2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, summer 2016
On the matter of blackness in Under the Skin
Blackness operates semantically, metaphorically, and theoretically across a number of registers:
In Jonathan Glaser’s 2014 film Under the Skin, blackness appears as a special visual effect, outside the photo-cinematic real. At moments in this film, images of what might be described as “total blackness” appear as both abstraction and figuration, so that “blackness” might mean promiscuously and differently in its distinct iterations: as the unknowable and as the alien/non-human, respectively—though at a couple moments the figure and ground become almost indecipherable. Blackness itself comes to seem unreal in this film.
This film has primarily been understood to pose an inquiry into what it means to be human from the speculative point of view of an alien (played by Scarlett Johansson), and it thus presents an ontological dilemma, one explored through formalist cinematic techniques. As Frantz Fanon has influentially asserted, ontology (at least in the classic sense of continental philosophy) “does not permit us to understand the being of the black man” in part because of the ways the black man, subject to histories of slavery and colonialism (and subsequent legacies of incarceration and violence), has not been historically recognized as human by the white man. Thus, as Fred Moten suggests, building from Fanon, black life “demands a para-ontological disruption.” Under the Skin seems so challenging and intriguing a film precisely because it ruptures our conceptions of both personhood and familiar modes of cinematic subjectivity. The film also raises certain questions: If the film itself undertakes an alien perspective, would race still appear as an intelligible and defining framework of human difference within its logics? Is it even possible to conceive and create a film outside of an human perspective and, by extension, outside of a racializing worldview? Of course, the titular word Skin only serves to reinforce the epidermal readings of chromatic motifs in the film.
In his astute recent book Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction, André M. Carrington seeks to move beyond “long-standing tendencies to invoke race in metaphorical terms.”[5b] Carrington calls for us to recognize the overrepresentation of whiteness of science fiction—both its creators and the bodies of its characters—and the ways that such pervasive whiteness normalizes whiteness in ways that repeatedly render black people as minorities and that reproduce alienation, even for black fans. In contrast to science fiction, Carrington advances speculative fiction as a productive set of sites for black bodies and blackness—particularly through such frameworks as Afrofuturism, surrealism, Otherhood, and haunting. Indeed, both the normalizing whiteness of science fiction and the provocative reimagining of speculative blackness appear to converge uncomfortably and perhaps incoherently in Under the Skin. The central character’s whiteness is what allows her to pass as normatively human in the narrative; with the film’s denouement, her blackness serves as a confounding rupture and effectively destabilizes what little about the film seemed familiar up until that point. Blackness in this film counters our taken-for-granted assumptions about the world and about the human.
Specifically, and despite Carrington's intervention, it’s the visual metaphors of blackness that I want to think through here as they appear in the film. Under the Skin tests these limits, and my initial attraction to the film was that I had simply never seen anything like it. In other words, I was fascinated by its play with and refusal of conventions of cinematic narrative and representations, rather than its generic status as a science fiction art film. In spring 2014, when I was teaching my program’s core visual studies graduate seminar, a number of my students from different departments and disciplines were interested in thinking through “blackness” via different frameworks—from racial and epidermal blackness to afro-pessimism and anti-blackness to the opacity and illicitness of black boxes, black ops, and black markets. The students challenged me to think through this concept more capaciously. [5c] I first saw Under the Skin during the same term, and my mind kept going to the film in our various discussions. On the one hand, I was interested in pushing myself to read a dynamic and continuing body of scholarship in critical race theory (particularly beyond queer of color critique scholarship, with which I was more familiar).
But I was also concerned: in my associative thinking about Under the Skin, was I being overly literal? Was I projecting metaphor onto a literal blackness? I have also wrestled with the potentially problematic premise of looking to a film by a white Scottish director featuring a white American star to explore “blackness,” and I am mindful of the dangers of appropriating radical black thought to reaffirm whiteness. This is decidedly not my objective. Although this film might not be “about race,” it also cannot not be about race. By thinking about this film through the lens of blackness, I have had to recognize and grapple with the fact that—perhaps not unlike its alien character that never fully comprehends human subjectivity—as a racially white person, I can read critical race theory and can try to live an ethics informed by it, but I can never actually know the experience of black personhood in an anti-black culture. I do not intend depoliticize theories of blackness but rather to use this film to see “blackness” at the core of any rigorous thinking-through of the human.
