Outside the Borders of the District: on District 9

Posted on August 31, 2009 in district 9

Outside the Borders of the District: on District 9
part 1

“At first glance, it appears that the uncanny is a fear of the familiar, whereas nostalgia is a longing for it; yet for a nostalgic, the lost home and the home abroad often appear haunted. Restorative nostalgics don’t acknowledge the uncanny and terrifying aspects of what was once homey. Reflective nostalgics see everywhere the imperfect mirror images of home, and try to cohabit with doubles and ghosts.”

Svetlana Boym

“In all mourning there is the deepest inclination to speechlessness, which is infinitely more than ability or disinclination to communicate. That which mourns feels itself thoroughly known by the unknowable. To be named – even when the namer is Godlike and blissful – perhaps always remains an intimation of mourning. But how much more melancholy to be named not form the one blessed, paradisiac language of names, but from the hundred languages of man, in which name has already withered, yet which, according to God’s pronouncement, have knowledge of things …

“In the language of men, however, [things ] are over-named … over-naming as the deepest linguistic reason for all melancholy and (from the point of view of the thing) of all deliberate muteness.”

Walter Benjamin

“Time is precisely the impossibility of an identity fixed by a place.


While place is dogmatic, the coming back of time restores an ethics.”

Michel de Certeau

Giorgio Agamben begins The Open with the now-famous passage concerning a painting in the back of a Hebrew bible from the thirteenth century of animal-headed humans at a banquet table of the righteous on the last day, a possible reconciliation of the animal and the human at the point of concluded humanity.

However, with the power of computers in special effects we no longer have to wait for the reconciliations ofthe end of time and concluded humanity, since chimeras are the bread and butter of the film industry. And while theriomorphs (the combination of gods and beasts) can only be simulated who is to tell how far that simulation will, in a thousand years, eventually reach?

District 9, while giving off the glint of a simple metaphor of apartheid, transferred to stranded space aliens, would indeed be a weak film (as would the whole concept of science fiction) if that was the only conjecture/concatenation being proferred. (The very same ‘weak’ thesis of the movie was put forward by the-president Ronald Reagan in the context of a world that would become united if there were the threat of invasion by space aliens.)

The deeper reading would be two fold and each related to the other: 1) the nature of the exilic condition, of homelessness (and the relation to the uncanny); and 2) the relation of the human to the animal (and that unsettling of relation to one’s own body as home and the uncanniness that results).

The next day after seeing the movie, I recalled the place of the hand in Heideigger’s meditations on techne (the well know ready-to-hand and present-to-hand) and Derrida’s attempt to investigate the undecidability of touch and the hand (in both Jean-Luc Nancy and Heidegger). Now is not the time to rehearse any of these positions other than to point out the primacy of the human ‘hand’ in the movie as it turns into its alien other – which of course would be closer to the parallel of the hand associated with the radical other, the tentacle.

(I’m also now reminded of an earlier project, the text of which follows:

The Discovery of People in the Invisible Part of the Universe

In the recent Korean film ‘Old Boy,’ the protagonist is put into solitary confinement for 15 years, with nothing but popular television for entertainment. When he escapes, the pivot scene happens when he stops into a sushi bar and orders something live. He is delivered a live octopus that he maniacally consumes, then falls into a swoon. Thus begins a switch into another symbolic level of (in)operabilty, signaled by the omnipresent signifier of radical otherness, the tentacle. (As a hint: the film very cleverly plays off the relations between ‘octopus’ and ‘Oedipus,’ both entities signposts of coming forbidden liminal states.)

‘Tentacularity’ is always a spectacular gateway to various extremes of otherness in cultural representations, a representation of that which is furthest from the human and which is always portrayed as a monstrous collapse into a regime at destructive odds with the human. The most well known popular representative of this visual motif is the portrayal of the aliens’ craft in the recent film ‘War of the Worlds.’

One can be sure that the arrival of the tentacle is also the arrival of the inhuman and uncanny in opposition to the human. One only has to remember those animations in the fifties of the world picture of the great octopus of communism and its encircling red arms.

But tentacularity is part of a larger body of symbology which includes Medusa and the concept of aura. All three, tentacle, medusa, and aura, are active liminalities which reach out beyond their immediate ground to encircle and tear from the human it’s essential humanness, Medusa causing a stone-like paralysis, a mortification of time, and in the aura, or halo, a radiance creating a ‘leak’ in the human into the divine as well as effecting a porosity into (and out of) the material substrate of it’s surroundings.

The recognition of these three facets – an unapproachable and monstrous inhumanness, a lapse into the pure materialty of a stone-like death, and the leakage into and out of the human by some form of transcendance — signifies a rupture and switch into new forms.

(By the way: these three states all entail some form of luminescence: the octopus uses a form of polarized light to communicate—and it has been theorized that this ability to perceive in the polarized state acts a ‘secret’ form of communication with its kin, perhaps through its ability to change the color and patterns of its skin through chromatophores; the medusa effect is a cessation of sight through a direct seeing of the forbidden, while the aura / halo is an excess of light, radiance, and intolerable to a materialist culture, a form of incompatable de-monstration.)

Even though the protagonist, a human, is slowly turning alien, his hand has apparently turned completely into an alien hand/tentacle , a fact which, significantly, allows him to fire the alien weaponry (which cannot be operated by the human hand). There is certainly ‘monstrosity’ here but it is uncertain what ‘shows forth’ (at the root of the word monstrous, eg., de-monstrate): the human, the alien, or the animal. One might say that the coalescence of the alien and animal (the gestures of the scavenging stranded space creatures all reference apes, and predators; the only time that this does not appear to be the case is in the presence of the technology they have hidden and are using to reach their home world: in that case they take on the bearing of the human, even to the point of incorporating an infant alien) yields the possibility of an uncanny third, almost a gnostic concept (perhaps by way of a more contemporary bio-cybernetic) of relation of flesh as sheath and consciousness as inhabitant of vessel.

N.B. Some might wish to look over the J. Derrida’s series, Geschlecht (especially Geschlecht II: Heidegger’s Hand) where issues of chirology (right/left symmetry) and issues of sexuality and related issues of race, genre, nationalism and the idea of a neutrality between positions; certainly in terms of the aliens in District 9, they seem effectively neutered even though the idea of interspecies sexuality is raised to discredit the protagonist. Not knowing the codes of that species, they seem flattened in terms of the categories humans most often use to make judgements: race, sex, nationality, etc. The idea of the uncanny is largely unfigured here. )