In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dirty Alien Shadow-selves: Synthetic Dirt in District 9

by Cheryl Stobie

Art was intended to prepare and announce a future world:
today it is modelling possible universes. (Bourriaud 2002: 13)

In this paper I triangulate three theoretical strands, using Nicolas Bourriaud on aesthetics, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay on science fiction, specifically representations of aliens, and Mary Douglas on anthropology. Although Bourriaud privileges the art exhibition, many of his comments on contemporary artistic practice and its cultural potential are suggestively applicable to the film District 9 (Blomkamp 2009). Bourriaud refers to a contemporary trend in the art world of “learning to inhabit the world in a better way, instead of trying to construct it based on a preconceived idea of historical evolution” (2002: 13). He elaborates that “the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real” (13). Further pertinent concepts of Bourriaud’s include the city model of cultural forms (14), and the shift from art as a space to be traversed to “a period of time to be lived through” (15), like a film narrative. Bourriaud also notes the semiotic power of the image to generate empathy and connection. He places contemporary art in the zone of the interstitial, and within this zone he emphasises the significance of human gestures of connection in representations, in dialogic relationships with prior formations, in ethics and as expressions of desire.

District 9 represents an individual’s paradigm shift from his own historically and culturally inculcated prejudices to a more progressive, sympathetic viewpoint. This occurs in an alternate reality contemporaneous with our own present, against the dystopian setting of a Johannesburg overhung by an alien spacecraft. The aliens are being moved from the eponymous District 9, a name which evokes the infamous District 6, to a concentration camp further from the city. District 9 is a place of dirt and squalor, whose occupants, both human and alien, are initially viewed as debased by the central protagonist, Wikus van de Merwe, and the viewer alike. Wikus’s becoming-alien and his capacity for connection are accompanied by a seismic shift of consciousness, which may be paralleled by the viewer’s own imaginative entry into the domain of the other. As is typical of thoughtful science fiction, the film is characterised by an engagement with “the existing real” in terms of its genre of production, its socio-political context, its representation of the abject body, and its emotional effects on the viewer. One of the prime ways in which these engagements can be observed is by reference to literal and synthetic dirt.

District 9 does not slot cleanly into one film genre, but mixes a number of genres, including science fiction, most obviously, and also allegory, body horror, fugitive action, conversion from one point of view to another, and a love story. With regard to the science fiction framework, director Neill Blomkamp deliberately goes against the grain of contemporary shiny, sanitised or saccharine Hollywood renditions, instead filming in Chiawelo, a part of Soweto abandoned after its inhabitants were moved to RDP housing. The gritty social realism of the squatter camp setting grounds the film in South African realities of racism and xenophobia, and issues a rebuke to glossy, anodyne science fiction. The immediacy and psychological depth of earlier films such as Alien, Aliens and Blade Runner are evoked, re-injecting the human trace of synthetic dirt which has been erased from many current, slick science fiction films, such as those directed by Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg, or those which sacrifice challenge for profit, or foreground sterile CGI technology at the expense of political or philosophical questioning.

The encounter with the alien is the ultimate contact zone between self and other. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay comments: “Aliens are our shadows, and we are theirs” (2007: 1). He further notes that in English, the term “alien” refers both to humans from another area, and extraterrestrials. This slippage makes Blomkamp’s point even clearer. In this second sense of the word, aliens often combine technological expertise and bestial characteristics, exacerbating the anxiety provoked by the encounter. Csicsery-Ronay notes that “The alien is the fictive event horizon of a parallel singularity from which we may derive what we are” (8). Although the difficulties of entering alien consciousnesses are profound, three types of representation which assist in this imaginative process are perceptual, sympathetic and symbolic (Nagel, cited in Csicsery-Ronay 2007: 17). All of these effects: the physical, emotional and aesthetic, assist the viewer of District 9 to undergo a process of creative engagement with the other which mirrors that of Wikus.

The ambiguity associated with the aliens in this film derives from, on the one hand, the graphic effects of body-horror as Wikus becomes alien, and, on the other, the ethical growth portrayed as he sloughs off barriers of conditioning and becomes more sympathetic, both in himself towards others, and to the viewer.

Wikus’s bodily integrity is threatened when he is squirted in the face with black fluid from a phallic cylinder. The contaminating moment is marked by his physical and emotional reactions: he gasps, coughs, swears and tries to cut filming of this section of the mock-documentary recording the eviction of the aliens. The magical liquid, both rocket fuel and transforming agent, marks the aliens as technologically advanced. The appearance of the cylinder is a visual echo of the tubing used by the aliens to convey rotting cow juices to nourish their developing eggs; tubing which Wikus previously blithely disconnected to effect an “abortion” of “the Prawn’s” illegal procreation. This scene conveys both the aliens’ revolting, insect-like alterity, and Wikus’s callousness. The viewer’s response is complex and riven, as visceral disgust towards the aliens’ obscene habits and ethical abhorrence directed at Wikus’s genocide war with one another.

