Written by Alexander Greco
September 17, 2020
Where you been hiding lately?
Where you been hiding from the news?
Because we’ve been fighting lately,
We’ve been fighting with the wolves.Ben Howard
Now, I will pivot into the second half of the analysis, the inversion of Thing as Metaphoric Object.
Analysis Part 2: Thing as Phenomenological Object
While the first half of the analysis is fun and interesting, and possesses moral/ethical/political considerations that are worth discussing (and will be discussed), this second half of the analysis is far more interesting to me.
For this, we will be examining what the Thing is to the humans.
For this, we will be examining the Thing from the perspective of humans as a metaphoric, narrative object, meaning: what is the Thing from a symbolic and psychological perspective?
But, if this is more important and more meaningful to me, why begin with the other analysis?
Because, while we are now looking at the Thing as an object, the nature of it as an object must be understood as an object capable of subjectivity.
When the humans are perceiving the Thing, they are not looking at an inanimate object, they are looking at a conscious and rational object.
However, the Thing and the contents of its subjective experience is a “black box”, a programming term that here means the contents of the Thing’s consciousness and cognition cannot be known.
In programming, a “black box” is a piece of code that has a function—there are inputs, which are then processed by whatever code exists in the black box, and then there are outputs produced by the code—but the function of the “black box” is completely unknown. The contents of the unknown programming can be guessed by looking at the inputs and the resulting outputs, but the code within nonetheless remains a mystery.
The fact that the Thing does have a consciousness and is capable of rational thought is known. There are measurable inputs and measurable outputs, the inputs being reality and events, the outputs being the actions the Thing takes. However, the humans do not know what the consciousness and rational thoughts of the alien are—they cannot examine the “code” inside the Thing’s “black box”.
So, when the humans perceive the Thing (possibly the most apt name here), they perceive an organism they cannot fully understand, with a psychological/cognitive/subjective black box that they cannot examine.
All humans are actually like this to all other humans.
No two humans can actually know what is happening inside the other human’s mind—not fully, at least.
The minds of all humans are like “black boxes” to all other humans.
Here, I can recall the fictional (though, unfortunately, not completely unmoored from reality) anecdote of the lesbian in a Muslim society.
She might be the only person on the planet who knows she is a lesbian. She might not have shared with any other human the fact that she secretly has a sexual and romantic attraction to other women. This, being a function of her mind, experience, psyche, etc., remains a content of the “black box” of her psyche.
This “black box”, however, extends beyond just our thoughts, our motivations, our sexual preferences, our beliefs and so forth, and extends to things like our memories—which then extends epistemologically to our actions, our experiences, our decisions and so forth. Not only can we hide from others what we think, feel or believe, but we can also hide from others our actions, our patterns of actions (actions taken as part of an agenda) and the things we have experienced in our lives.
Now, one of the great peculiarities of humanity is our ability to communicate the contents of this “black box” to others. We can tell other people: This is what I think; this is how I feel; this is what I have done; this is what I have gone through in my life; etc.
And here, we find the interwoven segments of a functioning, healthy society (or, on the micro-level, functioning, healthy relationships): communication, honesty and trust.
Humans have the ability to communicate what resides within our “black boxes”, so long as we trust what the other person is communicating.
By knowing what these contents are—so long as we also know these contents do not indicate a hostility towards us—the people we know can be perceived as something we understand.
That may be one of the most important functions of language and society: providing every individual with a socio-linguistic structure that allows us to understand to a high enough resolution who everyone else within a society is.
You don’t have to know someone’s name, you don’t have to know their address, you don’t have to know their job, but we are able to safely and comfortably walk into a Starbucks without immediately backing into a corner at the sight of a dozen hairless primates because society has provided us with enough information to know (or believe) that none of the people are actively or passively hostile towards you.
However, what happens at the point at which someone doesn’t make any sense? Let’s examine this.
If we have a socio-linguistically mediated epistemological structure which provides us with the information about others, and this information ensures as that particular individuals will not be hostile, what happens when this epistemological structure is violated?
What happens if you go into a Starbucks, and someone pulls out a gun?
What happens, I think, is much deeper than most might suppose.
On a rational, material level, very little has actually changed. The only change in the material environment around us is that a small, mechanical object has been introduced to the physical contents of Starbucks.
However, from a deeper cognitive and psychological level, the change is nearly infinitely drastic.
You are no longer standing in a Starbucks waiting for your coffee to be made. This idea, this perception of reality, is not the material reality, it is a cognitive, phenomenological reality. The idea of Starbucks, the idea of what you are doing in Starbucks, the idea of what others are doing in Starbucks, and the idea of how these things are situated within our understanding of reality are all socio-linguistically mediated knowledge-structures we base our decisions on.
