Speculum of the Other

The above scene of the alien’s looking at her own genitality is riddled with contradictions and reversals. But it can also be associatively used to recover some feminist philosophical legacies, as it projects them outwards against depth and onto surface. I propose to read and think through these moments in Under the Skin within French feminist Luce Irigaray’s axiomatic metaphor of the speculum. In her first published work, Speculum of the Other Woman, (published in France in 1974)Belgian-born Irigaray challenges the structure of Western thought and metaphysics as built around metaphors of male visibility, constituted as coherence, unity, sameness and linearity. Western philosophy by its very structure thus banishes from its premises the female and her iteration of the difference, sexual difference. She is made to not exist, converted into a symptomatic lack. Philosophy makes her sexuality un-incorporable and unfigurable. Irigaray pursues a discursive deconstruction and reorientation in which she restages the preoccupations of Western thought from Aristotle to Freud vis-a-vis the manifestation of a female morphological imaginary. She writes,

“But which ‘subject’ up till now has investigated the fact that a concave mirror concentrates the light and specifically, that this is not wholly irrelevant to woman’s sexuality? . . .Which ‘subject’ has taken an interest in the anamorphoses produced by the conjunction of such curvatures? What impossible reflected images, maddening reflections, parodic transformations took place at each of their articulations?”[6] [open notes in new window]

Irigaray’s speculum, its “impossible reflected images” and “maddening reflections” is oriented to both to the history of feminist critiques of Western metaphysics and its representational aporias, as well as its potential for productive mimetic distortion. Forcing the problem of visibility from the perspective of the female body’s figuration as site of knowledge and space of non-knowledge, as both architecture and axiom for confounding the epistemic gaze of the philosopher, Irigaray seizes on the complex and multi-valent use of the speculum, as both physical optic object and metaphor for patriarchal modes of knowing. This sense of the speculum has a hermeneutic force for the film in its Irigarayan implications—in its use as a trope of producing knowledge about the woman through devices of projection. But it also bears out in its broader, gyno-historical inflections, as a dilatory device that opens up a cavity of the body (in the gynecological instance, the vagina) in order to image it. Process and image here become coextensive. In its physio-optical inflections, its curved reflective surface provides an inexact mirror that provides both index and distortion.

I propose that the film takes on the morphological and ontological legacy of the speculum as one of its formal logics. The reflective function operates at a macro, extrapolated level of formal structure. Under the Skin is full of such reflective, distended surfaces, which transform distinct images across an unfathomable breach of difference, either through editing or effects or acts of a larger structural, narratological curving across the body of the film. Mirrors, reflective surfaces, inversions of form and symmetrical structures proliferate. Most broadly, the films fundamental inversion splits the film into inverse halves—the alien predating, working, watching, surveying, and then subsequently being predated; she is at first mobile hunter, an enclosed driver, and then an exposed, hunted, vulnerable pedestrian; she is exteriorized and interiorized; she lures men into cavernous spaces, and then is herself forced (under the auspices of another form of seduction, that of romantic pretense not sex) into a cavernous ruin, forcing herself into an impossible depth. The alien is extractor and she is extracted, labor power that then becomes an exploitable resource, a body for the taking and the violating by virtue of her visible, presumably “vulnerable” feminine form, no longer a lure but easy prey.

Oddly enough, a speculum appears in video game designer and theorist Ian Bogost’s discussion of the nature of speculation in thinking about the philosophy of object being. Bogost presents the speculum as a hermeneutic tool of distortion and inexact transfer, with which to describe and account for the autonomy, the self-sufficiency of a world comprised of things, things that do not need humans to exist and be thought, but that have relations and interactions with other things— “to speculate how things speculate.” Bogost writes,

“A speculum is a mirror, but not in the modern sense of the term as a device that reflects back the world as it really is, unimpeded and undistorted. As Narcissus proved, a reflection is different enough to hold power, including the power of drunk love. The lesson holds beyond mythology: from ancient times to the middle ages, a mirror was an imprecise device, usually a convex disc that reflected enough light to give a viewer a rough sense of the figure placed in front of it. Only a rough sense…the speculum of speculation is not a thin, flat plate of glass onto which a layer of molten aluminum has been vacuum sprayed onto it, but a funhouse mirror made of hammered metal, whose distortions show us a perversion of a unit’s sensibilities.”[7]

