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The Alien That Therefore I Am - On Alien: Covenant (2017)

The Alien That Therefore I Am

Matt Ossias

Alien: Covenant (2017) begins with a question that is almost as absurd to ask today as it is to raise in the even more thoroughly scientific future of the film: how did life emerge? Peter Weyland, an Elon Musk character funding the enterprises of the Alien series, disavows the scientific consensus that life sprang into existence from out of a cosmic accident that has likely occurred (and will continue to do so anew) on seemingly innumerable planets. Organic life was born as the contingent effect of a confluence of material causes that are rationally intelligible without thereby implying an intrinsically meaningful raison d’être. David, an android named after the Michelangelo sculpture, is told by Weyland, his creator, to seek out a the true answer to creation concealed beyond the Copernican sun of our galaxy. What David finds is not our alien origins, as the film suggests, but an allegory of the alienation constitutive of subjectivity.


Prometheus (2012), the prequel, casts David assisting the crew of the eponymously named ship as it travels to a distant galaxy discovered by deciphering a pattern of stars that appeared across the ancient artifacts of disparate civilizations on Earth. Upon their arrival, they come to find that we are indeed the ancestors of this Promethean race. The crew dub their creators the ‘Engineers’. Desiring to meet their maker, if only to ask why we were abandoned, the crew also find that these ancient beings have become determined to destroy humanity. Why this is so remains uncertain. David offers a cringeworthy cliche: “Sometimes to create, one must first destroy.” A bit more tangibly, albeit no more ridiculous, the crew speculates that the Engineers were testing a weapon on one of their own at a safe distance from home, without thereby pondering who this weapon would be used against. The beginning of the film shows an Engineer on the precipice of a waterfall drinking from a chalice containing an alien contagion that kills him. After falling to his death, the film shows the alien virus, a primordial form of the alien species that runs throughout the series, splicing with the DNA of the Engineer in the waters below. What is suggested, however implicitly, is that this took place on Earth, and we are thereby the descendents not only of the Engineers, but also the alien virus. We learn that the alien bioweapon turned on the Engineers who created it, a catastrophe symbolic of that punishment for which Prometheus was sentenced in the ancient Greek myth. As will be seen repeated in the film that followed from this prequel, these plots of hubris appear as a conspicuous domestication of these alien lifeforms which express a horror that remains all too familiar to a human history mired in war. Nonetheless, what the crew of the Prometheus find in their search for the origin of humanity will be seen as an intergalactic allegory for the Promethean consequences of a rational scientific demystification of our contingent (non-teleological) origin which expose a human form of life necessarily inseparable from an awareness of its utterly profane death.

In Alien: Covenant, the sequel, a new crew stumbles upon the home planet of the Engineers who David destroyed in a visually spectacular, but theoretically mundane, Oedipal slaying of the (grand)father (and the incestuos impregnation of the caring mother, Dr. Shaw). David tries to adopt the crew member Walter as his pupil, a later generation android without the ’creative’ capacities of his cybernetic relative. The film suggests that such Promethean creativity is the original sin from which the terrors of David derive, his own intentions to kill the humans cast as but another retribution for their Promethean ambitions. As an unfortunately brilliant [1] Florian Endres remarked in regards to David, “second-nature learns to walk and goes straight down the totalitarian-wagnerian road.” Of concern is how to dissociate this death-driven Promethean intelligence, reminiscent of the murderous origins of Hegelian self-consciousness, from those tired tropes which too hastily identify thinking with a domineering will-to-power. Surely, the Enlightenment mystified the demystifying force of reason as liberating, a freedom that would be sustained by colonial conquests to oppress others in the name of their liberation. However, just as you would be truly irrational to believe that oppression did not exist before modernity, you would also be wrong to confuse this atrocious symptom for the problem posed by scientific rationalism. The imperial subjugation of others can be seen as a displacement of the crisis precipitated by reason, a deferral that is ironically repeated by those posthumanists that anthropomorphize nonhumans in the name of their liberation. What is marginalized by these contradictory gestures is that initial trauma of modern rationalism which pushed the theological fall into a fall of theology itself, collapsing into a profane abyss where death emerges as a horizon denying spiritual transcendence. The externalization of this death in the film is but a symptom of a death internal to a modern form of life inseparable from its formal constitution through its negation. This is “a life inseparable from its form” (see Agamben 2016) insofar as it immanently maintains an indissoluble (non)relation to that death which at once separates this form-of-life[2] from itself, and unites itself through this very separation: singular in its constitutive split, a recognition of a death indifferent to life that formally marks this form-of-life as different than those forms of life without an anticipation of such an annihilating death unbound from a transcendent beyond. Death immanently structures this life that cannot flee back into an Eden of immanent, immediate, innocence. At stake is not an inexhaustible becoming immanent to itself, but an immanent process of becoming-nothing propelled by our exposure to an imminent death through disclosing being as wholly profane, inextricable from its own exhaustion. The fruit of knowledge gifted by the deadly serpent lifeform introduces an intractable mediation that enacts a negation of abstract negation transformed into the concrete universal of an absolute born from its own absolvement, ever passing towards the determinate negation of a mortally wounded teleology. In layman’s terms, life is transfigured not by faith in an infinite beyond, but through an awareness of the radical finitude of death.