To be precise, we must also remember that this is a British text, and that “black” does not necessarily mean African American or the history of chattel slavery to the degree that it does in the United States. Rather, in the U.K., “black” has operated as the other of “British”—as the term for the “foreigner” or “alien” (emphasis added) that doesn’t differentiate precise ethnicities. Or, as Stuart Hall has explained,
“the term ‘black’ was coined as a way of referencing the common experience of racism and marginalization in Britain and came to provide an organizing category of a new politics of resistance, among groups and communities with, in fact, very different histories, traditions, and ethnic identities.”
In this conception, blackness speaks of the common experience of alienation within society: it becomes a strategic political metaphor for self-definition and communal identity. It asserts humanness through difference. In U.S. critical race studies, blackness has been theorized to connote social and political death, though the recent political slogan “Black Lives Matter” has reclaimed the vitality and significance of African American existence and called renewed attention to the specificity of anti-black violence and persecution.
I recognize a potential contradiction in my thinking—one that exists in the film—between metaphoric and literal figurations of blackness. Ultimately, the blackness of Under the Skin is an alien blackness; it indicates that which is not-quite human and that which we cannot fathom. Through its inscrutable alien narration and promiscuous metaphors, the film enacts a project of making-strange the human.
The novel from which the film was adapted is easily legible as a narrative of colonialism in which aliens inhabit the U.K. in order to exploit its natural resources: human flesh. That this colonial narrative reverses a history of British colonialism makes this science fiction book all the more compelling in its speculative future. The novel is narrated from a flatly omniscient perspective, and although the alien’s (named Isserley) routine does not initially make sense, everything is eventually explained to the reader. The source novel reflects its genre: the novel is a literary form understood to express human interiority and psychological realism.
The film jettisons nearly all of the source novel’s plot details, motivation, interiority, allegorical content, and even the characters’ names. The film never offers explanation or accrued clarity for the alien’s actions and motivations, only opacity upon which we might make projections or guesses. We never know where the plot is going, and we never really understand the alien’s logic. Counter to conventional narrative cinema, this film operates through a formalist logic of disorientation: The narrative frustrates rather than offers intelligibility or character motivation. The minimal dialogue in the film is small talk, most of which is unintelligibly muffled or spoken through a thick Scottish accent. Human communication seems essentially irrelevant to the alien and does little to offer exposition or give access to character interiority.
Formally, the film presents stark distinctions between cinema verité-style shots of the human world that appear grounded in familiar realist codes and interior shots of the alien’s more subjective interior environments that seem to defy representational space. The transitions between these modes of mise-en-scene create a jarring cognitive dissonance that may resemble the alien’s own disorientation. It does this, seemingly, in service of a film pondering what it means to be human. But it also works to structurally frustrate identification with the film’s protagonist, repeatedly keeping her a seeming other, even when we are positioned to see her stare back in the mirror. 
Although the novel makes the claim that we are “all the same under the skin,” the film would seem to offer a counter claim. The film, in excising backstory, motivation, and exposition, effectively replaces the narrative of colonialism with a visual trope of blackness. To put it more pointedly: the blackness that so vividly marks the screen is entirely an invention for this film rather than an element that has been adapted. This formal choice becomes all the more stark when we recognize its contrast to the film’s spaces of whiteness: visually, in an early scene, the film places the process of taking on the accouterments of humanness in abstracted white spaces, whereas dehumanization is coded through blackness.
