. The other surviving alien proceeds to kill and kill again,
until Ripley finally stops it while sacrificing her own life. Knowing that
her “pregnancy” will soon come to term, the final scene shows Ripley
diving into a vat of molten metal, just as her abdomen bursts and the infant
queen shrieks from the bloody opening.
A4 Alien Resurrection, 1997). Alien Resurrection takes Ripley’s
adventures to a new level that is conceptually as well as emotionally
disturbing. The bizarre “resurrection” involves both the alien queen and
Ripley. Although both perished in the vat of molten metal, the fiendish
scientists of the Company-Government obtain specimens of Ripley’s
blood shed during battles on the prison planet — blood that contains DNA
infected by the alien queen growing inside her. At a secret laboratory in
space, the scientists proceed to clone and incubate hybrid variants of the
Ripley-alien DNA, producing a monstrous set of “offspring.” One of
these is a new alien queen, capable of starting a new colony. Most are
grotesque amalgams of human-alien physiognomies: aborted monsters.
One product of the laboratory, however, is “Clone #8,” a being that looks
exactly like Ellen Ripley, but with some deeply troubling differences.
Clone #8, “Ripley,” has superhuman strength, is impervious to pain, and
possesses ambivalent feelings toward the aliens. Though she has a certain
empathy or sixth sense for the aliens and a corresponding contempt for the
weak and corrupt humans around her, she nevertheless allies herself with a
small band of desperadoes — space pirates, really — who find themselves
aboard the research station when the newly grown aliens break out of their
enclosures. In one of the most riveting scenes in American film, Ripley
and her band discover the cloning lab where her aborted “siblings” are
kept in large vats, and where a living specimen, horribly disfigured but
still resembling Ripley begs to be killed: Ripley incinerates her/it with a
flame thrower and then goes on a rampage, destroying the entire lab with
its hideous creations. Between pitched battles, Ripley forges a bond with
Annalee Call (Winona Ryder), ostensibly one of the pirates but in fact a
super-sophisticated android spy who has penetrated the research station in
order to destroy the entire experiment. “I should have known you’re not
human,” Ripley exclaims, “you’re too compassionate to be human.” As
they battle to reach the escape vessel, the band is reduced to three
members, plus Ripley: Johner, a lumbering, slow-witted sadist (“Mostly I
just hurt people”), Vriess (J. E. Freeman), a paralytic dwarf who gets
around in a motorized wheelchair, and the android-woman, Call. Just
before making their escape, Ripley briefly yields to the ancestral urge to
return to the alien queen’s nest. In a disturbing and macabre scene, she
appears to renounce her human-half, wrapping herself in the slithering
coils of the queen’s tentacles while witnessing the latest horror: the alien
queen herself has mutated, becoming human to the extent of giving live
birth. As Ripley looks on, a full-grown, hideous “child” is delivered that
has some human features and the rapacious cruelty of the aliens. The
stunning realization is that, since Ripley and the queen are versions of the
same organism, this new horror is, in effect, also Ripley’s offspring. A
cocooned scientist in the nest, completely insane, begins to babble over
the “beautiful baby boy,” — until the creature bites off half his skull.
Ripley is repulsed, destroys the queen and her nest and flees to rejoin the
human survivors in the escape vessel, pursued by the new hybrid-alien
monster. She reaches the ship and the two pilots, Johner and Vriess, blast
off, heading on the programmed course for the ancient Earth. But, of
course, the hybrid monster has managed to slip aboard in the final
seconds. Ripley and Call find themselves in the cargo section of the ship,
locked in a life-and-death struggle with the monster. Ripley gets the upper
hand and the monster is expelled — in gory chunks — from the ship via a
ruptured porthole. Pathetically, it shrieks for its “mother” to save it. As
the ship hurdles through the upper atmosphere of Earth and clouds streak
across the porthole, Ripley and Call find themselves triumphant and alone
together. “What will we do now?”, asks Call. “I don’t know,” Ripley
replies, “I’m a stranger here myself.”
------------------------------------“I’m a stranger here myself.” As the credits spool across the screen and
the audience, perhaps including a cultural anthropologist or two, catches its
breath, the realization strikes home that we, like Ripley and Call, are ourselves
strangers transported to the surface of an increasingly uninhabitable and
incomprehensible Earth. An origin myth, whether American or the more
conventional painted-savage variety, leaves the listener/viewer with a new and
starkly drawn image of humanity. At the end of Alien Resurrection the social
world is reduced to an ark containing four passengers: two inadequate males (a
muscle-bound simpleton and a paralytic dwarf) who pilot the ark; and two
superior and supremely competent pseudo-women (an alien-human hybrid and an
android) who are passengers. Not a bad vignette of contemporary life, and one
that poses the basic questions one asks at the end of every origin myth: Where
does humanity go from here? What will humanity be after undergoing such a
fundamental transformation? How will the tiny group of survivors reproduce?
Who will marry and bear children with whom?
Considering that the particular origin myth under consideration is a moviemyth that already stretches over four installments, we might reasonably wonder
what an Alien 5 would involve? What sort of social world could Ripley, Call,
Johner, and Vriess establish? Posing this question immediately brings us to the
critical themes of this essay. For it is clear that the Aliens saga leaves us in the
midst of a conceptual wreckage: we are forced to examine and deal with the ruins
of our elemental beliefs concerning what it is to be human and how humans are
related through the process of biological reproduction. While moralists of Dan
Quayle’s and Tipper Gore’s ilk might decry the xenophobic violence with which
Ripley and her band zap the slithering little geeks, the ethnographer of 21st
century America immediately perceives that much more is involved. The postapocalyptic world of Ripley and her three companions, if it is to persist into
Aliens 5 and beyond, will not be about zapping geeks; it will be about
perpetuating a group whose descendants have stopped being human. Call, the
android-woman, will be able to reproduce only by finding the technological
means to build other androids, or — an intriguing alternative — to install biotech
components into others’ physical offspring. Ripley’s reproductive potential is a
question-mark, and a terrifying one. As an alien-human hybrid, a clone produced
in a lab, she has more in common with Call than with flesh-and-blood females. If
she can conceive and give birth, will her offspring be more or less like the alien
whose DNA she carries? And given the fact that Ripley’s recurring nightmare —
the distended abdomen, the thing moving beneath her skin, the agonizing, bloody
eruption of the alien — is disturbingly like human birth, her willingness to bear a
child is questionable, at best. Then there is the matter of the father. Vriess,
paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, may well be infertile, which would leave
the macho Johner as the sole candidate to play Adam in this latter-day Garden of
As movie-myth Aliens directly engages the underpinnings of major social
issues which our moralists and pundits largely ignore. Our moralists, like those
Nietzsche excoriated in Twilight of the Idols, mistake effect for cause and regard
as natural what is wholly arbitrary. For them, the most natural thing in the world
is bearing children in the snug confines of the nuclear family. Mom and Dad and
Buddy and Sis (aka June, Ward, Beaver, and Wally) are the American Way, the
human condition. Or, as — who? — Patti Page used to sing, “Most people get
married. That’s what they do-oooh-oooh.” Well, not Ripley and her crew. And
not, with any equanimity, us moderns, for whom marriage is a game of Russian
roulette and children are objects of a volatile mix of adult love, resentment, and
custody battles. The supposedly “natural” process of human reproduction is a
tremendous puzzle, contested and treacherous terrain where June and Ward can
find no footing. Today’s future parents, conflicted in their innermost being by
issues of abortion, sexuality, gender identity, parenthood, and treatment of
children (their society is rife with child abuse, kiddy porn, school violence) have
more in common with Ripley, Call, Johner, and Vriess than with the Cleaver clan.
Appeals to biology, and to a morality rooted in biological facts, are useless here,
and we should recognize them as what they are: ideological acts meant to prop up
an arbitrary set of values. We are in the province of culture, not of an impossibly
objective nature, and culture, as I have suggested, is about argument, not
Human reproduction, far from being a natural phenomenon, simply the
sort of thing that normal folks do, constitutes an elemental dilemma for an
emergent and continually evolving human consciousness. Although we might
like to concentrate on just doing it the old-fashioned way, reproduction is in fact
an enormous conceptual problem whose attempted resolution has helped shape
humanity, has made us what we are (or are not). Aliens serves up that dilemma in
the most graphic terms, enabling our trivia-ridden minds to ponder it while we
munch popcorn, slurp Cokes, and knead each other’s flesh in the darkness of the
theatrical alchuringa rite.
The unifying theme of Aliens, from first to last, is the stark contrast
between an asexual, high-tech human world and the horrible, mindless swarming
and spawning of the alien nest. Ripley and her associates live regimented lives
aboard a sterile ship whose mechanical contours replace the landscapes, trees, and
rivers of our daily existence. Nor — an extreme measure for Hollywood — is
there any sexual spark among the crew: although both men and women are
present, they perform their assigned tasks and grouch as they go about them,
reluctant cogs in the wheel of high-tech industry. The aliens’ nest and eggclutch, however, teem with organic vitality; they ooze with life. Their eggs,
horrid, slimy things, open like the eviscerated gut of an animal to spew out their
gnashing, slithering contents. Ripley’s world is populated by human drones who
are kept in their harnesses by a cold and lifeless Company-Government. The
aliens are the chaotic antithesis of that world. Killing, eating, and breeding are all
that they do, and they do it in public, in front of God and everyone, not behind the
closed doors of our slaughterhouses and hospital delivery rooms.
