The hysterics of District 9.
Van der Merwe joke circulating on the internet
EVERY SOUTH AFRICAN has a favourite Van der Merwe joke. Van der Merwe, the archetypal thickheaded Afrikaner, has been the beloved brunt of South African humour for decades. Alongside the adoption of apartheid as official government policy in 1948, Van der Merwe emerged as its foolish functionary, so it is no coincidence that the protagonist of Neill Blomkamp's film District 9 (2009) is the bumbling Wikus van de Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley), a walking Van der Merwe joke (for more on Van der Merwe, see articles by Sandra Swart and Deborah Posel). A petty bureaucrat (petty in every sense), he works in the Department of Alien Affairs at mnu, Multi-National United, the evil epitome of global corporate capital. But we like Wikus, despite his ineptitude, his nepotism, and his bigotry. So who is the joke on? In his director's commentary, Blomkamp repeatedly tells us that he finds certain moments in the film humorous, and they are often the most gruesome or graphic moments that push the characters and viewers into heightening horror. Opinion varies on whether District 9 is funny: in Safundis roundtable on the film, Stefan Helgesson finds it "genuinely funny--the alien infatuation with cat food being just one example of its absurd humor" (174), whereas in her article on masculinity in District 9, Claire Sisco King writes, "Absent comic relief, District 9 produces a decidedly different sensibility ... [T]he tone of District 9 remains intense and stressful, inviting not laughter but anxiety, terror, and even disgust.. This visceral experience invites viewers to suffer (rather than laugh) with onscreen characters" (83). Consciously or not, then, director Blomkamp is pointing out the fine, often vanishing, line that splits hysterics between what is hysterically funny and real hysteria. Not coincidentally, the title of a government parody playing the comedy circuit in South Africa these days, "Mass Hysteria, " also collapses the distinction. Featuring such faux leaders as the Minister Who Swears to Tell the Truth and the Minister of International Affairs and Pan-African Children, it is so titled because, says the co-producer, '"Mass Hysteria' is what South Africans are best at ... whether it's a penis or a march, we love a reason to scream and shout" (Gilbertson).
Since apartheid ended, South Africa has experienced a wave of incidents of alleged mass hysteria, mostly among schoolchildren in underprivileged areas (see Kapstein). If, under apartheid, South Africa was in a state of panic, with professional agitators and members of the Third Force planted to spur on violent protests against the regime so as to be able to represent black South Africans as out of control and with whites worrying about a "total onslaught, " then postapartheid South Africa is a nation in hysterics. District 9 allows us to examine the distinctions between, and the overlaps among, the hysterically funny, hysterical anxiety, and mass hysteria not only as they pertain to a South African sensibility and setting but to an emerging, specifically South African, breed of science fiction. Ultimately, District 9 suggests that both hysteria as condition and sci-fi as genre are transitional modes, sharing such characteristics as change, excess, and fantasy, and that therefore they are fitting for South Africa's transitional political period, its new interregnum. (1)
South Africans had plenty to "scream and shout" about circa the making of District 9, according to the Human Sciences Research Council's second report on "South African Social Attitudes" Published in 2010, it describes a period "marked by uncertainty and change" including concerns about a "systematisation of corruption" in government, high-profile fraud and corruption trials, political division, scandals pertaining to the misappropriation of resources, a wave of violent demonstrations and protests over service delivery failures and over provincial boundary changes, mounting fear and frustration over crime and violence, the deepening impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic set against international condemnation of apparent aids denialism, and concerns over South African involvement in conflict resolution in Africa (Roberts, wa Kivilu, and Davids 2). Finding something hysterically funny and speculating about what the future might hold are both means of channeling social anxieties such as these and releasing nervous energy about them. Accumulating evidence suggests that across Africa, filmmakers and fiction writers alike are starting to find in science fiction an appropriate outlet for capturing postcolonial absurdities, extremes, and visions. As Andries du Toit says, in one of his blog posts on District 9, "postcoloniality is futurity" In South Africa, in addition to Blomkamp's output, we see futurity in Lauren Beukes's dystopian novels Moxyland (2010) and Zoo City (2011) and the ecological imaginings of Henrietta Rose-Innes ("Poison" 2008) and Jane Rosenthal (Souvenir 2004). (2) The current edition of the journal Paradoxa is called African sf (http: // paradoxa.com), and Bristol's Arnolfini arts centre hosted the exhibition "Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction" in 2012. And yet, when Nnedi Okorafor, who herself writes sci-fi and fantasy often set around contested oil pipelines in the Niger Delta, wrote an essay asking "Is Africa Ready for Science Fiction?" Nigerian director Tchidi Chikere answered in it "no, " that
[s]cience fiction will come here when it is relevant to the people of Africa. Right now, Africans are bothered about issues of bad leadership, the food crisis in East Africa, refugees in the Congo, militants here in Nigeria. Africans are bothered about food, roads, electricity, water wars, famine, etc, not spacecrafts and spaceships. Only stories that explore these everyday realities are considered relevant to us for now.