To a take a verbal rather than visual chromatic metaphor, the Johansson alien and her male motorcycle-driving manager enact a series of “black ops” to entrap and eviscerate straight white men. Early in the film, the Johansson alien strips an unconscious white human woman to steal clothes and dress herself. This sequence takes place within an abstract white space, a backlit environment that renders the image more difficult to see. The alien body appears in near silhouette, and her predatory strangeness is signaled by her fascination with an ant; the alien appears to feel more recognition with the insect than with the violated woman laid out on the floor.
More curiously, we repeatedly experience the character’s deliberate yet inscrutable routine of seduction. After driving around and chatting single men up on the streets of Glasgow, the Johansson character lures men into an interior space that seems to defy our familiar comprehension of physical space or domestic environments. As J.D. Connor observes, the van is white—one that passed unmarked in the streets of Glasgow because such vehicles are ubiquitous for small businesses and tradespeople. Thus, the white van became a tool both in the alien character’s passing as human within the diegesis and in Johansson’s passing as a non-star during the film’s production.
[open notes in new window]
The first of these sequences begins by following the logics of continuity editing and, in particular, point-of-view shots, which replicate standard modes of objectifying women and position the viewer to identify with the man entering her inner sanctum. But this construction is itself a lure for the spectator—as well, arguably, as a reversal of the gender norms in which women’s bodies are more exposed than men’s.
As the man walks forward, he is submerged into blackness. He and subsequent men do not seem to recognize what is happening to them. Johansson keeps walking until he has been fully enveloped, then blankly turns, walks forward, and redresses.
When the film cuts from subjective following shots to objective wide shots, we become disoriented. The scene itself departs from the knowable world or plausible diegesis, instead presenting a black space of total abstraction where the only grounding orientation is itself disorienting. The floor acts as a mirror, and the blackness reflects Johansson’s white body and the discarded clothes, thus making the image doubly visible. Mica Levi’s score features slowly pulsating percussion with occasionally frenetic violins or bass groans; such unconventional, spare, and non-melodic music creates an effect of suspense, indicating that we cannot know what will happen. The sequence shifts from the almost-conventional to the nonsensical. Complicating matters, we have also already seen glimpses that the house is a real space.
The second seduction scene begins already inside the alien’s domicile. Rather than a structure of following and traveling point of view shots, as in the first seduction, this scene presents a relation of sustained eye contact: a structure of recognition and mutuality that ultimately betrays the unsuspecting man. This time, however, the alien becomes completely inverted to our eyes as we go under the surface of the blackness, continuing our identification with the human victim rather than with the alien seductress. This is key: here we are positioned to identify with the white human male, rather than the unknowable, untouchable alien. We are alienated from any understanding or contact with her.
This black miasma makes sense to her. It is an inscrutable to us. We can’t know it except as a metaphor—or know even if it is a metaphor. What kind of metaphor could this be? What is this black stuff? Can we even make sense of its viscosity? At first it seems firm, like glass. Then it seems like tar, clinging to the men and drawing them down—though without the residue of stickiness. Seen from underneath, it seems like water. From above, it is opaque. From below, it is translucent, like a tinted window. It is inky yet leaves no stain. It is a blackness that at first absorbs (the human) and then glossily reflects (the alien). The fluidity of this black substance suggests that it is an unstable metaphor. Beyond human comprehension, it’s a metaphor that only makes sense to the alien, who does not seem to notice its oddity. To reference yet another metaphor of blackness, this is like a black hole that absorbs all interpretations and meanings that we might project onto it. It is the unknowable, yet unlike the rationality of the geometric plinth in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Such sequences in this film play with traditional relations of figure and ground, in that the figure appears suspended without a grounding. The site of color-coded metaphors eventually appears to shift from these non-spaces of pure whiteness or pure blackness toward figuration itself. In the third seduction scene, we momentarily see the alien’s sub-dermal body as a barely visible black figure walking within the abstract black space but do not yet have an explanatory framework to recognize it. We can only question: What are we seeing here? Are we seeing her how her victims see her? Seeing her for what she really is? How she sees herself? When we repeatedly see her looking in mirrors, she appears to be mesmerized by her own unfamiliar figure. Does she experience the face looking back as a metaphor, rather than as her/a self?
