So I have been puzzling over a Prometheus post for a few weeks now–in fact, I’ve been thinking about it since I made this post where I tried to answer some of the answerable questions of the film. However, what finally spurred me into articulating my actual position on the film was Ben Abraham sharing, and responding to, a post titled “Calvinball Mythology and the Void of Meaning” (he followed up on it with this post.) Both of the posts are super-smart and you should really go read them before you read this one. They both contain some really great arguments for interpreting the current fascinations of blockbuster films.
First of all, and this is just a small disagreement that doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the post, I don’t think that there has actually been a proliferation of mythologies in the latter part of the 20th century media. We have seen certain series attempt this–it is important to note that two of McCalmont’s examples are written by the same writer–but it isn’t a broader trend. In fact, I would say that the average media experience is indifferent to mythology altogether–for every Prometheus there are hundreds of films and tv shows that are just about the banal existence of regular folks, or rom coms, or Judd Apatow comedies, or Tom Cruise vehicles. So yeah, if we cherry pick our examples, there is a mythologization that has occurred recently: Harry Potter, movies about hobbits, and games of hunger held at the cusp of dusk. But more than that, McCalmont blows any definition out of the water when he equates mythology with “narrative expansiveness.” The scenario he is describing, in which there is a unifying mystery to a long work split into volumes, is a cornerstone of fiction and the modern novel. The Sherlock Holmes series functions in this way, as well as Don Quixote, comic books, pulp novels, and even Shakespeare. What I am saying is that it isn’t so much a desire for mythology as a desire for a continuation of the things we love–it is a desire to have a comforting narrative, which isn’t the sole property of mythology. In fiction, we have characters we can invest in; I love Ripley because she is capable and independent in Alien, but I need her to succeed in Alien 3 precisely because she is Ripley.
1. There Is Nothing For You Here
Prometheus is a film that presents a lot of questions and gives you absolutely fuck-all for answers. As McCalmont notes, Prometheus answers exactly one question: the Space Jockey from Alien is a giant white dude. It is important to note that the question being answered is not one posed in the movie you are watching–it is a question posed by a thirty year old film that is only vaguely related to the one you are watching. This is a signal, I think, to the rest of the film and the questions that it raises: there are no answers for the viewer here. Sometimes you don’t get answers for a long time. Sometimes they don’t come at all. All inquiries are deferred to a nonexistent other time; please take your coat when you leave.
McCalmont calls deferral of answering “Calvinball mythology,” citing Calvin and Hobbes‘ game where the rules are made up as you go along but everyone pretends that the game is highly structured. It is a useful analogy, but it is one that assumes that the writing of Prometheus is not purposefully structured in such a way to prefer large gaps of understanding. In a true act of laziness, I am going to let Ben Abraham do my analysis for me. McCalmont’s writes
Though ostensibly a mystery, the plot of Prometheus is really nothing more than a series of doors slammed in characters’ faces by a cruelly indifferent universe. The film begins with a group of humans voyaging to the stars in search of Big Answers to Big Questions. However, once the humans arrive at their destination, every attempt to uncover answers results either in death or the discovery of yet more questions. As death follows puzzle and puzzle follows death, a clear theme begins to emerge: The universe is utterly indifferent to humanity and has no interest at all in answering its questions. Though laughable on a dramatic level, the decision to have the alien attack the humans on sight actually makes a good deal of thematic sense: if the universe is unwilling to answer our questions, why should our gods be any different?
In response to another bit of the text, though it applies here as well, Ben Abraham writes that “obscurantism is not anti-metanarrative, in fact it’s just a reinforcement of the meta-narrative of an “indifferent” universe.” This is straight-up true, and this leaves us in a deadlock.
The McCalmont-Abraham problem puts us here: the film attempts to dispel a metanarrative of meaning. In doing so, it supplements that with a metanarrative of the void.
My reading of the film hinges less on the metaphysical, however. Instead, via Edouard Glissant’s notion of opacity, I want to view the film as a meditation on communication rather than a damning of metaphysical answers.
2. The Opacity of the Creator
Glissant deploys the concept of opacity when discussing the perceived other. He contrasts it with “transparency,” its functional opposite. When a being is opaque to me, I have no filial relation to her, I don’t see anything other than a pure difference that can’t be traversed. In contrast, transparency is the idea that I am able to “see through” the other figure, meaning that there is no perceived difference between myself and him, creating a totality of assimilation–we understand one another, we perceive no fundamental differences, and so forth.
Lorna Burns explains in her “Becoming-postcolonial, Becoming-Carribean”:
…by introducing the concept of opacity, Glissant emphasises that what is acknowledged by the perceiving self is only the opacity of the other person (the otherness of the other-person) produced in that particular instance of relation. Opacity is always only ever opaque to me, its singularity is relational. But, importantly, its singularity is also irreducible, always exceeding my attempts at understanding: ‘I thus am able to conceive of the opacity of the other for me, without reproach for my opacity for him. To feel solidarity with him or to build with him or to like what he does, it is not necessary for me to grasp him’. This term, then, fulfils the criteria of the absolute other necessary for creolization, but attributes to the other person a status beyond Relation. For to acknowledge the other as opaque is to realise the existence of an unknowable otherness without assimilating all differences. The singularity of the other, then, refers to the potential latent in the relation between self and other to produce a singular, equally opaque, and creolized reality.
This is precisely what I see at work in the relationship between the humans of Prometheus and the Engineers, and I think there is a triangle of opaque relationships between the Engineers, the humans, and David. All of them understand one another as positioned others–David is “merely” a creation, the humans are “merely” beings to be killed at a whim, and the surviving Engineer is reduced to a “mere” psychopath.
I think it is important, and ultimately brilliant, that the film dwells on this opacity instead of making everything transparent. The key moment of this is when David speaks to the Engineer and has his head promptly ripped off and used as a bludgeon. In the act of attempting to render the Engineers sensible to the audience, of giving a key that could begin to unlock their opacity and render them transparent to the audience, we are violently told no.
So it is at that moment that I think Prometheus is being smart. For me, it solidifies that there are not plot holes, but purposeful aporias. It is not a stagger in filmmaking, but a resolute statement that there are certain things that are unknowable. Unlike McCalmont, I don’t see this as shutting the door in the collective face of the viewer. Instead, it is a radical reassertion of the way that relations are between beings living and nonliving alike–you cannot know the other, and you shouldn’t attempt to reduce them.
Like Glissant, I think this is important because I think it presents us with ways of thinking about irreducible others. Scu has spoken, though not written often, about the opaqueness of animal life.
The takeaway: Prometheus, for me, becomes a thought experiment about ethical relationships and how they happen between equally opaque beings. Do the Engineers understand humans? If they do, it is probably to the same degree that the humans understand David. What does it tell us about our own relationships with other beings?