Chikere's stance sounds like a perversion of Njabulo Ndebele's influential 1980s critique of the privileging of the spectacular in anti-apartheid protest literature and his call for South African authors to "rediscover the ordinary" (41-59). By this logic, fiction itself has no relevance for Africa. The ideas that sci-fi is a Western genre and that there is no room for sci-fi in Africa because of reality are two sides of the same coin. Equally troubling, though, is the suggestion that the reality of Africa is science fiction. We hear this from Blomkamp, who proposes in his commentary that the future is already here in places like Johannesburg, with its extremes of wealth and poverty, and from well-meaning critics, like Helgesson, who writes about the Global South as science fiction: "Whole populations in the Global South are in fact 'living the apocalypse' (from the perspective of a once-dominant West), but even so, life goes on in a pragmatic, patchwork fashion" (174).
Okorafor goes on to quote a Professor Naunihal Singh, who asserts that
[s]cience-fiction will have to adapt itself to the local market.... I don't think there's the sensibility for it right now. I remember seeing The Matrix in a mixed crowd of Ghanaians and Americans, this was in Ghana. Even though the room was dark, and there were some 40 plus people there, I could tell who was from where by their reactions to the movie. The Ghanaians just weren't connecting to it. Bring the Terminator to West Africa, and he'd stop running in a day. He'd sit there and glitch. It'll be hard to make people afraid of a future where computers take over the world when they can't manage to keep the computers on their desk running. These are very western stories. On the other hand, classic science fiction, like space exploration stories, would probably work better ... assuming it was adapted for the audience. Africans would love to see stories about Africans on a space ship. The idea that Africans might be dominant in the future would resonate so well with nationalism.
This is a slightly different argument from Chikere's--now sci-fi is irrelevant not because Africans are preoccupied with fetching clean water but because technology is foreign to them. But, leaving aside facts like Africa has more than 650 million mobile phone subscribers (Lazuta), District 9 capitalizes on exactly this vexed relationship to technology. An audience that cannot rely on its power grid recognizes the familiar when Wikus, walking into a house darkened for a surprise party, thinks the power has gone off. And the basic premise of the film, that a dysfunctional space ship has flatlined over Johannesburg, makes sense in this setting. Writing in Safundi, Gerald Gaylard reports that "District 9 has been a huge hit in South Africa" (167), with "a South African audience that gets the jokes immediately" (168). Blomkamp talks about placing "the fantastic in the mundane" (DVD commentary), and science fiction arguably has the capacity to expose what is already fantastic about the mundane, the way Ndebele intended.
A classic trope of science fiction films is mass hysteria about some kind of contamination, whether it be a medical pandemic (Outbreak 1995, Contagion 2011), a zombie infestation (28 Days Later 2002), or an alien invasion (Aliens 1986). District 9 recombines these sub-genres into a new composite made specific by race and place. Early on in the film, a bystander being interviewed about the "prawns" (the derogatory term used by humans to describe the aliens) suggests eliminating them with "'n selektiewe virus" ("a selective virus"). In the film, this is a quick clip, spliced into a rapid-fire series of interview segments, but the deeper historical reference (emphasized by the Afrikaans) is to Wouter Basson, apartheid's "Dr Death" who oversaw research into race-specific biological weapons, among other horrors. The bigger picture (so to speak) is that an alien ship stalled over Johannesburg in 1982, twenty-eight years before the events depicted in the film and at the height of the apartheid regime. All these many years later, apartheid has ended and the aliens are still here--housed in the squalid squatter camp conditions of District 9 and reviled by humans, regardless of race. MNU has been contracted by the government to evict and relocate the aliens to a more isolated, distant location. In the course of doing this activity, Wikus sets the plot in motion by accidentally exposing himself to a liquid that triggers his genetic and physiognomic metamorphosis into an alien. Wikus's exposure turns him from MNU employee to MNU quarry, as the company pursues him to exploit his utility and to contain his perceived threat throughout the rest of the film. Mass hysteria in the film peaks when Wikus, after having escaped the MNU secret testing facility and on the lam, enters a township fast-food joint. First captured on black-and-white security cam footage, he then appears in the coloured film of the fictional narrative, desperate and ravenous, trying to order a takeout when a newscast playing in the background announces the "breaking news" that "A patient has escaped from the isolation ward and is loose in the city. Wikus van de Merwe was recently apprehended after prolonged sexual activity with aliens in District 9 ... which is causing bodily disfigurement. It's highly contagious and police warn people to stay at least 20 metres away." While the television plays behind the counter's security grille, the other customers and servers in the restaurant realize that Wikus is among them and they flee in terror, unaware that the report is false, trumped up by MNU to help recapture Wikus. Not only is the charge untrue, but we are told that no human has ever before been infected with alien DNA, despite allegations against the Nigerian gangs of interspecies prostitution, and so the public's hysteria about Wikus's potential threat as disease vector is groundless. As with the reference to biological warfare and selective viruses, this moment clearly references South Africa's history of taboos on interracial mixing and sexual activity, codified under apartheid in the Immorality Acts and Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, which were frantically and punitively enforced. It also plays on current anxieties and stigmas about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa, as captured in the background of an interview with a policeman (one of the many fictional experts interviewed over the course of the film) in a poster, suggestively pinned next to a set of mug shots of black men, which reads: "INFECTED? DON'T RISK IT. They're all carriers. Risk Hotline: 004-NO-ALIEN" Even though the contagion associated with Wikus is doubly fictional (since within the fiction of the film, his contaminating potential has been fabricated), it sums up society's fears about biological and social boundaries being threatened.
