Science Fiction Studies

#105 = Volume 35, Part 2 = July 2008

Rebecca Bishop

“Several Exceptional Forms of Primates”: Simian Cinema

What is ape to man? A laughing stock, a thing of shame … Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman—a rope over the abyss....—Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (42-43)

“… they endanger their own careers by defending this animal.”—Planet of the Apes

The image of King Kong balanced tenuously on the top floor of the Empire State building is one of the most striking in early twentieth-century cinema. An embodiment of the clash between beastly desire and civilized material culture, between the nobility of the animal and the destructive drive of human beings, the scene captures the essence of Euro-Western discourse on animality. The gorilla encapsulates many centuries of mythology: a creature from the depths of the jungle and an abductor of women, the ape is caught between animal impulse and human morality. Endowed with a capacity for love and a desire to protect, he signifies the nobility of the beast. Yet in Kong we also find echoes of Freud’s id, the dark, animal shadow that lurks in the human psyche, and of Rousseau’s man in a state of nature, untainted by modern life.            

An animal bordering on the human, a creature misunderstood, King Kong embodies those who exist on the periphery, struggling between humane and brutish tendencies. This interplay is constitutive of the Euro-Western telos. Sf cinema is built on notions of the human under threat from Others; the presence of the ape in sf cinema, however, evokes also a long-standing narrative of humanness under threat from animality, both outside and within itself.            

Apes have often appeared in speculations on the animal nature residing at the heart of the human condition. Appearing as a man-animal in early natural history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, drawn into philosophies of being during the Enlightenment, a relative of the human in Darwinian theories of evolution, and a recurring feature of contemporary animal-rights politics, the great ape has always perched at the pinnacle of Euro-Western metaphysics. Apes have served as potent signifying creatures in sf narrative, a field built on border-crossings between being-human and becoming-other. What is striking about the nonhuman primate in sf film is that—unlike the aliens, androids, monsters, and cyborgs that frequent sf screens—the ape is not dreamed-up but is a creature planted firmly in scientific “fact” (Haraway 4-5). In Primate Visions (1989) Donna Haraway argues that the simian has long occupied the border zone between the “mythic poles” of nature and culture, between “the constitution of imaginative worlds and of actual bodies”; primate representation has always been a “constrained and contested mode of storytelling” (5,8). This paper aims to move beyond Haraway’s recognition that the body of the nonhuman primate has been embroiled in the anxieties of modern technoculture. I argue that the simians of sf also represent questions that have constituted historical Euro-Western ontologies of the human. In King Kong (1933, 2005), The Ape Man (1993), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Planet of the Apes (1968), Project X (1987), and Congo (1995), apes evoke long-standing historical anxieties about the boundary between human selfhood and animal degeneration.

Primates in History and Imagination. Swiping at airplanes like tiny flies while mindful of protecting his female love, the balancing King Kong is caught between eros and thanatos, in Freud’s primal drives of desire and death. Bent on destroying the masculine figure that has snatched and hoarded the female body, the pilots in the planes embody Freud’s vision of the original band of sons, consumed by both love for the original father and hatred of his violent dominance of the pack. While any psychoanalytic reading of Kong perched on top of the Empire State building (itself a monumental phallus) hints at the resurrection of primal archetypes in modern filmic contexts, the film also tells a tale beyond Freud’s Oedipal conflicts, conveying our enduring fascination with wildness and animality—the battle to tame the beast within and beyond the constraints of civilization.1            

As the movie begins, filmmaker Carl Denham journeys with his cast and crew into the unknown territory of Skull Island, and the viewer can already recognize a familiar narrative turn—a journey into the heart of darkness, where unknown threats and possibilities await. Upon entering the new terrain, they encounter a tribe determined to sacrifice the film’s actress, “golden girl” Anne Darrow, to a beast by the name of “Kong.” After being offered the screaming blonde woman, however, the giant gorilla slowly falls in love with his sacrificial treat, treating her with gentleness and grace. His fierce protection of the tiny doll-like figure against both (hu)man and beast suggests his untamed yet noble drive to defend what is his own.            

