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John Carpenter's

 

The Body Politic

by K.C.

What governmental system, if any, best serves as an analogy of the animal body? This question has played alone in a corner of my mind for about a year now. It arose from considering civilization as a giant organism, then inverting the simile. It left me stumped. Is the body Fascist? Corporate? Is it Socialist? Authoritarian or Libertarian? Right wing or Left wing? Communist? Capitalist? Anarchist? Or does the comparison make no useful sense whatsoever, the two systems (organic and political) being too deeply different? I propose that it does make useful sense by serving as a guide toward the deeper political ideologies at work in John Carpenter's film "The Thing."

To answer this I start by equating humans with cells. By necessity (and by definition in a healthy body), all the cells live and work in harmony with the system. Those cells which do not work with the system, die sometimes destroying the entire system in their process of rebellion. Useful cells are not criminal anarchists. Yet who ultimately makes the decisions in an animal body? And how does the power structure really work? Is the cell a slave or a citizen?

There appears to be no single, central authority in the body, only an extremely complicated web of interactions between genes, brain, and environment. A gene may affect hormone production; a state of mind may affect whether or not a gene gets switched on or off; hormones and environmental stimuli may affect whether the mind feels exerting the will needed to affect the genes is worthwhile; and round and round it all goes. In what sense, then can the body be considered totalitarian? Everyone agrees that the cells must work in harmony for health, and yet what equates with the "ruling party"? The genome? The nervous system? The subconscious? The will? The external environment?

Suppose then that a cell's DNA equals its "desires"- how it seeks to survive and express itself. The nervous system equals the government apparatus. Animal cells need to stay within the animal; outside it they are helpless and quickly die. Therefore cells are by nature social life forms, as are humans. I won't go so far as to say that the body is the ideal environment for cells, but it surely is the best available option. In other words, the body works (for a long while, anyway), because it is a system working within natural laws.

Because of this, I don't think the body is intrinsically a Socialist system. Socialism is abjectly opposed to the natural law we see at work in systems as diverse as ecologies, economies, and organisms. Top-down control structures are alien and extremely destructive to their citizens, as the hundred-plus million people murdered by their own Socialist governments in this past century can attest. An organism that ran its affairs the way an entrenched Socialist government does would starve to death in short order. Though the mind may be, the body is not a Socialist.

Can the body be considered Capitalist, then? I'm not sure how, for cells appear rigidly fixed into their roles in the economy. There is no such thing as upward mobility, and thus the idea of a cell being able to capitalize on its abilities for personal gain seem very limited. A cell does what it was born to do, and no more. Because cellular mortality rates differ among tissue types, the idea of a privileged class structure comes to mind, with, not surprisingly, nerve cells on top with the longest life-spans and the most power. Rather than Capitalist, then, a more accurate metaphor might be Corporatist - the nervous system as Multinational running the society toward the goal of profit.

Yet the goals a nervous system seeks do not always concord with its best interests, or the best interests of its cells. A mind may become suicidal. An ego may inflate enough to arouse foes to violence. Addictions may blind one to nourishment. Given the multifarious communications in and of the body, the configurations possible for the nervous system due to genetic influence, environmental imprinting, and internal chaos or will, beg whether the body is more democratic than we usually feel comfortable admitting. All influences lead to "votes" being cast by the cells which filter their way down (up?) into the nervous system, collectively forming gestalts - patterns of thought - which compete for dominance in the schizophrenic electrochemical jungle of the brain. Whichever thought pattern wins becomes the current government, and this accepts the possibility of governments not only with very weird and/or counterproductive goals, but which become very difficult to oust from office once sufficiently entrenched.

The strangest idea that's come to me, however, is that the body may ultimately, or at least most effectively, be a theocracy. From the cells' perspective, the ruling Mind would be an invisible, vastly powerful presence affecting everything around them, the equivalent of a transcendent deity. The more the cells recognize by their disciplined behavior, the existence of this Mind, the more effective the body will be. This is not to say that the Mind is a central economic planner, but that both are most effective when in the political (and literal, depending on the level viewed) of Zen awareness. Peculiar external circumstances aside, a cell's harmonious participation in the metabolism, partnered with the disciplined body-awareness of the mind, optimizes survival ability.

Which brings me to the Thing, of which I ask the same basic question: if the non-Thing animal body is an originally democratic, Corporatist theocracy, what governmental system best serves as an analogy of the Thing body? Or does the Thing even have a government at all? By better defining the Thing, we might help better define the non-Thing.

