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Aliens and the longings of late modernity: reflections on “Independence Day”


My youngest son celebrated his golden birthday on the Fourth of July. After the birthday festivities, I took a long afternoon nap, missed fireworks, and was up most of the night with allergies and my usual late-night restlessness. I decided to watch a movie: a re-run of Independence Day. The movie was only a small bookmark in my millenial pop-culture memory bank of the 90’s, so I found it surprisingly engrossing, fresh, and new. In what follows, I will make a few remarks and observations that stuck with me since then.

In a previous post — After Science? — I noted Slavoj Zizek’s remark about how we can imagine the end of the world but cannot entertain the end of capitalism. Following this remark (and Zizek’s well-known psychoanalytic style), I realized that almost every depiction of “aliens” I have ever seen or heard of, from cartoons to movies, is a projection of our love of science and technology, a sustaining narrative that fuels our inability to change the ways we live in late (capitalist) modernity.

We are the aliens

There are no Amish aliens. No Wendell Berry-types who fall from the sky and only want to garden and make a small, sustainable life for themselves and their families.

What we depict as an “alien” could be understood as a desire for a future that vindicates the broken promises of modern science. Aliens are simply what we would like to be, what we should be by now if modernity got things right the first time: almost superhuman beings aided by advanced technology, leading to more powerful access to information, power, and total control over nature — beings, in short, who would enjoy supreme and unchallengeable independence, for ever.

We are the aliens. Or at least we are in our unfulfilled cinematic fantasies.

Defeated through victory

By defeating the aliens, we do not simply emerge victorious; in fact we only temporarily placate our frustrated modern longing to someday become aliens ourselves — space invaders, robotic geniuses, sophisticated mind-powered modifications of nature, the messianic vindication of IBM’s dark dictum, “Let’s build a smarter planet.”

Aliens are so high-tech, of course, because they cannot arrive on planet Earth without advanced technology to begin with. But space exploration is based on a similar, if not the same, principle: we need the science to travel. This need for travel stems from a certain, hopeless sense about the future. We seem to foresee that we may have to leave this planet someday in search of more fertile, undiscovered ground. We may have to become interplanetary, postmodern conquistadores to survive the apocalypse.

In the end, I think we can see that the figure of “the alien” in sci-fi/apocalyptic pop-culture can readily be understood as a trope for the late-modern realization that science and technology have not created a better world for us. “If only we could be like the aliens, if only we had better technology,” we whisper to ourselves, “everything would be much better.”

With narratives like these, we recharge the weak myth of modernity again, buy more gadgets (like my new iPad), and pine for a day when we become either the Jetsons or the monstrous, technofantasies of Independence Day.

Sam Rocha is Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations and Research at the University of North Dakota, specializing in the philosophy of education. He is the author of Things and Stuff, an edited collection of blog posts, and an unprofessional musician. For more information, see his website: www.samrocha.com

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  • Bob July 6, 2012, 5:32 pm

    “There are no Amish aliens. No Wendell Berry-types who fall from the sky and only want to garden and make a small, sustainable life for themselves and their families.”

    – It gave me great joy to read this. Thank you.

  • Zack Thompson July 7, 2012, 4:19 pm

    My dad has been saying for years, “aliens are us from the future.”