Haraway, among others, has argued that this film typifies the triple coding of race, gender, and science that underscores representations of the nonhuman primate.2 An “icon of the black captive man’s love for the white woman” (161), Kong signifies Western representations of the licentious primitive, the “dark male beast” that threatens destruction of the colonial-military complex (162). Certainly it could be argued that the image of Kong represents the mythology of the sexually threatening primitive other, long a trope of colonial politics. Yet it is possible to take the meanings attached to the figure of Kong further, situating the ape in a metaphysics of the human that extends beyond colonial frontiers.            

In Hebrew tales, the wilderness is a metaphoric space symbolizing a withdrawal from God and moral civilization as well as a place in which one travels “outside” the boundaries of the populus to undergo trial and temptation: this site inspires both madness and redemption. In Greco-Roman mythology, which influenced medieval thought, the wilderness was “a symbolic and artificial space that sanctioned the elaboration of models of behavior proceeding from the anomalies of the natural order,” a liminal space in which human/animal, natural/cultural entities converged (Bartra 96).3 While tales of the wild people who dwelt in these sites differed, they shared key characteristics: the wild man was often mute yet able to converse with animals; was covered in hair and moved his body as an animal would; lived outside the confines of moral “humanness,” satisfying carnal appetites; and spent much of his time alone. The wild man was a solitary, sensual being, constituted in wild (nonhuman) space.            

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when both living and dead nonhuman primates began to be transported to European shores, scholars and philosophers were convinced that this strange new animal was a hybrid of man and beast. They even speculated that the ape might be an example of the wild man that had held a central position in European social and scientific thought. In early natural history, apes held an ambiguous position: Topsell grouped apes and satyrs together in his History of Foure-Footed Beasts (1607), arguing that both had hairy bodies and lusted after women. In the first European account of a dissection of a great ape, Edward Tyson (1699) attempted to disentangle the hybrid fusions of human and animal, arguing that “our Ape may be a Pygmie, a sort of Animal so much resembling Man, that both the Antients and the Moderns reported it to be a Puny Race of Mankind, call’d to this day, Homo Sylvestri, the Wild Man, the Orang-Outang, or Man of the Woods” (1). In his taxonomic categorizations of human and animal, Linnaeus placed the ape (simian) alongside “homo” in the primate order, with subspecies homo troglodyte (chimpanzee) and homo ferus (wild man). The eighteenth-century naturalist Buffon argued that although man and ape shared similar characteristics, only man was divinely endowed with a soul and a capacity of speech, a claim subsequently much contested.            

Darwinian interpretations reconfigured the simian as a related progenitor to human beings, arguing that while there was “no doubt” that “man” has undergone an “extraordinary amount of modification, chiefly in consequence of the great development of his brain and his erect position,” it should nonetheless be remembered that he is one “of several exceptional forms of Primates” (154). The public uproar against Darwin’s claims of relation are well known, and yet the story of a fundamental metaphysical relationship between human and nonhuman primates continues to fascinate storytellers and audiences. Neo-Darwinian social discourses on the “threat” of degenerate sexualities continued the historical association of wild men and apes with tales of the abduction of human women. Freud’s story of the primal horde, humanity’s original patricidal family, certainly owes much to Darwinian evolutionary theory; yet Freud would take the story of animal origins a step further, planting animal desires deep within the structure of the human psyche.

The Animal Within: King Kong Then and Now. Contemporary readings of the representation of King Kong have drawn on this rich and politically fraught intellectual history, citing Kong as an example of “dark-skinned men as libidinous brutes” (Bellin 12) and the film itself as a “thinly veiled allegory on race relations” (Desser 85). Such interpretations affirm Latour’s claim that the role of the nonhuman primate as a cultural signifier resides in the process of producing meaning itself: it is necessary, he argues, to examine how “we make the primates themselves relevant to the questions we asked about them so that they could have a part in what we say of their behavior” (358; emphasis in original). In the context of sf cinema, it is necessary to ask not only what the ape might signify, but why the nonhuman primate has served as such a potent frame of reference.            

