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Written for GNDST-204CY-01: Simians Cyborgs and Women taught by Erika Rundle, October 14, 2019

Primate Dramas in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey opens on the sun emerging from behind the earth, which itself lies behind the moon from the perspective of the viewer. The sun plays an important role throughout this film, also being shown after the primates featured in the first few scenes make contact with the mysterious black prism that appears in their environment, as well as when the primates are portrayed first discovering the use of tools. In these expository moments we come to understand the sun as that which symbolizes the shedding of light on new revelations: that which produces enlightenment.

After that glorious title sequence we are brought to the barren rocky desert, on which the sun is also rising. “THE DAWN OF MAN” is the text that is emblazoned across the screen. Dawn: the rising of the sun, new beginnings, the enlightenment that sun brings. Here Kubrick presents the mythic moment of the first enlightenment of man.

The sounds of birds and wind is all that can be heard as wide shots of the dusty orange landscape fill the screen. Bones scattered across the bumpy ground show that this is a harsh environment, that life can be taken very quickly. But the desert is not a deserted place. As the sun rises we meet our first characters: the primates. Tapirs cohabitate with these simians as they are seen picking for scraps of vegetation. Despite being endowed with life, these animals are certainly not representative of human life. The apes are presented with what Georgio Agamben describes as zoē, or bare life (Agamben). They are outside of politics; they are just barely alive.

Prior to the aforementioned black prism appearing in this space the small primate community is threatened by two other forces. There is a cheetah, which jumps seemingly out of nowhere to prey on the group of simians. Additionally, there is an analogous primate community that is shown as being in conflict with the first. All three of these parties- the two groups of primates and the cheetah- are included in part of the world of “nature.” Their scarcity of resources and incessant fighting over these resources is easily read as animalistic and uncivilized.

As the sun rises once again the next day and one lone primate awakens, we hear the decidedly unnatural hum of a black rectangular prism, sitting dauntingly in their abode. This object is the first imposition to the simian community that is not included in nature. It is seemingly not endowed with life (human or inhuman), but does the work of representing that which is outside of nature, with its blocky, geometric form. The camera jumps closer to show nature, embodied as a primate, reaching out to cautiously touch that which is unnatural- reminiscent of the image of the ape reaching out to touch Dr. Jane Goodall’s hand.

We, the viewer, then sit at the base of this object, looking up to see the sliver of the sun emerging from behind it. Without this imposing mass the sun would be high in the sky, but it is used to represent that which allows enlightenment to be cast on these humble primates. The music swells, and we are suddenly brought back to the silence of the desert. Apes clamor around the carcass of another animal.
Before it even happens, the human viewer of this film can sense what comes next. The revelatory music starts up again, and you can practically see a lightbulb (another source of illumination) popping up above the head of the curious ape. He grasps the phallic bone from the animal carcass and begins to smash. It’s long been pondered about what sets apart humans from animals, and the use of tools was a popular story to explain the moment when animals gained the skills that made them (us?) human. In this moment, the simian crosses the boundary between nature and culture.

Of course the mythic first tool is a weapon. What makes this ape-club assemblage so human is that he is now that which can take life. The political landscape has shifted now amongst the various groups of apes. Scarcity is no more; there is plenty of meat to be eaten.

The sun rises once again, yet another revelatory moment, and we and the apes now see that the tools can be used against their peers. A hierarchy is created: those who hold the tools can take life away, and can sacrifice others in order to maintain their territory. The desert is no longer a nomadic space, as French theorists Deleuze and Guattari purport, but one territorialized and maintained by weapons (Deleuze & Guattari).

The phallic bone is tossed into the air and seen floating and turning against the sky. A quick jump cut from the bone to a similarly shaped spaceship acutely shows the parallels Kubrick wants to draw. Just as the primates were enlightened as to the use of tools, those very tools teleologically progressed us straight into the 21st century, a time when our tools are far more “advanced.” The sun is shown once again emerging from behind the earth, illuminating all that falls under its gaze. Waltz music reminds us of just where we are: the new frontiers of civilization.

This jump cut in particular literally skips over everything that came in between the first use of tools and the hypothetical time when space is no longer a frontier, but a place that humans frequent. No time is given to any struggles for power that brought us to this particular future. World colonization by European countries, the transatlantic slave trade, countless wars and conquests: none of these stories are told by Kubrick. History is skipped over in order to draw a clear, logical line from one mythic moment to another.

Watching this movie in the year 2019, eighteen years after the diegetic time Kubrick brought to life, necessitates some exploration of the historical contexts this film emerged out of. Apollo 11, the space mission that put “man on the moon” occurred just one year after the release of this film. The Cold War and the space race were in full swing as the capitalist west struggled to claim new territories before the communist bloc did. Could this movie have emerged from cultural anxieties about our global future?

While the cultural landscape in that first scene of the diegesis shows a territorialization, a turn from smooth to striated space protected by the weapons that “early man” discovered, the landscape at the time of the making of the film, 1968, was arguably one that began to be more smooth. Outer space, first being broached around this time, is the plane that is traversable in any direction, with no predetermined paths of navigation. It is the ultimate zone of deterritorialization. Also occurring at the time of the beginnings of post-Fordism, the world was beginning to feel the shift away from traditional models of discipline (Deleuze).

The rest of the film- following the sharp transition from early tools to the tools of 2001- is arguably riddled with anxieties about this deterritorialized future. Featuring a robot, HAL, that gains sentience and allows the members of the ship to die, the viewer is given the burden of the dangers of this cybernetic future. The moviegoers and makers of the late 1960s were clearly troubled with what consequences may arise from their present situation.

Any anxieties about the future I believe necessitate questions about the past, and the origins of such haunting technologies. Hence, the need to craft an origin story where an unnatural, geometric body is the explanation for how humanity got to be where it is. We are told that we were simply bare life once, and that it was the imposition of something outside us which enlightened us to be able to use tools, which in turn logically lead to our overwhelmingly accelerative conquest of the world and then space. In a moment where life seemed to be out of human control, Kubrick placed the responsibility for the state of the world in the body of a mysterious black prism, something decidedly Other.

I like to believe that Stanley Kubrick is more complex of a director than to simply be arguing for a reactionary return to the mythic “garden of eden,” the time before we were burdened with technology, but at the very least it is certainly clear that he was expressing a deeply felt cultural anxiety about the state of the mid-late 20th century. The final scene of the film, while its meaning is fairly indiscernible, does relish in the fetal imagery of the “return to nature.” Situated at a time when the world is rapidly changing and technology is booming in ways never before imagined, Kubrick does do the work of satiating the need for answers that I’m sure was commonplace at the time (and still is to this day). But through this soothing explanation he misses much of the complexities and nuances, not to mention violences, that generated the anxiety-riddled cultural landscape of the late 20th century. Perhaps such artworks, which only present a perspective that returns to the norms of teleology and mythic origin stories, are part of why we still feel such a deep anxiety today. Without deeper critical inquiry of the mythic boundary between nature, culture, and cyborg, I’m sure these anxieties will continue for many years to come.

Agamben, Georgio. “Introduction to Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life.” Biopolitics: A Reader, Edited by Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze, Duke University Press, 2013, 134-144.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on Control Societies.” In Negotiations. Translated by Martin Joughin. Columbia University Press, 1990.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. “The Smooth and Striated.” In A Thousand Plateaus. Translated by Brian Massumi. University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Kubrick, Stanley, director. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968.