Wikus's own hysteria swirls around his exposure to and infection with the alien fluid with all the ignorance, repulsion, and denial that characterize the South African AIDS crisis captured in the Van der Merwe joke at the top of this piece. (3) The moment of Wikus's exposure marks a turning point in his relationship to the camera as he goes from seducing it--smiling into it, showing off for it--to rejecting it--shoving it away, telling the cameraman "to cut that part ... where it sprays me" But this is the money shot of the film--the instant at which the boundary between self and other is ruptured, the dangerous fluid is ejaculated, and contamination happens. It cannot be cut. It initiates the hysteria of the self, society, the narrative, and the viewer--by activating an onscreen countdown of "hours since exposure, " it heightens our anxiety alongside his. In the director's commentary on the DVD, Blomkamp exults in the film's "body horror" and how Wikus is "coming apart at the seams" Mocke Jansen van Veuren in her article "Tooth and Nail: Anxious Bodies in Neill Blomkamp's District 9 examines in detail what happens to Wikus's body over the course of the film as it disintegrates and transforms. She reads District 9 as a narrative about white trauma over the rupturing of borders visceral, institutional, and classificatory. Bodies in the film are "placed in crisis by uncertainties around the permeability of their borders. The anxious operations of contamination and hybridization, abjection and displacement, as well as severing and dismemberment, [play] out with a mixture of hilarity, horror and cruelty" (582). This is another way of describing white hysteria about merging with or morphing into the other, although, she argues, District 9 cannot face this head-on in terms of race: "[T]he somatic effects of the alien DNA represent the invasion of his [Wikus's] body not by the identity of an other, or signifiers of any kind of 'authentic' blackness, but rather by a collection of the anxious signifiers with which blackness and poverty are painted through a prejudiced white gaze" (573). In other words, race is displaced into alien otherness, marked by the aliens' associations with crowds, riots, chaos, and other classic (especially for South Africa) nodes of hysterical anxiety about difference.
In the same way that District 9 has difficulty handling race, it struggles to look directly at gender. Not only does Wikus's body function "as a kind of condensatory nexus" for all bodily operations in the film but redemption is achieved "through becoming the other" (Jansen van Veuren 580). In addition to Wikus's new body becoming the other that stands in for blackness, it stands in for women as well. The processes that Wikus's body undergoes--leaking, spilling, dripping, bleeding, vomiting, distorting, bulging, splitting--happen to be the same set of changes that affect the pregnant body. An internet search produces an online checklist of "14 Freaky Things That Happen During Pregnancy That Aren't Cause for Alarm" (Velez), including feeling feverish (Wikus's first symptom) and "sprouting skin tags" (in one particularly grotesque scene, he attempts to pull a flap of flesh off one of the lesions on his back). The checklist reminds us that pregnancy can seem like a science fiction: item 5 is "Sci-fi movie-style vaginal discharge, " and item 12 is "Tender, swollen gums. That happens, too. Normal. Most likely your teeth won't fall out" (Velez). With Wikus's body oozing discharge from its many suppurating wounds and his teeth and nails actually falling out, the film amps up the ready-made sci-fi of pregnancy by imposing it on the body of the white man, so that his revolting body becomes like that of a pregnant woman. And just like a pregnant woman, Wikus has a foreign body merging with his own.
In Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture, and Mothers' Bodies, Rebecca Kukla traces current conceptions of pregnancy to a late eighteenth-century split in the figuration of the maternal body into two: "an unruly, capricious, improperly and porously bounded body" and a " 'natural' body enjoying perfect unity and reciprocity with its child" (67). According to Kukla's reading of Rousseau, this bifurcation has implications far beyond the individual mother to society at large:
Hysteria was originally the displacement, or the "wandering, " of the womb. Through the force of the wayward womb, the reproductive female body supposedly became an incoherent, disorderly space divided against itself: limbs, eyes, thoughts, and passions no longer work in concert with one another, but only as capricious fragments. By analogy, a hysterical body politic is also one that is incoherent and divided against itself, stranded without a general will that can govern all its parts, in virtue of the improper order and placement of wombs. Hysterical maternal bodies, then, can produce hysterical body politics. (67)
This description charts the precise path that Wikus's body takes in the eyes of the corporate-nation. Certainly not the normative, well-ordered maternal body, his is the hysterical pregnant body. His wandering, disorderly body in parts produces a hysterical body politic and needs to be controlled and contained. Thus for a significant portion of the movie we follow him as he darts from place to place, chased by the full force of MNU and showing up on their surveillance video. Lynn Kirby recapitulates how Jean-Martin Charcot associates the male hysteric with mobility, detecting "the appearance of male hysteria among vagabonds, tramps, society's peripatetic disenfranchised" (14). Together, Rousseau's and Charcot's descriptions of being both "stranded without a general will" and convulsively moving capture the split impulses of hysteria. Charcot, the famed nineteenth-century neurologist, was the first to argue that a diagnosis of hysteria could fit men as well as women. Charcot's male hysterics were consistently working-class heterosexuals, possibly predisposed to the condition by heredity, who suffered a traumatic workplace accident, triggering full-blown hysteria (Micale, 134-39). Charcot would have had a field day with Wikus, whose working-class and heterosexual credentials are firmly established early in the film and whose exposure to contamination on the job is the quintessential workplace accident. It is of course that traumatic incident that instigates his rising hysteria, as well society's around him.
