The Virginity of Androids, part 3: final thoughts

In this last post on Prometheus, I am going to concentrate more directly on the mythic or religious implications of the film, in particular the issue of Creation and the condition of innocence.

As I noted in part 2, one of the most ham-handed scenes in the film is where Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), in emotional discussion with her partner Holloway, reveals that ‘I can’t create’, breaking down in tears; reproduction as ‘creation’ of life leaves a kind of spiritual barrenness, the motivation perhaps behind the overt displays of faith (the crucifix she wears around her neck, for instance). Another way to read David’s experimental infection of Holloway with the alien DNA is to do something that he also cannot do, which is to create life (Shaw and David are paired throughout the film); not only is the android not a womb, the android is also barren: neither a mother nor a father can it be.  

The connection between Creation and space fiction is a very long one of course, and it is a signal feature of the ‘transcendent’ vein of science fiction that encountering the alien Other is represented through a register of Christian iconography: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Soderbergh’s Solaris, for instance, repeat the gesture between God and Adam on the Sistine Chapel frescos. (The inverse of this is when the alien entity wears the clothes of the demonic, such as in Event Horizon or, more bathetically, Star Trek V.) With its classical allusion, Prometheus seems to offer a variant on the Christian Creation, where the origin of human beings is founded on an external transgression (the theft of fire) rather than an internal one (the Fall). This would seem to suggest not that Prometheus re-situates human beings as part of a divine cosmology, but that it suggests human beings are a technical by-product of some kind of radically unknowable Engineering project. 
The myth of Prometheus is analysed by Bernard Stiegler in Technics and Time, who takes Jacques Derrida’s concept of the ‘supplement’ to analyse the relation between the human and the technical. In the classical myth, Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus are given the task of allotting different powers or attributes to mortal species by the Gods. Epimetheus persuades Prometheus to let him do the job; unfortunately so, as Epimetheus distributes all the attributes amongst the animals and forgets to leave anything for human beings. Prometheus is therefore forced to steal skill in the arts, and fire, to compensate human beings for this originary lack. For this, of course, he is punished.

Stiegler reads this myth as a founding discourse of the relation between the natural and the technical, and more specifically between ‘man’ and his tools. It also points towards what Stiegler calls ‘le défaut d’origine’ with regard to the human subject: an originary fault [défaut] or lack is compensated for by Prometheus’s gift, but exposes the foundational state of human subjectivity as one of a radical lack, and in fact, the defining characteristic of the human is a lack of characteristics.

Rather than being a compensatory addition to the human, the ‘defaut d’origine’ suggests that technics are the necessary and constitutive supplement to the ‘natural’ and ‘human’ at their very point of origin. In the words of friend and colleague Arthur Bradley, ‘technology is a supplement which exposes an originary lack within what should be the integrity or plenitude of the human being’. Human beings are characterised by an ‘originary technicity’.

Prometheus, I think, for all its failings, offers an imaginative rendering of a Stieglerian conception of human beings as technological artefact. It isn’t hubris or overreaching ambition that drives human beings to the stars (a transgressive quest for knowledge which informs Event Horizon and, it should be noted, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the most recent quasi-sf movie in debt to von Daniken), it is lack, begetting the questions: who, or what am I? Is this all there is?*

*I’m echoing Spock here, of course, from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). He’s talking about V’ger, the Voyager probe that returns to Earth to seek his own Creator and merge with it, transcending his own limited condition, satisfying the need to ‘evolve’. It’s noteworthy, therefore, that both Star Trek: TMP and Blade Runner displace these central questions on to artificial subjects, the ‘intelligent machine’ V’ger or the replicant Baty, thereby once again indicating the other is us. Where Kirk and Spock act as midwives and bring a new entity into being, Tyrell’s own failings result in his death at the hands of the ‘Prodigal Son’.

I don’t think Prometheus is equipped to handle these questions, as I noted in previous posts. The greatest sense of ‘lack’ is felt by a triumvirate of characters, rather than one (as with Roy Baty), and this disperses, rather than intensifies or makes more complex, the need to ‘meet one’s Maker’. The three characters are Weyland, David, and Shaw: father, son and woman, with Weyland’s actual daughter shunted unceremoniously (necessarily) off the stage at the end of the film. As friend and colleague Andy Tate suggested to me, there’s is too large a cast in Prometheus, allowing inadequate time for their characterisation and development, and this is most evident in this central triangulation. Weyland spends too much time in hyper-sleep for his own quest for knowledge (or life) to have much narrative traction: as viewers, there isn’t enough investment in him or his own lack. Combining his desire to confront his maker with David’s sense of wonder and engagement with universe would have paid considerably dividends, but would have made the composite android too close to Baty for comfort, perhaps: Blade Runner in space.

Baty, as played by Rutger Hauer, manages to combine both a childlike energy and capacity for wonder with a fundamental sense of his own mortality; in him, innocence and experience exist side by side, and this gives the concept of his character both power and pathos. Baty is not a fallen being, despite the (altered) quotation from Blake he offers to Chu: ‘Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc’. His is not an Infernal subjectivity, a fallen angel in search of redemption from his God. Rather, Batty is outside sin itself: ‘I’ve done... questionable things’, he confesses to Tyrell, which isn’t much of an acknowledgement of sin. Baty commits acts of monstrous violence but remains a child: when he looks down, at the end of the film, at Deckard hanging on to the girder by two fingertips, and says ‘It’s painful to live in fear, isn’t it?’, his face betrays curiosity rather than anger, lust for life rather than world-weariness.

David’s innocence is of a different kind, but similar order. As an explicitly technical being, defined by lack but not driven to compensate for it, David is not subject to the myth of lost plenitude that haunts the Fall, the desire to redeem lost Eden. He is not driven by Baty’s rage against mortality, to demand ‘more life’: his agency (such as infecting Holloway) is without defined purpose or end. He simply does and observes the results. David occupies a space of radical innocence, the innocence of the Alien other, unconcerned with ‘conscience, remorse or delusions of morality’. This, then, is perhaps why Ridley Scott could not make David, as he should have done, the centre of the narrative, paired with Shaw as the human, desire/ quest-oriented subject, and excluded the redundant ensemble clutter. 

Bizarrely, it might have taken Spielberg to do so, to narrate through the point-of-view of the child, to more fully grasp that sense of wonder: but I suppose he had, in a way, already done that with AI. And the failures of that film, in finding an adequate ending to a narrative of a being in search of his maker (while fully embracing the Pinocchio story), indicate the difficulties of this kind of sf film. I find AI a stomach-churning, heart-wrenching experience, and probably the darkest thing Spielberg has ever done, though again, I wish he’d been even more bleak; and of course, in Haley Joel Osment’s artificial boy, there we find another David, another innocent abroad in a world of terrible, unknowable, hostile forces.


  1. Great set of articles on Prometheus. I only wonder, you did not mention Star Trek TNG's Data - I think David is more or less channelizing that character. Sense of wonder is there because an android is rationally trying to come to terms with human world he (it?) is discovering - Data does that from episode to episode, wondering with literal and metaphoric use of language, emotions, culture, etc. And of course, Data's overrational logic (which "enstranges" our view of things) is itself taken from TOS' Spock... And Data has obtain, at one moment, "emotion chip" as Bender in quite recent (and for the topic very important episode) of Futurama searches for "free will chip".


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