Vermin, always Vermin, but different

by zunguzungu

I watched Aliens last night, and other than confirming Scrimshander’s suggestion that it’s a dream-worked version of the Vietnam war, I didn’t have much to say about it. Though the question needs to be asked: has there ever been a more overdetermined line of dialog than Ripley’s “Get away from her, you bitch”? Discuss.

But back to the Vietnam thing, I found, after trolling through the intertubes that Mark at K-punk made the interesting suggestion way back in ought-six that “Aliens was the moment in which a new mode of the Military-Industrial-Entertainment became visible,” a mode which he calls “Conspicuous Force and Verminization” in a post of that name. It’s an interesting suggestion and rhymes thematically with some stuff I was talking about over here, the idea that American military force seems to be increasingly speaking in an idiom composed of spectacular technology and enemies figured as insects. But to quote Mark quoting Paul Virilio:

“Before Gulf War 1 had even happened, Virilo saw the logic of verminization rehearsed in James Cameron’s Aliens wherein the ‘machinic actors do battle in a Manichean combat in which the enemy is no longer an adversary, a fellow creature one must respect in spite of everything; rather, it is an unnameable being that it is more appropriate to exerminate than to examine or analyse.’ In Aliens, Virilio ominously notes, attacks on the ‘family [form] the basis of … necolonial intervention.’ The teeming, Lovecraftian abominations which can breed much faster than we can are to be dealt with by machines whose ‘awesome appearance is part of [their] military effectiveness.’ Shock and awe.

I’m assuming he means a review of Aliens in Cahiers du cinema called “L’engin exterminateur” which I am unable to read, being unable to read francais. But he goes on from here to say such things as this:

“Verminization not only transforms the Enemy into a subhuman swarm that cannot be reasoned with, only destroyed; it also makes ‘us’ into victims of its repulsive, invasive agency. As Virilo perspicaciously observed, Aliens itself operated ‘a bit like a Terrorist attack. Women and children are slaughtered in order to create an irreversible situation, an irremediable hatred. The presence of the little victim has no theatrical value other than to dispose us to accept the madness of the massacres…'”

This seems quite right to me. But I wonder a little about the work being done by the assertion that this is a “new” mode of practice (and the proleptic framing of “before Gulf War 1 had even happened”), just as these types of “paradigm shift” arguments always sort of nag at me. After all, the point of observing that Aliens is a fantasy of re-fighting Vietnam is precisely that the ideological dilemmas of the Vietnam era continue to vex, in some form, the Reagan era construction of America as superpower. And if the America war in Vietnam was a continuation of colonialism by other means — as it was — then the continuation of that “Verminization” trope from the Reagan era into the present day can also be understood not as a single dramatic leap into the now but as just one link in the larger chain that connects US Empire v.08 to the good old days when it was normal for white people to be burdened with Empire.

In other words, there are at least two possible historical emplotments you can use. On the one hand, you can carefully observe the fine-grained nuanced differences between, say, “Verminization” in Vietnam and “Verminization” in the GWOT. I think it’s responsible to do so; to pretend that nothing changes between these moments in time is a good way to do bad history. But on the other hand, sometimes you need the kind of broad perspective that sweeping (and somewhat irresponsible) parallels give you; sometimes it’s good to observe that when Colonel John M. Chivington ordered his men to “Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice,” he could have been talking about the Vietnamese or about “terrorists,” but that he was, in fact, talking about the Cheyenne in 1864.

And conspicuous force, too, is not so profoundly new. As I wrote here:

Lynching, after all, was a spectacle first and foremost, and was quite “modern” in the ways photography was used to transform a secretive event into a fundamental structuring part of the national consciousness. The archive of lynching is not hard to find, if you look; it was the most open of open secrets, and it had to be if it was going to achieve its purpose. By the same token, controlling the news cycle is a huge part of what the GWOT is about: replacing grim stories of malaise with grand stories of morning in America. That, to me, is the significance of “the Surge”: it literally does not matter that what John McCain is talking about when he says those words is a fantasy: its real purpose is to exorcise the historical specter of Vietnam, replacing a narrative in which America “chose” to lose with one where America’s will to win conquers all obstacles. I don’t think Americans like McCain or Palin (and depressingly, there are many) give two shits about whether or not we’re “winning” in Iraq; they simply desire more spectacles of American “success” (=weak people being shocked and awed) and fewer of American “failure” (=people like Obama who choose to lose). And this, too, brings us back to the very origin of aerial bombardment: fantasies of imperial control (of RAF pilots surveilling and striking accurately at savage people below them) characterize the discourse from the very beginning, yet have never ever actually obtained in practice; “precision bombing” has always been an oxymoron. That too, didn’t matter: it was far more important for people in England to believe that their pilots were flying high above the chaos of jungle savage societies, dropping order in amongst it like gifts from the heavens.

Like Vietnam in the American historical memory, Aliens is the spectacle of technological failure, exactly the sort of horror that has to be repressed and papered over: what happens if our bazookas can’t save us? What if “they” can outbreed us? Nativists everywhere still wake up in a cold sweat over the prospect, very similarly to how they did in 1920.

But what does one do with that “very similar,” and with that evocation of both not quite the same and not quite so different either? How do we deal with the problem of a past that is both similar and different from the present? How do we narrate that change? I vacillate between these two modes of emplotment, and I note that I put the wild speculative gestural claims (lynching = GWOT!) on the blog, while my dissertation writing focuses in on much more minute links (how Henry Morton Stanley becomes Theodore Roosevelt, for example). One word for the difference is “responsible,” the distinction between good and bad scholarship. Another word is “boring”; how can TR and HMS be relevant for the world we live in today? But I also note that the former seems to fit its medium, and so does the latter; where better than the blogosphere for enormous speculatice leaps? And where better than “the academy” for grindingly careful attention to fine-grained historical detail? But I wonder a little about the reasons behind that choice. I think Hayden White was correct to connect narrative emplotments to ideology, to link narrative tropes to the structures of power they prop up. So I wonder — and I really do wonder — what sorts of links link my writing together? What do I write about, when I write about movies writing about history?