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John Carpenter's


Postmodern Things

by K.C.

"The Thing" for me is one of those few, rare films that form not a chronology or isolated experience, but an entire, secluded enduring visionary landscape in my mind, a rich whited zone of frigidity and fear, haunted by this encroaching, enigmatic "Thing." Its nature and motives another facet of this, the recurring question "But why couldn't they talk with the 'Thing' and try to reason with it?", niggled something in the back of my mind; related to what I've been reading lately, namely essays on postmodernism and SF cinema. I'm no expert on this, yet let me play with this if I may, with what I gather:

Postmodernism deals a lot with language, including its deconstruction and destruction, and more specifically semiotics. Whilst this film is neither postmodern (such as "Videodrome") nor addresses the postmodern (as does "Blade Runner"), we could view its titular entity as a kind of postmodern extraterrestrial, by contrasting it with the bodily integrity claimed by its foes.

To do this, we must first consider a living body to be a "text", a coherent collection of information that is like a living book, and which can be "read" like a book. So taking, say, Windows, we can read Windows as a text - "the book of Windows", wherein every part of hir body, metabolism, and psyche informs the whole meaning of who Windows is. For now we can leave out the idea that the camp itself might form a text, or that the film itself, outside its own frame of reference, forms a text.

Enter the alien. Unlike conventional villains, the "Thing" usually doesn't kill people, which in our analogy would be akin to burning a book. Instead it cuts them up and absorbs them into itself, then simulates them - plagiarises their texts, grievously violating copyright. The "Thing" itself never shows its true form, and the creeping suspicion many people have is that it never does so because it doesn't have one. Thus, it can only ever exist as plagiarised texts, either pretextually whole, or as a pastiche of text excerpts.

In a way, this shows why the Thing is a kind of ultimate monster, because it's every monster and no monster; paradoxically it's most hidden from us when it's most in-our-faces. For when it abandons any temporarily stable form, it is not simply unzipping a skin to reveal Monster Man underneath, it is riving its bodily texts down to the cellular level, leaving us with a void of meaning, with no way to read it, no useful reference point. It slips out of textuality itself in the same way the postmodern condition leaves all culture and literature with no useful reference point. It becomes a bloody stew of incomprehensibility and potentiality.

Speaking to the "Thing's" motivation, then: the Thing itself possesses no coherent bodily text, so its self-image is probably quite different from ours. Since texts gain meaning only through context, the "Thing" must imitate its victims' texts in order to survive; in crises it endlessly seeks to adapt by hastily composing the most meaningful (read: horrific/lethal) text(s) it possibly can from its genetic library. As an incoherent being, filled with potential, it must reproduce to find meaning, and does so virus-like by violently infecting its victims with a disease. In the metaphor, it's infecting its victims with its alien ideas (postmodern body), and this drowns the victims' individuality and destroys their personal meaning (self), absorbing them into the postmodern mass, then extruding them superficially the same as before, but with a revalued (and devalued) self.

Viewed this way, doesn't it entirely make sense that the only way to destroy the "Thing" is through fire? Freezing a book, or even tearing it in half, accomplishes little. Against the postmodern metatext even words are useless, merely adding to the avalanche of meanings. The only way to avoid it is to reduce it to ash. Whereas the "Thing" seeks to proliferate, the men seek to censor.

Which is why the "Thing" can't hold a conversation. When they surround and confront the Bennings-Thing, the only thing which comes from its black-hole mouth is this unearthly, chilling howl - the howl of death... of the death of meanings, of the death of everything in the cold clutches of the interstellar relativist nightmare. They cannot talk to the Bennings-Thing, because there is nothing to talk to. They stare into the abyss, and it stares back at them, horribly, blasphemously alive.

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