We would not attend these movies nor attend to their mythic elements
were there a clear choice between the human technoworld and the aliens’
swarming organicism. But there is not, and that is the entire reason for the
prominence of this opposition in our movies and in this essay. Human
reproduction is an elemental dilemma because it involves irreconcilable aspects of
both the technological “cultural” world and the organic “natural” world. We are
not one thing, fundamentally separate from Call the android-female and her/its
antithesis, Johner the dull-witted hunk. Rather, our being embraces both Call and
Johner, and their marriage is a turbulent, deeply unhappy affair.
That affair’s consummation is made possible only through the agency of
Ripley. Ripley, truly a believe-it-or-not figure, embraces and somehow melds the
disparate identities of the human-machine and the human-animal. Over the
course of the four movies she undergoes a powerful transformation, from just one
of the worker-drone crew in A1 to a machine-gun-toting action heroine
comparable to Arnie and Sly in A2 and A3 and on to a cloned human-alien hybrid
in A4. In A4 Ripley is r-e-a-l-l-y scary, in something of the way Hannibal Lecter
is scary: a being who has strayed beyond the pale of humanity.
But the terror Ripley instills runs deeper than Hannibal’s, who, in
Hannibal (the sequel to Silence of the Lambs), turns out to be quite an amusing
old duffer. While few of us wrestle with cannibalistic urges, half of us do wrestle
with the attractions and pitfalls of motherhood — and the other half at least have
to confront the prospect and fact of parenthood. In the throes of that struggle we
necessarily reach out for anything we can grab on to and hold on — a lifeline, a
tree branch, a sight or even a sign of solid land. Ripley is such a sign, not a
comforting one, to be sure, but in her dual human-alien nature she represents, and
thus speaks to, deeply conflicted American women today in a way that June
Cleaver cannot begin to do (if she ever did). Becoming a mother today, yielding
to the urge to return to that egg clutch with its slitherings, its oozing gore, is in no
way an easy or “natural” decision. Faced with that choice, an enforced choice in
the event of an unplanned pregnancy, every woman has to decide whether to yield
to her maternal stirrings or, like Ripley, reach for the flame thrower.
Which brings us back to the aliens themselves. If Ripley is a mythic
figure representing, in particular, American women today and, in general, the
human species, then what exactly are the aliens? Here the movie-myth Aliens
gets even scarier and grimmer. The general run of sci-fi movies, like spaghetti
westerns and John Wayne war movies, presents no problems of interpretation.
You can always tell the good guys from the bad guys. In Earth Versus the Flying
Saucers, Independence Day, and the rest the aliens are simply marauders, an
invasion force bent on wiping out humanity. It’s either us or them. But the aliens
Ripley confronts are different. To be sure, there are enemy soldiers, but there is
also the queen-mother and her egg clutch, whose grotesque reproductive process
(cocooning humans for newly hatched aliens to infest) is the dramatic focus of
action. In a sense, we become them and they become us. The final scenes of
Alien Resurrection underscore this ominous transformation, with the mutated
alien queen giving live birth to a hideous alien-human hybrid (at once Ripley’s
“child” and alter-ego). Formulaic space operas, always about zapping geeks,
never get so domestic; we never witness the mother alien nurturing her little
aliens. But in Aliens we do, and that touches a nerve.
Which nerve? Who or what are these peculiar aliens? Well, consider.
These aliens infest, take over, then burst out of our bodies in an eruption of gore.
They eat us out of house and home; in fact, they eat us. They run around
screaming and breaking things. The thankless little monsters completely trash the
place. Why — Oh, yes! — they’re our kids! . . . . . .
. . . . . . Or, not exactly our kids, not movie images of the little upstarts
actually underfoot. No, the grotesque, reptilian, gore-spattered things on the
screen are the phantoms, the nightmare shades of all those aborted foetuses,
millions and millions of them, dispatched in the sanitized clinics of America,
children that will never be, monsters returned to haunt us.
Remember, culture is not a rational adaptation to the environment; it is
rather a desperate thrashing about, not in aliens’ tentacles, but in the serpentine
twists and turns of our own minds. If we expect consistency, if we believe that
things can be figured out so they make sense, we already exercise a tyranny over
our own thought and life and, all too often, the lives of others. The only truly
natural state of the human psyche is ambivalence; faced with an impossible
choice, we want to have things both ways. The creatures that rampage across the
screen in Aliens are, in the memorable phrase of another sort-of-brainy sci-fi
movie (Forbidden Planet), “creatures from the id” — our id, of course.
Aliens confronts us with horrifying images of the swelling, unstoppable
tide of aborted human lives whose existence we do everything in our power to
deny in everyday life. The movies’ graphic honesty casts a harsh light on both
sides of the abortion debate in American society, revealing their distortions in the
name of truth, justice, God. Just a movie? Just a “myth”? Yes, if we begin to
approach myth in the manner proposed here: as narratives that engage the
fundamentals of the human condition.
Abortion is perhaps the most divisive issue in contemporary American
society, with all indications being that both its rhetoric and violence will intensify
over the coming years. As interpreted here, the Aliens movie-myth reveals that
the conflict is not amenable to any conventional solution: the forces of light or
darkness will neither triumph nor agree to compromise. Rather than Americans
and American culture figuring out what to do about the abortion issue, in all
likelihood the intractable nature of the problem will prove a key element in
transforming our most basic cultural values and ideas concerning human
reproduction, marriage, and the family in the rapidly shifting contexts of medical
science and the emerging phenomenon of biotechnology. The only realistic
solution is for us to stop being human.
Again, our moralists and social critics do not measure up well against the
experience of watching and thinking through Aliens. Given the critical nature of
the abortion issue, it is disappointing that social commentators of both the left and
right have done little more than bundle up the platitudes of “freedom to choose”
and “right to life” in more or less strident rhetoric. The most radical and farreaching treatment of human reproduction in a looming world of biotechnology
has come from a perhaps unexpected source: not from the pulpits or the
intellectual’s pen, but from the movie theatre.
Ripley as symbolic vehicle accomplishes what the usual arguments cannot
because her very identity is strung out — smeared like a quantum particle —
between impossible polarities of human and alien, of Us and Them. Partisan
supporters and opponents in the abortion debate miss — intentionally or not —
the contradictions inherent in their positions, and thus, as Nietzsche observed for
social issues of his own time, parade nonsense as social justice or God’s truth.
American women and American society have much more in common with Ripley
than with the ideological caricatures one encounters in the literature.
Do the factions really want to frame consistent arguments, arguments that
would impose a rationality missing from their real-life pronouncements? Then let
the opponents of abortion rights truly embrace the principle that all human life is
sacred, no matter how unformed or malformed. As well as marching against
abortion clinics, let them also protest outside Texas prisons where feeble-minded
and impoverished black men are routinely put to death. And the supporters of
abortion rights? If human life is to depend on human agency or intervention, how
can one abort a foetus and still maintain the evil of the death penalty? Even more
to the point, why should a woman’s freedom to choose, to control her body
herself, stop at the second or third trimester? The newborn infant through at least
the age of two is in no sense a human being with human thoughts and muscular
coordination — its brain is simply not developed. Were we honest with
ourselves, we would classify it as a different species. And the mother is as
constrained with the infant as with the foetus, often more so. Why not, then,
adopt and extend a practice that has been with our species since its beginning,
long before clinical abortion: infanticide? Her body, her life, herself.
Neither side faces up to these tough questions. Instead, advocates, some
of whom should know much better, resort to the threadbare platitudes we
encounter everywhere. These, however, do not mask our deep and growing
ambivalence toward the phenomenon of human reproduction: its messiness, its
pain, its degradation of the individual woman, its uncertainty with respect to the
child brought forth in a hostile world.
Feminist critics of the right-to-lifers have enjoyed a much better press than
their opponents, as well they should. After all, they know how the game of social
protest is played, how, through deploying enfolding webs of discourse, one
pretends to reason, to have logic, rather than God, on ones side. Few voices on
the left have been raised against those critics, but Camille Paglia, ever the
maverick, has done so. In Vamps & Tramps and elsewhere, she makes the simple,
unassailable point, echoed above, that abortion is a form of murder. Upon
inspection, Aliens makes the same point, with even greater dramatic impact.
When one comes to the end of an impassioned defense of abortion rights, when
the carefully wrought paragraphs stop, one still knows, somewhere in ones
psyche, that those millions of mutilated corpses are still out there, waiting to
emerge in nightmares or, far worse, screaming for their revenge in Digital
Surround Sound.
