Extrapolating on Marx, we could say that in capitalism, we are all aliens – strangers in relation to the humanity that capitalism abducts from us. This difference between humanity as species-being and the subject in capitalism as an estranged being somehow resonates in the way that aliens are imagined in sci-fi. Aliens almost invariably presuppose a certain image of humanity to which they are alien.
It could be, to state an often-repeated idea, that the aliens invading Earth respond to a collective consciousness that threatens human individuality – this elicits the self-image of humans as individuals provided with free will. Or, in a more original motif, it could be that our extraterrestrial visitors developed nonlinear language and cognition, a simultaneous mode of consciousness, and that our incomprehension of them would only be (partially) overcome if we were to struggle against our all-too-human linear perception of time, our imprisonment by the frames of an inescapable past, an ephemeral present, and an unfathomable future. This »imprisonment« would yet also be what makes us free, for knowing the future creates a context in which freedom has no meaning.
In Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, the aliens arriving on Earth are also the saviors of humanity, which has destroyed itself in atomic warfare. The Oankali cure and revive human survivors aboard their ship, but they also want to repopulate Earth, interbreeding with humans to create a new human/oankali species. Although in love with humanity, the Oankali point to a defect that they call the »Human Contradiction«: that humans would be doomed to self-destruction because they are simultaneously intelligent and hierarchical.
Butler does not picture this alien encounter through a good/bad binary – things are much more complicated than that. Even though she offers a bleak view of humanity, immersed in violence and paranoia, and incredibly averse to change, the alien nature of the Oankali is not simply a positive inversion of these features. The Oankali are not at all like the humans, but they are threatening in their particular way. Are human beings that cohabit with the aliens turning into Oankali? Is humanity actually being destroyed in this process of intermixture?
In this science fiction, alienation is not a unilateral creation of Otherness, but a twofold process that creates an always partial humanity and an always partial Other. Just like the activation of the concept by Marx lets us know more about the workings of capitalism, we can also tell stories about what makes humans human and Others Other by understanding this differentiation as a process of alienation.
Isn’t it what Marx does, after all? He portrays the workings of an economic system that is dependent on the creation of two different beings in a relation of alterity to each other. In this sci-fi world, we could say that Earth was invaded by the spectral natives of planet Capital, a colonial metropole of galactic reach. The Capitalians take control of human bodies and imprison human souls (a purple substance called species-being) in a huge glass jar orbiting the planet. Of course, they do that with the human-betraying collaboration of the ruling class, called »capitalists,« no less controlled by the extraterrestrials. Only worldwide revolution could break the cycle of domination, exorcising Capitalians from human bodies and making possible a reunification of the human species-being with its material counterpart.
What I am calling alienation here is exactly this kind of relation in which one of the terms related stands for »humanity,« and how the definition of what counts for humanity in this context is variable according to the relation. In sci-fi narratives, even if Terran humans are not present and we are facing, let’s say, a battle between alien species, these species are still imagined in reference to entities that populate Earth; entities from which they are created as estranged beings. And in the background of this creation, you will always have a certain image of humanity, more or less consciously projected by the thought experiment the author proposes: a humanity submitted to the risk of fiction. Authors and readers are, after all, members of the human species – as far as we know.
The WoW effect
UFOs and science fictional imaginations of extraterrestrial beings are a perfect match. This goes even beyond the sci-fi narratives that explicitly thematize UFOs, a prolific sub-genre that includes such classic pieces of pop culture as The X-Files or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If the unexplicable phenomena associated with UFOs represent a vacuum in meaning, aliens are thus the imaginative mechanism used to fill in our knowledge gaps on the existence and characteristics of life in the cosmos beyond Earth.
Suppose that the contemporary moment regarding UFOs is the plot of a sci-fi alien movie. Which humanity would be elicited by these aliens? A tentative answer to this question may evoke what I would call the »War of the Worlds effect,« (the »WoW effect« for short). When H. G. Wells invented the theme of the alien invasion, his inspiration was the genocidal assault of Tasmania by the Europeans; he also had Darwinian evolution in mind. In War of the Worlds, we read about Martian »minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish.« In another passage, looking at the Martian technology, the narrator asks himself »how an ironclad or a steam engine would seem to an intelligent lower animal.«
Wells’s book and others have being pointed out as examples of »fantasies of reversal« that picture nineteenth-century Europeans as victims of the same colonization process they were carrying out on other continents. Their portrayal as »national security« threats – apart from being a good excuse to justify more military spending – revive these fantasies in contemporary times. The logic is based on a structuring dichotomy between colonizer and colonized, in which the first is provided with a more advanced technology that allows for the colonial domination of the second. If we are the ones being visited by extraterrestrial entities, then the role of Columbus is being played by this still unrevealed Other. We lost the galactic Space Race by a wide margin.