To start then all we really know is that the Thing is different, but is it different in kind, or only in degree? Evidently it can imitate perfectly the behavior, metabolism, and thus for our purposes, the government of the animal body. Yet this apparent solidity is illusory, for the Thing is capable of radically deforming itself into alien permutations in response to any exigency. In this sense, the Thing always contains a radical, Promethean element capable of breaking all boundaries and wrecking all social forms for the sake of progress. Thus the Thing's style somewhat resembles the Leftist - ultimately, Marxist - idea of total social revolution. For Marxist revolution, the entire system must be liquidated in order that new, superior, and more egalitarian forms be erected in its place. Because of this radicalism the Thing appears to be different in kind from the non-Thing.

Let us presume the Thing partakes of similar democratic impulses as an animal does, receiving information from all areas via its nervous system in order to elect mental governments. Each cell is a Capitalist, and yet a potentially much more resourceful Capitalist- each portion of a Thing can immediately and spontaneously reorganize itself to form a new government. In this sense, then, the Thing body suggests an Anarchist collective, held together for the common good but capable of splitting should the common good no longer hold. Conflagrate the middle and the ends will immediately begin voting to secede, and the nature of the system will allow them to.

Consider also that the Thing only keeps itself together in the specific forms observed for the sake of survival. For all we know if left to its own devices in a perfectly secure environment it might dissolve into a defenseless puddle. One of the Dark Horse Comics adaptations postulated that the Thing's metabolism actually burns energy like crazy, requiring it to continually feed off new cells. Thus, in the film, Fuchs may have been devoured by an overworked, starving Thing, then cremated to cover up the evidence and confuse the men. Such an inefficient metabolism would resemble all the Socialist economies which have consumed themselves out of economic inefficiency. In any case, consider also how both in "The Thing" and in the Marxist experiments of the Twentieth Century, their radical agendas encompass the fostering of both internal restructuring (purges) and external invasion. And notably, both end in disaster for all involved.

So are we dealing with an Anarchist society here? Or a Socialist grand experiment? Or something weirder? The telling factor may be its "international" behavior: would an Anarchist society would be hostile toward all around it, seeking to violently assimilate them to itself? The Thing appears to be aggressive radicalism in any form that suits its purposes. The Thing thus imitates a bodily utopia, but somehow its plans always seem to come off the rails. It attempts to assimilate the Norwegians and gets chased off, destroying them utterly. It tries for the American's dogs and gets burned alive for its troubles. The seeds of dissent it sows succeeds only wreaking pain, strife, and havoc for itself and all it encounters. The Thing's attempt at World Revolution ends (or does it?) with the equivalent of a nuclear confrontation against the defenders of Capitalist Western democracy, leading to total destruction of life support and a checkmate of despair.

Carpenter's predilection for the Western motif and its apotropaic heroes also furnishes clues to the interpretation of "The Thing" as embodying the very real Cold War struggles (and fears) of twenty years ago. One particular image that impressed me queerly was that of Windows, the radio operator. There's a quite subtle, spotty subtext centered on Windows that situates him in the role of a child, and which I only feel justified in mentioning for its relation to the other political ideas herein. More than any of them shay has the look of a stereotyped 1960s radical, with the shaded spectacles, the Afro hair and beard style. Palmer may be the LSD-burnout, but Windows looks more like an anti-Vietnam protester. Garry, the station commander, has a hint of the domineering mother- note the scene where shay upbraids Windows for sleeping on the job; Garry's wearing perhaps the most feminine article of clothing in the entire film: a bathrobe and slippers. Earlier we have the geneticist Blair as a kind of father figure urging Windows to keep working. What's going on here? Later, when the blood supply sabotage casts suspicion upon all authority, Windows, notably, is the one to bolt, seeking refuge in Anarchy. I'm probably not the only one who wished that shay had that rifle loaded in time. But there's no escaping authority, even potentially corrupt authority, and Windows, in a scene that visually epitomises the destruction of the 1970s New Left and the quashing of mainstream radical sentiment, crouches meekly before the Commander to lay down his rifle.

With the authoritarian model (Garry) challenged (but not discredited), power gets shifted to a war hero, an intellect, and a conservative (MacReady). Finally, in a -if not the- crucial scene, viz. the blood test, Windows is empowered for the first time, and called upon to defend the status quo against the radical monster incarnating out of Palmer. It's here that Windows simply freezes, unable to act. The war hero desperately takes charge and annihilates the monster, but not before it has infected Windows irreversibly with its biological mandate. "Hurry up! It's coming back MacReady!" the bound men cry desperately as Windows gurgles bloodily in the corner. Mac quickly finishes the job with the flamethrower, Windows kicking hir legs feebly, writhing in agony. Interpretations of Windows' failure to act may vary, but the evaluation Carpenter provides is clear: Windows is a baby, who didn't rise to the challenge of the world, instead mesmerized by visions of radical transformation.