Back to the Future
A fully developed cultural analysis of Aliens would take us further into the
rich ideational landscape of the four movies. The above notes, though, hopefully
suffice to establish the salience of one of several themes: the deep ambivalence
we feel toward the phenomenon of human reproduction. That ambivalence makes
itself felt in our daily lives, and it appears everywhere in both popular and lessthan-popular media. Its contemporaneity is undeniable. For that very reason,
however, I want to caution against regarding my discussion here as yet another
breathless cry that “the Computers and Biotechnology are coming, and are they
ever going to change things!”. They are, indeed, coming, in fact, their vanguard
is here, and they are already producing changes in American society and in our
basic conceptions of humanity that will only grow in importance. But the
situation Aliens depicts so dramatically is anything but new: human reproduction
is an elemental dilemma that has fashioned and defined our species. While social
commentators rush around, not unlike a pack of hunting dogs, their noses in the
air, sniffing for a fresh scent of prey, for the latest thing, the cultural
anthropologist takes a more dispassionate, panoramic view (what Claude LéviStrauss has called le regard éloigné). Ripley is a stand-in, not just for the modern
American woman, but for the human species, poised on one of several cusps of
fate it has experienced during its brief and exceedingly strange history. Adopting
that view means, in effect, going back to the biotechnological future, back to the
beginnings of humanity.
Why is human reproduction an elemental dilemma? The main thread of
argument running through this essay is that most if not all the ideas and values we
regard as essential to our identity are inherently contradictory, deeply flawed
vessels we nevertheless trust with our lives. This general argument applies with
particular force to core ideas and values regarding human reproduction. My claim
runs counter to both common sense and to the great majority of social theories,
which concur in regarding human reproduction, particularly its most dramatic and
visible aspects — childbirth and the mother’s care of a helpless infant — as a
uniform set of behaviors and attitudes, the most natural thing in the world. It is a
curious fact that despite their crucial differences anthropological theories of
kinship regard motherhood and its complement of behaviors as an invariant,
“natural” property of “cultural” systems elaborated on the maternal complex. Yet
as I have suggested elsewhere (“The Transatlantic Nanny,” American
Dreamtime), far from being the most natural thing in the world, motherhood is in
important respects the most unnatural.
The unnaturalness of human reproduction derives from its intermediate or
peripheral status with respect to the reproduction of animals and of machines,
processes which we typically presume to be unambiguous. As David Deutsch
notes, from the time of Aristotle until the establishment of modern biology, all
living beings were thought to possess some special animating force which
distinguished them categorically from non-living, inanimate things. If Aristotle’s
classic definition no longer satisfies 21st century scientists and even us lesser
mortals, who must contend with such things as Cruise missiles that appear very
much alive, an aspect of the classic definition is as critical today as in Aristotle’s
time (and long, long before): people everywhere and always have shared a deep
fascination with two very different sorts of animate beings, animals and machines.
Bears, bows and arrows, and, later, guided missiles occupy prominent places in
that complex of cultural production and consciousness we call “humanity”
because they embody dialectical processes of being which continue to shape our
The basic problem is that the female human body is terribly ill-suited to
give birth, while the foetus is terribly unprepared to be born. Hominid evolution
over the past 4.5 million years has been a quixotic struggle between that body and
its foetus. Getting the ape to stand, walk upright, and use its newly freed hands in
increasingly complex ways necessitated a reduction in the size of the pelvic
girdle, thereby constricting the birth canal. Yet at the same time pressures
doubtlessly associated with increased sociality, tool manufacture, and
(proto)language placed considerable value on enhanced cognitive skills, that is, a
larger brain. The foetus’s large brain, of course, had to be accommodated by a
larger skull, which in turn had to negotiate the constricted birth canal. The sorry
compromise between these antithetical processes has resulted in a delivery that is
agonizing and mortally dangerous to the mother’s life, and in an infant born at a
shockingly premature stage of development, before its swollen head has made the
passage through the birth canal even more perilous.
As I recall from distant memories of Anthro 101, this “obstetrical
dilemma” was duly noted in an early chapter dealing with human evolution, then
forgotten in later chapters when the introductory text assayed the strictly
“symbolic” topics of myth and religion. This is regrettable, for the development
of modern Homo sapiens has not been as orderly and compartmentalized a
process as the tidy chapter divisions of anthropology texts would suggest.
Reproduction, along with environmental adaptation, kinship, and material culture,
are not simply “physical” aspects of life operating independently of other, nicely
segregated “symbolic” aspects such as origin myths and initiation rituals. The
long and complex process of becoming human, and now, quite likely, something
other than human, has involved the interacting and interthinking of all those
elements, actions which transgress the ostensible boundary between “material”
and “symbolic,” “physical” and “cultural.” This battle or tension, which still very
much engages cultural anthropologists, has been fought and won long since in the
world of art (won decisively and, most important, with a touch of humor):
The story is told of Picasso that a stranger in a railway carriage
accosted him with the challenge, “Why don’t you paint things as
they really are?” Picasso demurred, saying that he did not quite
understand what the gentleman meant, and the stranger then
produced from his wallet a photograph of his wife. “I mean,” he
said, “like that. That’s how she is.” Picasso coughed hesitantly
and said, “She is rather small, isn’t she? And somewhat flat?”
— Story related by Gregory Bateson in Angels Fear:
Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred (Gregory Bateson and
Mary Catherine Bateson)
The remarkable fact is that long before people were people, that is, long
before australopithecines and the early Homo line evolved into Homo sapiens
sapiens, the obstetrical dilemma was already making itself felt. Cultural
processes associated with bipedalism — tool use, protolanguage, social
organization — steadily increased the tension between a reshaped female body
and the undeveloped infant at birth (often likened to a premature ape). The
human body as we know it today is already a product of a biotechnology that
extends back several million years: the acquisition of culture transformed our
physical selves as surely as today’s much-discussed techniques of genetic
manipulation. The great mistake we make is insisting on seeing distinct processes
at work here: “natural” physical behaviors on one hand; “cultural” technological
inventions on the other. One rather sad, rather laughable consequence of this
mistaken thinking is the popular movement to promote “natural childbirth” — as
though those millions of years of culturally-driven evolution could be willed away
by adopting the politically correct attitude and doing some breathing exercises.
Such a movement may provide the palliative effect of shielding its adherents from
the reality of their situation, which is the reality of the human condition: like
Ripley, we are all freaks, impossible hybrids of culture and biology, strangers on
an alien planet Earth.
The prehistory of our species is not, however, a simple unilineal
development from apes and ape-men to humans — which would invite an
interpretation of rational adaptation, of gradually getting better at the culturebusiness. Rather, prehistory is filled with abrupt starts and stops, of multiple lines
of hominids that simply disappeared, not missing links but dead-ends. You see, a
funny thing happened on the way to humanity, a thing anthropologists have only
fairly recently figured out and that they have been characteristically slow and
inept in communicating to the literate public: we modern humans haven’t been
around very long at all, a tiny fraction of the millions of years of hominid
evolution; and we got the way we are through genuinely mysterious
Over the past three decades the American public has become accustomed
to news of paleontological discoveries that push the origins of humanity further
and further back into the remote past. Australopithecines, predecessors of the
human lineage, date to at least 4.5 million years ago. One of them, the famous
Lucy, and her kind lived in East Africa as early as 3.5 million years ago. About
two million years ago, the genus Homo itself was already represented by three
African species, one of which (Homo ergaster) is known to paleoanthropologists
through a find as significant, if less publicized, as Lucy: “Turkana Boy,” who
lived about 1.55 million years ago, and, had he grown to maturity, would have
stood six-feet tall and weighed 150 pounds. These were staggering figures,
incredible spans of time, when they were announced in the seventies and eighties.
The drama deepens with the appearance of Homo sapiens, who, for
reasons that will become apparent, are rather ambiguously called “early modern
humans” and “archaic humans.” H. sapiens appeared in Africa around 150 –
160,000 years ago, then spread into the Middle East as early as 100,000 years ago
and on into Asia and Europe only in the last 40 – 45,000 years. [See Paul Mellars,
“Neanderthals and the modern human colonization of Europe.”] Note what an
afterthought this turn of events was in the course of hominid evolution, which
proceeded on its haphazard course for over 4.5 million years before, in the past
hundred fifty thousand, producing the basic version of our species. The human
career has occupied less than one-half of one per cent of what we generally, and
misleadingly, refer to as “human evolution.” Something was going on all that
time, but is it really legitimate to call that process “human evolution”? Perhaps,
rather than capstone, we are more like a hiccup.
The tenuousness of our condition becomes even more apparent when we
take a closer look at our “early modern human” ancestors. These folks looked
just like people you pass on the street every day, just like you and me. Slap an
Armani or Versace on them, take them by the stylist, and they’d look just right.
Except for one small problem: these folks weren’t folks at all. Homo sapiens,
yes, but not, in our own redundancy, Homo sapiens sapiens. That redundant
qualifier makes all the difference. The Armani and Versace notwithstanding, our
“sapient” forebears couldn’t carry on a conversation, not because they didn’t
speak English or Hindi or whatever, but because they didn’t have a fully
developed human language with verb tense markers, pronominal shifters, and
grammatical cases. Symbolic representation as a whole was beyond them; art,
ritual, and probably music were either absent from their lives or present in the
most rudimentary form. Even in the area of technology, their stone-working
techniques had been around 100,000 years before their appearance as a species.