The speculation Bogost’s speculum here affords is one far afield from it as medium of penetration, corporeal dilation but not entirely at odds in its capacity for curving, with Irigaray’s sense of the speculum’s potential as another way of knowing female subjectivity, despite its legacy of epistemic capture. While Bogost is concerned with the existence of objects and their “unit operations,” he seeks in the speculum that perversion that distorts the object, that accepts all objects as only accessible through fundamental distortion, due to the nature of their existence in excess and outside of human thought. Perhaps the specula of Irigaray and Bogost are irreconcilable, but I think placed alongside each other, as conceptual objects, they reveal the thorny problem of relationality and how to be with difference that haunts Under the Skin.

Sexual (in)difference

While rendered through the hardy motifs of science fiction and noir, Glazer’s film can thus be postioned as an instantiation of debates occurring within and between feminist and queer theory and the philosophical manifestation of what Richard Grusin has aggregated as the “non-human turn,” (and that include speculative realism, object oriented ontology, and “new materialisms,” of which Bogost’s work is also part.) [8] Speaking broadly, the latter bodies of thought have staked a claim on theorizing the non-human, and exploring a de-hierarchized creaturely life, as well as the vitality of living and non-living things, that exist apart from human knowledge, perception or thought about them. Countering the anthropocentrism of prior philosophical traditions in which the human was figured as the center of a world that could be thought, speculative realism and object-oriented approaches consider the nature of the object as a self-contained unit, leveling hierarchies between species, genuses, or categories of object.[9] They counter an epistemological approach that accepts our knowledge of things as conditional to human perception. Graham Harman, one key thinker in this field, in particular proposes that all objects are fundamentally inaccessible, “withdrawn objects” that co-exist with each other but pre-exist human involvement.[10]

The subject and motifs of Glazer’s film hint at the contours of some of these notions regarding a world of objects through its perspective of estrangement. But it also cross-pollinates them with feminist concerns. The film produces a convergence of the sexed object of desire with the alien as “object,” a seemingly “withdrawn” form, unfathomable, “inaccessible” through frames of human knowledge, but existing for and of itself. The alienness of the object merges with an explicit alienness thematically and generically, an alienness clearly forged through gender and sexual difference. Under the Skin thus “returns to sender” the philosophical and political problem of the object in late capitalist modernity. Countering an abstracted wonderment in a flattened ontology of coeval things, the film takes it, forward and back, to the intractable domains of sexual difference.[11] Is the difference of sexual difference the housing mechanism—a “Trojan Horse,” the host body?—of the alterity of non-human matter itself, its processes and relations?[12] Or might it be the other way around, when seen in the films preponderance of clouded, clotted mirrors?

Inhuman matters

“Thus the ‘object’ is not as massive or as resistant as one might wish to believe. And her possession by a ‘subject,’ a subject’s desire to appropriate her, is yet another of his vertiginous failures. For where he projects a something to absorb, to take, to see, to possess…as well as a patch of ground to stand upon, a mirror to catch his reflections, he is already faced by another specularization. Whose twisted character is her inability to say what she represents. The quest for the object becomes a game of Chinese boxes. Infinitely receding. The most amorphous with regard to ideas, the most obvious ‘thing,’ if you like, the most opaque matter, opens upon a mirror all the purer that it knows and is known to have no reflections. Except those which man has reflected there but which, in the movement of that concave speculum, pirouetting upon itself, will rapidly, deceptively, fade.”[13]

If we return to Irigaray’s account of specularity and the speculum, we find the above passage, that notes that the desire for the object is grounded in a fundamental failure, in that it leads to an object that can only refract and never reflect, can only capture the nature of its own desire, even as it eludes the grasp of meaning. What Irigaray describes about the grasping for the (female) object by the (male) subject, if placed alongside the ending of Under the Skin, produces some remarkable symmetries, the opaque matter, the maddening muteness of the object, a mirror with no reflections but those reflected, projected by a logic of masculinist power and subsequent disappointment. But what happens when that very conjunction of sexual difference also becomes the lever between human and non-human form?

