In the film Under the Skin (2013), Scarlett Johansson peels off her white skin and reveals her self as a black, impenetrable being of extraterrestrial origin. This radical body peeling is triggered by a sexual assault and is punished, medieval-style, with death by fire. Drenched in gasoline and covered in flames, Scarlett tumbles through a Caspar David Friedrichian mental landscape of white snow and dark forest; trembles, falls and burns. In the final shot, Scarlett’s other-worldly remains fall as ashes from an indifferent sky, intermingle with descending snowflakes and come to rest on a hillside somewhere in the nowhere of rural Scotland. This essay proposes an alternative ending to the narrative, or, rather, a number of other possible endings, which aim to explore the potential of a multi-layered body-model and perhaps render Alien-Scarlett as a trans-feminist vanguard in spe. In the proposed trajectory, the performance of radical body peeling can be seen as a victorious step towards the emancipation of lustful subjectivity in ambiguously gendered body, rather than as a precursor of annihilation (whether by fire or otherwise).
“T- D, S- Z- Th, B- T- V, H- T- D- K- G, S- Z- P- B, Ba-Ba- T- T, K- Kuh- Ch, Th- V- Th, Zzz- Sss- Bzz- Ch, B-B-Buh- V-V-Vuh, G-G-Guh D-D-Duh. B-B-Buh- B-B-Buh, B-B-Beh, B-B-Beh, Bah, N-N-Nuh- N-N-Nuh, N-N-Nuh- No. N-N-Nuh, F- Feel- Field, Fill, Film – Film – Film, Filled- Filts, Foil- Failed- Fell, Felds- Pill- Pills, Pall- Nall. Foal- Foals, Fold- Fold, Pool- Pool, Sell- Se...”
Such are the beginnings of language in interstellar space; or such they are at least for Scarlett when she descends to earth, a herald of other-worldly colonialism, practicing the “little-mouth-noises” of the human Real1, while the heavenly bodies of suns, moons and stars align into the shape of a human eye. The speech acts and the gaze they summon recall that psychoanalytical perspective, á la Lacan, which locates the structural foundation of speech in the function of the mirror stage2: in Under the Skin, language and gaze align to produce The Alien. The dimensional conversion of celestial bodies into optical organs marks the first in a series of spatial metamorphoses that allow vans, warehouses and abandoned buildings to expand into monochromatic pure space, setting the stage for transformative body peelings. In the first, Scarlett undresses a paralyzed woman and appropriates her clothing. The naked life of this, her first (and only female) victim, seems of little interest to Scarlett, who instead turns her attention towards a small ant that crawls the surface of the victim-body3. The zoom of a camera lens turns the insignificant insect into a monster of epic proportions.
“What are they doing, why do they come here?”
“Some kind of instinct, memory, this is what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
—Dawn of the Dead (1978), Mall Scene4
Scarlett’s descent takes her from the majesty of an ensouled solar system to the gloomy-grey social realism of Parkhead, Glasgow, and, captured on hidden cameras, leads into a stronghold of earthly cultural imperialism: a US-suburban-style shopping mall. It may be the ahistorical, consumerism-based, non-locality The Mall produces that has made it a popular setting for cinematic meditations on the apocalypse: after society has gone to the dogs (the idiom may also be understood in this context to indicate a transferral of power to a new Animal Kingdom, certainly not as an insult to our most intimate companion species5) the shopping mall is where the collective subconscious of filmmaking sends the zombies to flock.
The Mall renders the distinction between the living and the living dead porous because it is designed to eliminate instinctive Otherness in favour of Prêt-à-Porter sameness. The Mall and the larger capitalist power structure from which it derives proclaim a commitment to individualism while de facto rendering the individual obsolete. At The Mall, persons are killed and replaced with personas; the sacred is killed and replaced with merchandize6. Even death is killed and replaced with the red-hot lipstick, artificial fur coat and erotic lingerie Scarlett purchases to perfect the femme fatale simulacrum of female sexuality her physical phenotype suggests. Paraphrasing Linda Williams, Scarlett in her alien form is an embodiment of the pornographic image that incorporates itself as body through the erotized socio-technological apparatus of late capitalism7.
“Do you think I am pretty?”