So Wikus’s allegorical physical dissolution begins: he vomits; has a leakage of black fluid from his nose; his fingernails become loose and he twists two off with his teeth; he vomits again, on the cake celebrating his promotion to officer overseeing alien evictions; he passes out; his left (sinister) hand is converted into a crab-like claw. He is now abducted for experimentation by MNU: he is zipped into a body bag like a corpse; he is forced to use alien weaponry, which humans cannot operate, to shoot pigs and then an alien, an act which appals him and leaves him spattered with black alien blood; he is threatened with vivisection to determine his hybrid physiology; and after he escapes from the Mengele-like laboratory he is rendered an outcast by his father-in-law’s smear campaign accusation that he has contracted a highly contagious sexual disease from aliens. Wikus’s metamorphosis continues as he consumes the aliens’ favourite food, canned cat food, and loses teeth. Boils erupt on his skin, and he painfully peels off a strip of his flesh to reveal the developing carapace beneath. He cries as he yearns for reunion with his wife, Tania, expressing his love and longing with the purest of the bodily fluids. In contact with the subculture of the Nigerians, he is mocked for his supposed “doggy-style” intercourse “with a demon”, and is again viewed as a sacrificial offering, as Obesandjo craves his alien arm to eat in order to access alien powers. To save himself from his pursuers, Wikus enters an alien exo-suit, and becomes a cyborg, as he has probes drilled into his brain which enable him to interact with the Transformer-like suit replete with weapons. When Wikus hears that his alien friend, “Christopher Johnson”, will be killed by the mercenaries working for MNU, in an ethically redemptive act he sacrifices his own safety to assist his friend; the cyborg body is frail in the face of the onslaught, and is shown anthropomorphically vomiting as it ejects Wikus. A debased figure, he crawls through the dirt, with one human eye and one alien eye signifying his hybrid status. A mockumentary flashback pictures the uxorious Wikus lovingly revealing the photograph of his “special angel”, Tania, who in the present of the film is shown carefully unveiling a metal flower, which she believes has been made by Wikus. Confirming her belief, at the end of the film we are shown an alien in the dirt of District 9, crafting a flower from detritus.

Mary Douglas’s seminal anthropological text, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1991), first published in 1966, is pertinent here. Various theorists, pre-eminently Julia Kristeva, have developed the notion of the abject based upon Douglas’s work, and since the 1980s various artists have explored this concept. However, as the abject explicitly employs universalising psychology and is feminist in impulse, I find it more consonant with the themes and setting of District 9 to apply Douglas’s original critical ideas to the film. Douglas analyses the significance of material entering or leaving the human body, which is classified in different contexts as clean or dirty; acceptable and life-enhancing or associated with defilement and taboo. She notes: “Reflection on dirt involves reflection on the relation of order to non-order, being to non-being, form to formlessness, life to death” (5). Hybrid forms are considered anathema to habits of categorisation; the body “provides a basic scheme for all symbolism” (163-4); food should fit suitable categories; and anxieties concerning secretions or excretions past the borders of the body represent a need to conserve the cohesion of a minority group. Social danger may come from outside, inside, the margins or from an internal struggle, where “at certain points the system seems to be at war with itself” (122).

So while it is possible to read the allegory of District 9 as a universal conflict between self and other, the insistent, dirty setting in Soweto and the iconic coding of Wikus as having the point of view of a white South African male, together invite us to see his leaky body and his shape-shifting as representing a culturally specific and painful loss of power and control. He loses bodily integrity, family, home and community. He faces being sacrificed to corporate-government interests or continental needs. He must embrace change as he fears annihilation and the obscenity of death.

The film shows the possibility of a shift of mindset and a rapprochement between human and extraterrestrial. Yet it also shows quite clearly class and economic divisions and the difficulty of trusting fellow humans who, diabolically, indulge in the ultimate taboo of eating the flesh of bipedal sentient beings – as do aliens. Further, it shows the height of romantic love in Wikus, who sees Tania as a “special angel”, worlds apart from the sex workers and female sangoma in District 9 and reminiscent of the social gulfs portrayed in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. At the end these stereotypes and contradictions are not reconciled, but hang in a murky balance. As Csicsery-Ronay observes, “The alien reveals human beings to be a single species. If it reveals sexual, racial, and other differences within that species, these are not accidental differences, but constitutive. We are a Species that Is Not One” (2007: 23).

At the end of the film an unrecognisable Wikus is left with the memory of a bond made with the aliens, through Christopher Johnson, and the promise of a return, which propels the film into the future and the hope of living in a better way; aliens “impinge on human existence and incite our longing either to be better than we are, or at least not worse” (23). And as guarantor of Wikus’s constancy, despite his transformation, we are given the emblem of a love-offering: the gift of a flower, with all of its wealth of symbolic associations, fashioned as the art of the possible, from dirt.

Cheryl Stobie lectures English Studies at UKZN, Pietermaritzburg

Blomkamp, Neill (dir.) 2009. District 9.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. 2002. Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Les presses du réel.
Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. 2007. “Some Things We Know about Aliens,” Yearbook of English Studies 37,2: 1-23.
Douglas, Mary. 1991 [1966]. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge.

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