One means of addressing these issues is through a comparison of the 1933 and 2005 versions of the film.4 Technological developments and a broad change in the sociocultural meanings attached to nonhuman primates during this period produce a different narrative emphasis in the two films. Both feature cutting-edge special effects for their time: in 1933, stop-motion animation created a beast both fearsome and fantastic; and in the twenty-first century, WETA’s digital-effects team created life-like animals moving through fantastic worlds. The critical shift is that in Peter Jackson’s 2005 Kong, the ape’s expressive eyes and face evoke a sentience and subjectivity that the earlier film had intimated but not fully captured. Although director Merian Cooper and model maker Marcel Degado had briefly considered creating an anthropomorphized animal, a “half-human, half-beast,” in their 1933 production, they eventually decided to create a “Giant Terror Gorilla” (see Morton 33) that would be seen by audiences as brutish, virulent, and virile. Jackson’s story, by contrast, portrays an animal that feels, suffers, and gazes at sunsets. For many reasons, the cultural ethos of our day is more sympathetic to the idea of animal subjectivity; but transformations in digital imaging technologies also allow modern film-goers to enter more fully the imagined world of the animal. Pixels can convey facial expressions in a nuanced way that mechanized special effects were never able to capture.           

Yet despite the transformations in the visual representation of Kong between 1933 and 2005, both versions remain embedded in a Western metaphysics of liminal human-animality. Kong serves as more than a symbolization of gender and race relations in contemporary culture; he remains also a figuration of anxieties over the border between human and animal. Both versions embody historical discourses of the brutish tendencies of the wild outsider along the border of civilization, the beast’s libidinous threat to the civilized human. At the same time, the human-like attributes of the animal, and indeed its ultimate persecution by humanity, evoke outrage at the human masculine/military machine intent on destroying it through acts of aggression. The ape is represented as both origin and antithesis of what constitutes humanness itself. 
The Beast Within—Conquering Inner Animality. In 1933, Kong served as an image of ambiguous animal power that threatens and yet in part constitutes the “human” condition. Ten years later, William Beaudine’s The Ape Man (1943) highlighted both the creative/destructive force of technoscience and the human potential for animal degeneration. Yet in this film the symbolic power of the nonhuman primate is also incorporated into a theme of “mad science.” The film’s scientist, Dr. James Brewster (Bela Lugosi), is confronted with the animality that lurks within human nature. After discovering the “missing link” between human and animal in the form of a serum, the doctor injects the formula into his own body. We next meet a very hirsute Dr. Brewster, locked in a cell with another ape and trying “with all his willpower” to overcome the animal he has become. His only hope of restoring humanness is to procure an antidote of human spinal fluid, which must be extracted from live bodies. The ape and ape-man become co-conspirators, committing murders in order to obtain the doctor’s salvation. Like King Kong, the “true” animal in this story falls in love with the leading female character, ultimately killing the human/animal doctor in order to protect his love, as Brewster turns his sights on the spinal fluid of the attractive woman. In another scene of primal patricide, the noble ape destroys the animal impulses of his new rival, and Brewster’s murderous spree comes to an end.            

The capacity to metamorphose in and out of animality is an enduring theme. The hairy ape-man in Beaudine’s film resembles the werewolf character of  European storytelling (and indeed in Freudian psychoanalysis): he evokes Kafka’s images of the speaking ape and the human-turned-animal, and he  prefigures the human-animal transmutations that would appear in later sf cinema. Stories of animal/human metamorphosis are morality tales in which liminality, a state of being “betwixt and between” (Turner 1969), becomes both polluting and potentially redemptive. In sf narratives, this liminality is caused by tampering with the natural order. A “mad” scientist bent on experimenting with the borders between self and other becomes enmeshed, transformed, or destroyed by the monster he has created. Beaudine’s story is interesting in linking the human-reverting-to-animal with an animal that borders on the human: the ape’s capacity for love signals the presence of sentience within; and the destructive impulses of the man-animal are countered by the loving ministrations of an ape-human, who endearingly protects a female homo sapiens from the ravages of animality.            