And though their worked stone was masterful, many groups had not acquired the
knack of fitting stone tips on their spears. They still hunted with sharpened sticks.
And the bow and arrow, that classic fixture of “primitive” existence? Still tens of
thousands of years in the future.
Contrary to the popular stereotype, Homo sapiens did not burst on the
scene, tall, blond, Daryl Hannah look-alikes (as in Clan of the Cave Bear) and
immediately begin lording it over dark, hunchy grunts like the Neandertals. The
great mystery is that early modern humans lived side-by-side Neandertal and
surviving Homo erectus populations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia for
40,000 – 50,000 years (2,000 – 2,500 generations) without either displacing them
or interbreeding with them to any appreciable extent. They did not possess a
newly mutated gene for smartness and aggression, nor, evidently, had they been
zapped by smart rays from the black obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In their
stone tool technology and minimal artistic-ritual artifacts they were barely
distinguishable from their unevolved neighbors.
Then that funny thing happened that did usher in humanity, all of a sudden
and during the final seconds of the hominid evolutionary clock. Archaeologists
refer to this occurrence as the “Middle-Upper Paleolithic explosion,” or, more
soberly, the “Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition.” Around 40,000 years ago,
give or take several thousand, Homo sapiens became a great deal more sapient,
acquiring our own redundant doubly sapient species label. Their hunting
techniques and tool kits became far more sophisticated and specialized. They
began to paint on cave walls, to bury their dead in ceremonial graves, to sew
garments, to make ornaments, and to produce sculpture. Their former neighbors
ominously disappeared from the scene, with the last Neandertal population
surviving in southwest Europe until perhaps 28,000 years ago.
But what exactly happened? What, after forty or fifty thousand years of
somnolence, awakened early modern humans to the myriad possibilities of a fully
human existence? This may well be the most significant question anthropologists
can ask, not just for themselves but for all of us: the narrow academic debate
opens directly on the deepest issues of the nature and future of humanity. It is
precisely at this juncture, where our turbulent prehistory meets an even more
turbulent future, that Ellen Ripley and the movie-myth Aliens make their
Recall my general argument that culture is not a rational adaptation to the
environment but a desperate engagement with arbitrary and contradictory aspects
of life that threaten to overwhelm us. And recall my specific argument that a
major theme of Aliens is the elemental dilemma posed by human reproduction: a
biological process subverted, over millions of years, by protocultural
transformations of the human body. I suggest those arguments figure into an
answer to the deep question before us. At some time around 40,000 years ago
pockets of early modern humans, pockets perhaps separated by thousands of miles
and thousands of years, began to conceptualize the enormity of the situation they
confronted: chaotically changing seasons; bitterly cold winters; fluctuating herds
of game animals; complex intragroup rivalries and alliances; intense competition
with other surviving groups; hunts that often killed the hunter as well as the
hunted; births that often killed the mother or child or both. They came to realize
that they were well and truly up against it, backed into a corner by the very
protocultural processes that had brought them into being. In those desperate
straits many, perhaps most, such groups perished: more dead-ends to add to the
long list of dead-ends that is the “success story” of human evolution.
For other groups, the mere act of conceptualizing the problems they faced
— even though those problems were largely unsolvable — sharpened their
collective understanding and will to carry on. That epochs-old train was barreling
down the tracks; there was nowhere to run or hide; the only thing to do was face it
head-on, to fight fire with fire or, in this case, to deploy new cultural weapons
against the old protocultural menace.
I suggest that those new cultural weapons were of two sorts, that they
fitted into two primordial and interrelated symbolic complexes whose vestiges are
with us yet: a male-centered set of behaviors and beliefs concerned with hunting
and the spiritual nature of animals; and a female-centered set of behaviors and
beliefs concerned with pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing.
The Upper Paleolithic Explosion, and Its Female Figurines
The question of what went on during the true “dawn of humanity” when a
fully human culture made its appearance is fascinating, deeply important, and,
because of the limited evidence available, inevitably speculative. Readers whose
familiarity with this topic is as limited as my own may begin to get a sense of the
profundity of the issue by consulting David Lewis-Williams’ excellent Mind in
the Cave. For my purposes here I would like simply to propose what others have
suggested, that the Upper Paleolithic saw the development of dual symbolic
complexes, doubtlessly interrelated in many respects, with one being a malecentered set of behaviors and beliefs regarding the linked identities of humananimal-spirit, and the other being a female-centered set of behaviors and beliefs
regarding the generativity of women and the practical and spiritual nature of
childbirth and the resulting infant. Since the male-centered complex typically has
received far more attention in the literature than the female-centered complex, and
since the latter meshes exactly with my focus in this essay, I attend to it in some
detail while glossing over the other.
Regarding the male-centered complex, it will suffice to note that Upper
Paleolithic hunters’ relation to their prey was qualitatively different from, say, my
cat’s relation to a mouse or even chimpanzees’ relation to the Colobus monkeys
or gazelle fawns they hunt and kill. That difference, which persists today among
remnant bands of subsistence hunter-gatherers, may be found inscribed in the
remarkable paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux caves of the period: animals were
not just so much meat on the hoof, but quasi-human, quasi-spiritual beings that
demanded ritual performance and something very like reverence. I know from
my own experience as ethnographer among Arawak and Carib groups of
northeastern South America that when an individual hunter goes out alone in the
tropical forest he may encounter an animal that behaves oddly, perhaps moving
erratically or simply turning and staring him down. Such an encounter is deeply
upsetting to the hunter; the last thing he would do is loose an arrow at it, even
though he and his family may be badly in need of a meal. For that animal’s
behavior indicates that it is in fact a spirit-animal, perhaps a shaman who has
“turned” or perhaps even a Master of Animals (the principal spirit of a particular
species). In pondering the mind-set of that hunter, alone in the towering forest,
you must keep in mind how very, very far he is from the industrial
slaughterhouses of Nebraska.
Hunting and the mythic-ritual complex surrounding it were intimately tied
to a corresponding mythic-ritual complex centered on pregnancy and childbirth.
At the heart of both was a concept of generative vitality or organicism that
inspired what was to become a truly human culture. Yet the other face of that
vitality was also present, as indissociable from it as the other side of a sheet of
paper: both hunting and childbearing were stalked by death, by a sense of the
danger and destructiveness surrounding life that, once grasped, fundamentally
altered the equation of living.
Female Figurines of the Upper Paleolithic.
In the brief and
undistinguished history of anthropology, a particularly dismal chapter is the
emergent discipline’s treatment of Upper Paleolithic sculptures of women that
began to be unearthed in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Those
sculptures were tiny, usually just three or four inches long if that, and often, but
not exclusively, depicted women with large buttocks, pendulous breasts, swollen
abdomens, and pronounced genitals. Intriguingly (and tellingly) while Upper
Paleolithic art abounds with images of animals and animal-spirits, actual
sculptures of humans overwhelmingly represent females. These sculptures
proliferated during the Gravettian period, roughly 18,000 - 30,000 years ago and
have been found in sites from southwestern Europe through the Ukraine and into
Siberia. As such, they comprise most of the earliest known examples of
figurative art. One sculpture, discovered in 2008 at a rich Upper Paleolithic site at
Hohle Fels in Germany, dates from 35,000 - 40,000 years ago and may well be
the very earliest example of figurative art – an image of Woman that sets the stage
for the appearance of humanity as presently constituted.
On the basis of the first few figurines, plucked from their in situ deposition
by men who were little more than tomb robbers, the archeologist Edouard Piette
at the turn of the century proposed the first of what was to become a series of
wildly speculative “anthropological” theories. Piette saw such a pronounced
contrast between the voluptuous “Venus” figurines and others, including his 1894
discovery of the tiny, finely carved head of a woman, that he declared there had
existed two races in Ice Age Europe, one slender, white Cro-Magnon and the
other an obese “Negroid” people. His account of the “steatopygic” Negroid
people was influenced by an event which had caused a sensation in London and
Paris of the early 19th century: the shameful exhibition of a Khoisan (Bushman)
“Hottentot” woman, known as Saartjie Baartman, who had been sold as a slave
and transported to Europe to exhibit as a freak show. Piette and his enthusiastic
supporters (his principal work on the subject appeared barely thirty years before
the democratic election of the Nazi Party in Germany) elaborated his thesis,
making of the Cro-Magnon an elite race sprung from an Egyptian dynasty and
the Negroid race a brutish, inferior lot. The so-called “Venus” figurines, Piette
insisted, were factual, realistic renderings of members of that Negroid race, as
substantiated by the tragic figure of Saartjie Baartman. They compared images
such as the two below and found in the similarities undeniable evidence that an
actual, genealogical connection existed across two continents and 20,000-odd
Saartjie Baartman
On Display, 1810-1815
London, Paris
Venus of Willendorf
Circa 22,000 BP
Discovered Austria, 1908
Just why the first sculptors the world had seen chose to create these tiny images –
meant to be worn as pendants as evidenced by perforations or wear marks in the
stone or bone – is a question that does not seem to have occurred to Piette or his
followers. Why would those sculptors, most probably members of the superior
Cro-Magnon race (surely the “Negroids” did not have the talent) have chosen as
their subject grossly proportioned women they held in low esteem?