In Alien Phenomenology, videogame scholar Ian Bogost offers a study of Object-Oriented Ontology, which seeks to displace the human as the center of philosophical and theoretical inquiry. I find provocative Bogosts’s claim that when objects that are alien to each other encounter each other, they can only make sense of each other through metaphor (Bogost 66-67). Bogost essentially defines the alien as difference itself and suggests our fundamental inability to understand difference. He writes,
“When we ask what it means to be something, we pose a question that exceeds our own grasp of being in the world.” (30)
“It’s not just that the communications technologies of the alien escape our comprehension, but that their very idea of ‘life’ might not correspond with ours. … But the alien is not limited to another person, or even another creature. The alien is anything—and everything—to everything else.” (34)
Building from Graham Harman, Bogost continues,
“If we take seriously Harman’s suggestion that relation takes place not just like metaphor but as metaphor, then an opportunity suggests itself: what if we deployed metaphor itself as a way to grasp alien objects’ perceptions of one another.” (67)
Blackness in Under the Skin could be understood through Bogost’s terms as pure difference, pure metaphor. But what happens when we make metaphors out of politically charged hues, even if abstracted? Or understand human bodies as alien? Do these point to the limits of our conception of the human? Blackness has many potential metaphors, but are there limits to what can be metaphorized? Do histories of subjection at some point demand figural representation rather than abstraction?
We might offer the critique that the turn toward post-humanism and toward object-oriented ontology moves away from the human just as the humanities has come to recognize the existence of women, people of color, queers, the global South, and the intersections thereof. And certainly we have seen that the work of recognizing some human lives has yet to be done or continues to be fought on broad structural levels.
On the flip side of post-human discourses, the theories of biopolitics, bare life, and necropolitics have foregrounded a theory of the human and of life. Yet, cultural theorist Alexander Weheliye critiques theories of biopolitics and bare life for not accounting for the ways in which racialization figures in and structures definitions of the human:
“Bare life and biopolitics discourse not only misconstrues how profoundly race and racism shape the modern idea of the human, it also overlooks or perfunctorily writes off theorizations of race, subjection, and humanity found in black and ethnic studies, allowing bare life and biopolitics discourse to imagine an indivisible biological substance anterior to racialization. The idea of racialized assemblages, in contrast, construes race not as biological or cultural classification but as a set of sociopolitical processes that discipline humanity into full humans, not-quite-humans, and non-humans.” (4)
Part of what may be unsettling about Under the Skin is that it reduces straight white male bodies to meat.
At a key transitional moment in the film’s arc, after the alien has made her first empathic action by releasing a man and deviating from her routine, she becomes formally almost totally obscured in a milky fog. As she transitions to attempting a human life, her image is almost totally subsumed into whiteness. Just as the early groundless space of whiteness renders bodies under-illuminated, this cloud obfuscates. Whiteness, in this film, blinds or masks.
Following this transition, when the alien attempts to experience a human life, she becomes involved a domesticated heterosexual romance, which begs the question: is humanity understood as necessarily heterosexual in this film? And is humanity always subject to gendered and sexualized violence? In the film’s final act, the narrative presents a reversal in which the alien, who had been a predator, becomes the preyed upon. We might read this third act to suggest that to be human is to be vulnerable.
Yet, the revelation of a not-human black female body when Johansson’s skin is peeled away offers the ultimate confirmation of her alienness, and it provokes the escalation of a hate crime. To put it even more pointedly: the revelation of a black female body becomes the ultimate and absolute evidence of the character’s non-humanity. In turning her excised face back toward herself, this moment presents the only instance—after numerous scenes of self-looking—when we witness the protagonist see herself as she is. Immediately her aggressor douses her body with gasoline and lights her aflame, as if to suggest not only that she seems unreal but also that she must not exist. This sequence marks both when other characters finally fail to recognize her as human within the narrative and, conversely, might be understood as precisely the instant when she comes to figure as a grievable life for the viewer. The man’s xenophobic violence potentially undoes the humanitarian sympathy one might have felt toward the alien’s prior male victims and any related antipathy toward her.