Under the Skin exposes cinema’s thorny desire for the figuration of a subject, writ large, as the most seductive and most impossible project, refracted in the mute and brute materiality of alien flesh. The conclusion of the film reveals a thingly flesh that is made to violently evaporate, to doubly burn out of the image, to disappears as quickly as it is revealed. What is this black tarry substance, this clammy, clay-like epidermis—which appears as much plastic as dirt, organic and manufactured, charred before it is charred again? The skin of the alien cannot touch the human atmosphere without being snuffed, burned out, defaced. The pursuit of an impossible interiority, and the tissue between inside and outside, presents sites of opacity, non-meaning, non-understanding—the “dark matter,” which in multiple figural registers haunts the aesthetic imaginary of the film and its conceptual drifts.

This difficulty of figuring alien interiority, the cinematic impulse to ascertain that interiority, undoes itself in the multiplying apparitions of other forms of difference. The concluding trajectory of the film speaks as much to the conjunction of racial mattering with an ontological limit,[14] as to the nagging resonance and affect of the alien’s experience, less as woman, but perhaps even more persuasively as a transgendered embodiment.[15] What is this attempt at “becoming female” (pace Osterweil) more like than the brutality accorded to transgendered lives, in their struggles to live in another skin? As some transgendered viewers have noted, the account of the alien’s struggle to assimilate echoes the experience of a trans estrangement. J. Hoberman more crudely describes the alien as “an implacable agendered It.” These abjected others within the other - the racialized subject, as Hilderbrand accounts for here in this dossier, the transgendered subject, the female subject—coagulate and intersect at the site of a fantasy sexual difference. Like Irigaray’s “Chinese box,” the site unravels and refracts, re-occupied by other specters of difference.

It seems fitting, then, that the film’s penchant towards abstraction incorporates the motifs of a new materialist objectness, and the continuum between human objectification and thingly being. As the alien traverses the forest, lost and alone we see an image of her sleeping in the woods superimposed over a landscape of trees rustled by a thick wind. It recalls earlier moments of the alien’s subsumption by or alignment with or attunement to the “natural” or the non-human environment, or her encounter with the force of material things: her encounter of the ant on her finger which has crawled off the corpse, her point of view of a fly buzzing on a glass pane door in the house where she ensnares men, right before she “frees” the disfigured captive; her face subsumed by light flares and refractions, and her figure lost in the white fog. Each of these in their way signal a continuum between her objectness and status as thing in the world alongside other creatures, beings and inanimate, inhuman yet vital things.

The affiliation of the alien with non-human, creaturely life, as well as with elemental substances and materials: in the opening, the alien spies an ant that crawls on her hand transferred from the body of the female corpse --the extreme closeup suggests the alien’s POV.

Another insect, now a fly caught buzzing at a glass-paned door, is affiliated with the alien’s perspective, in a sequence just prior to the release of the disfigured captive.

The elemental saturation of light fuses with the functions of the nonhuman lens of the camera, producing an image that bathes the alien in an otherworldly light.

Following the above motif, a similar saturation effect, is deployed as “she” wills her own disappearance, dipping into the wafting white fog, going off course. The alien is aligned with the materiality of the physical world, placed in a continuum of encounter with its textures.

Yet the terms of this affiliation with thingness also bespeak a radical violence and dispossession, the route of the object’s abjection. The carnage of our alien heroine’s demise—her rape, assault and murder by fire, as she gets drenched in gas and immolated by her attacker—operates as an incontrovertible act that evokes sexual, transgendered and racialized violence, mobilizing internecine histories and barbaric traumas—lynching, witch burning, capital punishment, public torture. The film’s conclusion witnesses the reduction, the breaking down, of the body we have so closely shadowed to particulate matter—delimiting it to chromatic form and indistinction, receding into a horizon soon to be nonrepresentational, beneath the scale of our vision.

