They Came from beyond the Center: Ideology and Political Textuality in the Radical Science Fiction Films of James Cameron

By Abbott, Joe | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1994 | Go to article overview

They Came from beyond the Center: Ideology and Political Textuality in the Radical Science Fiction Films of James Cameron


Abbott, Joe, Literature/Film Quarterly


In what has come to be regarded in Marxist/structuralist theoretics as a landmark essay, French theorist Louis Althusser proposed that ideology has a material existence-not, he claimed, in "the same modality as the material existence of a paving-stone or a rifle," but "in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices" (my emphasis).1 Ideological apparatuses, according to Althusser, reify ideology in the form of various institutions, organizations, and/or systems within a society: the military, law enforcement agencies, and court systems as well as schools, the family, political parlies, trade unions, etc. Film theorists have, for the most part, embraced Althusser's concept of ideology as having a "material" existence, pointing to the cinema as an ideological apparatus that continually creates, perpetuates, and assesses ideological concepts by depicting other ideological apparatuses at work. Because this depiction may be positive or negative, the cinematic apparatus, by its nature, is infused with political meaning; that is, every finished film (regardless of the intentions of the filmmaker) possesses an inherent political textuality and thus inevitably transmits a political ideology.

Few popular films of the past decade have evidenced with more consistency the cultural rumblings within the traditional framework of America's various ideological apparatuses than have the science fiction films of James Cameron. Because science fiction narrative often concerns itself with politically volatile issues-human survival, the integration/alienation of the individual into/from the community, global destruction, the potential effects of present practices on future generations, and so forth-the genre is particularly suited to political interpretation. I do not mean to suggest here that Cameron's films are in any way subversive, only that one detects in them a textual politics that offers effective ideological criticism by vilifying what America's capitalist ideology recognizes for the most part as revered institutions. This political textuality (and perhaps "subtextuality" would be the more accurate word here) places Cameron's films squarely within the realm of what film theorist Peter Biskind has defined as "radical" science-fiction cinema. "Radical films," says Biskind:

were the mirror image of centrist sci-fi. There, Us was the "extremists" and Them was the center. When the center became the enemy, both scientists and soldiers were vilified. The state, the federal government, was either bad or ineffectual. . . . Since in radical films, the enemy was the center, it was not too surprising that the form in which this enemy, this Other, was imagined was not nature but culture. . . .2

Thus "culture" is signified by centrist ideology, bodied forth as various structures or "apparatuses" whose role is to ensure the perpetuation of all the Community deems necessary and sufficient for its own survival, and acculturation functions as the process by which the individual is initiated-via his or her relationship with those apparatuses-into the social conventions considered acceptable by the ideology.

Although Biskind is concerned primarily with films of the 1950s, his politically oriented schema provides a useful vehicle for substantiating and clarifying political subtexts informing films of virtually any era. Granted, America's social and political center has shifted considerably to the right over the past thirty years (largely as a result of the domestic uprisings of the '60s, a collective feeling of betrayal following Watergate, and continuing disillusionment concerning the Vietnam War, to name only a representative number contributing to a myriad of causal factors), but the basic utilitarian assumptions granting the needs and desires of the Community at the expense of the Individual (if need be) still form the basis of America's centrist ideology. It is therefore necessary that any political stance aligning itself with radical philosophies must lay bare any inherent malevolence informing this kind of social ethic.

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