Thus Wikus simultaneously embodies the female hysteric and fits the profile of the traditional male hysteric, which just so happens to correspond to his evolving form. The special features on the District 9 DVD include a number of deleted scenes, including one in the guise of an MNU educational video entitled "Physiological Characters of the Alien Species; Part IV--Reproduction." Here, we learn that the aliens are "monoecious, " that is, they have both male and female reproductive organs. The movie sets up a traditionally essentialized relationship between hysteria and femininity, since Wikus's bodies shows all the signs and symptoms of the hysterical pregnant body but then explodes that essentialism because his body is not feminine--it is hermaphroditic and alien; that is, profoundly other. King argues that Wikus "fails spectacularly in his performance of hegemonic masculinity" (81). But the revelation about alien reproduction does more than make him not a very good man; it makes him not a man at all. However, the educational video did not make the final cut and the aliens in the film are clearly gendered by male names and naming--the principal alien is called Christopher Johnson and his child is his "son." This sleight-of-hand lets our protagonists retain their masculinity and associated attributes (such as violence and technological know-how) while surreptitiously undoing it. It also incorporates their corporeal selves into the accepted binary gender structure of human society, making sense of their difference through naming. Since Wikus turns into an alien, he has the potential to reproduce, to literally become the pregnant body.
Having shuffled problematic alien reproduction off into the deleted scenes category, the film signals its anxiety about reproduction almost subliminally. A montage right after the title establishes for viewers the social segregation of humans and aliens through a series of signs in public places, announcing "NO NON-HUMAN LOITERING" and "FOR USE BY HUMANS ONLY." Next to a "NO! NOT WELCOME" sign, featuring the crossed out image of an alien, appear flyers plastered all over the wall advertising "safe" and "one day" abortions. Some scenes later, during MNU's slum clearance exercise, Wikus stumbles across a hatchery--a shack with an elaborate apparatus feeding alien eggs from a suspended cow carcass. When Wikus pulls the plug on the alien eggs, he cavalierly calls it his colleague's "first abortion": "Just pop him out. There we go. And pop him out here. You can take that. Keep it as a souvenir for your first abortion. You can feel like you did one." By juxtaposing anti-alien signage with abortion ads and by talking about the alien eggs in terms of abortion, the film sets up a connection between different sorts of unwanted, undesirable reproduction. It picks up not only on apartheid-era restrictions on interracial relations but on the postapartheid "crisis" of illegal abortions (Moore and Ellis).
What threat, then, does alien reproduction pose to merit its association with society's other undesirable acts? In addition to the mere fact of replication, aliens can amplify themselves through their custom bioweapons, guns that only they can operate. The film's main narrator, playing a journalist, explains:
MNU is trying to move the aliens for humanitarian reasons ... but the real focus, just as it has been right from the beginning, is weapons. MNU is the second-largest weapons manufacturer in the world. We assumed that we'd be able to pick up the alien gun and be able to shoot it. It didn't work like that. As we discovered, their technology is engineered in a biological manner and interacts exclusively with their DNA. So it just doesn't work with humans. It's as simple as that.
When Wikus begins his transformation, his use-value is immediately recognized by MNU. After testing that amounts to torture, the scientists in the film conclude that "[w]hat's important is that we harvest from him what we can right now. This body represents hundreds of millions, maybe billions of dollars worth of biotechnology. There are people out there, governments, corporations, who would kill for this chance" Seen this way, Wikus loses his status as human and becomes "the most valuable business artifact on Earth" (District 9), a resource to be mined, and a weapon in and of himself. We literally view him through MNU's lens, because the sadistic experiments on him are filmed, and when he grasps the alien weapon with his new claw the footage shows the legend "WEAPON LIVE." Thus weaponized, he represents the height of technological advancement, everything that is new and dangerous about the alien presence.
