[originally published in Film Comment, July-Aug 1992]
A Greimasian semantic rectangle will foreground the structural importance of the cat in the complex of signifiers generated from the notion “human”:
[see diagram at right]
The founding term in the film is human (S), represented by the image of Ripley as the strong woman. The antihuman (-S) is, of course, the alien, and the not-human (S) is Ash, the robot. The cat, then, functions in the slot of the not-antihuman (-S), an indispensable role in this drama.
—James H. Kavanaugh, “Feminism, Humanism and Science in Alien”
Assaulted by such academically approved gobbledygook, one of the most provocative and principled of my grad school mentors—an Irish scholar dead this last April—was wont to curl back his lips and snarl, “Now that you know that, what do you know?” This brand of self-evident, infantile pushing-about of alphabet blocks doubtlessly advances today’s hapless young faculty on their tenure tracks. But its dominance, along with related forms of theory that can be expressed only in obscenely inorganic, anti- and inhuman language, ensures that the world of books and movies, images/ideas, is drained of color, wit, idiosyncratic heat, joy, and sensuality, for starters. What horrors these mechanics must perpetrate in the classroom! What kind of sad new species must be matriculating in the humanities these days, armed for life with “scientific” diagrams, arid, angry definitions of art’s myriad social and political sins, and dead silence where sustaining speech—by critics and artists—used to sing.
The rich and diverse fabric of language fleshes our humanity, keeps us alive. In the Alien trilogy, what’s always in harm’s way is humanity signified in the flesh, the spirit named in physiognomy, skin, blood, and even fur. What means to invade and abrogate the aesthetics of flesh and blood is nada, the airless, featureless dark of space itself; the corrosive climates of the dead or dying worlds where each of these sci-fi sagas plays out; the “crew is expendable” Company, whose critical inquisitiveness/acquisitiveness is aroused by a perfect imago of antilife; and most viciously, the undifferentiated, ebon exoskeleton, fanged, hooded, dragon-tailed, fueled by acid in its veins, shapeshifting at will from phallus dentatus to vagina dentata. It’s entirely possible that the babyfaced, white-blooded Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), android Judas in Ridley Scott’s Alien, might derive useful data by reducing to a Greimasian diagram the potentially Miltonic grandeur of a new Christ harrowing Hells that house “that old worm, the Devil.” But Ash and his ilk always make me turn in memory to that professor who taught me Yeats a quarter-century ago: those who belong to his passionate tribe can never sit still for bloodless smalltalk. Like him, they “beat upon the wall / Till Truth obeys [their] call.”