“EveryThing on the Face of the Earth”

This reflection on John Carpenter’s The Thing, is an update to a piece I wrote for 3quarksdaily some time ago:

– And Another ‘Thing’ : Sci-Fi Truths and Nature’s Errors

I re-visit the subject here with the intention of binding together two other posts of mine:

– The Doctrine of the Similar (GIF, GIF, GIF)

– Digital Autonomy: A Response to Hito Steyerl

UPDATE: Having just read ‘The Things‘, a short story written by Peter Watts, I wanted to share it. Text and audio versions can be found online, courtesy of Clarkesworld Magazine. Really stunning read for Thing lovers everywhere.

John Carpenter’s 1982 film, The Thing, is a claustrophobic sci-fi masterpiece, containing all the hallmarks of a great horror film. The film depicts a sinister turn for matter, where the chaos of the replicating, cancerous cell is expanded to the human scale and beyond. In The Thing we watch as an alien force terrorises an isolated Antarctic outpost. The creature exhibits an awesome ability to imitate, devouring any creature it comes across before giving birth to an exact copy in a burst of blood and protoplasm. The thing copies cell by cell and its process is so perfect – at every level of replication – that the resultant simulacrum speaks, acts and even thinks like the original. The thing is so relentless, its copies so perfect, that the outpost’s Doctor is sent mad at the implications:

Blair: If a cell gets out it could imitate everything on the face of the Earth… and it’s not gonna stop!!![1]

The seeming perfection of the thing’s replication process goes far deeper than mere imitation. Earthly, organic life is a nature of disruption – a discursive, discontinuous magisteria. Error is usually understood as that which impedes on a normalcy, disrupting its order. But as the history of the sciences shows the error of life is an error intimate to its specificity. Michel Foucault’s interest in the work of Georges Canguillhem, the grand expositor of biological disease and disorder, bears a striking similarity to Hito Steyerl’s interest in digital images. Foucault sees in Canguillhem’s work on disease a self-sustaining paradigm of scientific principles, where error “is eliminated not by the blunt force of a truth that would gradually emerge from the shadows but [at all stages] by the formation of a new way of ‘truth-telling’”.[2] This epistemology of science as productive failure is further aligned with the status of the biological systems Canguillhem studied. Foucault, from his essay Life: Experience and Science:

“At the center of these problems one finds that of error. For, at the most basic level of life, the processes of coding and decoding give way to a chance occurence that, before becoming a disease, a deficiency, or a monstrosity, is something like a disturbance in the informative system, something like a ‘mistake’. In this sense, life – and this is its radical feature – is that which is capable of error…”[3]

Pathological disease constitutes a better model of the Earthly organism than the normalcy, the magisteria of The Thing. But in the film The Thing, the alien entity becomes an external imposition on the entire ‘magisteria’ of Earthly nature. The perfection of the thing is utterly alien to Earthly nature, because it is both perfect and absolutely other. If, as Foucault suggests, life is error, then the characters in The Thing are torn between two equally horrifying worlds. In one, the alien thing aims for perfection, cloning its hosts cell by cell until, like The Ship of Argo, an entirely new, but identical world remains. In the other, the beauty of nature, in all its intricacy, is the result of a billion years of ugly mutation. Is it perhaps too much of a liberty to suggest that the thing’s most terrifying, absolute alien quality, comes from its inability to err? As the creature tears through every organism in sight its eventual perfection is hidden behind the veil of blood, guts and mutating body parts more readily associated with imperfection. But these depictions of cruel, cancerous blobs and swelling sacks of gaseous, oozing human matter are actually manifestations of a perfection being perfected; a process with one outcome: absolute substitution. The error of Earthly life, its ability to err, represents its most beautiful capacity, to change by mutation and pass those mutations on to the next generation, ad infinitum.[4] The thing, in opposition to this, can only become its other absolutely. There is no room for error, for mutation, for change or evolution. The thing is destined to be “everything on the face of the Earth”. Its magisteria is terrible because were it to ‘replace’ the Earthly magisteria all the beauty of error would be gone. Thus we find a contradiction. Because so far I have insisted on the absolute replication of the Earthly by the thing-ly. But as the Earthly magisteria ‘becomes’ the thingly magisteria, the ability to err is removed, and thus, by turns, there has been no absolute replication at all. Error got missed out because of perfection. The original is flowing, dynamic, imperfect. The simulacrum is static, stable, unchanging; eternal. The Thing, then, as a singular, isolated spectacle of closure, brings into question Friedrich Kittler’s exclamation that:

“…nature is not a computer… therefore, a number of highly complex human phenomena, by their very nature, fall outside the scope of the current processing paradigms. This is, in fact, the only rational hope I have that we have not arrived at the end of history.”[5]


[1] John Carpenter, quote from The Thing, 1982

[2] Michel Foucault, “Life: Experience and Science,” in Aesthetics, method, and epistemology (The New Press, 1999), 471.

[3] (Foucault 1999), pg. 476 – Foucault goes on:

“Further, it must be questioned in regard to that singular but hereditary error which explains that fact that, with man, life has led to a living being that is never completely in the right place, that is destined to ‘err’ and to be ‘wrong’.”

Another important recombination of ‘error’ and ‘intention’ I wish to explore at a later date.

[4] This is of course the process of evolution. A quote from a previous essay of mine that lingers here, from Richard Dawkins:

“Think about the two qualities that a virus, or any sort of parasitic replicator, demands of a friendly medium, the two qualities that make cellular machinery so friendly towards parasitic DNA, and that make computers so friendly towards computer viruses. These qualities are, firstly, a readiness to replicate information accurately, perhaps with some mistakes that are subsequently reproduced accurately; and, secondly, a readiness to obey instructions encoded in the information so replicated.” (Dawkins 1995)

[5] (Virilio et al. 1999)