Both Kukla and Kirby point out a correspondence between newness and change and hysteria. Kukla notes that, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, hysteria was associated with what were considered unnatural modern practices for women, such as having a profession. Kirby's work on male hysteria and cinema tracks the rise of cinema and the rise of the railroad and their resulting shock on the spectator: "[C]ultural displacement as massive as nineteenth-century mechanization and urbanization--railway-assisted--made of its traumatized victims something like female hysterics" (124). Similarly, Mark Micale reports in Hysterical Men that the single most frequent workplace accident befalling Charcot's male hysterics was the train crash (138). Wikus's hysterics about his transformation capture this sense of transition and emergence for both him and his society. As trains and cinema are traumatically new in the 1880s, so rapid social (and personal) change is for Wikus in the twenty-first century. (4) As spectators, we get caught up in the urgency of working against the clock to slow down and reverse the effects of exposure. All Wikus wants is for everything to go "back the way it was" (District 9). Michael Valdez Moses, in his contribution to Safundi's roundtable, reads this wish as the film's own nostalgia for racial segregation: "What Wikus and Christopher envision is a radical segregation of their peoples, not a politically progressive multiethnic mix of cultures living in harmony" (160). However, Wikus is not hysterical at the end of the movie. No longer undefined or in transition, he is now fully resolved into his alien form and fully integrated. He has found his proper place in District 9 and achieved a certain calm as he crafts metal flowers as love offerings for his wife, making the place that until now has been inhospitable into a kind of mechanical pastoral idyll. Moses writes that Wikus "never loses his disgust for his alien(ated) form, never embraces his physical transformation as anything except a temporary and painful (if necessary) stage on the way to complete restoration of his old self" (160). However, the static quality of his new existence, as he is forced to wait and mark time until Christopher returns three years hence with a cure, and the nature of his total transformation demand that he capitulate to a new status quo which no longer seems threatening and shocking. In keeping with having been cured of his hysteria--by virtue of no longer undergoing change--he has also stopped moving. This is not Charcot's mobile male hysterical body anymore but an alien stuck in a camp as all the other aliens have been since they were stranded in 1982 and like real aliens in refugee camps the world over. (5)
Within the conceit of the film, repeat references to real-world practices, and especially to the South African experience, enhance the reality effect. Despite its aliens and spaceships, District 9 is very deliberately anchored in the local setting of Johannesburg, which the film announces in the beginning through the voiceover of a fictional news reporter: "To everyone's surprise, the ship didn't come to a stop over Manhattan or Washington or Chicago but instead coasted to a halt directly over the city of Johannesburg." In the short film Blomkamp made before District 9, Alive in Joburg (2005), the alien spacecraft is literally tethered to the Johannesburg cityscape via umbilical cables that parasitically suck from the municipal electricity and water supplies. In District 9, the signs marking zones for humans only are obviously reminiscent of apartheid-era White Persons Only/Net Blankes signs. The mass eviction of aliens from District 9 is a literal inversion of the forced removals from District 6 under the Group Areas Act. The bucolically named Sanctuary Park Alien Relocation Camp continues in the fine tradition of such South African euphemisms as the Representation of Natives Act (1936; further reduces black suffrage, thereby not letting them be represented) or the Bantu Education Act (1953; enforces separate and unequal instruction, rather than promoting education). (6)
Most of the film's action takes place in the present. Early scenes in the movie explain why the aliens are being evicted: "The special task force conducted raids in District 9. Where there's a weapon, there's crime. Tensions rose and rose. People became more and more fed up, and eventually the rioting started. Residents in Tembisa rioted for the third consecutive night in an attempt to remove all the aliens from their township." In the sequence of riot scenes, mostly shown as news clips, we see the essence of mass hysteria--a frenzied body politic acting en masse--and we hear hysterical allegations: "These aliens ... Prawns ... They take my wife away" The film unequivocally signals the irrationality of this hysteria with moments full of situational irony like the one in which a woman speaks to the camera in front of a dumpster through which an alien is calmly rummaging and thoroughly ignoring her. She says, "They can take the sneakers you are wearing off you. They check the brand and take them. They take whatever you have on you. Your cell phone or anything. After that, they kill you" District 9 was filmed in 2008 when actual attacks on foreigners in South Africa climaxed, attacks often categorized as "xenophobic hysteria" in the press, and described by Blomkamp as "a life-threatening, murderous rampage" (DVD commentary). Filming on location was made possible because the residents of Chiawelo, Soweto, were being relocated to RDP (7) housing, leaving their shacks available for the Gauteng film department to give to the filmmakers. (8) Thus District 9 collapses time and subjectivity, as the aliens simultaneously stand in for the displaced township residents of past and present and for the people those same residents attack.
Blomkamp tells us in his director's commentary on the DVD that he wanted the aliens to have a drone society and that this for him is the point of departure from human society into science fiction; this is where the analogies end. However, it is not clear that once you have set up an alien/ immigrant/township resident triangulation, you can simply pull the plug on it. The fictional entomologist interviewed alleges that "[w]hat we have stranded on Earth in this colony, is basically the workers. Don't think for themselves, take commands, have no initiative." If the aliens have a hive mentality, then by extension so do their real human equivalents. (9) Indeed, this correlates to their depiction in the chaotic riot scenes, where both humans and aliens attack, sack, pillage, and burn. As in mass hysteria, the condition spreads. Earlier was hysteria about contagion; here is the contagion of hysteria.
