This essay is featured in Boston Review’s fall 2018 print issue Evil Empire. Order your copy!
On June 18, 2018, President Donald Trump took everyone by surprise. In the midst of remarks about U.S. and German approaches to immigration, he was suddenly directing “the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces” and banging on about achieving “American dominance in space” and “expand[ing] our economy.”
There is a rather obvious continuity between Trumpian fear of otherness and the fantasy of controlling outer space.
Despite Trump’s seemingly abrupt change of topic, there is no actual disjuncture—indeed, there is a rather obvious continuity—between the fear of otherness and the fantasy of control, between discussing ways to restrict the movement of “undesirable” people and fantasizing about Space Invaders—space being, after all, the final frontera. There is, moreover, no contradiction between fixing borders ever more firmly in place/space and finding ways to transform the limits to capital into barriers for it to overcome. And there is no conflict between the interimperial rivalry of nation-states—both China and Russia recently demonstrated their ability to shoot down satellites—and the global Empire of transnational capital. In fact, since Ronald Reagan’s neoliberal refashioning of the U.S.—and thus the global—economy in the 1980s, which transformed the world’s principal source of liquidity to the world’s biggest debtor, the United States has become utterly dependent on the rest of the world, including Russia and especially China, to finance its deficits. The U.S. empire needs, but does not fully control, neoliberal Empire—and the same is true of its rivals.
There has long been at the edge of the conquered world a curious interweaving of empires and monsters, the production of one depending on the production of the other. The periphery of the map always says “Here be dragons,” or so we imagine. In reality, the 1510 Lenox Globe is probably the only historical map actually to bear the warning “HC SVNT DRACONES”—and even that might be less an intimation of peril than a note of where in East Asia Komodo dragons can be found. Nevertheless, cartographers have long doodled allegorical wyrms in the margins of their charts, dotted the seas with mermaids and water-spouting leviathans, and sketched strange beings in distant lands: asps, basilisks, cannibals, cynocephali, elephants, hippopotamuses, lions, scorpions, serpents, walruses—even the occasional dragon. It seems that wherever an empire’s reach finds its limit, whether on Earth or in space, monsters sneak in.
• • •
Jacques Derrida talks about two different notions of the future. There is “the future” (le futur), the programmed, prescribed, predictable unrolling of the present so as to perpetuate what already is, to extend the way things are. This is the future in which capital relentlessly expands and empires cling on, locking in and deepening existing relations of power. The immiseration of the peripheries. The financialization of everything. The sixth mass extinction. The carbon we have already burned, suspended in the air around us, and that which is still in the ground but which we cannot avoid burning. And then there is “the to come” (l’avenir), the unpredictable future that cannot be anticipated. “That for which we are not prepared,” Derrida writes, “is heralded by species of monsters.” But uncanny arrivants from the future are often all but impossible to distinguish from revenants—the ghosts which return to haunt us, the already dead that refuse to stay buried.
The classic monster returning from the past and arriving from the future is Mary Shelley’s creature. Frankenstein (1818) begins not among the abattoirs and charnel houses from which scientist Victor Frankenstein scavenges body parts, nor in the filthy workshop of creation in which he assembles them. It starts instead with the frame tale of Robert Walton’s expedition to find a navigable polar route from St. Petersburg to the Pacific, and thence to East Asia and the western coast of the Americas. He dreams noble and romantic dreams of scientific adventure, of risk and sacrifice in the pursuit of knowledge. But in reality he is bound in service to the expansion and acceleration of European power and global commerce. And it is there, near the top of the world, just as the map becomes a bare white Arctic expanse—a Georgian outer space—that Frankenstein’s creature is first sighted: taken for “a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered land,” he has “the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature.” Throughout the novel, the creature is described in this contradictory way, as both subhuman and superhuman.
On the one hand, he is as Boris Karloff portrays him in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931): “hideously deformed and loathsome . . . a monster, a blot upon the earth,” “detestable,” “horrible,” “uncouth and distorted.” Twice his flesh is compared to that of a mummy, a reminder that Shelley grew up during the first wave of British Egyptomania that followed Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and the French surrender of Egypt in 1801. Egyptomania really kicked off with the 1803 translation of Dominique-Vivant Denon’s Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt During the Campaign of General Bonaparte in that Country. Replete with etchings of sublime and melancholy ruins that resonated with the Gothic mood of the times, it was a reminder that empires fall as well as rise. Egypt—hovering on the edge of integration into the circuits of European power and capital—existed in a kind of doubled time: a closing precapitalist past and an imminent capitalist future. Soon wealthy Britons were collecting artifacts and renovating rooms in Egyptian style, and, in 1812, the London Museum and Pantherion, popularly known as the Egyptian Hall, opened to the public. In this context, it would have been odd for Shelley’s descriptions of her dead-but-alive creature not to evoke mummies—those uncannily preserved corpses plucked from the peripheral battlegrounds of interimperial rivalry and circulating in the intertwined economies of war, archaeology, popular culture, and looting.
