Alien and the Crack in the Symbolic

An essential feature of the Real (and one subject to a common misconception) is that it only comes into being following the subject’s entrance into the symbolic. Rather than predating the symbolic order, it is created as a result of the symbolic order’s fundamental insufficiency, as that which always necessarily escapes symbolization and signification – in Slavoj Žižek’s words, “the Real – the Thing – is not so much the inert presence which curves the symbolic space… but, rather, an effect of these gaps and inconsistencies” (“Troubles with the Real: Lacan as a Viewer of Alien“). Žižek cites the alien from Ridley Scott’s Alien as an example of the Lacanian Real, specifically in the form of what Lacan dubs the “lamella,” or the hommelette. The lamella is the archetypal example of Freud’s idea of the autonomous partial object: “a thin flat scale, membrane, or layer” (Merriam Webster) which was initially part of a whole on which it ought to depend, but which disturbingly finds the ability to outlive its host, and to outlive even its deadness; it is “undead in the sense this term has in horror fiction.” As Žižek points out, there is no better analogy for this lamella than that of Alien: it begins quite literally as the “something [that] flies off” of the broken membrane of the egg, and proceeds to “[go] everywhere,” “[survive] any division,” and, perhaps most uncannily, “come and envelop” Kane’s face. Lamella evokes the Real in its resistance to any effort to impose the signifying order upon it; in its “infinite plasticity,” it changes form too rapidly to be sufficiently restrained by a signifier or set thereof. While this might thus push it into the realm of the imaginary, Žižek argues that it is nonetheless “a kind of limit-image: the image to cancel all images, the image that endeavors to stretch the imagination to the very border of the irrepresentable.” Alien makes manifest the idea of this limit-image in the seeming unrepresentability of the alien itself (at least once it has taken on its larger, more monstrous form), the camera unwilling or unable to proffer to the viewer an image of it that isn’t somehow marred or disfigured by extreme distance or extreme close-up, rapid montage, pipes, steam, or some other visual obstacle designed to maintain at a distance the obscene too-much-ness for which the alien stands.

Of equal import is the alien’s evasion of the symbolic. Despite being the title of the film, the word “alien” appears only twice within its dialogue, and its first utterance (Kane, on board the alien vessel that initially sent the warning message: “Alien life form. It looks like it’s been dead a long time. Fossilised.”) is in reference to a different alien altogether than the one that terrorizes the Nostromo. Alien‘s characters seem to prefer the signifier “it” (perhaps all the more apt for its very ambiguity) when referring to their unwelcome guest on board, illustrating the failure of the symbolic in accommodating the obscenity of lamella. This failure of the symbolic is illustrated all the more robustly in one of the film’s final sequences, in which Ripley, having braved the horror of the death of all of her crewmates and the destruction of the ship only to find that her guest has joined her in her escape plan, starts singing to herself almost incomprehensibly. The utter nonsense of what she is singing – “you are my lucky star” – seems to me not some sort of re-imposition of the logic of the symbolic order at the moment that she succeeds in at last disposing of the obscene object, but rather an insistence upon the nonsense that already characterizes the symbolic order: having encountered the traumatic kernel of the Real, there is no signifier that can impose logic once more (such a signifier could, in fact, never have existed). In a sense, Ripley’s song is another figuration of Kurtz’s manifesto in Apocalypse Now: a signifying chain without even the mirage of a signified.

This failure seems at first to contrast with the ways in which the symbolic operates at the start of the film, characterized in part by the borderline-farcical sci-fi jargon that Ash and the other bearers of phallogocentric authority recite in its earlier sequences – “Ascension: Six minutes, 20 seconds. Declination: 39 degrees, two seconds” – which seems, in its authority, to cohere well enough. However, the crucial point of Alien (and, moreover, that of Lacan) is that there is no fundamental difference between this use of signifiers and Ripley’s song; each bears an equally untenable relationship to the impossible signified. The scientific precision of the language employed in the film’s earlier sequences is reminiscent of Freud’s dream of Irma’s injection: in Žižek’s words, “language deprived of the wealth of its human sense, transformed into the Real of a meaningless formula.” Ash provides something of a meaningless formula when he says of the alien, “I have confirmed that he’s got an outer layer of protein polysaccharides. He has a funny habit of shedding his cells and replacing them with polarised silicone, which gives him a prolonged resistance to adverse environmental conditions. Is that enough?” The ambivalence writ into Ripley’s response seems to mirror that of the subject’s response to the symbolic order at large, necessitating that it cohere, assuring themself that it contains some signified, though they’re not quite sure what it is: “That’s plenty. What does it mean?”