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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment


Questions arising on the move, at the borders, in the encounter with the other, and when stranger meets stranger, all tend to intensify around the problem of the other foreigner—someone doubly strange, who does not speak or look like the rest of us, being paradoxically at once exotic guest and abhorred enemy.

—Trinh T. Minh-ha, Elsewhere, within Here

Relationship with the future, the presence of the future in the present,

seems all the same accomplished in the face-to-face with the Other.

—Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other

As Lydia concludes her entries, she explains that fifteen years after her initial militancy towards de-fencing, and its rallying cry, ;A desalambrar!, reservations are still operating with a stranglehold on the working class, mostly Latinos, African Americans, poor whites, and Asians. They have expanded to Texas and are present in New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. The fight continues to undo the system of segregation and gatekeeping. It is the same struggle that one of her Native American forebears started during the Spanish colonization: “what Pacomio tried to do oh so many centuries ago, the Indians in Chinganaza have achieved and now we too must attain this freedom from exploitation on the reservations of Cali-Texas” (118). Beyond the obvious references to a colonial past, Lunar Braceros projects the history of camps into the twenty-second century and dramatizes the continuity of the camp as nomos. The novella connects the dots between the instances of incarceration that punctuate the nineteenth and twenty-second centuries, as if measuring missions, reservations, and camps with a “higher form of stereometry,” as Austerlitz put it. Like the prisoners within the boundaries of another interlocking space, Reslifers seem to move back and forth across the connected geography of removal and relocation, from the heritage of colonialism into an imaginable future. There will always be a camp, a reservation, or a site to segregate whoever cannot fit into the latest version of a master map.

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, a blend of Robocop, the Terminator series, and Transformers, offers another instance of the inextricable links between a colonial past and a predictable future.29 In Blomkamp’s movie, the alien Other is literally so and arrives in Johannesburg on a massive alien ship, rendered inoperable for unknown reasons. When special forces make their way onto the spaceship, thus making a historical first contact and having the whole world as an audience, the vision is dismal: over a million malnourished, unhealthy, insect-like aliens are inside the spaceship. The term “first contact,” used in a voice-over coming from a reporter broadcasting that first moment of interaction live, is a sign that Blomkamp and cowriter Terri Tatchel are intent on describing the encounter as an instance of colonial interaction. The colonial model of coercion and radical inequality, together with its boomerang effect, as Foucault put it ([1997] 2003, 103), return to charter the interaction between aliens and humans.

With their spaceship rendered inoperable and a population ravaged by a mysterious disease, the aliens are welcomed to Earth. Johannesburg extends what initially can be seen as its “unconditional hospitality” and tries to give the aliens proper status and protection. The creatures are expeditiously ferried to a camp that undergoes rapid transformations and is immediately fenced in, then militarized. “Before we knew it, it was a slum,” an interviewee concedes, an enclosure that visually confirms the aliens’ alterity and exteriority. The slum turns into a spatial stereotype, an immobile enclosure where the Other is surgically removed from the national body. There is no state of exception to speak of, just the protective custody of the different. The correlation between the alien Other and his location in precise spatial coordinates is clear. The moment the “prawns” are enclosed, it becomes much easier to stabilize them in a narrative of non-belonging. In spatial and narrative terms, the aliens have been evicted from the domestic premises of the country. A condition of social death accompanies the inmates in regimes of unfreedom, writes Paul Gilroy, and “if genocide is not already under way, the raciology that energizes camp-thinking brings it closer and promotes it as a solution” (2000, 88).

Though there is evidence that they represent an advanced civilization, as their superior, space-age-looking weaponry indicates, “common sense” rationalizes their apparent indolence by claiming that they belong to the lower ranks of society. Harboring no initiative or leadership, the aliens are apparently happy to survive not only as homo sacer, but also as homo sucker, as social and spatial parasites. Contrary to Levinas’s formulation, there is no investment in the “futurity” of the aliens. In District 9 the ineradicable difference of the aliens redefines the triangulation of self, Other, and time. For the aliens detained and relocated in D9, the future is already the past. This past is carved out in the history of colonization, in the periodic forging of camp mentalities, and the separation of the different Other. To rewrite Levinas’s sentence, the presence of the past in the present seems all the same accomplished in the face-to-face with the Other. The aliens merely embody the anteriority and exteriority automatically attributable to the Other. The former guests mutate into hostile enemies that wear out the initial welcome. Unsurprisingly, South Africans adopt the role of the abused host that no longer wants to live with the camp in sight, an “open wound,” to use Gloria Anzaldua’s metaphor, that constantly hemorrhages next to the city. Expeditious solutions to the alien problem are put forward, such as a selective virus that only affects “the prawns.” Because of international pressure, however, this echo of the “final solution” is not immediately implemented, and the government responds to mounting social pressure with what is presented as a humane option: the relocation of the 1.8 million aliens to a prawn city two hundred kilometers away from Johannesburg; allegedly a better and safer location away from humans that is renamed “Sanctuary Park” and “Alien Relocation Camp,” where rows of identical tents spread behind barbed wire. As Wikus Van DeMerwe, who is in charge of the eviction, later warns one of the aliens, Christopher Johnson, the new city is even worse than D9, with tents smaller than the shacks and more like a concentration camp. The closing credits of the movie inform the viewer that “District 9 was demolished after the alien resettlement operation was completed,” and that “District 10 now houses 2.5 million aliens and continues to grow.”

The number for the new camp, 10, situates the incarceration experience in different spatial and temporal coordinates, for there will always be a District 11, 12, 13. . . . It also places the X, the Roman numeral, at the heart of a double transformation: the X is the matrix, the crossing that ensures the breeding of similar places of incarceration, from matr-, mater. The X is also the sign of the discarded, of the abject that constitutes the “place where I am not and which permits me to be” (Kristeva [1980] 1982, 3); the X is the crossing of space and time, of a repeating heterotopia and a recurrent heterochrony. It is this possibility of endless metamorphosis and replacement that opens the political overtones of the movie. The plight of the aliens, detained, evicted, and relocated, recalls the incarceration and later extermination of Jews in Nazi camps, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the relocation of “vagrants,” “migros,” and “tecos” in Lunar Braceros. The movie also opens to the present and addresses the policing of security areas and the building of alleged security walls that cut across the land; it also bespeaks the judicial limbo of the detainees in Guantanamo and little Guantanamos that have spread around airports in the U.S. The alignment of these previously unconnected narratives, to return to Doreen Massey, allows us to give back to the spatial one of its most potentially disruptive characteristics: its openness, its condition of always being made.

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