Suddenly, by the introduction of a gun into the environment, these socio-linguistic knowledge-structures have disintegrated. The reality of standing in a Starbucks waiting for your coffee no longer exists—that reality is gone—and a new reality of being in a place where a stranger has a gun has taken its place.
In addition, the person who was also waiting at Starbucks for a cup of coffee also vanishes, and they become an entirely different person. They may not even be a person anymore—at least as far as your psyche is concerned. The benign stranger at Starbucks (another mediated knowledge-structure) has suddenly vanished, and is replaced with an object whose intentions, motivations, knowledge and experiences you suddenly don’t understand.
That person transforms into some other thing that is no longer a person as you understood them to be.
That person, on a psychological or phenomenological level, literally transforms their being from a defined, articulated, mutually understood citizen of a country into a living, thinking, acting black box.
And here, now, I hope you can begin to see how this connects back to The Thing.
At the moment at which one of the dogs or humans is transforming into its alien form, what precisely is happening from the perspective of one of the non-aliens?
What subjectively and psychologically is happening?
We’ll take the scene at which Palmer is revealed to be one of the Things.
The poke his blood with the hot metal, and the blood reacts as a living organism.
Suddenly, we now know Palmer is a Thing, and at this precise moment, Palmer “physically” begins to transform.
He begins convulsing unnaturally; his eyes bleed and bulge; his head grotesquely deforms; his entire body transforms into a pseudo-human horror; his head splits open into a giant, monstrous mouth and attacks Windows; and MacReady finally burns the creature alive then kills it with dynamite as it tries to escape outside.
What is happening is Palmer begins with a defined, articulated, orderly form. What Palmer is—Palmer’s being as a perceived object—is understood. Then, at the moment Palmer is revealed to be a Thing, Palmer transforms into something that is not understood.
What is happening when the humans or dogs are turning into the chaotic monstrosities we refer to as “the Thing”? All of our fundamental and assumed knowledge about their being suddenly vanishes. They transform from something that has a rigid, defined form and a concrete definition-of, into something that cannot be easily described, except as something grotesque, volatile and chaotic.
Now, viewing this as a phenomenological event (rather than an actual, physical event), it is not that the people and animals are physically turning into these chaotic alien-creatures, it is that we are witnessing the psychological transformation of these beings from the perspective of the human-observers. The moment a dog or human transforms into a “Thing” is the moment where a defined, ordered, articulated being transforms into something that we cannot understand.
The perceived physical transformation is therefore actually a projected psychological transformation of the other being.
So here, if we view the entire film in this light, with the transformations as symbolic, phenomenological transformations, what is happening is quite peculiar.
What if, instead of viewing the movie as a sci-fi horror film where they’re being attacked by these assimilating aliens, we view this as a movie where everyone is subjected to a mass hysteria where they begin to “hallucinate” that their fellow outpost members are turning into monsters?
What if the members of the outpost are going insane, and begin projecting these monstrous psychological transformations onto each other?
Throughout the beginning of the movie, we see many of the characters at odds with each other, just over mundane things. With the introduction of the Thing into their midst, they suddenly become paranoid, suspicious of one another, and delusional. They perform purity tests on one another (like the blood tests), and enact a sort of martial law where the typical legalities and civilities are out the window.
How much of this is caused by the actual introduction of the Thing into their population, and how much of this is caused by a mass hysteria?
To bring this back to our prior quasi-fictional anecdotes:
At the moment the lesbian woman reveals herself to be a lesbian in the fundamentalist Muslim-dominated society, she is no longer an accepted, understood human within that society; she transforms into a being that must be ritually annihilated.
At the moment the benign coffee-drinker at Starbucks pulls a gun out from their pocket, they are no longer a benign stranger in a socially mediated/understood setting; they have transformed into a chaotic, undefined being who is armed with a mechanism that can quickly and effectively end lives.
To bring this back to our prior analysis of Thing-as-Subject, we (“we” as all of us as individuals) are at all times both Thing-as-Subject and Subject-Observing-OtherThing-as-Object.
And now, to wrap this analysis up, we will examine what this perpetual duality means.
Conclusion: Bring the Pieces Back Together
There are two obvious but conflicting moral or ethical statements to the analysis:
Communication between two beings—and so an understanding between two beings—must be established in order for there to be peaceful co-existence.
That which cannot be communicated with or understood may have to be annihilated if it cannot otherwise be survived.
While with the 1982 The Thing, the ethical question of communication and survival may remain ambiguous, in the original 1951 version of the film, The Thing From Another World, this ethical question is actually confronted, but is answered in a much less ambiguous way.
One of the characters attempts to communicate with the alien, but is killed for his efforts, and the remaining characters then annihilated the alien in order to survive it.