If Piette did not trouble himself with the daunting question, “Why?”, his
immediate successors were only too eager to propose an answer, and in the
process dragged the fledging discipline of anthropology deeper into the mire of
racism, sexism, and mediocrity. One should recall Marx’s famous observation
that an historical event unfolds twice, the first time as tragedy and the second as
farce. Piette’s racist theory, spun from virtually nothing, was a tragic beginning
for a supposedly dispassionate “science of humanity,” and helped pave the way
for an historical mind-set that plunged Europe into a chamber of horrors. The
interpretation of the figurines lurched from tragedy to farce with the appearance
of work by G. H. Luquet (The Art and Religion of Fossil Man, 1930) and others
extending right into the 1980s: these little statuettes, with their exaggerated
breasts, buttocks and genitalia were obviously sex toys – paleo porn! – which
early man liked to fondle and ogle. It is difficult to overstate the absurdity of this
position (but, of course, I will try!). Imagine: some of the best minds of science
figured that these cave guys sat around the hearth with lots of half-naked women
walking around, yet they chose to concentrate on the tiny, crudely carved stone
pieces in order to get their rocks off . There was your answer, as obviously true
as the existence of the male sex drive. Pathetic.
Again, the paleo-porn interpretation is not an antiquarian curiosity – a
fable spun by sexually repressed old white guys coming out of the Victorian era,
guys who didn’t see many half-naked women walking around (outside of the
brothels they frequented). Writing as late as 1949, Karel Absolon, professor of
anthropology at a Czech university, informed his readers that, based on his
extensive study of the Upper Paleolithic, “sex and hunger were the two motives
which influenced the entire mental life of the mammoth hunters and their
productive art.” Dipping into a little amateur psychology, Professor Absolon
claimed that these Stone Age artists used art to project their “sexual libido.” In
the best emerging tradition in the social sciences, he even coined a meaningless
bit of jargon to conceal the superficiality of his analysis: the little statuettes
represented a “diluvial plastic pornography.” Talcott Parsons would have been
proud. [An excellent review of the figurines and their several discrepant
interpretations is Karen Jennett’s Female Figurines of the Upper Paleolithic.]
Interpretations of the figurines continued to lurch from one extreme to the
other throughout the latter part of the 20th century. Since most of the figurines
lacked the kind of precise, stratigraphic data that is a requirement of archeology
today, and since the figurines were so inherently evocative, scholars were free to
follow any interpretive whim they chose. The resulting literature is what Richard
Feynman, who did not suffer fools gladly and who was ever-caustic about the
social sciences, called “cargo cult science”: wishing will make it so.
In a sort of backlash response to the paleo-porn theories, a school of
thought developed that emphasized the maternal symbolism of the figurines:
Paleolithic women were not merely sexual objects; they were first and foremost
mothers. The exaggerated body proportions of the figurines were meant to
represent women’s fertility and its vital role in preserving the group. Note that
this outlook can hardly be called less sexist than the Playboy school of paleoporn, for here again men are seen to attach value to women on the basis of what
they do for men, namely, provide the offspring required by the strong leader of a
small community. From Carl Reinach’s 1908 speculation that the figurines were
part of a fertility cult centered on increasing the number of childbirths right
through the 1970s, when M. Berenguer proclaimed that they represented “man’s
obsessive need for women who would bear him lots of children” (In Prehistoric
Man and His Art), the dominant assumption has been that a group’s survival
dictates that its women have as many children as possible.
Once again, these professional scholars, including founders of the
discipline, got things horribly wrong. Writing in the oppressive confines of
agricultural societies, which dictate that men conscript women to have as many
children as possible to serve as field hands, Reinach, Berenguer et al attributed
their own values to human groups utterly dissimilar from 20th century Westerners.
The ethnographic literature that accumulated throughout that century amply
documents that subsistence hunter-gatherers, whose lives much more closely
resemble those of Upper Paleolithic Europeans than they do contemporary
Europeans, do not welcome and cannot support large numbers of children. As we
will see in a bit, the attention given to pregnancy, as attested in the figurines, most
probably had to do with the mother’s survival of the ordeal and not with the need
to encourage multiple births. As an adult, productive member of a small group
whose survival was almost always on the line, she was a far more valuable asset
than the helpless and demanding infant she brought into the world. The Neolithic
Revolution, which brought with it concentrated agriculture, cities, armies and
tyrants, was still mercifully in the remote future, some fifteen or twenty thousand
years after the little figurines had played their part in the lives of people living in
caves and rock shelters, hunting animals and foraging forest products.
The really disturbing thing about these fertility arguments is that their
authors arrogantly refused to turn their (admittedly feeble) lens of analysis back
on themselves, to examine, in the purportedly scientific manner they adopted
toward the figurines, their own lives, their own culture as reflected in the
interpretations they readily assigned to works of art tens of thousands of years
older than themselves. Of course, postmodernism was still a ways in the future
(and these guys probably didn’t read much of Nietzsche); these “scholars”
blithely assumed that their words referred to things in a real world, rather than to
others’ words, others’ discourses (the paleo-porn crowd, for example). Had they
done so, they immediately would have had to ask themselves the hard question:
Why should we think that these early humans, who had every reason not to
burden themselves with the heavy baggage of a surfeit of infants, have done
everything in their power to encourage fertility in their women?
That hard question can be answered only in part by pointing out that
human fertility and large families are highly valued in societies based on
agricultural production. There is another, much darker factor at work in scholars’
blithe attribution of such values to Upper Paleolithic groups. It is a four-word
answer: the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Through the good agency of the
Church, the efflorescence of classical antiquity was extinguished for a thousand
years, a Dark Age in which bigotry and ignorance reigned supreme. A major
tenet of that Church, which persists unchanged to the present day, was that human
sexuality is all about procreation, and the procreators had better keep at it – nose
(or some body part) to the grindstone to produce more and more souls that will
stand in need of salvation. Procreation being a perfectly natural and divinely
ordained process, the last thing the Church would countenance was individuals,
specifically women, who knew a great deal about female sexuality, pregnancy and
childbirth and therefore proposed to interject themselves in what was a sacred,
inviolate domain. These women, herbalists and midwives, were denounced as
heretics and witches by the Holy Church, which performed its divine duty by
torturing them and burning them at the stake. Much of their knowledge, which
embodied a worldview that procreation could be managed, that it was subject to
human agency and not to divine decree, was lost or became suppressed, illicit
lore. When the first anthropologists appeared on the European scene after
centuries of diligent work by the world’s first Thought Police, they found it easy
to adopt the doctrinal view that of course women wanted babies, and the more the
better. To their lasting shame, and ours, they did not bother to examine the
sociocultural milieu in which they paraded their own bigotry, a bigotry to which
they assigned a new name: anthropology.
Had these squawking parrots actually embraced the spirit of free enquiry
(rather than the Holy Spirit) they would have noted that the desire to have lots of
babies is scarcely a universal attribute of culture, that it is, in fact, a rather bizarre
curiosity. It would not even have been necessary to consult the growing
ethnographic literature to find references to women in hunting and gathering
groups practicing a variety of birth control methods, of which a major example is
the knowledge and widespread use of herbal abortifacients. Man, as the sagacious
M. Berenguer claimed, may have harbored an “obsessive need for women who
would bear him lots of children,” but the women had other ideas. Extensive use
of abortifacients occurred in classical antiquity, prior to its genius being
extinguished by the Dark Ages:
The ancient Greek colony of Cyrene at one time had an economy
based almost entirely on the production and export of silphium, a
powerful abortifacient in the parsley family. Silphium figured so
prominently in the wealth of Cyrene that the plant appeared on
coins minted there. Silphium, which was native only to that part of
Libya, was overharvested by the Greeks and was effectively driven
to extinction.. Wikipedia
[If the Greeks were up to this kind of monkey business way back when, it takes
some punch out of the old joke:
A Greek and an Italian man were sitting in a bar, when the talk inevitably turned
to sex. “You know,’ said the Greek man, “it is we Greeks who introduced the
notion of sexuality to Western culture.” The Italian man thought for a moment
and responded, “True. But it is we Italians who introduced the notion of sex with
Women’s power over their own reproductive activity is so much a part of
things in lowland Amazonian communities even today that it may well derive
from a differentiation stretching back to the Upper Paleolithic between a set of
beliefs and behaviors centered on hunting and animal spirits and a set of beliefs
and behaviors centered on human reproduction – my principal argument here. I
can attest from my own research in northeastern South America that along a
stretch of tropical forest river containing a few Amerindian settlements one finds
two or three individuals who identify themselves and are identified by the group
as practicing shamans. These individuals are invariably male, and engage in a
number of activities: as well as provide hunting magic in the form of amulets or
charms, they claim to cure and inflict illness and to detach themselves from their
bodies to become animal-spirits or flying spirit-travelers. My experiences with
such individuals (admittedly a very limited set) has not been particularly
inspirational; I found them more interested in rum and young women than in the
world of non-alcoholic spirits. [But then, you might, ask, what’s so wrong with
that? Isn’t it a universal male value complex: faster cars, older whiskey, younger
women?] Still, after a couple of years doing fieldwork there I have never been
able to read Castaneda with quite the same enthusiasm as before. The shamans I
came to know were definitely not the sun-tanned Socrates which Castaneda
portrays Don Juan to be.