According to the most accepted anthropological theories of Wells’s time, every human society on Earth might develop through the same steps of European civilization in due time; in fact, non-European peoples were examples of different stages of European history. Wells’s book is an example of how this logic can be applied to the whole cosmos: in every place of the universe where the right conditions are found, life would develop the same way – this would necessarily lead to the emergence, in proper time, of something close to humans. And like humans, those beings would be subjected to the same steps of socio-cultural development. In the case of Wells’s Martians, since Mars is – according to Kant’s nebular hypothesis – older than Earth, its inhabitants would have had more time to evolve, and, therefore, would be ahead of us in the technological scale. Mars would also be a dying planet, and this would be the cause of them regarding »this earth with envious eyes.«
In sociocultural anthropology, evolutionism has been overcome since the first decades of the twentieth century by different trends of relativism; or by a neo-evolutionism that tries to get rid of the most explicitly racist assumptions of old times. Yet social evolutionism remains a strong, structuring framework in a variety of modern contexts. In science fiction, it is also possible to identify a shift from Wells’s evolutionism to a more relativist approach to extraterrestrials. Many sci-fi writers would later try to imagine bodies and intelligences that are not at all similar to those of humans. This would lead to a certain crisis of the possibility of representing an alien body, what Fredric Jameson calls »the unknowability thesis« that characterizes the work of Stanislaw Lem, and of which the most well-known example is the incomprehensible ocean of Solaris.
In the case of UFOs, the WoW effect comprises a paradoxical mix of profound admiration for this marvelous, inscrutable technology of which we can only dream of, and the absolute fear of domination that it may represent. The humanity alienated by UFOs as they have been recently appearing in the media can be characterized as military-minded, hierarchically inferior, and panic-stricken. It may also be a humanity more prone to talk about uncomfortable subjects than it was a few decades ago. It is also a never-quite-modern humanity that waits for the final arrival of extraterrestrial intelligences as they would hope for a new messiah.
Maybe the intelligent beings behind UFOs are not so much like »us« in regard to colonialism and extermination. The good news is that, if they were, we would probably already have been wiped out from the face of the Earth, or be working for our ET bosses. Apparently, we’re not. We could take this as an opportunity to rethink our relation to technology and, most importantly, the presumption that modern humans are on the top of the scale of progress.
Yuk Hui’s concept of cosmotechnics gains another dimension when looked at from this angle. If we can identify a multiplicity of concepts of technics among different cultural traditions – as in the case Hui makes of the different relation to technics implied by Chinese philosophy – then why would we assume that extraterrestrial beings would have the same relation to technology as »we« do? Hui calls cosmotechnics »the unification between the cosmic order and the moral order through technical activities.« Cosmotechnics are multiple; they diffract technology into a diversity of practices constrained by specific cosmologies. The concept makes technics and cosmology inseparable, resisting a tendency of technology to be considered a universal, homogeneous entity.
If UFOs are technical products, we should expect them to originate in relation to cosmotechnics completely different from the ones we know. Slowing down our assumptions about what UFOs »really« are must also involve a questioning of our current conceptions regarding technology, and its »moderncentric« bias. We should be careful in identifying how much of our views on this unknown technology results from a mirroring of modernity’s own cosmotechnical milieu.
When I was eight, I was not scared about being colonized by ETs – at least, not consciously. I would not have the conceptual repertoire to think in those terms, even if my own body is a fruit of the history of colonization in Brazil.
In his book, Jung interpreted the fear of UFOs seen in dreams as a manifestation of the fear of death, a substitution that does not convince me completely. The book is a long exploration of archetypes associated with visions and dreams involving UFOs. But in the last chapter, he recognizes that since visions are sometimes confirmed by radar images or photographic material, they cannot be completely reduced to psychic phenomena. He concludes with two options: either the psychic projections »throw back a radar echo,« or the observation of real objects »affords an opportunity for mythological projections.«
I still don’t know where my fear came from, as much as what this factual residue of UFOs might be. What can I say? While I am writing this text, I would wake up almost every night to drink some water. I leave a bottle on the windowsill near the bed. The curtains are invariably closed, but you can see some light coming through. I always avoid looking upwards.