[disinfo ed.’s note: this original essay was first published by disinformation on December 6, 2001. Some links may have changed.]
As biotechnology and corporate gene patenting replace the bomb as our nightmare of choice, Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) initiates the evolution of its own history.
What is to be feared, what has a more calamitous effect than any other calamity, is that man should inspire not profound nausea; also not great fear but great pity. Suppose these two were one day to unite, they would inevitably beget one of the uncanniest monsters of the “last will” of man, his will to nothingness, nihilism.
~~ Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals
The alien essentially, as extraterrestrial or monster, is neither natural nor supernatural but fantastic. It is frequently preternatural or anomalous, a permutation of the “natural” order such as the “maladjusted” X-Men. The X-Men are mutants freakish, genetic deviants who are feared by and often in fear of the very people they are trying to save. With its themes of xenophobia, alienation and ambiguity the scenario of X-Men transcends classical superhero genres, inviting tacit comparisons with this Worlds socially excluded minorities be they racial, sexual or intellectual. Significantly, the causes of the characters’ various mutations are never made clear, though references to atomic/genetic experimentation are implied. As everything about the X-Men suggests the human body is equally, perhaps ultimately, the alien.
We are alienated from within our systems. “We” are not ourselves. X-Men follows post-futuristic science fiction, which has turned away from themes of space exploration and alien invasion. In the contemporary condition of virtual space, today’s World is subject not to invasion by “pervasion” a condition of kinetic accommodation and dispersal associated with the experience and representations of TV/videogames/computer terminals.
Immune systems are information systems. Biological space is pervaded and negotiated through exchanges of genetic data; biochemically, we are in a constant state of alienation from our “selves”. The bipolar oppositions of self and other and the militaristic and colonial metaphors of body invasion and exploration that inform much of our popular immune system discourse have become obsolete. The world of X-Men is inverted on its own processes and intertexts. Its gaze is focused on the technologies of the body and on the intersections between the body and the mind, the body and the self.
X-Men takes mutation, body enhancement, and superhero motifs familiar from modern sci-fi/horror film to a post-humanist level of cultural self-awareness.
Re-mythologized, biological innerspace becomes implicitly “fantastic” in the sense in which Sartre used the term. The fantastic denotes a liminial zone occupied by the embodied subject: “an entire world in which things manifest a captive, tormented thought . . . both whimsical and enchanted” that never manages to “express itself” purely.
. . . matter is never entirely matter, since it offers only a constantly frustrated attempt at determinism, and mind is never completely mind, because it has fallen into slavery and been impregnated and dulled by matter. All is woe. Things suffer and tend towards inertia, without ever attaining it; the debased, enslaved mind unsuccessfully strives towards consciousness and freedom.
~~ Jean-Paul Satre, Aminadab: Or the Fantastic Considered as Language
While Satre proposed the “fantastic” as a language for existentialism, Tzvetan Todorov (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to Literary Genre) extended the term to refer to a literary mode of hesitation between natural and supernatural explanations, as experienced by the embodied subject.
Grounded like Satre and Todorov in psychology and neurobiology X-Men sustains a Todorovian hesitation between the physical and the metaphysical that takes on an openly dialogic form. A dichotomy in equal parts between the desire to believe in something and an inability to believe in something.
The mutated X-Men are body knowledge in all senses: the human body as ground of being, as victim and test subject, as Other; they also represent the medical perspective, the Foucauldian clinical gaze, to self and flesh-destroying medical technology.
X-Men projects a fantastic space in which Todorovian hesitation can be prolonged indefinitely. The imaginable/fantastic in X-Men corresponds with the neo-biological, neo-mythological territory presently occupied in contemporary science-fiction. It is a fantastic space in the Todorovian sense one in which a creative and sustained dialogue between skeptic and believer can take place.
Neitzsche’s correlation of nausea and pity “the will to nothingness” takes place at the constitution of Paul Virilio’s “dromocratic subject”. Here, the body is emptied out, turned into a blank “metabolic vehicle”, a speedway absorbing all of the infrared signs of the mediascape, encapsulated in a closed horizon which moves according to technological and a “new” biological time.