We are presented with another specular inversion: instead of seeing inside, the inside “sees” the outside—in a logic of exteriorization—things only come out, transform into other forms. During the sexual assault, as her human skin is ripped off. The alien, breaking down, comes into contact with her human skin and face, coming face to face with herself. Disguise and exteriority meet where they undo each other, as the revelation of the alien skin underneath a human skin turns to flame. It is an image that burns, an image that disintegrates, shrinking from its own heavy collapsing figures, looking at each other’s separability.

Here again the film’s form works as a mode of negation that might deign to give us solace in its metaphysical beauty. An unknowable body turns into gas, air, light, water, moving upwards, exchanging its smoky path with snow. The transmission between smoke and snow, represent a dialectical transit in two opposing directions—rising and falling, black and white, heat, ash, and water, the intermingling of physical atmospheres, becoming weather, bestowing decay. Falling snowflakes descend in extreme closeup cover the camera’s lens, threating white out, a complete obliteration of vision. The non-human perspective implies the pov of the dead body. The ending literally resorts to the last sentences of Michel Faber’s novel, a redemptive gesture towards images that only superficially veil the brutality rendered on the films surface. In the novel the alien self-destructs, as she plans the exploding her own car, and the consequences of her combustion,

“The atoms that had been herself would mingle with the oxygen and nitrogen in the air…Her invisible remains would combine, over time, with all the wonders under the sun. When it snowed, she would be part of it, falling softly to earth, rising up again with the snow’s evaporation.”[16]

The film’s death scene is neither a planned suicide as it is in Faber’s novel, nor is it like the replicant’s timed expiration and life span in Blade Runner (1982). We actually have no sense of what the alien lifespan contains or sustains, its real or expected duration. The Blade Runner scene has its own revolt and pathos, but in Glazer’s film the forceful eradication of life, the margins of the alien’s “life-times” are rather narrow, easily extinguished, an arc of inevitability as the alien’s function as worker has been obviated.[17]

We could see these elemental concluding images, and their resonance with the meanings of the novel’s conclusion optimistically: as an imagining of a new materialist notion of entanglements, an intimate intertwining of elements, in “intra-action,” the inhuman a sphere of ethical mattering. But this would perhaps give up or overlook the violent transvaluations that have taken place to produce them. We might do well to follow on Jordana Rosenberg’s astute analysis and critique of the blind spots inherent in the ontological turn and its intersection with conceptions of difference and in particular queerness, and not to give into the romance of ontological de-individuation into matter’s sheer contingency as the grounds of liberation. Prioritizing the “molecular” and the queerness of matter disavows the specificities of history and the inscription of power on bodies. Rosenberg writes,

“No matter how much ontological work may posit the unenclosing of sexuality from the realm of the subject as the liberation of sheer desire from the burden of identity, from the socius, and from a considered, confrontational relationship to power, do we truly want to be unleashed into pure aleatoriness? ….There is something here, something pulling back from the surrender of the future to sheer contingency. That something is not the subject per se, or “the human,” but the collective, which waits for us, and waits to be rediscovered in our theories of materialism, of the socius, of the ontological strangeness of life under capitalism. Surely the collective is that aleatory togetherness of which the ontological turn dreams—except this togetherness is one in which, at the end, we are not extinct but transformed.”[19]

Rosenberg warns us not to elide the very clear forces, powers, and economies at play that might benefit from a mystification of agency and will, invested in the speculative credit of the fantasy of a mute, deindividuated, subject-less matter. Under the Skin thus indulges the spectator’s ineradicable desire for the alien’s aspiration towards humanness, and encourages the spectator to strain to see details of the alien’s subjectivity or legible inner life, enacted in the pursuits of sexual pleasure and corporeal enjoyment, housed in an oversaturated star body. This anthropocentric trajectory is matched with a refracting violence enacted upon the alien’s otherness exposed, her illegible sexual form; it refuses her any further possibilities of relationality or sociality. Cinematically, the irrecoverable gap between non-human and human inner life is made tangible and sensible, paradoxically, through these final atmospheric images, of dissipation, decomposition, elusive loss; specular reflections that “rapidly, deceptively, fade.”