The embodiment of blackness is so blatant in this film that it becomes difficult to understand the metaphor in any way other than as racialized, the embodiment of difference. That the blackness of the alien’s subdermal body appears chromatically blacker than any actual human skin tone might suggest its metaphoric rather than racialized intended meaning; as noted above, however, Hall reminds us that the identity “black” has always operated as a construction giving unity and expression to a diverse range of ethnic and racial positions rather than as a literal referent to a singular or specific skin color. Furthermore, as Weheliye states, all figurations of the human are “subject to racialization” (8), so for this to be a film to be about being human, it must also be about being raced.
We might also consider that this film presents a narrative of passing: Scarlett Johansson’s character is an alien who passes for human, and, in this film, passing for human apparently means passing as white. Yet, throughout the film, whiteness renders less visible, as though to suggest—unconsciously or not—that whiteness itself must be demystified. In the film’s final shots, the falling snow looks like ash, a disorienting doubling of white and black (and of cold and hot, of falling and rising), as the alien’s body burns amidst the winter landscape; to the camera’s lens, the white snow becomes shadows in contrast to the overcast sky.
How do we make sense of the color-coded meanings and obfuscations in Under the Skin? Does this film reiterate overdetermined iconography that codes blackness as less-than-human? Or is it negotiating a different, deracialized set of meanings and metaphors for alienation more broadly conceived? The film’s refusal to explain itself—to offer the kinds of interiority or narrative intelligibility ultimately offered in the novel—creates a structure that both stokes and frustrates the search for a coherent politics, or even for figuration. Rather than necessarily condemn this move, I argue that the film fascinatingly, uncomfortably reveals the contradictions and limitations in our concepts of the human, the relational, and the other.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to my students for first challenging me to think through some of these questions, especially Anirban Gupta Nigam, Parisa Vaziri, Rashad Evans, and Graham Eng-Wilmot; to my co-panelists Elena Gorfinkel, Amy Herzog, and Homay King for our initial conversations; to Alessandra Raengo for a productive dialogue and for sharing her forthcoming work; and to Marc Francis and J.D. Connor for joining this dossier.
1. Despite its varied cultural meanings and aesthetic uses, in color theory black is not considered an actual color. Eugene Thacker writes, “Black objects are those that do not reflect light in the visible spectrum; thus colour theory refers to black as ‘non-chromatic’ or ‘achromatic.’” Thacker, “Black on Black,” Mute, 17 July 2013.
Yet, as film theorist Alessandra Raengo has suggested, there can be no image without black. Raengo “Black Matters,” Alessandra Raengo, "Black Matters," special section "Is the Moving Image an Object?" ed. Brian Price and Raengo, Discourse vol. 38, no. 2 (forthcoming, Spring 2016). Raengo spearheads the Liquid Blackness project at Georgia State University. [return to text]
2. In addition to suggesting dirtiness and its racist connotations, “dinge queen” is also a slang term for a white gay man who is attracted to black men. See Robert Reid-Pharr, “Dinge,” in Black Gay Man: Essays (New York: NYU Press, 2001), 85-98.
3. Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markman (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 110.
4. In this formulation, as black life exists outside of conventional philosophies of human ontology, it is beside or beyond it—para-ontology. Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism 50, no 2 (winter 2008): 179. Moten writes,
“lived experiences of blackness ... are, on the one hand, aligned with what has been called radical and, on the other hand, aligned not so much with a kind of being-toward-death but with something that has been understood as deathly or death-driven nonbeing. This strife between normativity and the destruction of norms is essential….” (177-78).
Moten goes on to examine “chromatic saturation” by revisiting a 1967 artists’ debate on the color black (188-205).
