Preliminary Meditations on the Other, the Incarnation, and District 9


Well, I was waiting to throw this out until I worked up a polished essay on it, but the deeper I go the more I realize that that is going to take about 2 years (at least) of me reading continental philosophy(a task which I’ve only begun, which means I haven’t found a “bottom” ; I haven’t figured out just how deep I have to go), so, instead, I’m going to just list some of my ideas thus far, and see what you think. 

Oh, and if you’re planning on seeing District 9, but haven’t, you may not want to read some or all of this post. 

I few weeks ago I watched District 9, by the white South African director, Neill Blomkamp.  It is a powerful movie, and has dominated my thoughts ever since.  Below is a quick synopsis of the pertinent parts, but be warned that my description hardly does the movie justice.

Spoiler begins

An alien ship mysteriously parked itself above Johannesburg, SA.  Millions of aliens were found on the ship aimlessly living in their own filth.  A camp, called District 9 was created for them below the ship and all of the aliens were moved to it.  Over the course of 20 years, the camp became a slum, and numerous violent incidents gave rise to serious hatred on the part of Johannesburg residents toward the aliens whom they refer to as “prawns.”  As one character notes, the aliens do have undeniable shrimp-like characteristics.  A super-corporation called Multi-National United is tasked with managing the prawns and the action of the movie begins with the MNU’s decision to move the entire prawn population to a new camp outside of Johannesburg.  A geeky beaurocrat, who happens to be the CEO’s son-in-law, is put in charge of handing out eviction notices to the entire alien population of Disctrict 9.  While carrying out the task our protagonist beaurocrat comes into contact with an alien substance which begins changing him into an alien.  When the transformation starts, he is promptly kidnapped by his own corporation, where he is forced to participate in disturbing experiments.  It turns out, MNU’s real interest in the “prawns” is their weapons technology which the company seeks to duplicate and market.  Their only setback is that the alien technology can only be utilized by the aliens.  MCU’s evil scientists soon discover, however, that the protagonist can use the weapons because his DNA is in the process of becoming alien.  Just before they begin harvesting his organs in the interest of harnessing his weapon-operating power, he escapes and seeks refuge in District 9.  For most of the movie the protagonist has the same bigoted attitude toward the aliens that everyone else both within MNU and without have.  But, as he becomes a prawn, and develops a friendship of sorts with one of them, his attitude slowly changes, until, in the climax of the movie, he is defends his alien friend against extermination at the hands of his father-in-law’s heartless company. 

Spoiler Ends

Here are some of the ideas that this movie has inspired:

1. For the purposes of ethical conversation, all aliens in Science Fiction and specifically in District 9=the Other.

2. In order for the protagonist of the movie to “love” the Other, he had to become the Other.  He was incapable of understanding or loving the Other as himSelf. 

3. The movie can obviously be “read” as commentary on the South African struggle with apartheid.  However, the alien ship could have been parked over 1939-era Germany, or over present-day Gaza Strip and the same symbolic power would have been achieved.  

4. In a way, the protagonist’s transformation could represent the Incarnation.  Christ put  himSelf aside to become the Other (humanity), in order to redeem the Other.  Redemption could not have taken place outside of the act of “becoming the Other” on Christ’s part.

5. In terms of Christian morality, the concept of the Other is equivalent to the Neighbor, especially in a globalized world in which one is forced (blessed?) to rub up against, to pay attention to people and cultures radically different than one’s Self so that everyone is one’s Neighbor.  How can we truly understand and love our Neighbor, then, without becoming her/him? Globalism brings us together but we are still so far apart.  I expect Zizek’s book on the Neighbor to be particularly enlightening/challenging on this point, hopefully it will be mine next week.

 6. Following Cavanaugh, in the Eucharist I consume Christ, but in turn, I am consumed;  I become more and more a part of Christ’s body.  Through Christ’s act of becoming us (the Incarnation), He installed the way for us to become more like Him (the Eucharist).  Since we share the Eucharist with the Universal Church which spans nations, continents and cultures, the Eucharist is the way in which each individual Self becomes the Other.  If you’ll allow a little analogical liberty, the alien substance which changes the human protagonist of District 9 into an alien can represent the Eucharist which changes each of us into body of Christ, thus uniting us (whether we like it or not) with each Other.

What do you think?  I’ve got about 30,000 pages of Levinas, Lacan, Bidiou, Zizek, Derrida, Critchley, Foucault and maybe some Milbank (and many more who I haven’t yet thought about or discovered) to read before I can bring this all together into some sort of cogency.  Any suggestions?


  1. James,

    Well, good luck with that!

    It seems that there are several ways that you could take with this. You could A) Attempt to publish it in a theological journal such as Modern Theology or Literature and Theology B) Work out a systematic Christology of sorts with special attention to ethics and the Eucharist or C) Make a PhD out of it.

    Perhaps there are other options but those seem like the major ones available. How large or small you chose to make this would greatly affect how large the project/paper would be, how many secondary voices you would incorporate etc.

    To be honest, you named the names I would look to for this sort of thing. Though you didn’t mention Graham Ward who has done a lot of work with these topics not least in his splendid book “Christ and Culture.”

    It all sounds rather fantastic to me. Is there any particular aspect you’d like to discuss more?


  2. Dealing with and sometimes becoming the Other, is a classic SciFi trope. Avatar is another recent example, although it’s Other (the Na’vi) is absurdly romanticized. The best treatment of the subject is, I think, Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, you should really check it out. I suspect — based on what you’ve written here — that it’s right up your alley.

    You might also be interested in the online journal GOLEM: The Journal of Religion and Monsters. It’s all about stuff just like this (although, admittedly, it doesn’t appear to have a wide readership.)


  3. Jordan,

    I ran just recently ran across GOLEM, it may have actually been on your blog? Good stuff. I’ll have to check about Babylon 5.


    What I’m really interested in, I think, are the ethical entailments of the Incarnation and the Eucharist, and how those can be described using concepts from philosophy.

    I don’t know if a PhD. is in my future or not. The only degree I’m fairly positve about at that point is an M.Div.

    And yet I love to write research papers, and sometimes write them for no reason!


  4. In that case you really must interact with Ward’s “Christ and Culture” which does all of those things with supreme ingenuity.


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