“I am looking for the MA.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Scarlett speaks and is understood, yet she possesses no language. That is, she possesses no language of her own. She knows how to maneuver within the stock phrases of small talk, and insert the mimicry of laughs and smiles at appropriate intervals. Yet her sentences are placeholders in a verbal space of lost referents; she knows no articulation beyond the empty communication vessel of accustomed speech. In this way, she knows only the skin of language. This is also why Scarlett’s eventual “humanization” coincides with an immediate loss of speech: as a becoming subject, she can no longer employ Dead Talk. It is one of the misfortunes of Under the Skin that it does not allow for her to develop any significant mode of speech beyond it.
Excursus 1, alternative ending in which Alien-Scarlett exhumes and reinstates the sublime language of Babel stolen by the jealous God of the Old Testament8:
Alien-Scarlett possesses no conclusive sex, gender, ethnicity or citizenship, and no mother tongue. In search for the latter she travels the countries of the world and studies their lingos, past and present. In each she recognizes remnants of the original language of Babel, universal words untainted by cultural intents and intimately connected to what they seek to describe. Scarlett collects these words and structures around them the foundation of a new language, a future language existing beyond the nation state and beyond time. It is a language of fewer words, but one in which each word is of immense density; the phonetics alone verbalize the connection of human souls to the body of Gaia. In this way Alien-Scarlett restores the balance disturbed by the notoriously envious god of the Old Testament who, when recognizing the great mono-lingual tower-builders of Babel as a threat to his hegemony, divided humanity by tongue and in doing so threw a perfectly well-functioning partnership-based model of society into the atrocity of history. The Old Testament marks the peek of the ideological foundation of current patriarchal dominator-societies at the cost of female-deity-worshipping, partnership-based-cultures, exemplarily Minoan Crete, as Rianne Eisler elaborates9: The text is an aberration from the spiritual mindscapes of older nature-oriented civilizations by being the first religious manifest that has no mention of a Goddess. Eisler’s thoughts on this inspire us to trust that the past couple of thousand of years might merely be a bump in the road, a necessary stage perhaps, for a transition that will allow partnership-based societies to rise again, this time incorporating the powerful tools of cybernetics and nano-science. Alien-Scarlett’s tongue gives birth to a new lingua franca and new towers are built, black and shiny ones that reach into the stars, that reach beyond the stars, that make of the earth an interstellar sea urchin, extending her spikes upwards and onwards inviting still slumbering goddesses to enter.
Scarlett, in her first, superficial incarnation, offers an ideal projection surface10 for the desire of the male gaze11. One after another, men succumb to her charm and fall victim to the darkness it encloses. Then, pursuing Scarlett means entering a vast dark space; soundless, dimensionless but for a mirror-like surface that cuts through its midst and functions as floor and ceiling simultaneously. While Scarlett moves effortlessly on top of the dark mirror, her victims are being sucked slowly into the indeterminable emptiness of its backside. And, as Lewis-Carroll’s femme-enfant Alice notices, in Through the Looking Glass, the backside of a mirror is an odd place to be indeed; the laws of strict physics and common sense cease to apply. Here, the hot insides of bodies are sucked dry and replaced with vacuums that *pop* and leave men’s skins to float like cast-off rubber suits. Techno-vampirism transports intestines into brightly lit slits in the darkness, making of them new celestial bodies in the form of Red Stars12. Scarlett herself doesn’t break through the mirror surface because she exists as a pure projection; she is Pygmalion’s ivory statue come to life, invincible in the power game of desire and submission as long as she feels no desire of her own. The men that follow Scarlett do so ultimately as narcissists: Scarlett’s black mirror can be read as an elaborate 3D rendering of the very space in which painters ranging from Carravagio to Benczúr have imagined Narcissus falling victim to his own projection13.
“I am lost,” says Scarlett to the Elephant Man.
Eventually Scarlett comes to recognize the reflection of her self in other bodies. In their likeness and in their distinction, a connectedness, an intimacy arising from collective world-embeddedness lets life appear to her an end rather than a means (whether for red stars or otherwise); her clash into the pavement of an Edinburgh street is also a fall from the cold grace of cyborgism and signifies a Kantian shift of perspective, the implementation of which is fulfilled in the encounter with the Elephant Man. The disfigured freak, the ultimate abject is a figure that reverses the relation between Scarlett’s (normative) appearance and her (freaky) insides: Elephant Man and mirror fuse into the function of letting Scarlett trace the compounds of her (im)material reality. She seeks to consummate a newfound sense of belonging by opening up her body to the world, firstly by ingesting food and secondly by engaging in intercourse, but – alas – realizes that her body has not been designed to allow for entry: its openings are for show only, and offer no space for exchange. It is Scarlett’s tragedy to be a budding 4-dimensional subject caught in a body of one-dimensional projection; a body that possesses no passageways to its own insides.