In those same communities, coexisting with these rather tarnished
shamans but keeping a much lower profile, one finds two or three older women
who consult and assist other women in reproductive matters: herbalists and midwives who know a lot about the subject and lend their help in the absence of any
kind of outside medical assistance. Since most of these Amerindian groups have
been extensively missionized and subjugated by colonial administrators with
provincial, Victorian sensibilities, these women are understandably reluctant to
discuss their craft and lore with a white male ethnographer. Private as they are,
they perform a sorely needed public function, which is evident in the coming and
going of women, some pregnant some not, to their dwellings. I was able to
ascertain, and even to collect samples (none identified), that abortifacients played
a large part in their practices.
Prior to their “pacification” and centuries of colonial oversight, I believe
such groups relied much more on these experienced women. As in the Upper
Paleolithic, pre-contact Amerindian life was beset by constant and grave
problems: intergroup disputes and warfare, frequent migration or transhumance,
and widespread hunger and starvation. A young woman with a small child who
found herself pregnant had, for her own sake and that of her family, to seek a
remedy. A pregnancy that came to term but resulted in a deformed infant or twins
meant that the infant (one or both in the case of twins) had to be abandoned in the
forest. Experienced women who could anticipate complications in pregnancy
were a tremendous asset to the individuals involved and to the group as a whole;
they helped to safeguard and perpetuate their people, not by promoting multiple
births, but by caring for and protecting the lives of young women whose abilities
were badly needed by the community.
Of course, things have changed a great deal, now that we have given up
those heathen, murderous practices.
Religious leaders need to be held accountable for their ideas. In
my state of Arizona, Sister Margaret McBride, a senior administrator at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, recently authorized a legal
abortion to save the life of a 27-year-old mother of four who was
11 weeks pregnant and suffering from severe complications of
pulmonary hypertension; she made that decision after consultation
with the mother's family, her doctors and the local ethics
committee. Yet the bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmsted,
immediately excommunicated Sister Mary, saying, "The mother's
life c a n n o t b e p r e f e r r e d o v e r t h e child's." Ordinarily, a
man who would callously let a woman die and orphan her children
would be called a monster; this should not change just because he
is a cleric.
—Lawrence M. Kraus, in Scientific American, August 2010
May the pious Bishop Olmsted burn in his Christian Hell for all eternity.
But remember, human culture is a rational adaptation to the environment
(surely all the anthro textbooks can’t be wrong?).
We must also remind ourselves that in important respects the Upper
Paleolithic is not that far removed from situations individuals in contemporary
American society face. Individuals not unlike the hapless mother of four
condemned by Bishop Olmsted (whom we wish an imminent, slow, and painful
death), but who lack even the medical assistance and social support available to
that woman. Centuries of racism, sexism, and rampant greed, coupled with severe
environmental and economic vicissitudes that are part of life on Earth have
produced an untold number of victims, each of whom came face-to-face with the
most dire need. For them, the sanctimonious preachings of the Church and the
general society’s embrace of “family values” had ceased to matter: they, like a
great and increasing number of ourselves, found themselves at the edge of
disaster, staring into the mouth of the Paleolithic cave as into the maw of the
abyss, and acted accordingly.
Rose of Sharon (Roseasharn), the principal character in the excerpt below,
gave birth to a stillborn infant two days before the following episode:
From the right of the road there came a sharp swishing. Ma
cried, "Hurry up. They's a big rain. Le's go through the fence
here. It's shorter. Come on, now! Bear on, Rosasharn." They half
dragged the girl across the ditch, helped her through the fence.
And then the storm struck them. Sheets of rain fell on them.
They plowed through the mud and up the little incline. The black
barn was nearly obscured by the rain. It hissed and splashed, and
the growing wind drove it along. Rose of Sharon's feet slipped
and she dragged between her supporters.
"Pa! Can you carry her?"
Pa leaned over and picked her up. "We're wet through
anyways," he said. "Hurry up. Winfiel'—Ruthie! Run on ahead."
They came panting up to the rain-soaked barn and staggered
into the open end. There was no door in this end. A few rusty
farm tools lay about, a disk plow and a broken cultivator, an iron
wheel. The rain hammered on the roof and curtained the entrance.
Pa gently set Rose of Sharon down on an oily box. "God
Awmighty!" he said.
Ma said, "Maybe they's hay inside. Look, there's a door." She
swung the door on its rusty hinges. "They is hay," she cried.
"Come on in, you."
It was dark inside. A little light came in through the cracks
between the boards.
"Lay down, Rosasharn," Ma said. "Lay down an' res'. I'll try
to figger some way to dry you off."
Winfield said, "Ma!" and the rain roaring on the roof
drowned his voice. "Ma!"
"What is it? What you want?"
"Look! In the corner."
Ma looked. There were two figures in the gloom; a man who
lay on his back, and a boy sitting beside him, his eyes wide,
staring at the newcomers. As she looked, the boy got slowly up to
his feet and came toward her. His voice croaked. "You own this
"No," Ma said. "Jus' come in outa the wet. We got a sick
girl. You got a dry blanket we could use an' get her wet
clothes off?"
The boy went back to the corner and brought a dirty comfort
and held it out to Ma.
"Thank ya," she said. "What's the matter'th that fella?"
The boy spoke in a croaking monotone. "Fust he was sick—
but now he's starvin'."
"Starvin'. Got sick in the cotton. He ain't et for six days."
Ma walked to the corner and looked down at the man. He
was about fifty, his whiskery face gaunt, and his open eyes
were vague and staring. The boy stood beside her. "Your pa?"
Ma asked.
"Yeah! Says he wasn' hungry, or he jus' et. Give me the
food. Now he's too weak. Can't hardly move."
The pounding of the rain decreased to a soothing swish on the
roof. The gaunt man moved his lips. Ma knelt beside him and
put her ear close. His lips moved again.
"Sure," Ma said. "You jus' be easy. He'll be awright. You
jus' wait'll I get them wet clo'es off n my girl."
Ma went back to the girl. "Now slip 'em off," she said. She
held the comfort up to screen her from view. And when she
was naked, Ma folded the comfort about her.
The boy was at her side again explaining, "I didn' know. He
said he et, or he wasn’ hungry. Las' night I went an’ bust a
winda an' stoled some bread. Made ’im chew 'er down. But he
puked it all up, an’ then he was weaker. Got to have soup or
milk. You folks got money to git milk?"
Ma said, "Hush. Don' worry. We'll figger somepin out."
Suddenly the boy cried, "He's dyin", I tell you! He's starvin'
to death, I tell you."
"Hush," said Ma. She looked at Pa and Uncle John standing
helplessly gazing at the sick man. She looked at Rose of Sharon
huddled in the comfort. Ma's eyes passed Rose of Sharon's
eyes, and then came back to them. And the two women
looked deep into each other. The girl's breath came short and
She said "Yes."
Ma smiled. "I knowed you would. I knowed!" She looked
down at her hands, tight-locked in her lap.
Rose of Sharon whispered, "Will—will you all—go out?" The
rain whisked lightly on the roof.
Ma leaned forward and with her palm she brushed the tousled
hair back from her daughter's forehead, and she kissed her on
the forehead. Ma got up quickly. "Come on, you fellas," she
called. "You come out in the tool shed."
Ruthie opened her mouth to speak. "Hush," Ma said.
"Hush and git." She herded them through the door, drew the
boy with her; and she closed the squeaking door.
For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn.
Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort
about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking
down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then
slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly
from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the
blanket and bared her breast. "You got to," she said. She
squirmed closer and pulled his head close. "There!" she said.
"There." Her hand moved behind his head and supported it.
Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across
the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.
If any were needed, a second quote will serve as attribution for the first:
In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and
growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
Of course, this monograph / case study of American life should be
regarded with some suspicion by social scientists: the research and manuscript
preparation were not conducted under the auspices of the National Science
Foundation, the Social Sciences Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation,
or the National Institute of Health. Why, the project proposal was not even peerreviewed!