Virilio is explicit about the interpolation of the flesh by speed or the interiorization of the “will to nothingness” as the dynamic subject of dromology. A new kind of body has now been created.
Dr Jean Grey: Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now seeing the beginning of another stage of the evolution of man. These mutations manifest at puberty and are often triggered by periods of heightened emotional stress.
The “X-Men” presents a group of para-normals who have emerged from our midst but never left behind the problems that made them human before they were superhuman. Indeed, the central conceit of Singer’s film is that the “villains” scheme is not to slaughter millions (though through a mistake this could occur) but to transform a large section of humanity into superhuman mutants, and thus end prejudice against this supposedly evolved kind.
The X-Men Profile
Professor Charles Xavier: Wheelchair-bound telepathic and optimist and mentor to the X-Men. “Man isn’t evil, just uninformed.”
Cyclops: His eyes emit destructive radiation.
Jean Grey: Redhead with psychokinetic abilities the first X-Woman.
Wolverine: Aggressive misfit with heightened senses, metallic skeleton and razor-claws.
Storm: X-Woman able to unleash localised meteorological mayhem.
Rogue: The youngest of the new X-Man. A “psychic sponge”. She automatically absorbs the powers and thoughts of anyone she touches.
Magneto: Master of the magnetic/metallic. Xavier’s opposite. He considers the Human race to be dumb and dangerous and obsolete. “We are the future, Charles . . . they no longer matter.”
Mystique: Blue-skinned metamorph.
Toad: Unnatural agility can climb walls and adhere to surfaces.
Sabretooth: A Wolverine duplicate. Psychopathic.
Senator Kelly: Paranoid mutant-hater who wants a “genetically cleaner” society.
Poland 1944. When a young boy gets separated from his parents in a concentration camp, he unleashes a magnetic force that bends the fence’s metal gate. The boy grows up to be Magneto (Ian McKellen). Magneto and former friend Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a telepath, are mutants, people whose extra-ordinary powers set them apart from other humans.
America. The future. Senator Kelly is calling for a system of registration for such mutants.
The concentration-camp sequence is a set-up for Senator Kellys espousal of a Mutant Registration Act that we are clearly supposed to connect with Nazi eugenics. In casting Ian McKellen as Magneto and having him quote Malcolm X’s dictum, “By any means necessary”, Bryan Singer also evokes subtly and blatantly other persecuted minorities.
Nietzsche’s version of historical sense is explicit in its perspective and acknowledges its system of injustice. Its perception is slanted, being a deliberate appraisal, affirmation, or negation; it reaches the lingering and poisonous traces in order to prescribe the best antidote. It is not given to a discreet effacement before the objects it observes and does not submit itself to their processes, neither does it seek laws, since it gives equal value to its own perspective and objects. Through this historical sense, knowledge creates its own genealogy in the act of cognition and “wirkliche Histoire” composes a genealogy of history as the vertical projection of its position.
In interview Bryan Singer explained the Xavier/Magneto axis in terms of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. It’s true that each civil rights movement splits between the intergrationists and separationists the proponents of non-violence versus violent activism. Any member of a minority facing discrimination can relate to the mutants’ dilemma.
Depending on the time and latitude, the multitude of bodies with no souls, living dead, zombies, possessed, . . . is imposed through all history: a slow motion destruction of the opponent, the adversary, the prisoner, the slave; an economy of military violence likening the human cattle to the ancient stolen heard of the hunter-raiders . . . In total war, the Nazis will do nothing different when they create an internal social front against the foreign bodies of the Jews, gypsies and Slavs. The deportation camps are but the laboratories in which the cattle are treated industrially put to work in the mines, on logistical worksites subjected to medical or social experiments to ultimate recuperation of fat, bones, hair . . .
It’s absolute inhumanity was but the ostensible reintroduction of the history of the originally bestiary, of the immense mass of domestic bodies, bodies unknown and unknowable. What else has the proletariat been since antiquity, if not an entirely domesticated category of bodies, a prolific, engine-towing class, and the phantom presence in the historical narrative of a floating population linked to the satisfaction of logistical demands?