It is easy to see Frankenstein’s fear of his creation as the white ruling class’s terror of the emerging industrial proletariat and anti-colonial rebellions. If only he knew he was dreaming of a better world!
On the other hand, Shelley’s monstrous progeny anticipates Superman (though his creators never cited Shelley as an influence). The creature is “more powerful,” of “superior” height, with “joints more supple”; he is “more agile,” of greater “stature,” better able to withstand “the extremes of heat and cold.” He never leaps a tall building, but he does bound “over the crevices in the ice.” And he is faster than the speeding bullet Victor fires at him, dodging it and racing away “with the swiftness of lightning.” He also has a predilection for secret citadels and fortresses of solitude in alpine “ice caves” and arctic “dens.”
Superman, a refugee from the technologically advanced world of Krypton, represents a form of hypermodernity. Shelley’s creature, for all its necrotic pastness, likewise foreshadows futurity. When he prevails upon his maker to fashion him a female companion, he swears they will depart Europe for “the vast wilds of South America,” a commons beyond empire, far “from the habitations of man.” In these distant, unenclosed, and supposedly empty lands, they will live free and contented, sleeping on “a bed of leaves” and subsisting on “acorns and berries.” They will tread lightly and trouble humankind no more. But Victor is unconvinced. He worries the female creature might be “ten thousand times more malignant than her mate, and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness.” Or that she might lust after “the superior beauty of man” and jilt the creature, reigniting his fury at humankind. Even worse, they might breed, propagating “a race of devils . . . upon the earth” and thus making “the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.”
Shelley’s novel was shaped by the violently repressed Luddite insurgency of the 1810s. It was written while Argentine and Chilean forces were driving the Spanish from Chile. And it appeared on January 1, 1818, the same day soldiers of the British East India Company defeated their former puppet ruler Baji Rao II in the Third Anglo-Maratha War. Shelley shared the anti-colonial sympathies of her radical parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. But she also inherited their distrust of revolution and a preference for gradual reform—exemplified in Frankenstein by the politeness with which Walton’s desperate yet unfailingly deferential crew mutiny against his obviously fatal plan to push on further into the perilous Arctic seas.
It is easy then to see Victor’s terror of the daemonic mob that his creations might spawn as the white ruling class’s terror of both the emerging industrial proletariat and the anti-colonial rebellions that together threaten to overthrow not only feudal remnants but also European imperialism and the rising bourgeoisie. If only poor Victor knew he was dreaming of a better world!
A similar contradiction can be found in H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1897). Wells’s Martian invaders reek of the past. They are vampiric monsters, their domination of an older, dying world coming to an end (an Orientalist echo, perhaps, of the devastation of China and India by British imperial and economic policies). But they are also creatures of the future. More technologically advanced than the British Empire, their massive brains, withered bodies, and hands so agile as to have become “bunches of delicate tentacles” are modelled on the future evolution of humans that Wells imagined in his 1893 essay “The Man of the Year Million—A Scientific Forecast.” They are an image of what we and our world might become, and in this crucible of past and future, they crystallize the truth of the present into which they arrive.
While the novel was being serialized, British forces in the Northwest Province of India repeatedly clashed with Pashtun tribesmen, and in Southern Africa the year ended with the British colony of Natal annexing Zululand. In Wells’s carnivalesque inversion, Martians from the future show the monstrousness of the world Britain had made, and make the Home Counties the battleground on which its empire is smashed.
• • •
Bloomberg’s response to Trump’s Space Force announcement was to commission eight designers to create a logo for this new branch of the military. David Reinfurt proposed a gold-rimmed white circle with the words “UNITED STATES SPACE FORCE” in black around the outside, so stretched as to be virtually illegible. Reinfurt describes his design as “empty at its center . . . a black hole of sorts, sucking anything that comes too close into its vortex, including even its own name.” So while it is not likely to be adorning space armor or photon torpedoes any time soon, it is an apt metaphor for capital, whose logic demands the economy must constantly expand, distorting everything and leaving nothing untouched.
Trump’s announcement was made just two days before the second anniversary of the world premiere of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day: Resurgence (2016), the belated—some might say unwanted—sequel to his 1996 box-office hit Independence Day. The film opens in a world transformed by alien technologies salvaged from the wrecks of the defeated invaders, and by a Pax Americana that ensures increased international cooperation to defend Earth from future threats. In the NAFTA-era original, a significant part of which is set so close to the U.S.–Mexico border that the racist metaphors write themselves, the insectile aliens are depicted as migrant labor; when they return in the sequel, it is as an embodiment of colonial resource extraction.
Sometimes it really is necessary to commit interstellar genocide in order to prevent interstellar genocide.