Scarlett releases The Elephant Man from her dark trap and, in ceasing to perform as a predator, immediately falls victim; a destiny she shares with other cinematic femme fatales, notably Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac whose sexual emancipation is preconditioned by unrelenting promiscuity.
Horrified by the incapacity of her body to engage with its own materiality, Scarlett seeks refuge in it embeddedness by seeking solitude in nature, in a vast forest place that shivers with Cassandra-esque premonitions of evil. Evil does come14, in the form of a rapist woodsman who tears a hole in Scarlett’s skin and exposes her alien insides. Faced with his impotent desire for the abject, the woodsman runs for gasoline and matches15. Scarlett meanwhile removes her torn body suit16 and almost tenderly beholds the pleasant smile that still lingers on its face. This double bind of the aware Self vis-à-vis its outer projection, inside and outside existing in one shared time-space, is a moment of emancipatory potential that I would like to explore a bit further. To do so, we will write the fire-spreading barbarian out of our manuscript and see how it might have unfolded without him.
Excursus 2, alternative ending in which Alien-Scarlett transubstantiates to enter fully the practice of Dark Matter:
Scarlett’s Alien status could justify an examination of her insides, from a cosmological perspective, as Dark Matter. D.M. is an odd substance that defies refraction by light, and withstands all gazes, even telescopic ones. Cosmologists have hypothesized the existence of dark matter to explain gravitational effects for which there can be found no visual cause. The matter expresses a Cartesian paradox, because apparently virtual particles can manipulate material objects. Since 2008, scientists working the large Hadron Collider in Switzerland have attempted to force D.M. into visible existence, and in doing so, other scientists warn, have initiated a process that might turn the particle accelerator into a Machine of Doom17: an apparatus that will eventually replace the body of planet earth with a black whole consuming all and everything, along with the evidence of its own existence. Are there indeed dangers in attempting to direct a penetrating gaze onto the darkest matters of existence? Will knowledge about the void, the ultimate unknown, illuminate the Theory of Everything in a pivotal performance of Enlightenment ideology, or will the attempt to map out and capture Mystery really bring forth the End of the World? Will the desire to see, measure, excavate, unveil and expose All eat up Everything? The Black Hole exists at the bottom of the universe. It occurs when the distance between All Things – atoms, light rays, bodies, skin tones, dressing gowns, manuscripts (lights-camera-action) – collapse in vertigo. Dark Matter is not defined by location, it is defined by lack of space, and so it is a matter that can never be explored, conquered, claimed. It is that which withstands the penetration of the quantomic gaze earth projects. Scarlett ventures into the heart18 of the Hadron Collider, where she disposes of her outer shell to embrace completely the dark matter beneath it. In the midst of colliding atoms the outlines of her physical body dissolve concavely into a miniature black hole, a slit in the known universe, a leap into unseeing, unknowing: a retinal wound. She is a slit in the cosmos and consumes everything that enters her sphere to loose itself in her delightfully. Creating a new point of departure from and into the world(s) she initiates a reign of mysticism, alchemy, lost knowledge, and erects sunken cities; Minoan labyrinths, endlessly intertwining the materiality of existence with her lack of space. A pure incision into the Real, she reveals nothing, yet contains the most intimate knowledge about the backside of everything. And she relishes in this knowledge, and the world relishes with her.
“Oh – you live alone?”
In On Touching – The Inhuman That Therefore I Am19 Karan Barad locates queerness within the most intimate building blocks of our bodies: in the unruly electron, which resists compliance with the (human) laws of physics, preferring to jump from one state of being into another, engaging in self-mergings and acts of cannibalism (yes, it eats its own children), and which, for these transgressions, is deemed immoral, even perverse by some.