David tells Walter of his ambivalent hatred for humanity, his sense of superiority blurring with an indebtedness for his having been saved by a crew member whom he later experimented on, and killed (much as humans have often done to our genetic ancestors). But Walter does not cede his encoded loyalty, and he lambasts David’s antihumanist ambitions. Angry and alienated, David declares his spite for humans, and in doing so becomes all too human. As with vast swaths of so-called posthumanism, this film lapses into the very humanism it vehemently opposed. The Other is upheld as but another mirror of ourselves, thus obscuring the most radical objections posed to our self-understanding. Nonetheless, in the hall of mirrors between the androids and the aliens, the Engineers and the Promethean humans, we can see an inverted reflection of subjectivity that exorcises the specter of humanism haunting much of contemporary thought precisely by conjuring an _in_human subject that is always already a specter of its own negation.

David’s Frankensteinian miming of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum performs a repetition that retroactively reveals a crucial difference inhering between thinking and being. Made in our image, the inability of the android to become anything but a simulacrum of sentience mirrors a misrecognition constitutive of our subjectivity: that we think need not entail that we are. This problem is not as obvious as it appears. It is not simply that there is no thinking substance endowed with existent being beyond material reality. The mythical anthropomorphization of the android, which many so desperately want to believe can come to life like Pinocchio, unconsciously attempts to condense and displace the challenge to our sense of self, the exposure of life to death that returns from the repressed in the homicidal alien lifeform, increasingly indexed by the rationalism undergirding contemporary technology. Descartes’ reductive method, melting all sensual existence by the fire of doubt, would become the spark from which scientific rationalism would ignite an immanent negativity hollowing our experience of sensual reality without necessitating a metaphysical transcendence thereof. Just as the eagle tore at the liver of Prometheus, the ember of the Promethean fire that millennia later would set ablaze the Enlightenment becomes engulfed like Icarus in that punishment of an inflammatory exposure to a death that scorches every affect of life with a flare of that mortal flame that will eventually render all to ashes. Thinking empties our existence, being intractably becoming nothing. All of this is symbolized in David: the Promethean creation of humanity who thinks without being, who is sapient without being sentient, and whose search for a “perfect” form of life reveals a form-of-life inseparable from death. But unlike David, we have a shadow of sentience lingering beneath the Copernican sun that threw into relief our negation like a silhouette.

The demystification of death without any transcendent being beyond thinking is disclosed by a modern form of thought informed by a scientific rationality which simultaneously reveals there to be no essentially meaningful purpose to reality. Instead of a dogmatic rationalism presuming the identity of thinking and being, an intrinsic teleological purpose that thinking unwinds with Ariadne’s thread, or the inverse faith that thinking cannot identify being at all, that thinking can never represent the being of existence excessive in its infinite becoming, the abyss between thinking and being, representation and reality, can rather be thought as intrinsic to thinking itself precisely because of the exhaustive representation of being, the thoroughly rational and scientific disclosure of existence, not the failure thereof. It is not only that thinking introduces a divorce between itself and being, a rift between representation and reality,but that this abstract fissure torques a fracture in existence itself: the inexistence of our ex-istential ex-istence ecstatically held fast into the ex-iled oblivion of our own inevitable negation. We—those of us without any faith in metaphysical transcendence, those who do not cling to the phantasy of a pure vitalism repressing an immanent negativity—can neither wholly identify with thinking, nor with the phantasm of a more substantively embodied being that has been eviscerated by the annihilating anticipation of death. We are the vanishing mediator between thinking and being. We are not defined through a non-relation to an indefinite Other outside ourselves, but rather to an Other that we ourselves are, alien onto ourselves as that which is inappropriable precisely because it is that which is most appropriate to us (cf. Hölderlin).

We are, as Giorgio Agamben once said, constituted by “an absolute and irretrievable negativity that does not, for that, renounce knowledge” (1993, xv). If there is anything redemptive in this confrontation with the irredeemable, it is perhaps to be found in Walter Benjamin’s messianic nihilism:

[…] in happiness, all that is earthly seeks its downfall, and only in good fortune is its downfall destined to find it. […] To the spiritual restituto in integrum, which introduces immortality, corresponds a worldly restitution that leads to the eternity of downfall, and the rhythm of this eternally transient worldly existence, transient in its totality, in its spatial but also its temporal totality, the rhythm of messianic nature, is happiness. For nature is messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away. To strive after such passing, even for those stages of man that are nature, is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism. (qtd. in Agamben 1999: 145)

The eagle that feeds on the liver of Prometheus may be read as a symbol of this passing away inherent to nature, the truth of death that gnaws at life, the inability of the human to depart from its intrinsic animal mortality to ascend to a divine immortality, an anticipated negation of affect that affects how we desire, think and live. Instead of repressing the chasm opened by reason and science, we must think a form-of-life that affirms itself by way of intractably passing away towards death, a death like that which awaits the thermodynamic exhaustion of the universe. The oldest dialectical tasks of philosophy may thereby coalesce: the teaching of the good life as a preparation for death. We must imagine Prometheus happy.

Moments from death, Weyland says to his creation: “There is nothing.” To which an appropriately decapitated, yet still living, David replies (from the perspective of an inverted acephale turning materialism back on its head): “I know.” The ghost haunting this machine is but an apparition of the subject that knows itself to be a specter of its own negation, a subject constituted by an alienation from itself—the alien that therefore I am.