~~ Paul Virilio
Two great classes of bodies emerge then; predators and parasites. Virilio’s predators are the “warriors/ priests” who name the site of the sacrificial table of values, and whose function as abuse value is to violently re-energize the field. And parasites from dromocratic specialists to the “industrial drones” of the war machine, who can be motivated by the will-to-nothingness because their bodies are already “technical prostheses” always in flight, driven by extreme anxiety and motivated by a vision of freedom which is measured by a lowered standard of convenience.
X-Men screenwriters David Hayter, Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer have created a structure for the film built on parallelism and oppositions. Magneto, the villain and Professor Xavier, the X-Men’s founder, are in many ways equal but opposite to one another. Friendly foes, they are both powerful mutants, each with a band of followers.
Prof: Charles Xavier: Why do you ask questions ton which you already know the answers?
Magneto: Ah, yes, Your continuing search for hope. The war is coming, Charles, and I intend to fight it . . . by any means necessary.
Prof: Charles Xavier: And I will always be there . . . old friend.
However whereas Magneto wants to conquer the world, Xavier wants to save it; whereas Magnetos followers are compliant disciples, Xavier’s are students encouraged to think and develop. In many ways X-Men is about the attempt by Magneto the mutant who discovered his powers in a concentration camp to stop the politician Senator Kelly’s “Nazi-like” scheme to impose a mutant registration scheme.
Senator Kelly: . . . and there are even rumours . . . of mutants so powerful that they can enter our minds and control our thoughts, taking away out God-given free will. Now I think the American people deserve the right to decide if they want their children to be in school with mutants. To be taught by mutants! Ladies and Gentlemen, the truth is that mutants are very real, and they are among us. We must know who they are. And above all what they can do!
In counterpoint, it is Wolverine who makes the journey from bitter/isolated loner to “X-Man” in order to halt Magneto’s scheme who drives the narrative. Wolverine’s trajectory additionally finds echoes in Rogue’s arc, from estranged Mississippi teenager to one of Xavier’s gifted pupils, but whereas she’s an outside because of what happened to her “naturally” at puberty. Wolverine’s sense of alienation derives from being subjected to painful state-sanctioned medical research a further allusion to Nazism. This plot narrative is a complex but dextrous structure tightly woven around the central theme of prejudice allowing the different characters to share the burden of a convoluted design.
X-Men shows us on the outside what we have become in the inside in the era of virtual technology. It’s a contemporary version of the surrealistic mirror reversals, time warps, and space shifts of Alice in Wonderland, except this time rather than slip from the Real into the fantasy world of a deck of cards come alive, in X-Men we actually enter into the dark semiological interior of information society.
In a culture that is pulverized by the virtual-scape to the extent that we can now speak of “neon-brains”, “electric-egos” and “data-skin” and the wider circuitry of a society held together by the sleek sheen of surface and network entering into the simulacra, X-Men is akin to being positioned in the hallucinogenic world of critical technology.
It was only a skip and a jump from Social Darwinism to biotechnological cybernetics. The jump was easily taken in the Second World War, by the very people who victoriously opposed the biocracy of a National Socialist State that based its political legitimacy on the utopia of a redemptive eugenics. Total mobilization and motorization have always been two sides of the same coin in the race for biological and technological supremacy.
~~ Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor
Like some gigantic implosion, the circulation of the general accident of communication technologies is building up and spreading, forcing all substances to keep moving in order to interact globally, at the risk of being wiped out, being swallowed up completely.
The reduction of distances has become a strategic reality bearing incalculable economic and political consequences, since it corresponds to the negation of space.
~~ Paul Virilio, The State of Emergency
Implicitly doing away with the “historical” time of politics more precisely geopolitics and exclusively promoting the “anti-historic” time of the media, the general spread of real-time information causes a radical divide beside which other revolutions pale into insignificance.
A loss of orientation, a degeneration of matter leads in turn to a decline of duration, henceforth the time of the constituted world will be indistinguishable from psychological time.