What scares society about the aliens is precisely what it finds frightening in mass hysteria: subjects acting as one and being marked by a peculiar coordination or synchronicity. Wikus is not simply being taken over by a foreign body but his DNA is being rewritten, his nervous system rewired, and his neurology reprogramed to plug into the hive. In his commentary, Blomkamp, having not worked it out on film, ponders that "[o]f course the question is whether he actually redeemed himself or whether the architecture of his mind--the actual physical architecture--has begun to grown into this more insect, alien-like, fractal brain and he's actually just looking out for his own because that's what the hormones and the genetics are dictating or has he decided to do that?" Critics regularly read District 9 as a redemption narrative of the white man who needs to go through a truth-and-reconciliation-like process in order to be reconfigured: "In the end there is a sense of a redemptive process being sketched out: District 9 posits a fantasy of the complicit white man's path to redemption and the recovery of a certain humanity as being violent, invasive, traumatic, humiliating, uncomfortably intimate, and not without humour" (Jansen van Veuren 583). If this is about redemption, then a Freudian approach explains Wikus as suffering from a classic conversion disorder in which his alien form is the somatic manifestation of the intolerable guilt he feels as a functionary in an unequal society. If this is about neurology, then current theories of the neurobiology of mass hysteria explain him. The latest of these theories is that the mirror neuron system contributes to the pathogenesis of mass hysteria, playing a role in emotional contagion (Wilner 2). Since "transmission of mass hysteria symptoms typically occurs by visual and auditory means, both of which are processed by mirror neurons" (Wilner 2), Wikus is not the only one susceptible to contagion. As a visual and auditory medium, film--and sci-fi film in particular--ushers in a "hysterical viewer" (Fuchs 116), making everyone within the film watching Wikus's trek on the television news, the MNU video, and the documentary footage vulnerable, as well as the audience in the theatre screening District 9. This does not necessarily have to skew negative, though. Within the film, the citizens of Johannesburg are fearful and frantic about the possibility of contagion and contamination, but the Wikus who emerges at the end of the film is less working-class clown (a Van der Merwe) and more working-class hero (van de Merwe). (10) He has formed the perfect political alliance across the species boundary and is now a worker bee in the alien hive. No longer the traumatized victim of the working-class workplace, he has overcome hysteria as fear and embodies hysteria as potential solidarity, collaboration, and connection.
That said, negative hysteria was intentionally generated around the film's release, with a viral marketing campaign that played on epidemiological fears. As we have seen, poster placement always matters for this film (the "INFECTED?" poster next to the wanted signs, the abortion posters next to the "NOT WELCOME" sign), and the same is true for how the film was advertised. Promotional posters warning "Bus bench for humans only" or "Beware! Non-human secretions may corrode metal!" plastered bus stops and building sites from Vancouver to Los Angeles. According to Chris Lee of the Los Angeles Times, tens of thousands of people called the number or entered the URL displayed on the ads: "Sony's president of digital marketing, Dwight Caines, said: 'In two weeks, there have been 33, 000 phone calls. Two thousand five hundred people left voice messages about alien sightings. And 92% of those calls come from cellphones, indicating that people are opting in, on the spot, in the streets' " Critics and the international press also picked up on "hysteria" over negative depictions of the Nigerian characters in the movie ("Nigeria hysteria vs. 'District 9' "). (11)
"Opting in" to the hysteria around District 9 was thus a choice viewers could make prior to even seeing the film. Once in the cinema, they became further imbricated in the confusion of reality, fiction, and science fiction. The film splices together reportage, expert interviews, and raw video footage, none of which are genuine and yet which as in the case of "a dirty hand-held shot ... kind of [make] it feel a little bit more real" (Blomkamp). This technique has been praised for its contemporary texture and form (Helgesson), compared to the mockumentary (King), and critiqued for its inconsistency (Bunch). Sonny Bunch, in his Washington Times review, observes that, because of the limitations of the documentary style, "the convention is simply dropped: About midway through, 'District 9' cheats, jumping between a fake documentary and a purely narrative affair in order to fill the gaps in the audience's knowledge." He goes to explain the implications: "By sometimes dropping the documentary style, 'District 9' avoids the problem of ... films in which a character has to repeatedly explain why he's still filming something instead of running for his life. But at the same time, Mr. Blomkamp introduces a new problem: He reminds the audience that they are, in fact, watching a fictional narrative and not a documentary." It is actually impossible to make sense of the film by strictly tracking when we are in which mode--the storyline and point of view do not cohere. This kind of filmic split personality reminds us of Rousseau's "hysterical incoherence, wherein the body (be it individual or politic) becomes a dislocated pastiche of poorly seamed parts ... a paradigm of the monstrous" 11 (Kukla 68). The film's content matches its form; a plot centred in frantic activity and anxiety finding a home in an equally hysterical composition.
Discussing Robocop (1987), Cynthia J. Fuchs talks about "cyborg viewers" who experience a "loss of (self-) control ... through an impossible point of view camera. The film's energetic repetition of such hysteria through erratic 'robovision' shots ... suggests that viewers share Robocop's inflicted and suffered trauma" (116). This "hysterical insertion in the cinematic machine" (Fuchs 116) allows us to live vicariously--even viscerally--through the characters, an experience enhanced in the case of District 9 by its grounding in a real history and geography. Blomkamp talks about filming in Soweto and how it is "the most caustic, violent place you could possibly be, and then, after a while, if you shoot enough days there it becomes normal ... it almost becomes home after a while" (DVD commentary). Of course, it is actually home to many, and they are reported to be "placing their hopes in the alien movie" (York). As one resident interviewed by the Globe and Mail put it, " 'I'm happy that our situation will be shown all over the world. It needs to be exposed. Maybe it will help us. Maybe the government will do something' " (York). The article quotes her again: "There haven't been protests at Chiawelo this year, but Ms. Malatsi sympathizes with the violent demonstrations. 'That's the only language the government hears, ' she says. 'People all over the country are struggling. These are people who live in conditions like ours' " (York). Instead of the heightened emotional state of a protesting crowd, we have what Andrew Marr of The Times of London calls a "hysteria film."