“Apparently, touching oneself, or being touched by oneself—the ambiguity/undecidability/indeterminacy may itself be the key to the trouble—is not simply troubling but a moral violation, the very source of all the trouble. The electron is not merely causing trouble for us; in an important sense it is troubling itself, or rather, its self, […] That is, the very notion of “itself,” of identity, is radically queered. (Gender trouble for sure, but that isn’t the half of it.)”20
Given that on our atomic level there are no such units that would sustain the idea of a unified, autonomous Self, we might perceive of the human body – already consisting in majority of non-human DNA, and void, glorious void, much like the universe – foremost as a host of Otherness, other things, fabrics, customs, fleeting entities and identities that oscillate between states of being(s).
Barad engages Derrida’s notion of identity as preconditioned in its very foundation by a hospitality towards difference in/with/of Self, rendering the self as a “stranger at home”21; a status we might also ascribe to extra/terrestrial Scarlett.
When Scarlett widens the tear in her Caucasian body suit and unwraps herself from her outer projection, exposing (freeing!) the dark Alien inside, she holds still for a moment, facing towards each other: her black face, which is only contours, and her human face, which is a mask22. We might read her as an interstellar female version of the ancient Roman figure Janus, the double-faced god of transitions – gates, doorways, passages; also associated with birth, and thus signifying a beginning rather than an end23.
Scarlett holds her discarded face in the palm of her hands, as one would a mirror, or perhaps a newborn baby: viewing it with attention, and maybe some incredulity but definitely acknowledging, even embracing, its immediate presence. What seems incredible here is not the extraterrestrial entity that Scarlett has revealed herself to be, but rather that she has for so long existed as something else. It is the white carcass of her shed skin that seems improbable, even obscene. Yet Scarlett, finally in her true incarnation, (be)holds her punctured projection with care, and it returns a gaze of intimacy, even caress. The sense of tenderness that determines this (ideally eternally frozen) moment of recognition of the double-Self rings with Barad’s notion of touch touching itself; in its/their touch, indeed, an infinity of other beings – spaces – times – are summoned. The dark continent of the unconscious challenges the assumptions of scientific rationality much in theby way of the perverse electron.
At this point I cannot resist to draw on another magnificent rant24 of Terence Mckenna’s, whom I, in lack of better labels will label a shaman, in his reading of why UFO/Aliens25 appear to us, or more precisely what it is that appears to us when aliens seem to do so: In a Jungian sense the figure of the Alien manifests from the unconscious with the compensatory function of re-directing our mode of attention away from a paternalistic Apollonian solar-masculine world-view, and towards a watery, lunar-mysterious intuitively felt feminine force-field. Scarlett in this reading, might be nothing less than a manifestation of Gaia the mother goddess, which challenges the proudest erection of the deluded enlightenment-mind – the science of strict physics – by bringing into flesh the reality of anOther dimension, a realm located beyond the grasp of static categories and established fields of knowledge, and yet embedded within the felt presence of direct experience: in the nexus of the space-time of Now, our minds are the most immediate sector of the (un)known universe.
Excursus 3, in which the twofold-bodied Scarlett reincarnates the ancient Greeks’ pre-Zeusian physique26:
Scarlett, whose inside and outside have been summoned to co-exist in one space, unfolds both of her bodies into an upright position and revives the gender-egalitarian vision of Aristophanes. The human body, before it was split in halves by yet another jealous god (Zeus this time27) consisted of two bodies that were attached to each other in the middle, in these three compositions.
woman/man (Moon, Androgynous).
Movement was achieved by means of rotation, hands/feet/hands/feet progressing successively over the grounds of the world in dizzying speed: people so powerful they reached for the sky, gods so petty they castrated our self-loving ancestors. And so we, the impotent offspring of such divine bodies, are in fact merely half-human, eternally in search of our missing halves and depressed by the hopelessness of reuniting with our Other self, even if we find them.
Beatriz Preciado covers her skin in testosterone, in appropriating the genealogy of maleness in liquid form, whom is s/he really crossing but Zeus?28
Thus, in this excursus, Scarlett develops at least two sets of reproductive organs and rotates through the world; a double-bodied wheel, propelling itself into the future29. Here she reconfigures the www into an organic extension of the mind of Gaia, and allow us, her followers, to tap in to the ancient knowledge of felt presence while being able to activate by demand the technologies of more recent ages, allowing us to expand, share, mold our biological bodies, shape our physical living spheres according to our desires (would you be a threefold person? would you be a pure slit? would you be polymorphous, constantly slipping in and out of shapes, always keeping some part of yourself liquid?); not as the conquering of mind over matter, but in the unification of mind and matter into new earthly-celestial beings, divine bodies that bring to the corporeal identity the propositions of spiritual minds. A new world society, in which bodies are physically (re)produced without constraints, without endings, borders; bodies that embrace several modules of reproduction and modes of love in and of themselves, and integrate endless modalities of sense and sensibility; spanning the globe in spirit as in technicality, uniting hitherto fragmented populations in a shared, instantaneously connectable web of knowledge, community: molecular promiscuity and cosmic partnership.
