2.11.2014

For the Love of Aliens: On "Men in Black"


My 10 year old son has become somewhat obsessed with extra terrestrials as of late. This has prompted many discussions about the nature of aliens: What do we mean by the word 'alien'? Is there a difference between 'here' — Earth — and 'out there,' or space? How would we even go about recognizing an alien? Might an alien be an idea, a notion, a miasma, a protoplasm? Ok, yes, I know: my boy wants to talk about space ships and ray guns and I harangue him with all this nonsense. Welcome to rhetorical parenting.

Anyway, the boy says to me after considerable thought, Dad, I know alien just means something we don't know. So after we meet the aliens, we'll have to come up with another name for them. That's my boy!

But I spared him (for now) my response: But what if I want them to remain as aliens? That is, must that which is different always be domesticated, brought into the home, into knowledge, into the known? Can it remain a site of confrontation, an experience without domestication, a perpetual source of curiosity, possibility, unknowability? Can aliens remain aliens?

This had me thinking about the movie, "Men in Black," a film I always enjoyed and which, the more I considered, the smarter I found. The film opens with a group of so-called illegal aliens being smuggled across the border into the US. There's a run in with the INS. But it turns out one of these so-called aliens is, in fact, an alien. All hell breaks loose, the MIB show up, defuse the situation and send everyone on their way.

What I love about this is that the film, right from the get go, sets up multiple perspectives and corresponding jurisdictions. There's the terrestrial domain with its close minded notion of nations and borders, its cruel laws that would allow us to refer to another human being as "an illegal." Eeesh! And then there's a cosmic perspective that sees past nations and states not to discover the humanity within everyone but to see the infinite difference of life forms across the universe. This is the jurisdiction of the Men in Black.

The film bypasses all questions of first contact. We are smack dab in the middle of close encounters — close encounters everywhere, all the time, whether we know it or not. Aliens are not something out there that we need to seek with radars and telescopes and spaceships. Aliens are right here living amongst us. You just have to open your eyes. There's that beautiful scene when Will Smith looks around the city night and sees traces of aliens everywhere — beaming eyes, tails slipping out of coats.

The film maintains that we live surrounded by difference but choose not to see it. We prefer our more modest, if petty, perspectives of humanity, nation states, people and animals. But once you've opened your eyes to the difference that abounds, you enter a new realm, a new perspective, a cosmic perspective. Suddenly, the world brims.

Not many, it seems, can handle that. Only a few who are strong enough to breathe that cold mountain air (pace Nietzsche), who can forego the social realm with its families and friends, can manage to operate on this cosmic plane. These are the Men in Black who are mostly invisible to the social order, slipping in and out of chaos, negotiating an order of things that exceeds this world.

So, yes, they erase people's memories. Why? Because people are petty. People believe that aliens are folks who live in Mexico. Their perspective is limited and, should they encounter real aliens, real difference, all kinds of terrible things would happen: mayhem, fear, violence. And, worst of all, domestication — which is what "District 9" shows so well.

No doubt, I have friends who'd say: That's nonsense! That's fascism! The only way to open people's minds, to give them the cosmic perspective, is to have them experience it first hand. Don't erase their memories and soon the whole world will be embracing the vast differences of the universe. Peace and joy will reign supreme! 

Well, maybe. But 'Men in Black" takes a more Nietzschean perspective. The mob is the mob is the herd and it's stupid and cruel, living out of fear and resentment. Only those willing to leave the ethical behind, like Kierkegaard's Abraham, can handle the overwhelming absurdity of the universe.

While the Men in Black may seem like government spooks, they have a different agenda all together. Unlike the CIA, the MIB don't want to make keep aliens out. No, the job of the MIB is to maintain the steady flow of aliens, the steady flow of difference amongst us.

They don't fly through space policing aliens everywhere. On the contrary, they are a relatively small, weak, and certainly local agency. They don't imagine themselves the spooks of some super power. They have a cosmic perspective and hence know that the Earth, and its life forms, are one tiny aspect of a vast, infinitely complex universe. Their job is just to make sure things don't get out of hand, to help negotiate and adjudicate the conflicts that inevitably arise amidst a world of such difference. In this film, the war is not about humans vs. aliens. It's one alien race and another alien race fighting it out on Earth. And it's the MIB's job to help reduce the violence and mayhem that ensues.

Their purview, their mission, is of another order: the order of difference. They love all the weird alien stuff they come across. They wrestle enormous space creatures without batting an eye. They party with space bugs with equal nonplussed grace. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, they are cool as cucumbers in a world of infinite flux and complexity.

And they are constantly learning, overcoming their own limitations — Nietzsche referred to such people as ΓΌbermsensch (my oh my, it's fun typing umlauts), overmen, people who relentlessly overcome themselves. They are told that an alien planet is in a cat collar, Orion's belt. How can that be? It makes no sense.

But of course it does make sense, only not a sense within any human, Earthly paradigm. The finale of the movie spans back, shifts perspectives as it pulls away from earth, only to find us a marble in a game for some other aliens on some distant planet which is itself a small part of a vast cosmos (yes, I can hear Donald Sutherland in "Animal House").

"Men in Black" gives us a way to encounter aliens while letting them remain aliens. Unlike the all too familiar models, aliens here are not divine ("2001"), altruistic ("Close Encounters"), or hostile ("War of the Worlds"). Like anything, like everything, aliens are rarely just one thing. They are some combination of generous, hostile, grumpy, loving — and other things we can't possibly imagine.



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