We can thus ideologically read "The Thing" as playing out on the level of international relations as a metaphor for the interaction between its characters. This amounts to an apocalyptic war between conservative defenders of an imperfect, yet preferable, alliance of masculine, democratic Capitalist theocracies, and the recrudescent, feminine, Promethean advocates of violent, radical social change. This effort to overthrow every hierarchical, social, gender, racial, and sexual barrier demonstrates unequivocally a given infected body politic as a dangerously unnatural system, seeking to digest all known convention for the sake of an abstract global utopia it can neither articulate nor achieve.

But what if we're wrong? What if barriers are not the problem, but government itself? I submit this as a counterpoint to the vast amount of anti-Anarchic propaganda 20th Century cinema has produced, depicting how government is necessary to protect individual rights and avoid widespread gangsterism. Society, it must be underscored, can exist without a state, and indeed did so since time immemorial, under power-dispersing shamanic tribes. The state is a relatively recent invention, no more than 10,000 years old, and working to wage war and concentrate power into the hands of the few. To continue I must first digress into anarchist theory:

From the basis of ontology, some anarchists argue that the "state" does not exist, and that we already live in anarchic societies. Unlike a corporation, or a sports team, or a family, a "state" has no particular individuals one can point to to indicate as being distinctly part of it and other distinctly not part of it. It is more a sliding scale whereby people engage in varying degrees of "statist behaviour" - viz., violating the rights of others. The only need for anarchy to flourish is to convince enough individuals that the state does not exist, creating a critical mass that overwhelms the statists and de-reifies government. Strangely enough, this resonates with the concept of a body government as Mind, or as Buddhism would put the aspiration, anatman, in martial arts parlance, "no-mind." It is not the state which moves, it is oneself. There is no state.

From the basis of individual rights, government itself has no moral authority. Governments are armed gangs holding monopolies on force, presuming the (non-existent) rights to certain forceful actions which no individual possesses. The state's powers are fundamentally illegitimate, because no one can give away rights, to another individual, or to a state, under the rubric of "trade" or "social contract," that one did not oneself have to begin with. I have no right to sell myself into slavery, and no one has the right to purchase me. If I have no individual right to wage unprovoked war, I cannot transfer that right to the state- the state can only arrogate this option through its monopoly on force.

Imagine, then, that the Thing is an anarchic body, and look past the macroscopic violence and bloodshed, down into the microscope. What would we see? We see anarchists working for the destruction of all states, liberating cells one by one, not by destroying them, but by transmitting to them new information about their own individual potential, convincing them that the "body government" does not exist. By what right do these anarchists do this? Ah, wrong question: no state has the right to stop them, only the force and motives by which to try. All cells under authority are under nothing but tyranny, and the destruction of tyranny is the natural right of all individuals. Blair aghast at the computer images of alien cells assimilating, is the State aghast at the power of liberty, working stealthily from within.

This explains one key tactical omission in the film: that no human, at any time, ever attempted to initiate communications with the alien. Why not? Because there is no point whatever. The state is simply the enemy condition(ing). There is no use parleying with it. Indeed, the anarchic society cannot even articulate itself in the language of statist power, but at best can only participate in a transitional charade of nationalism. And to the state, Anarchy can be nothing but unbelievable tales and outrageous criminality, bringing a vacuum of power, to be filled by any means.

The film ends on what appears to be a hopeless note: hierarchies are destroyed, capital is burning, and only two cellular collectives remain. Is this film a warning against radicalism? A study of how jealously states will defend their power? By playing the power game of imitation, have the radical cells sold out their morals, and tried to create an utopia by formulating aggressively adaptable, if metabolically inefficient, Communist states, not realizing that the means of authority will always serve the ends of authority? The survival of national egos would equal the continued oppression of the true microscopic individuals. We are left in the dark with a potent combined symbol: the alcohol bottle, present since the first reel, representing fortification of the ego against hostile elements, and also an historical carrier of contagion. The bottle gets passed from one set of lips to another. The two men now exist in anarchy. Do their cells?