To carry the line of thought in the second quote a bit further (though
perhaps not quite in the direction its author intended), human culture/civilization
is an enormous con game, run by an outfit called the Nova Mob, whose various
sobriquets (Sammy the Butcher, Izzy the Push, The Subliminal Kid, and others)
stand for the consortium of government/corporations/church, and whose own
grapes of wrath are themselves growing heavy, with Inspector J. Lee of the Nova
Police about to close the con game down:
So pack your ermines, Mary - We are getting out of here right
now - I've seen this happen before - The marks are coming up on
us - And the heat is moving in - . . . Ten thousand years in show
business. The public is going to tear the place apart.
— A leader of the Nova Mob, William Burroughs, Nova Express
But don’t forget – keep telling yourselves!: human culture is a rational adaptation
to the environment.
If analysis of the little figurines, or rather the analysis of the analyses,
leads us into these deep, dark waters of culture theory, it may or may not come as
a relief to find that there is a lighter, happier side to the figurines. Why, they have
found a new, vastly more important significance than mere items for fusty old
archeologists to debate in their tedious little journals: they have become icons of
Pop Culture! In Jean Auel’s immensely successful five-volume series, Earth’s
Children, the author fleshes out the archeological material with an engrossing
chronicle of her heroine’s (Ayla / Daryl Hannah) odyssey from one end of the
Eurasian Upper Paleolithic world to the other. [Just a cautionary note, however:
Whenever you find a writer referring to primitive or prehistoric people as
“children” or “child-like,” immediately run – do not walk – for the exits.]
Drawing on earlier work that cast the figurines as emblems in a fertility cult and
representative of a generalized notion of the Earth’s fecundity, Auel postulates
that Cro-Magnon peoples of the Upper Paleolithic worshipped a “Mother
Goddess,” and that the figurines, called “donii” were images of that Goddess.
Auel’s fascinating, if deeply flawed tale inspired writers with a feminist
agenda to produce a rash of Mother-Goddess books (again, see Karen Jennett’s
excellent Female Figurines of the Upper Paleolithic for a detailed account).
These works, some of which involved a heady mix of archeology, mysticism, and
astrology, proclaimed that the Mother Goddess was the supreme deity in a
religion based on men’s acknowledgement that women, as creators of human life,
were superior beings. That religious belief was subsequently shanghaied and
perverted by a male conspiracy which dethroned the Goddess and replaced Her
with a male supreme power, God the Father. Richard Feynman is smiling from
his grave.
The real problem with Auel’s premise, which does not take a specialist in
Upper Paleolithic archeology to spot, is that it, like the earlier fertility-cult
argument, applies the value system of a much later, agriculture-based culture to
dispersed hunter-gatherer groups. Just as small groups of Upper Paleolithic
people living in adverse and ever-changing circumstances were unlikely to have
encouraged as many births as possible, so were they unlikely to have embraced a
concept of the environment, Mother Earth, as a warm, fertile, nurturing being.
They did not till the soil, plant seeds, wait for them to grow, then harvest the
bounty; they scrabbled around for what they could find, which all too often was
precious little. Their lives were utterly different from those of village farmers
who appeared with the Neolithic, around 10,000 years ago. Particularly when
Auel turns, late in the Earth’s Children series, to the mammoth hunters of Ukraine
and Siberia, it becomes extremely difficult to visualize those individuals, huddled
in their shelters of mammoth bone and hide while the Siberian winter howled
outside, worshipping their store of figurines as emblems of a nurturing Mother
Goddess. Auel and her followers have borrowed a prominent element of later
agricultural societies, a belief system based on an Earth Mother, and quite
mistakenly applied it to a very different time and social order.
I should note in passing that this is not to say, as conventional wisdom
would have it, that the lives of Upper Paleolithic people were necessarily worse
than their Neolithic successors. It is a daunting puzzle as to just why the
Paleolithic-Neolithic transition occurred. It is hardly a clear-cut case of progress,
of rational human adaptation once again moving the species one more step up the
evolutionary ladder. Living in dispersed communities, having more-or-less
regular access to animal protein through hunting and to a diversity of vegetable
products through gathering, it seems a poor trade to move into cramped villages
where disease was easily spread and where animal protein and a diversity of
vegetables were in short supply. Archeological surveys of human remains from
the two eras in fact demonstrate that late Paleolithic hunter-gathers were generally
taller and more robust than hard-working, gruel-eating early Neolithic farmers.
My take on the problem? (again from a decidedly non-archeological perspective):
The Paleolithic-Neolithic transition, the dawn of human civilization proper, was
the first Big Con run by the Nova Mob, getting the marks to abandon a less
demanding lifestyle for one in which they would have to do a lot of hard, backbreaking work and turn over a considerable hunk of the fruits of their labors to the
new bosses, the kings and priests who immediately appeared on the scene. When
that Social Contract was being written, you can bet that Izzy the Push, The
Subliminal Kid, and their cronies were sitting at the table with wet pens and wide
Actually, not to get too far off the track – well, ok it is pretty far off the
track, but hey, remember, this little essay is totally peripheral; it’s not going out
for review! – I do cherish another theory of the origin of civilization, which, in the
interests of full disclosure, I should divulge here. It’s called, or at least I call it,
the Booze Theory of Civilization. It goes like this:
For thousands and thousands of years the cave guys and gals would go out
in the morning and, with any luck, would return later with the butchered carcass
of an animal and a few hide baskets of roots and greens. Then they’d build up the
fire, throw an elk hind quarter on the barbie, toss the roots on the coals, and settle
in for a night of good eats and casual sex (they couldn’t catch the Tonight Show).
But for all of this, there was still something missing, some vague yearning for
something better. Then one night, in a particular cave, it happened that the cave
gals hadn’t been able to scrounge up more than a few greens, and with no
vinaigrette those didn’t make much of a side dish for the elk steaks. But then a
couple of the gals remembered that they’d set aside in a corner of the cave a few
hide containers of grass seeds they’d gathered a week or so previously. When
they went over to check them out they found that the containers gave off a
peculiar, rank odor, and that the seeds had partly fermented into a suspiciouslooking, bubbly liquid. But with nothing else to offer, they brought them over to
serve with the meal. Now, the cave guys and gals didn’t exactly have discerning
palates, and they didn’t have Vegans and Dr Oz on their case telling them what
and what not to eat, so they figured, what the hell, so what if the mush tastes kind
of strange, it’s here and let’s give it a try. Then an amazing thing began to
happen: they all started to feel pret-t-t-t-t-y good. One of the cave guys, Trog
(cave guys always get named Trog), said, “This is it! This is what’s been missing
from our BBQs. We need more of this stuff! Bring it on! Chivas and
Chateaubriand!” And so the world’s first single malt was born. Over the next
few weeks and months the cave folks gradually adopted a new routine. As well as
hunting and gathering they spent part of each day tending to that clump of wild
grass the gals had found (an ancestral strain of what was to become wheat),
removing competing plants, tilling the soil around the clump, bringing water
when rain didn’t come. As time went by they held back some of the seed from
particularly robust grass stalks and planted that around the original clump. After a
while they had a supply they could harvest from time to time and have another
barbeque blow-out. Thus the world’s first farming village came into being.
If this line of thought strikes you as irredeemably silly, reflect that it’s
admitted silliness may serve a purpose. While you are busily dismissing (dissing)
my little flight of fancy, ask yourselves: How, precisely, does my scenario for the
origin of civilization differ from the several interpretations of the Paleolithic
figurines we’ve been considering? I would suggest that those are just as silly, in
the sense of unfounded speculation, but that my little theory has the great
advantage of not possessing an insidious hidden agenda, unlike the racism of
Piette’s “Negroid” theory; the sexism of the paleopornography interpretation; and
the fuzzy-minded feminism of the Mother Earth concept. Adopting Nietzsche’s
maxim that the search for truth must be accompanied by humor, my agenda here
is to propose a bit of thought-provoking Fun.
When the cat of cargo cult science is turned out, it may return with just
about any rodent.
In seeking to advance our understanding of the figurines, it is fortunate
that paleoanthropology, unlike general anthropology, eschews those speculations
and focuses on specifics, attempting in this way to wring out every possible bit of
information from the cryptic little statuettes. Several thorough and illuminating
studies by Michael Bisson and Randall White [See their “Female Imagery from the
Paleolithic: The case of Grimaldi” and White’s Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic
Journey of Humankind.] at once add much to the interpretation of the figurines
and demonstrate the paucity (really, silliness) of the approaches we have been
considering. Through careful review of available stratigraphic data and
microscopic examination of the figurines, Bisson and White determine that the
objects quite probably had the specific function of assisting in some way(s) with
childbirth; in other words, they were an important part of a conceptual toolkit
employed by people of the Upper Paleolithic to accomplish a well-defined
objective. Their approach and language are so refreshing, after what has gone
before, that it is worth quoting a selection at some length.
Gravettian Anthropomorphic Figurines : Contexts of Use
and Disposal
Institute for Ice Age Studies, 2007. Article: “From Materials to
Meaning.” Randall White
Eight of the 12 unbroken figurines from Grimaldi are perforated
for suspension . . . and others such as la figurine en ivoire brun,
have carved furrows suggestive of suspension. Of course,
suspension can take many forms in addition to the wearing of these
objects on the body. For example, they may have been suspended
inside dwellings attached to articles such as skin bags and baskets.