5. After surveying the major reviews of the film, it appears that the racial connotations of the film have largely been unexplored. In the United States although we are often fixated and entrenched on questions of race, we are often reluctant to actually think through the complexities of race and how it operates. Although not quite offering racialized readings, some reviews implicitly suggest the use of blackness to connote non-humanity.
[Romney, “Film of the Week: Under the Skin,” Film Comment blog, April 3, 2014, http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/under-the-skin-jonathan-glazer-review/ ]. Jonathan Romney writes,
“Some scenes take place against pure white or black backgrounds, in places or non-places that we can’t easily identify, but which are just irreducibly other. What happens there to human bodies—how they react physically and, just as importantly, how those reactions sound—makes for one of the most unnerving and hallucinatory images in recent cinema.”
[Sharkley, “Scarlett Johansson Mesermerizes While Getting ‘Under the Skin’,” Los Angeles Times, April 3, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-under-the-skin-20140404-story.html. ] Betsey Sharkely remarks upon the counter-evolutionary connotations of blackness,
“The specifics of our world fade to undefined blackness, clothes fall away as do fears as the men follow her, everything slowing. It evokes a museum diorama of early man emerging from the muck, in reverse.”
Generally, however, reviews of the film primarily invoked the word “black” only as an adjective without further analytical inquiry into the color’s meaning. See, for instance,
5b. Andre M. Carrington, Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 3.
5c. Anirban Gupta-Nigam’s final paper was revised and published as “Black Infrastructures: Media and the Trap of Visibility,” Media Fields Journal 11 (2016): http://mediafieldsjournal.squarespace.com/black-infrastructure/.
6. For foundational works in the Queer of Color Critique, see
7. In part, this might mirror Darby English’s move to think through black artists’ creative practice beyond the limiting frameworks of their racial identities and contexts but to look beyond metaphors of race in their work and to, following Richard Dyer, understand that whiteness also operates as racial metaphor. See Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007) and Richard Dyer, White. (New York: Routledge, 1997).
8. Houston A. Baker, Jr., Steven Best, and Ruth H. Lindeborg, “Introduction: Representing Blackness/Representing Britain: Cultural Studies and the Politics of Knowledge,” Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader, eds. Baker, Manthia Diawara, and Lindeborg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 5. Stuart Hall suggests that as an immigrant from Jamaica, he only learned to identify as “black” in England. “Minimal Selves,” BBCS, 116. He writes that black “has always been an unstable identity, psychically, culturally, and politically.” (116)
9. Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities,” BBCS, 163. Hall continues,
“What is at issue here is the recognition of the extraordinary diversity of subjective positions, social experiences, and cultural identities which compose the category ‘black’; that is, the recognition that ‘black’ is essentially a politically and culturally constructed category, which cannot be grounded in a set of fixed trans-cultural or transcendental racial categories and which therefore has no guarantees in Nature.” (166)
10. I’m less able to speak to the specificity of this as a Scottish film, but it presents the people of Glasgow to be homogenously (if inaccurately) white. The Johansson alien, in contrast, is vocally marked as an outsider by performing a British accent, rather than a Scottish one, and she appears pointedly indifferent to a news radio report on a Scottish referendum for independence.
11. For a review of these discourses, see Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” InTensions 5 (2011). http://www.yorku.ca/intent/issue5/articles/jaredsexton.php
12. Black Lives Matter, also known as #blacklivesmatter, is a social movement based in the United States that arose in response to a wave of (mostly police) killings of unarmed African-American citizens across the country, after which citizens or police were typically unpunished through lack of indictment or conviction. The ideological message of this racialized violence was that it was “legal” for police to kill black citizens, and that black people were treated as disposable or less-than-human by the state. Black Lives Matter was originally coined in response to the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman (in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin); the term gained traction and national visibility as a campaign in 2014 in response to the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, NY, among other deaths. Under the Skin debuted at film festivals shortly after the Zimmerman acquittal and was released in early 2014, prior to the broad adoption of the phrase Black Lives Matter.