While I can applaud the original film for confronting this question more outrightly (itself adapted from the 1938 novella, Who Goes There? (of which I know little about)), and perhaps the 1982 The Thing ought to have brought this ethical issue more to the surface, the 1982 film nonetheless captures the true, phenomenological or subjective reality of this moral issue more accurately (though opaquely).
The problem is we never can know what to do.
The problem is not that we should create a society where there are no Starbucks shooters, or a society where we don’t murder lesbians in the streets (though both are admirable goals).
The problem is that it is impossible to create a society that does not possess analogues to these anecdotal societies.
The true “point” to the 1982 The Thing is not a moral answer to this combined problem of every individual being at once a Subject-Who-Perceives and Object-Being-Perceived.
The true point here is a pragmatic and amoral one, and the point is this:
We cannot know what is truly going on in the minds of anyone else. We cannot truly know what is happening in others’ minds, what they are motivated by and what actions they may take for or against us. We cannot truly know who (and, so, what) another person is.
And, so, psychologically, people we cannot understand transform into grotesque monsters before our eyes, even if physically they are exactly the same.
What The Thing proposes to us is not a moral proposition, but an amoral Truth about the reality of subjective experience and the phenomenology of human relationships.
All humans—all organisms and, more broadly, all objects with a personal subjectivity—are simultaneously:
- Subject Perceiving Other-Object
- Object Perceived by Other-Subject
Now, this is more applicable in situations where the aforementioned social-structures have been violated, but the problem here, as I tried to illuminate, is in part that we can never know when these violations will be made, or what the nature of this violation is.
So, I said previously these were not intended to be made into political/moral value statements, but, fuck you, I’m a lying black-box-bastard, live with it.
What is the most pressing moral/ethical/political and even epistemological (knowledge-based) issue today in America? (And, likely, throughout the world right now)
Our ability to communicate with one another has all but been corrupted to an impossibly unreconcilable state.
Our politics (in America, and, from what I know, in many places across Western society) has become so polarized that to say you support Trump is to self-declare yourself as a Fascist, and to say you support Biden is to self-declare yourself as an Anarchist.
Of course, except in the marginally extreme, neither of these cases are true. 99% of Trump-supporters are not Fascists, and 98% of Biden-supporters are not Anarchists (I’m kidding, fellow-Liberals, I really mean 97%).
However, those 99% who’ve fallen into the “Trump Camp” cannot convince those in the “Biden Camp” that they are not Fascist Bigots intent on inciting the Fourth Reich; and those 95% (I kid) who’ve fallen into the “Biden Camp” cannot convince those in the “Trump Camp” that they are not psychotic Anarchists seeking a Communist Revolution.
So, what has happened?
Both sides of our political divide have decided they can no longer convince the other side that they are not vicious monsters, so they’ve taken to treating the other side as vicious monsters.
What has happened to both sides of our current political “war”?
The Right and the Left currently perceive themselves as the humans, and they perceive the others as the “Things”.
We have a strange and potentially catastrophic situation right now where both the Right and the Left are simultaneously Subject-Perceiving-Object-as-Thing and Object-as-Thing-Perceived-by-Subject.
So, what do we do?
Obviously, we must come to understand that the shooter at Starbucks may actually be a Muslim Lesbian. I mean this jokingly, and I mean this seriously.
Imagine the moment you realize someone you know supports the candidate you currently oppose. How quickly does that person transform into something grotesque and horrific?
If you support Trump and you discover someone you know supports Biden, how immediate is the effect on you? How immediately do you either go quiet and politely smile and nod before walking away, or attack them on the spot, engulfing them in the fiery Truth of your words?
How immediately do you, a Biden-supporter, see your friends transform into a Fascistic Existential threat to equality and compassion the moment you see them don a MAGA hat?
At this moment, you may even be wondering whose side I am on, so you can know whether or not to condemn my words as profanity or praise them as sacred wisdom. “He poked fun at Liberals, but then he called himself a Liberal, but then ambiguously quasi-supported/quasi-criticized both sides, so what the hell is he?” Fuck you, that’s what side I am on.
The ending of this upcoming election may precisely reflect the ending of The Thing. The architecture we live in that protect us and trap us with the Thing—the structures of society/the outpost of Antartica—are destroyed in fire. We are left in the wreckage, only remaining alive by the dying light of burning buildings. And we face each other as the last survivors of a great cataclysm, wondering if the Thing across from us is a friend or foe.
We must communicate with each other.
We must learn to trust each other again, whether or not we agree on the other’s opinions.
We must learn to understand each other again, to open up our own black boxes, despite the ensuing vulnerability, so that others may open up their own black boxes.
And while we may find that our friends turn into Things and Things turn into friends, maybe, just maybe, if we can stop, think and speak to each other, we’ll come out of this alive.