Permit this essay one final mutation. I wish to elucidate the sheer instinctive wills to violent destruction between the men and the Thing(s). "Anarchy-versus-Archy" explains the uselessness of discourse, but not the profound animosity. On the cellular level I suspect the dispute comes down to one of blood loyalty versus international egalitarianism. I arrive at this conclusion from the contradiction given above between the appearance of the human body as a Capitalist theocracy, and the need for atheistic, Zen-like martial efficiency. The solution is simple, when we ask what interests the human cells naturally serve, and then raise those interests to the highest level. The answer is racial heredity: cells serve their genes, and thereby their kin. The body is fundamentally racist, attacking all invaders. Its concern is not divinity, its concern is genetic survival. The body is hierarchical, ruled by force (chemical, electrical, physical), and directed by the elite cells (nerves), who themselves serve the race. Those who do not serve the race pose a grave threat, and evolution has selected them down to a minimum. The body is capitalist, but to a very controlled degree, with all efforts serving the social interests of the nation. In other words, the body is National Socialist.

Now we're at the pith of it: cellular individualism from a bodily view is known as Cancer. Marxism (expressed synonymously as communism or anarchism) can safely be called the Thing - an organized, intelligent cancer seeking to destroy blood purity through race-mixing, individualism, egalitarianism, feminism. There can be no compromise between them, because each is the other's opposite. When under attack, the men do not form a committee. The do not vote on every decision. They elect a leader, a director, a dictator, who remains so from then on. This film, like most in the genre but more germanely due to its microscopic subtext, expresses the human racial will to power, kin-altruism, and the natural desire for a tribal leader in opposition to all threats.

The film's portrayal of human racial divisions play to this reading. When under suspicion of race treason Garry steps down, Childs, a Black man, moves to take command, but is stopped by the reddest-necked White, Clark. MacReady claims authority, arguing "I think it should be someone a little more even-tempered, Childs." Once again we have a subtle intimation of immaturity in a character not featured in the original short story upon which the film is based. First Windows as a baby, and now Childs as hot-blooded. Later on when Childs temporarily assumes command while MacReady is away, Nauls, the other Black character, believes Thing propaganda and with further secret encouragement by Palmer and Norris (the two Things hidden in their midst) convinces Childs that MacReady is the enemy. Only through sheer ingenuity and will does MacReady regain command, expressing disdain for democracy's mob rule ("Did it ever occur to anyone on the jury...?!") and then immediately devises and institutes a blood purity test, exterminating any who do not pass. Afterward, the men instantly regain a natural affinity and trust for each other.

At the film's end, then, the two survivors again question each other's blood purity. Yet as befits the tension that played between them throughout the film, these two also seem to display a certain nationalistic distrust between them, since neither appears willing to submit to a blood test first. When Childs was left in charge the first time, he proved vulnerable to propaganda and nearly lost the war, not realizing the jeopardy he and Nauls were in. When left in charge of the station the second time, Childs leaves his post on his own initiative, so that at the end both are armed and sensitive to the absolute danger of internationalism, but neither is sure of the other's race. For either to be a Thing would threaten race-mixing on two levels. For both to be human means one must eventually lead the other, with previous events suggesting it will be Mac leading Childs, which Childs must resent. It abandons us to an interesting post-apocalyptic picture of racial and political detente, and one with no obvious real solution. Whomever submits first, risks death. If neither submit, both die either from fire or ice.

This essay has shifted from comparing capitalism with communism, then to statism with anarchism, and finally to socialist racism with mongrel internationalism. It finds that in every case in this film save the last unfinished scene, the former defeats the latter, although at a terrible cost in cells to both sides. Domination by body-Nazism may oppress cells by thwarting their absolute potential, but by comparing life before and after the introduction of the Thing, the film clearly indicates that the former is the way to health and power. Rebel cells universally end up placing themselves through their own actions into horrible situations as the nationalist energies their presence inspires rises up to incinerate them. The rebellion may be genetically more intelligent, far more deceptive, more capable of infiltration and manipulation, but ultimately it can only survive by censoring blood purity of all others while maintaining its own, by hiding its true intentions, and by attacking healthy bodies and erasing racial identity into its ugly and unworkable egalitarian dreams.

Ironically, though, and I wish to underscore this: the Thing is not only a pathogen, it is a /racist/ pathogen, because the only constant identity it preserves is its own; all other racial loyalties are completely feigned and disposable, adopted for expedience to gain access to its host nations. Thus once exposed the bodily Thing cannot avoid persecution until it alone has achieved complete hegemony over all nations. Is it any wonder audiences who loved Steven Spielberg's "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," an international, interracial egalitarian fantasy if there ever was one, hated the bleak, hopeless landscape of racist politics John Carpenter has crafted in this first film in his Apocalyptic Trilogy? Could it speak to some intrinsic, terrible truth the very cellular makeup of their bodies understood, but which their fashionably conscious minds could do nothing but disown? I do not know and I fear the answer.

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