13. At one point in the film, the alien is swept up in a crowd of women going to a discotheque, and she cannot understand the visceral pleasures of strobe lights and house beats; rather than experience ecstasy she seeks to escape. In moments when human characters experience their own ecstatic embodiment—such as amidst the strobes and colored lights of a discotheque—or when they experience sensory overload—such as blinding sun—our alien protagonist is unphased.
14. Michel Faber, Under the Skin (San Diego: Harcourt, 2000): 163 and 176.
15. The color red—via lipstick, blood, and warmth—connotes carnal pleasures and sustenance in this film. See Elena Gorfinkel’s reading of the film in this dossier, “Sex, Sensation and Nonhuman Interiority in Under the Skin.”
16. See Amy Herzog’s reading of the character’s routine in terms of alienated labor in this dossier, “Star Vehicle: Labor, Alienation, and the Surface-Level Pleasures of Under the Skin.”
17. See J.D. Connor’s essay in this dossier, “Independence and the Consent of the Governed: The Systems and Scales of Under the Skin”. [return to page 2]
18. The obvious reference here is Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16:3 (autumn 1975): 6-18, and widely reprinted.
19. Only later, when the alien experiments with a romantic human relationship, does the score even flirt with familiar movie score sounds; that cue is titled “Love” on the soundtrack album.
20. Responding to a deep sense of alienation from U.S. society, a number of black musicians, writers, and artists—including Afrika Bambaataa, Sun Ra, Parliament, Octavia Butler, Samuel L. Delany, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and others—turned to fantasy, science fiction, and outer space to imagine a different world and consciousness during the 1970s and 1980s. For populations that had been denied their histories and that continued to be structurally oppressed in the present, imagining futures were radical acts. This utopian project has come to be called Afrofuturism. Although there are parallels between that movement and this film, I do not see Under the Skin as part of that discourse; in fact, it may be its inverse.
21. Whereas human existence and consciousness have been the primary concerns of philosophy, Object-Oriented Ontology shifts focus to the existential status of non-sentient things. In effect, this poses a turn from thinking in terms of human subjectivity to thinking of humans as just one kind of object among various objects in the world.
22. Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis; University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
23. Thanks to Alessandra Raengo for raising the question of the limits of metaphor during the Q&A when I presented the first iteration of this essay at the Society for Media Studies annual conference in Montreal in 2015.
24. Attributed to Michel Foucault, the term biopolitics references the power of the government to manage life, whether through structural policies that support and sustain certain populations’ life expectancy or that subject certain populations to oppressive practices that undermine their life chances and let them die. See Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, eds. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana, Trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003): 239-64. For an anthology of major writings on biopolitics, see Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze, eds. Biopolitics: A Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).
25. Attributed to Giorgio Agamben, the concept of “bare life” references populations who exist as mere bodies without the political enfranchisement of citizenship or recognized personhood. See Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).
26. Attributed to Achille Mbembe, the term “necropolitics” references populations that, although living, are subjected to such dire government and economic policies that they exist within “death-worlds” and might be understood to have already been killed by the state. See Mbembe, “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 2003 15 (1): 11-40.
27. Alexander Weheliye, Habeous Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.
28. Black skins of sorts appear in various other iterations in the film: the alien’s supervisor’s motorcycle gear, the Czech man’s wet suit, and the leather jacket the alien’s suitor loans her.
29. My thinking here is shaped by—and somewhat twists—Judith Butler’s essay “Beside Onself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy.” As part of her biopolitical turn, Judith Butler has questioned whose lives count as grievable lives and has advocated for the importance of fantasy in political life. Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 17-39.
30. In a curious post-script, blackness figures as pure knowledge, as the super-human capacity for cognition and consciousness at the resolution of Scarlett Johansson’s follow-up film Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014). On Lucy, see Marc Francis's essay in this dossier, "Splitting the Difference: On the Queer-Feminist Divide in Scarlett Johansson's Recent Body Politics."