The vanishing territorial distance, which reduces perception of perspectives to nothing, initiates the advent of a dominant psychological time. A mixture of the relativity of the living-present and the technical vectors prevalent completes a defeat of the constituted world a decentering of the animate being.
The time frequency of light has become a determining factor in the apperception of phenomena, leaving the spatial frequency of matter for dead.
~~ Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine
Wolverine: You know Magneto’s right: there’s a war coming, are you sure you’ve chosen the right side?
Storm: At least I’ve chosen a side! Help us! Fight with us!
Wolverine: What? Join the team? Be an X-Man? Who the hell do you think you are? You’re a mutant. The whole world out there is full of people who hate and fear you, and you’re wasting your time trying to protect them.
For Michel Foucault, people do not have a “real” identity “within” themselves, that is just a way of talking about the self a discourse/narrative. An “identity” is communicated to other via interactions with them, but this is not a fixed element/factor within a person. It is a shifting temporary construction.
The purpose of history, guided by genealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity, but to commit itself to its dissipation. It does not seek to define our unique threshold of emergence, it seeks to make visible all of those discontinuities that cross us.
History as the systematic disassociation of identity is necessary because this weak identity which we attempt to support and to unify under a mask, is initself only a parody it is plural, countless spirits dispute its possession, numerous systems intersect and compete.
X-Men recapitulates the primal scene of modern medical technology. It is Foucault’s “The Birth of the Clinic” post-millennium style from the embodied patients point of view. Reversing the “sci-fi alien invasion scenario”, the mutants body comes to strand metonymically for all marginalization and commodification of human bodies. Mutation is a mirror image proclaiming that essentially “mutants are us”. The mutant becomes merely the farthest out in a number of biopolitically extreme possibilities which together reflect a cultural moment in which bio-power is the issue.
Dr. Jean Grey: Mutants are not the one’s mankind should fear.
On one hand, the body has seemed increasingly within the realm of conscious human manipulation and control, through transplantation, genetic and reproductive technologies, cryonics, plastic surgery, trans-sexual surgery, cybernetics and the electronic sensorium. On the other hand, there technologies have made the body a resource or commodity, alienating it from what is traditionally known as the “self”. It is a “display case” of parts to be sold or “spaces” to be filled for commerce. Meanwhile, our cures have spawned new plagues. Aids may well be the first of the modern large-scale epidemics of infectious disease. Moreover the age of anti-biotics is giving way to an age of anxiety about disease, fostered by new viruses that mutate almost as soon as they have been identified, (Ebola or hantavirus) or by anti-biotic-resistant and/or “flesh-eating” bacteria (Lemonick 66).
The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration. Genealogy, as an analysis of descent, is thus situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body.
~~ Michel Foucault, Nietzsche, Genealogy, History
Modern medicine has re-cast the “unknown” with the perimeters of the human body. Western expansionist medical discourse is hopelessly confused by auto-immune diseases in which the body attacks itself. X-Men reflects an age in which, according to chaos theory, the human immune system currently finds itself in the vicinity of a strange attraction. Which is to say that the biochemical aspect of humanity dedicated to distinguishing self from other is already diminishing. Things become increasingly strange more rapidly until things change, quite utterly, signalling the emergency of a “new” order.
In short X-Men viewers are given a vitalistic world informed by the discourses and technologies of the body, by Foucauldian bio-power. The nexus is in the genes.
The fact that X-Men are human mutations – “adapted” human bodies human genetic material and information makes the body both vulnerable and powerful, oppressed and oppressive. The mutation scenario provides a metaphor for the way we perceive human and other biology at this particular cultural moment. As in a Foucauldian sense a “rebirth of the clinic”. Ultimately it is a metaphor for the present fragility of the self, which biology, psychology and cybernetics increasingly pronounce an illusion. At the same time, this tenuous enhanced notion of the body provides a new arena for self-definition as the body “opens-up” and is projected as an erotically charged fantastic space
Magneto: We are the future, Charles, not them. They no longer matter.
Believing mutants to be superior to the rest of the human race, Magneto has developed a machine which mutates ordinary human DNA and gives it similar powers to mutants; he plans for Rogue to absorb his powers which drives the machine and transform the world leaders, meeting on Ellis Island, (New York) for a conference, into mutants.
