Aliens or Alienation: The Commoditized Creature that Walk among Us

Aliens or Alienation: The Commoditized Creature that Walk among Us

So far, I’ve aimed to survey at a broad level a fundamental and problematic way our society operates. I now want to look at a particular example of the workings of alienation: How American capitalist society structures our monster mythology in a commoditized way that tends to alienate us from productively dealing with our own unconscious processes, and so fuels a sense of alienation.

Our Alienated Unconscious, Commoditized via Aliens

Primitive processes have to be accommodated in any society (and in thinking about society) because they are humanly necessary and universal. Thomas Ogden (1989) points out how more primitive traits can be adaptive and desirable (with “primitive” clearly connoting developmentally early origins, not necessarily atavism).

Likewise, the phenomenon of aliens and monsters is a real and omnipresent one, for these exist in all senses except the most literal. A rich alien/monster mythology is one central means by which a society may assist its members of all ages in productively accommodating primitive processes. (It is one mark of the ill health of our society that in its everyday use, “myth” is a pejorative term, virtually a synonym for “falsehood.”)  A healthy society mobilizes a mythology in which tales that are untrue only at the literal level help us uncover and process our inner lives. In capitalism, there is instead a thoroughgoing quasi-mythology. Its essential purpose is to exploit peoples’ inchoate desires for mythology’s healthier clarifying and mastering function in order to sell them commodities like films.

Let me now briefly look at a psychologically rich cinematic example of how our projected internal states are artistically materialized for us, but one whose mythological potential is badly undercut by its commodity status: The 1979 movie Alien, directed by Ridley Scott.

Alien shares several elements with many other science fiction and horror movies (such as the blockbuster Jurassic Park, which, like Alien, was an Oscar winner): (a) a setting in a locale far from the everyday experience of the audience, intended to evoke regressive feelings of isolation and to unleash the terra incognita of the unconscious; (b) A Frankenstein-like theme that illustrates how the unreflective pursuit of scientific or technical frontiers unleashes a kind of monomaniacal dehumanized insanity; (c) a story line that looks askance at the motives and trustworthiness of large institutions like corporations or governments, but offers no real politically or socially based solutions, and little beyond hardy survivalism in the way of resistance; and (d) of course, a highlighting of some horrifying creatures that emerge from terra incognita single-mindedly salivating after people to destroy, and, not infrequently, devouring or eviscerating them.

Glen and Krin Gabbard give us a sophisticated chapter-length plumbing of Alien in their book Psychiatry and Cinema. Their main aim is to highlight this movie’s perceptive portrayal of the unconscious in Kleinian terms. As a beginning, they observe that horror and science fiction are generically a ripe playground for portrayals of unconscious mechanisms, and further assert that “no science fiction or horror film … has evoked the full range of Kleinian anxieties so thoroughly as Alien” (pp. 226, 228).

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About the Author

Gene Riddle

Gene RiddleGene Riddle earned his Ph.D. at The San Francisco School of Psychology and The Professional School of Psychology in 1997. His prior degrees were an MA in Clinical Psychology, before that a BA and an MA in Political Science. Gene Riddle’s doctoral dissertation, from which this essay is drawn, was titled “A Certain Laming of the Personality: The Alienated Dialectics of Subjectivity and Objectivity in Capitalist America.” For the past 15 years, Dr. Riddle has been a clinical psychologist with Kaiser Permanente at its Oakland California medical center, providing new patient triage services at the Adult Psychiatry clinic. He is currently researching a paper, provisionally titled “Lee Oswald’s Life of Unquiet Desperation,” examining the psychological makeup of Lee Harvey Oswald and how that bears on an understanding of the killing of President John Kennedy.

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