COLUMN - THINKING OTHERWISE - Nature and Invisible Environments
"We Irish Think Otherwise." Bishop Berkeley
This weekend I rented both versions of The Day the Earth Stood Still from Netflix. I am old enough to remember seeing the first version in the fifties when I was at Los Angeles High School in the McCarthy Era. I also remember, when I was in a parochial grammar school in central LA and working as a newspaper boy for the Los Angeles Daily News, standing on the double line in the middle of the street and selling papers to the passing cars, that one sensational copy had a front page showing flying saucers flying over the U.S. Capital Dome.
The Russians had recently gotten the atom bomb, and we were all scared of the Commies. The nuns at my parochial school passed out comic books that showed priests hanging from lamp posts to let us know what would happen if the Commies took over. We were also taught to defend ourselves from atomic bombs by jumping under our desks and covering our heads when the Nun said “Drop!” Not surprisingly, it was a time of a national mood of paranoia and conspiracy theory stories about what the government wouldn’t tell us about Rosswell, New Mexico. Stories about what was really happening at Rosswell were traded around like baseball cards.
What the Government wouldn't tell us was that they themselves were attacking us with their dangerous open-air testing of atom bombs in southern Nevada in the mid to late 1940s. After the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in 1986, milk was destroyed so that children would not absorb radioactive iodine in their thyroid glands. But no milk was ever destroyed from the dairy herds outside Los Angeles, and when the Santa Anna winds blew through the Cajon pass from the desert that went all the way to southern Nevada, the government said nothing. Whole towns like St. George, Utah died out from cancer. When radioactive milk found its way into L.A., I became one of its victims with cancer of the thyroid in 1950.
Our government was, of course, terrified of Stalin and Beria and the NKVD–the KGB of the time. So a general paranoia was shared all round, and the movies of that time expressed it by dramatizing invasions of body snatchers from outer space and radioactively mutated giant ants slouching out of the desert toward LA.
When the body senses there is an invisible environment of threat, the mind imagines what it cannot know. Such a diffuse mood of general paranoia was a half-conscious response to the new invisible environment of secrecy in the National Security State initiated by President Harry S. Truman–with its new institutions of the CIA and later the NSA. These conspiracy theories, of course, have not gone away, but now they are about J. Edgar Hoover and the CIA's murder of JFK; or, more recently, about the CIA and Mossad's inside job of the demolition of the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Just as a flame requires an atmosphere to exist, so conspiracy theories require an atmosphere of ignorance to burn on, for the truth is that we can never know, and are never likely to know, the truth; and the ambient world of shadows and dim light insures that we will project our fears to imagine evil lurking on the horizon. Governments will always have the advantage over the citizen, so the natural drift of democracy will always be toward authoritarianism. It doesn't matter whether the administration is Republican or Democrat. Recall that it was a Democrat, Harry Truman, who presided over the formation of the National Security State.
In watching the original 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still with Michael Rennie and Patricia O'Neill, I was struck by how well it stood up. Influenced by the cinematography of film noire, the movie has impressive camera angles and lighting. It rises above the hysteria of the time and expresses a higher vision of postwar culture.
The new remake is much too Politically Correct, with a female Secretary of Defense, a female scientist, and an African-American little boy. With its military explosions and combat, the remake is a "dick flic" for boys, and with its stepmother and grieving son, it is a chick flic for girls.
The script with its clichéd dialogue is at times wincingly painful. It is also Ecologically Correct and very Green, but the little green men from outerspace are here cephalopods in genetically engineered human wrappings. The aliens travel not in metallic flying saucers but in biospheric transports.
In this, the film is prescient, for we are beginning to learn that the human body, with its intestinal flora and its air-pressured muscular system is not an autonomous individual, but an inseparable part of the biosphere. We simply will not be able to package astronauts in tin cans and ship them to Mars; we can barely sustain them in the space station. The future of planetary travel will require a paradigm shift in our thinking about what is an individual and what is a vessel.
The film, for all its Hollywood clichéd script-writing, is also prescient in its statement that the extraterrestrial civilizations are all around us. Long ago in my 1977 book Darkness and Scattered Light (pp. 127-128.), I suggested that perhaps the dolphins had by-passed civilization and tools that required opposable thumbs, and that their large brains had evolved down a chreod in which they beamed musical/mathematical melodies to the galaxies, and that the galaxies responded with theme and variation. The remake of the 1951 film follows this line of thinking and proposes a McLuhanesque "cultural retrieval" of animism in which the mind of animals, bacteria, and cephalopods of the primordial deep are attuned to the stars. It is humans that have become the metastatic cancer of the Earth.
Such a refreshing thought is certainly a cure for our anthropocentric vanity, but it ignores the possibility that we may be the planetary bacteria at work in recycling the hidden oceans of oil into a gas in a warmer atmosphere for a new biosphere. Just as the cyanobacteria were a threat to the continuance of the methane atmosphere, but served to create the oxygen atmosphere we now temporarily enjoy, so we humans may be unconsciously contributing to a new evolutionary biosphere beyond our present global industrial civilization.
Science fiction is entertaining because it allows us to think beyond the limits of contemporary literary fiction. And so it is fun to think otherwise and accept the possibility that extraterrestrial life is all around us. Unfortunately, like a flashlight in search of darkness, our act of looking seems to chase it away, so we are at an evolutionary moment when it is necessary to develop new modes of perception.
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