However, if District 9's audience gets to opt in to its hysterical discombobulations, it also gets to opt out. On the one hand, the film lends its viewers access to affect (perhaps suffering, perhaps laughter, perhaps both) about a rapidly changing, often unrecognizable social order. On the other, the film does not require them to make sense of those contradictory emotions, partly because of it nonsensical structure and partly because of our multiple identifications--first laughing at Wikus the bureaucratic buffoon but later feeling for and with him. The cinematic fiction grants viewers permission to experience the inchoate, the fractured, the hysterical of ourselves and our society, but the relief of exiting the theater tempers this. Since our onscreen identifications are always only temporary, our ability as spectators to exit District 9 (the place) or District 9 (the screening) becomes political. Unlike the actual residents of Soweto, we can be mere tourists in this reality. Sony's website for District 9 (an integral part of its viral marketing campaign) had a feature that let you literally insert yourself into the cinematic machine as a tourist by uploading and pasting your picture into an image from the movie and then sending it as a postcard. (12) The movie ends with the viewer knowing precisely where and what Wikus is: stranded in District 9, he is now the opposite of the tourist who can come and go at will. Despite being alien, he is wholly local. The privatized government and its attendant media and other lackeys, however, have lost track of him: "This is the last known footage of Wikus van de Merwe. And we can only speculate as to what has happened to him. The more zany conspiracy theories state that he's been captured by MNU or by another government. Or by perhaps some shady government agency and is actually being held in captivity"
This language of speculation reminds us of the speculative nature of science fiction in general and postcolonial sci-fi in particular, something Ashley Dawson experiments with in his "Extract from a Report on the Origins of the Present Crisis" Published in the Women's Studies Quarterly journal, Dawson's piece plays with theory as speculative fiction, imagining it is the year 2072 and Sister Indomita of the Order for the Preservation of Lost Knowledge is submitting a report on the "present crisis" As part of that report she includes a set of documents purportedly dating from 2010 that discuss the potential of films including District 9, Avatar (2009), and Children of Men (2006) to cause disruption: "The Office of the Undersecretary for Defense for Intelligence has followed growing public awareness of climate change with mounting concern. We cannot allow such films to trigger social unrest" (332-33). The Director, Secretary of the Air Force, Office of Public Affairs--Entertainment Liaison (based on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles) writes back,
the Undersecretary of Defense is correct that films like Children of Men and Avatar are mounting spectacular adventure narratives around scenarios related to climate change. We must insist, however, that such films offer no cause for concern. We have served in an advisory capacity on many of these films--which we like to call survival epics. Although survival epics admittedly do mobilize the issue of environmental and social collapse, they do so in a manner that is ultimately palliative. (335)
Ultimately, the exchange concludes that
[t]he remarkable resemblance between District 9 and Avatar suggests more than simply the striking transcontinental continuity of the white imperial imaginary; this similarity also underlines the enduring colonization of the anti-imperial imaginary. We could therefore reiterate our initial point that films such as Avatar and Children of Men are unlikely to catalyze the kind of broad-based climate justice coalition that might constitute a significant threat to internal security. (337)
Sister Indomita is ambiguous about whether or not the "present crisis" is environmental or perhaps anarchical, but all these crises (conspiracy theories, environmental and social collapse, states of emergency) involve hysterical speculation about what the future might hold. (13)
Andrew Marr speculates about how films like this will be read in the future: "But I do think the historians of a century ahead, writing about our times, will use the films in our cinemas right now to discuss the decline of the West. They will talk about a radical lack of self-confidence in the project of enlightenment-science-plus-corporate capitalism, a spectacular loss of nerve" (2). Marr considers District 9 a Western production, which tallies with what Blomkamp says about his desire to make a movie "like bad Star Wars ... like Star Wars in Africa" Blomkamp's best intentions about making local sci-fi are belied by his commentary on "the genesis of it ... science fiction ... Western science fiction placed in Southern Africa and specifically in Johannesburg" (DVD commentary). We await a truly South African sci-fi, however, one that captures all the hysteria around the nation's emergence into a new modernity. The politics of this might be regressive if they make us mere hysteria tourists, entering and exiting the theater of hysteria (shades of Charcot's patients on display) at will, but they could also be redemptive if they engender a sense of shared experience, of transitioning together, en masse. Speculation that hysteria might be an apt diagnosis for a transitioning South Africa, or that hysterical sci-fi is the right genre to capture that syndrome, is patently risky business. Employing hysteria as an explanatory category at all risks essentialisms that echo those of the past like the idea that conversion hysterias occur only in psychoanalytically unsophisticated areas such as East Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, or Nigeria, as Harold Mersky argued in The Analysis of Hysteria (1978) (Showalter 4), or the age-old labeling of hysteria as a women's condition. (14) The joke is on us if we buy into any essential correlations between hysteria and anything else, but it is also on us if we subscribe to the idea that any genre is geographically singular (the novel as Western form, anyone?). We get the last laugh if we can harness hysteria and science fiction, which go hand in hand, for their potential energy, for their politics of transition, and for their frenetic fictiveness.