Like many of the Gravettian figurines recovered to date, the
Grimaldi specimens were found (to the best of our knowledge)
carefully placed in an area peripheral to intense human occupation.
. . Michael Bisson and I are working on comparisons of sediment
on the figurines with that still adhering to artifacts of known
stratigraphic provenience. More interpretively, we have proposed
(Bisson and White 1996) particular use contexts for the Grimaldi
figurines, to which I now turn.
The Grimaldi sculptures, which are small and designed for
suspension, fit the ethnographic pattern of amulets or fetishes.
However, the majority of human figurines made by living
circumpolar peoples are significantly different from the Grimaldi
figurines in gender ratio, a much higher frequency of facial and
extremity detail, and a much lower incidence of genital and
abdominal prominence. Since the circumpolar ethnographic record
is clear that recent human sculptures were used to promote fertility,
these contrasts strengthen our doubts about a fertility magic
explanation. Nevertheless, given the tendency of depictive amulets
to represent unambiguously the intended goal of the user (i.e.many
hunting amulets were naturalistic sculptures of desired prey
animals, it is most likely that the characteristics of the Grimaldi
figurines refer to a reproductive context, and that this context was
childbirth itself.
Use of the Grimaldi, and at least some other Gravettian female
sculptures in the context of childbirth is consistent with an
archaeological context in which they are often found in clusters as
if cached away for future use; childbirth being an occasional
occurrence in small human groups. Moreover, the idea that the
sculptures themselves were perceived as having power is supported
by recent finds from Avdeevo on the Russian Plain (Grigoriev
1996 and personal communication). There, in addition to
purposeful pit-burial of whole sculptures, sometimes more than
one to a pit, Govozdover and Grigoriev have found fragments of
the same broken figure buried meters apart in meticulously dug
pits of a special, cone-like form. If the sculptures were perceived
as inherently powerful, it is easy to imagine that the disposal of
broken examples would have been attended by great care and
Childbirth is both an emotionally charged and potentially
dangerous event. It is predictable in its general timing (i.e. the
average length of gestation), but unpredictable as to the timing of
the onset of labor, the sex of the offspring, and the survival of the
mother and/or child. We hypothesize that the Grimaldi figurines
are best interpreted as individually owned amulets meant to ensure
the safe completion of pregnancy. Amulets employ the principle of
similarity to influence the outcome of uncertain events. They are
often made by their owners, although they may also be obtained
from shamans. Since the ethnographic record shows that in many
societies amulets are thought to gain power with age, the
sculptures may have been passed from mother to daughter over a
number of generations.
This scenario also satisfies many of the legitimate demands of the
feminist critique. It does not require the figurines to represent a
generalized concept of womanhood, but instead recognizes that
they may be produced by and for individual women, with no
necessary inclusive or monolithic meaning that derives from
gender alone. Individual production probably accounts for the
great variability of the figurines. Our interpretation also does not
imply the subordination or commoditization of women as do the
fertility goddess (Gimbutas 1989), paleopornography (Guthrie
1979), and mating alliance (Gamble 1982) scenarios. Instead, we
recognize the importance of women in themselves, not just as
sources of babies, since we suspect the motivation behind these
amulets was the survival of the mother rather than the baby. From
this perspective, women are envisioned as taking active control of
an important part of their lives using magical means that would
have been entirely rational within their cultural context.
We conclude with the observation that the pregnancy symbolism
of the Grimaldi figurines need not be their only symbolic meaning,
although it would seem to be a primary one. Clan or guardian
spirits may also be invoked, particularly by parts of the body such
as heads, hair, duplicate faces, associated animals etc., that are not
directly involved in our notions of reproduction. In each case these
additional referents can be seen as statements by the makers of the
figurines, perhaps with respect to the actual spiritual source from
which the amulet draws its power.
Faced with the ages-old obstetrical dilemma as delivery approached, every
woman, possessed of an essentially modern consciousness but completely lacking
any modern medical assistance, turned to the figurines and those accomplished in
their use, herbalists and midwives. to survive.
Back to Back to The Future
All philosophers have the common failing of starting out from
man as he is now and thinking they can reach their goal through an
analysis of him. They involuntarily think of 'man' as an aeterna
veritas, as something that remains constant in the midst of all flux,
as a sure measure of things. Everything the philosopher has
declared about man is, however, at bottom no more than a
testimony as to the man of a very limited period of time. Lack of
historical sense is the family failing of all philosophers.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, all too Human
The tension and ambivalence produced by the contradictions that reside at
the heart of culture are felt at least as strongly today as in those caves of the
Upper Paleolithic. But we (post)moderns, with our enormous populations and
specialized institutions do a better job of hiding the dilemma — and thus make it
even more frightening. We embrace an anemic political correctness and recite its
platitudes — animal rights, freedom to choose — on every talking-heads program
on TV. But the organicism, the gore, of it all, is never confronted. We carefully
conceal the gore of animal slaughter and butchery and the gore of childbirth and
abortion in our high-security abattoirs (factories of death unlike anything the
world has seen) and behind the closed doors of hospital delivery rooms and
abortion clinics. Hiding these vital aspects of our lives enables us to pretend, in
daily life, that they don’t exist. It enables us to proclaim the niceness of
everything, and how nice we are in finding it all so nice: “Oooh, such a darling
Shih-Tzu,” “Oooh, such a cute baby.” In doing so we hope somehow to suppress
the horror implicit in our denial and, perhaps even more horrible, the necessary
entanglement of the two symbolic complexes that made us fully human.
Men slaughter animals, and from the gore of the butchered carcass endow
the human group with continued life. Women give birth, and from the gore of
delivery similarly perpetuate the group. Yet both acts are fraught with danger:
men are injured and killed in the hunt or afflicted by the vengeful spirit of an
improperly slain animal; women are injured and killed in the act of giving birth or
cursed with a misbegotten child. The freshly slaughtered animal and the newborn
infant are hedged around with elaborate taboos for a very good reason: both
animals and infants may be monsters in disguise.
The obstetrical dilemma that has been with us for millions of years before
we were properly “we,” that is, before modern humans appeared on Earth, has
given birth to another progeny. As well as having a decisive role in birthing us as
a species, it has spawned a conceptual dilemma at least as acute. Apart from the
fact that the newborn might actually kill the mother in delivery, its birth posed the
fundamental problem of fitting it into the life of the family and social group. The
first problem for an emergent cultural order, for a newly formed humanity, was to
establish a set of identities. What were “animals,” “humans,” “tools,” “deities,”
“Us,” “Them”? The infant is born into a world of inter-related groups and, owing
to the incest taboo, it necessarily has ties with both mother’s and father’s groups.
But what sort of ties? How does the infant/child come to be identified with a
particular social group? This is the conundrum of kinship/ethnicity at the heart of
With these conceptualizations in process of formation, the phenomena of
pregnancy, childbearing, and infant socialization lost any transparent
“naturalness” they may have possessed for earlier hominids or for other
mammals. My cat delivers its litter and succors the offspring (perhaps after eating
a runt or two) without a seeming thought of fitting the new organisms into a social
or conceptual order. For a woman and those who attend her at childbirth (a near
necessity owing to the difficulty and danger of delivery), it is an entirely different
matter. The newborn is not naturally anything; premature and utterly dependent,
it is human only by virtue of the behavior and beliefs others direct toward it. The
squalling stranger thrust into the group could be the stereotypical bundle of joy
beloved of sweet little old ladies. Or, through some accident of birth, an unusual
delivery, a physical deformity, or even a sign from the moon, it could as readily
be an intrusive, malevolent spirit to be destroyed before worse things occur.
Ellen Ripley’s recurrent nightmare returns to haunt us, as it has always;
otherwise there would have been no Aliens. You wake from a deep sleep to find
your abdomen grossly distended. Something is moving inside you, rippling your
skin. The pain intensifies, becomes unbearable. You scream uncontrollably.
Then the bloody, shrieking horror erupts from your body, tearing your organs,
causing a hideous death.
“What will we do now?”, Call, the android-woman, asks. “I don’t know,”
Ripley replies, “I’m a stranger here myself.” As Alien Resurrection concludes,
we realize that Call and Ripley’s situation is our own. Neither natural beings nor
cultural products, we share their ambiguous, incomplete identity. We cannot rely
on tradition, cannot point to some vast panorama of “human evolution” that has
established us at the pinnacle of creation, for, as we have seen, “we” haven’t been
around very long at all. And our future gives every indication of being far more
changeful and uncertain than our past. What will follow humanity? Where, if
anywhere, is the “here” we share with Ripley and Call? Without resorting to
another dreadful “post-” term or dusting off Nietzsche’s unjustly criticized
“über ” metaphor, let’s just call that being which may come “Something Else.”
Our language, especially the bloodless, contorted print-speak of academia, can’t
begin to describe it. It is something we sense or feel in our marrow: a distant
storm approaching over the prairie; an ocean swell that begins to lift our frail
But it was fun while it lasted (We really got blasted!).
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