Following the death of Senator Kelly, on whom Magneto tested this device, Xavier realises Magnetos plan will lead to the death of many humans.
X-Men explores the body as fantastic space, a new frontier. According to Foucault the “clinical experience” opened up a new conceptual “inner” space that was at once deep and visible, solid and enclosed, vital and accessible – in which a contemporary vitalism could be born. What Foucault termed “the birth of the clinic” also alienated the subject from the body, producing a view of the body as fantastic. The clinic placed a new emphasis on seeing, and it was here that Foucault discovered the power-wielding manipulative “gaze”. The clinical probing/dissecting/defining eye was like an “index finger palpitating the depths. The emphasis on visualization, mapping and surgical manipulation of the body led to what Foulcault termed technologies of the body. A discourse of bio-power, whose terms were bodily fluids/organs/parts and identification of the human with machine.
Throughout X-Men the body in an enhanced fantastic sense becomes the site of self. It is mythological in a 21st Century sense, for whatever reason, perhaps because of the lack of a vital Shamanistic myth in the West, based in the body, in neurobiology and Foucuauldian vitalism. X-Men projects a vision of the body opened-up since the birth of the clinic, a new inner fantasy space in which a new myth, at once vitalistic and necrophilic is trying to be born.
In the concluding sequences of X-Men, Magnetos associate Mystique sabotages the device, which Xavier uses to enhance and project his telepathic skills; when the professor neat uses it, hes almost killed. Wolverine joins the X-Men the band of mutants comprising Cyclops, Storm and Grey dedicated to using their powers for the greater good. They fly to the Statue of Liberty, where Magneto is about to operate his machine initiating his trans-genic scheme. The “X-Men” defeat Magneto, who is subsequently imprisoned in a plastic cell.
The film’s mis-en-scene is perhaps a composite of Tim Burton, David Lynch and David Cronenberg. Where Burton specializes in the visual pun, Cronenberg is the master of visceral eroticism and aestheticism. In Dead Ringers (1988) Cronenberg has the character Elliot Mantle, one of he twin gynaecologists, remark that “there should be standards of beauty for the insides of bodies as well as the outsides. You know best Kidney, most perfectly developed spleen.” As Foucault noted, the “sensible truth (of the medicalized body) is now open, not so much to the senses themselves, as to a fine sensibility”; and the bodys interiors are open to an aesthetic, with its prescriptions, rules, skills and tastes.
X-Men is about transcendence of the body through the body through “alien/mutant” biotechnology or what Cronenberg calls the “New Flesh”.
In Cronenberg’s “New Flesh” and Foucaults “Clinic” the body has an alien life/processes of its own. The clinical perspective transgresses boundaries, relativizes life and death, bringing the latter “down from that absolute in which it appeared as an indivisible, decisive, irrecoverable event, . . . volatilised it, distributed it throughout life in the form of separate, partial, progressive deaths, deaths that are so slow in occurring that they extend even beyond death itself.” (Foucault).
While self-alienating, the complexion produced by the clinical perspective is anything but demystifying. It promises that the body can be manipulated, its processes, reversed or suspended. Now in X-Men, following Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the body armed with technology has replaced the soul and is presently displacing the psyche. Viewed as primordial organ, bio-power, or cyborg, the body does not die; it reverts or converts, mutates or regenerates. Cyborgs and mutants in particular are “suspicious” of reproduction for example for salamanders, regeneration after injury, such as the loss of a limb involves regrowth with the constant possibility of twinning or alternative different topographical productions at the site of former injury. The regrown limb can be “monstrous”/potent. Injury requires regeneration not rebirth. This is a dream of utopian hope for a monstrous world beyond gender, sex or death.
The “X-Men” appear to possess the essential genetic information to create an alien human hybrid a new mutant. Not only is a new truth contained in this information, the alien is bodily/genetically contained in the “X-Men”. In the discourses of the body throughout the film, the potential exists that we apparently are the “real” X-Men.
Prof. Charles Xavier: Mutation. It is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.