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Conway-Smith, Erin. " 'District 9' spotlight's [sic] South Africa's housing crisis, showing shacks where many blacks still live 15 years after apartheid." MinnPost. 18 September 2009. Web. 23 June 2014.
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Fuchs, Cynthia J. " 'Death Is Irrelevant': Cyborgs, Reproduction, and the Future of Male Hysteria" Genders 18 (Winter 1993): 113-33.
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John Jay College of Criminal Justice The City University of New York
(1) This is Nadine Gordimer's term. See "Living in the Interregnum."
(2) See Nick Wood's history of South African sci-fi in The World sF Blog.
(3) President Thabo Mbeki (1999 to 2008) famously--and tragically--denied the HIV-AIDS connection, resulting in a preventable 300, 000 deaths (Boseley).
(4) It is worth noting a railway connection in the film. In an early montage of news clips about township residents rioting to get rid of aliens and expert testimony about them, we are told that, "What for an alien might be seen as something recreational ... setting fire to a truck, derailing a train ... is for us, obviously, an extremely destructive act." In this anthropology, alien behaviour is felt as human trauma.
(5) John Marx, in "Alien Rule, " uses Giorgio Agamben to analyze the space of the camp in District 9.
(6) Plenty more can--and has--been said along these lines. As with all the relocations and forced removals under apartheid, only a thin veneer of the law covers these eviction practices. Helgesson points out that the scene where an alien strikes the clipboard and Wikus counts it as a legal signature is "nothing less than a cinematic citation of Henry Nxumalo's legendary 1952 Drum article on working conditions at Bethal: illiterate workers ... were told to hold a pen in their hand, which counted as a signature of a slave contract" (173).
(7) The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) aims to enable social, economic, and political restitution for apartheid's inequities but has been plagued by corruption and glacial change.
(8) A number of newspaper articles focused on this aspect of the filming around the time the movie came out (see Smith, Conway-Smith, and Woerner). Together, they offer a slightly different take on the situation than Blomkamp implies. In Blomkamp's version of events, the township has an almost Conradian emptiness to it, available for the taking: "So the area we filmed the movie in, what plays as District 9, every single resident in that area was being removed to be put into RDP housing. Although not all of them had been given the green light on the RDP housing, most of them had, but all of them were going to be moved, whether they liked it or not. So we ended up with this open piece of land with all these shacks on it ... each day we came to set, there were fewer and fewer people" (Blomkamp quoted in Woerner). Whereas the other articles emphasize the fact that many inhabitants not only still lived in Chiawelo but were in immediate proximity to the filming: "For Solomon Baloyi, acting as an extra in the sci-fi film "District 9" wasn't much of a stretch. Baloyi played a security guard tasked with evicting aliens from their squalid shacks. In real life, he lives in that neighborhood. In fact, one of the helicopter scenes was shot in the clearing next to his makeshift house, in between the mounds of trash, scrub and tin shacks that make up the Chiawelo area of Soweto" (Conway-Smith).
(9) This analogy, which makes immigrants into alien drones or worker bees, also comments on the source of South African xenophobia, the fear that immigrants from neighbouring countries will compete for already scarce jobs.
(10) The spelling of his name is off just enough to both reference the cultural stereotype and reject it.
(11) For more on the racist caricatures of Nigerians in the film, see Graham and Quayson.
(12) The film crew, acting like all tourists, sought an "incredible feeling of authenticity" (DVD commentary) which, ironically, they achieved by altering the very landscape in which they were filming. In an interview with Mehret Tesfaye, Blomkamp relates how, because they filmed in winter and did pickups in summer, they had to kill vegetation in the area to make footage match.
(13) This sounds like Elaine Showalter's list of modern hysterical epidemics in Hystories: alien abduction, chronic fatigue syndrome, satanic ritual abuse, recovered memory, Gulf War syndrome, and multiple personality disorder.
(14) "Throughout most of its medical history, hysteria has been associated with women. Its name comes from hystera, the Greek word for uterus. Classical healers described a female disorder characterized by convulsive attacks, random pains, and sensations of choking. They believed the uterus traveled hungrily around the body, unfettered--Monday in the foot, Tuesday in the throat, Wednesday in the breast, and so on--producing a myriad of symptoms in its wake" (Showalter 15).
Helen Kapstein is a tenured postcolonial scholar in the English Department at John Jay College, CUNY. She earned her doctorate in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Her areas of interest include South African literature and culture, cultural and media studies, and tourism and museum studies. Her current projects include A New Kind of Safari, on islands, tourism, and nation-building, and research on Nigerian short stories as saboteurs of the petroleum industry's agenda. This essay is one in a series of articles on hysteria as a mode of transitional resistance. Her work has appeared in Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies, Studies in the Humanities, and elsewhere.
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2014|
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