In his prolific career, the Yugoslavian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has often revisited Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) – the sort-of-sequel to Prometheus (2012) – as a way to describe what he, following the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, calls the Real.
In Lacan’s three-part system, the Real is contrasted to the Symbolic and to the Imaginary, but for Žižek and for the purposes of this discussion, the important distinction is that between the Symbolic and the Real.
The Symbolic (conceptual and practical) realm is the realm within which humans live their everyday lives: it is, to simplify, structured through imposing systems of meaning onto external and internal realities. Language is one such system. Political, social, economic, and legal structures are other examples.
The Real is that which resists such structuring. It consistently escapes our attempts to catch it in our webs of meaning or – to be more precise – signification.
(Here’s Žižek talking about garbage as the Real of our civilization and how it can save us from continuing to ignore the ecological disaster we, soon, will have caused:)
The Alien creature is, according to Žižek, one such entity; an entity which escapes our attempts to insert it into a system of meaning and signification. It is that asocial force which can never be fully integrated into the social realm. It is, “an object which, being nothing at all in itself, must none the less be added, annexed as an anamorphic surplus. It is the Real at its purest: a semblance, something which on a strictly symbolic level does not exist at all but at the same time … the thing against which the whole reality is utterly defenceless.” Or, as Stephen Mulhall puts it:
The alien’s form of life is (just, merely, simply) life, life as such: it is not so much a particular species as the essence of what it means to be a species, to be a creature, a natural being – it is Nature incarnate or sublimated, a nightmare embodiment of the natural realm understood as utterly subordinate to, utterly exhausted by, the twinned Darwinian drives to survive and reproduce.
While the Symbolic (and the Imaginary) realm allows communication to happen, while it provides a foundation upon which the social can be built and upon which the social continues to function, the Real is how we conceptually place an ‘X’ where our systems of meaning break down. As such, the Real belongs in the long line of philosophical acknowledgments of the human mind’s inability to fully comprehend the reality outside it. It is the mind’s blind spot.
The interesting thing about this unknown, this ‘X,’ however, is that it is not something that absolutely and independently pre-exists the social and the Symbolic. Rather, it is in important ways a product of the social.
This is the lesson that Prometheus teaches us.
In Alien, the creature is ostensibly the product of the natural, evolutionary process that capitalism – represented by the faceless corporation that sends the crew of seven on the Nostromo to collect the creature – tries to co-opt and exploit for military purposes. As Žižek notes, in this context, “Capital parasitizes on and exploits the pure drive of Life” – that pure drive to survive and reproduce that the alien creature is and that it represents. The corporation tries to harness this potentially destructive force for its benefit. (And we all know how that ends [See also Aliens].)
At the same time, however, as Žižek also notes, “Pure Life is [also] a category of capitalism.” In other words, even this drive to survive and reproduce is somehow implicated in the way the Symbolic realm functions. It emerges, if not out of it, then in conjunction with it. This is the lesson of Prometheus.
In the human search for origin – for God, for meaning – all we encounter is our own monstrous creation. After all, the Engineers are genetically identical to us: they are us. And the alien creature – which emerges writhing and screeching at the end of Prometheus out of a violent copulation between an Engineer and the organic/biological weapon it has created and which has been ripped out of the human womb – is itself a product of the Symbolic which predates our particular civilization and which has, in this case, been designed particularly with our civilization in mind (i.e. for its destruction).
So, in our search for God, Prometheus argues, all we meet is ourselves and our monstrous progeny.
The Real, that void at the centre of our Symbolic existence, here continues to exist as simultaneously the product and cause of our own conceptualization of reality, and as that which escapes it.
The ending of Prometheus, however, promises a continued search. While it, with one hand, points out how the monsters underneath our beds are of our own making, with the other, it gestures at a new horizon: a kind of dangerous Paradise.