The film has precisely one moment of interest. Everything is going badly. The aliens have wiped out the U.S. government. They have lured almost the entire Air Force into a lethal trap. And they are close to drilling through to Earth’s core, which they intend to extract for no reason that makes any kind of sense. The ragtag remnants of the military are preparing for a fight they cannot possibly win. Which is when former president Whitmore—the Gulf War veteran responsible for defeating the aliens twenty years earlier—strides into the hangar and delivers one of those stirring patriotic speeches that everyone can hear regardless of how far away they are, even if they are wearing earmuffs. It is not as rousing as his Independence Day reworking of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, but it does contain this singular admission: “We convinced an entire generation that this is a battle that we could win. And they believed us.”
Not one person in his audience—apart from David Levinson, to whom he is ostensibly speaking—looks old enough to have been born when the aliens first came, just as we are now only months away from the United States deploying its first soldier who has lived his or her entire life in a nation waging multiple simultaneous wars around the world (against an entire generation that has grown up subject to U.S. military aggression). Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argue that any state which subordinates itself to “an immense war machine” and “makes war an unlimited movement with no other aim than itself” is fascist—a point appreciated by the violent satirical space opera Starship Troopers (1997), if not by Presidents Whitmore, Bush, Jr., Obama, or Trump. Although the aliens are defeated for a second time in Independence Day: Resurgence, it is still only just another battle in an ongoing conflict. The conclusion sees humankind being recruited by other alien species to lead a coalition in a war to rid the galaxy of the aliens. Everyone cheers. There is not even a pretense of reluctance to undertake this “humanitarian intervention” because sometimes it really is necessary to commit interstellar genocide in order to prevent interstellar genocide. There is just no end to the killing in sight—especially since the film’s box-office performance was so poor that the intended third entry in the series was cancelled. And so we are left suspended, without resolution, without possibility of surcease.
• • •
Even when the aliens invade the entire world, the movies tend to focus on the military of an individual nation—usually the United States—defending against border incursions. At best, they imagine the global in terms of relations between nations. There is rarely any sense of Empire, of the transnational regime of finance capitalism. Its world-spanning network of information and communications technologies. Its marshalling of resources, including human labor. Its recourse, when necessary, to some nation or other’s drones in the air and troops on the ground. This Empire envisions a post-historical future of peace—that is, of unperturbed accumulation—through perpetual terror and pacification. Through manufactured and managed crises, structural adjustments, capital flight, austerity, precarity, dispossession, enclosure, and debt. Through the entire repertoire of structural violence and slow violence—as well as the quicker, more spectacular kinds.
And now, it seems, through Space Force.
Mike Pence made it clear that Space Force is just a tired reboot of the old imperial fantasy: occupy the high ground so you can rain down shit on everyone else.
Vice President Mike Pence’s August 9 Space Force press junket made clear that this great big bullying blustering pussy-grab for space, this effort to Make America Great Again and recover all that was lost to the perfidy of previous administrations is about just one thing: occupying the high ground. Getting out of the gravity well so as to be able to rain down shit on anyone who gets out of line. It is just a tired reboot of the old imperial fantasy of control from above. It can be traced through nineteenth-century science fiction about airborne anarchists and dirigible dictators, and through Winston Churchill’s bombing of Iraqi Kurds; it can be seen in the fruity fascist overtones of the Wings Over the World global law enforcers in Things to Come (1936), and in the Strategic Defense Initiative first advocated by sundry SF writers and then by Ronald Reagan; and it can be seen in the murderous drone program overseen by Bush, Jr., Obama, and Trump.
And it can be seen in Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion (2013), which is pretty much alone among contemporary alien invasion movies in imagining beyond empires to Empire. In the film, the aliens came sixty years ago. They destroyed the Moon, and gravitational upheavals devastated the world. Then they invaded. Humans nuked them and won the most pyrrhic of victories, rendering Earth uninhabitable. The survivors abandoned the world and colonized Saturn’s moon Titan. They left behind a network of monumental airborne machines to suck up the remaining water to power Titan’s fusion generators (or something nonsensical like that), a drone defense network, and a maintenance worker, Jack, played by Tom Cruise. After sundry action shenanigans, Jack discovers that the deadly Scavengers intent on sabotaging the devices under his care are not remnants of the alien army but the last surviving humans, forced underground.
Jack, you see, has been played. There were no swarms of extraterrestrial warriors. Just millions of mind-wiped clones of Jack, the astronaut who first encountered the Tet—a giant, tetrahedral AI—in space. And this Jack, the one we have been following, is not the original Jack. He is just another clone deployed to accumulate for the Tet. A figure of Capital and Empire, the Tet is detached from the world, instrumentalist, without allegiance to anything human or terrestrial. It merely extracts. Wrings dry. Moves on.
There are no monsters. Just the monstrous system of Empire.
This essay is featured in Boston Review’s fall 2018 print issue Evil Empire. Order your copy!