- 1. www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSQih-hg5QU
- 2. See for instance Jeanne Willette: Jacques Lacan, The Mirror Stage in Art History Unstuffed, (2013)
- 3. www.cracked.com/article_19651_7-reasons-ants-will-inherit-earth_p2.html
- 4. www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zK_44APmbY
- 5. Donna Haraway, the self-proclaimed alpha bitch of cyber-feminism, has adjusted her perspective from the exotics of VR and techno-fetishist cyborgism towards the more mundane body of the dog in its capacity as a “fleshly material-semiotic presence in the body of techno-science”. She ponders on the potential of genome transferals between woman and bitch: “We have had forbidden conversation; we have had oral intercourse; we are bound in telling story upon story with nothing but the facts. We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand. We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love. This love is a historical aberration and a naturalcultural legacy.” Donna J. Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (2003). Considering that the human influence on dog genome has been produced mainly by killing off biting dogs and allowing more submissive specimens to live, we could also submit that at the heart of the companion-species-love is the historical constant of eugenics.
- 6. Note for instance how new-wave Apple Stores appropriate Catholic church architecture www.giga.de/extra/apple-store/news/apple-store-berlin-kurfurstendamm-wir...
- 7. Linda Williams, “Porn studies proliferating pornographies”, in: On/Scene: An Introduction. Porn studies , Linda William (ed.), (2004)
- 8. “And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.”
- 9. Riane Eisler, The chalice and the blade (1987).
- 10. http://jackhusseyyy.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/dolce-gabbana-scarlett-j... /
- 11. http://kweligee.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/male_gaze_8_20110627_1509710...
- 12. http://www.wallpapersource.co/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/red-star-wallpa...
- 13. www.google.de/search?q=narcissus+Caravaggio+Bencz%C3%BAr&client=firefox-...
- 14. www.a4man.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Woodsman-A4man.jpg Here I imagine the woodsman to interrupt a love affair between Red Riding Hood and wolf
- 15. www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TgNB6ARl4g
- 16. Scarlett’s transformation is of course also a birth metaphor, a silent, compliant version of the monsters that penetrate our bodies from the inside in sci-fi horrors such as the Alien trilogy. Scarlett’s position, when she looks at her cast of skin, is not so different from Ellen Ripley’s when she finds out that she is already dead but at once reborn in an intimate incarnation with the creature that killed her.
- 17. www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2562063/Could-super-Hadron-end-w...
- 18. http://news.discovery.com/space/lhcs-heart-starts-pumping-protons-ahead-...
- 19. In differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Vol. 23, No 3. (2012)
- 20. Ibid.
- 21. Jacques Derrida, Aporias (1993).
- 22. As I note down these lines, a disfigured child and his older sister enter my field of vision. The boy’s face looks like a mask, like a face painted onto a piece of cloth, stretched too far and too tightly over his bone structure, creating soft lines where we would expect depressions, smoothness where we would see abrupt breaks. The eyes seem enclosed in cavities, narrow slits in the fabric of the skin; an only roughly rendered face-approximation, which I try to resist gazing at yet inevitably return to, brush over again and again. The boy’s sister finds no strangeness in her brother’s face; among the three of us, my vision is the only one that’s deviant.
- 23. Janus’s two faces signifies the bivalent nature of movement and change
- 24. Terence McKenna, “Aliens and Archetypes”, in: Thinking Allowed (1990), www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWoHLcHC0oM
- 25. McKenna refers to the “UFO” but we might apply “Alien” interchangeably
- 26. www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/sym.htm
- 27. He [Zeus] said: ‘Methinks I have a plan which will enfeeble their strength and so extinguish their turbulence; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.’
- 28. www.dev.e-flux.com/journal/testo-junkie-sex-drugs-and-biopolitics/
- 29. www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/essay/237878