The Ape Man is not about transformation into otherness but rather depicts a reversion to a former state of being. Effectively or not, the film asks viewers to see an image of human potential in the figure of the ape; in this case, the ape, a figure of liminality, is paired with image of Dr. Brewster, a human also in a state of transition.5 As in the King Kong movies, the figure of the ape paradoxically reaffirms the boundaries of the human. A critical shift in narrative emphasis occurs between King Kong and The Ape Man, however. For in this story, subjectivity is fundamentally enmeshed in a relationship with the objects and instruments of technology. Here, the submersion into, or shift out of, animal degeneration is enabled by technoscience, which redefines the corporeal and even the species-limits of the human itself.

Evolutionary Tales and a Technology of Becoming: Planet of the Apes and 2001: Space Odyssey. A telling moment in The Ape Man occurs after Dr. Brewster receives his first injection of human spinal fluid: he begins to stand erect. As the first dose wears off, he reverts to a hunched ape-like posture, suggesting his relapse into an animal state. Contemporary popular science is filled with such images, in which evolutionary progress is figuratively represented in a gradual becoming-upright. The origins of this imagery can be found in early natural history, where drawings often depicted the ape in an upright posture, pointing to his status between human being and animal nature. Today, one only has to consider the number of tales of human-to-animal metamorphosis in sf to see that a reversion to a stooped posture often signifies the beginning of an animal reversion.            

If Beaudine’s Ape Man captures the cultural anxieties that have surrounded the threat of scientific progress to the “human” condition, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) employs the figure of the simian to return film-goers to their animal origins. In the opening scenes we follow the daily actions of the original primal horde as they peacefully co-exist with other animals and engage in a little tribal competition. After the arrival of an alien black obelisk, one of the tribes is changed irrevocably, becoming the progenitor of the tool-using, dominant species that gave rise to humanity. Picking up an animal bone, this human/animal has a proto-thought: the bone can serve as a tool, an instrument for survival, and also as an aggressive weapon of attack. This is, to cite Heidegger (12), the beginning of a moment where technology becomes a “mode of revealing.” A “truth” is uncovered that carries existence into a new modality of being, where “the energy concealed in nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed [and] … man, investigating, observing, ensnares nature as an area of his own conceiving” (17-18). In Kubrick’s film, when the technological implements that lie concealed in nature are brought forth, the proto-man becomes the techno-human: his future is inscribed forever in a relationship with technology.            

Kubrick’s “Dawn of Man” sequence locates the origins of homo sapiens at the very moment that the animal moves to technoculture; the scene also dramatizes a becoming-human out the plane of the animal pack (Deleuze and Guattari 245). In this moment we recognize that the nonhuman primate was (and is) pivotal in Euro-Western humanity’s definition of itself. The category of the human relies on a logic of familiar difference grounded in the figure of the ape, which is both like and not like us. In The Open (2004), Giorgio Agamben recognizes this logic, arguing that homo sapiens is “neither a clearly defined species nor a substance; it is rather a machine or device for producing the recognition of the human” (26). “It is an optical machine,” he argues, “constructed as a series of mirrors in which man, looking at himself, sees his own image always already deformed in the features of an ape” (27). The apelike features of the beast that bares its fangs in Kubrick’s opening scenes suggest a primal separation of the human species from forms of animal otherness precisely through the control of technologies. The image of the ape serves as a mode of revealing; it is drawn into discourses on the dawn of the human in its frequent positioning as the animal left behind. If in The Ape Man science returns us to animal origins, Kubrick’s film evokes a material culture of objects and implements that would eventually, though spuriously, lead the human out of the animal terrain.            

Kubrick’s conjunctions of animal and scientific evolution find a new twist in Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968).6 Schaffner takes the “features of the ape” as a metaphor for the human condition, transforming these into a visual collective of non-human primates who inhabit the earth in a post-apocalyptic future. Reflexively referring to both Judeo-Christian and evolutionary origin narratives, Schaffner presents a world wherein humans and apes have exchanged positions in the hierarchy. A courtroom scene in which the fate of captured human astronaut Taylor (who has time-travelled from humanity’s past) is decided by a jury of scientific and judicial ape-experts presents testimony that reverses familiar discourses. As the court debates whether a human that “acts like an ape” is truly an animal or a freak of nature, we hear appeals to the “twin-poles”:

My case is simple. It is based on our first article of Faith: that the Almighty created the ape in his own image; that He gave him a soul and a mind; that He set him apart from the beasts of the jungle, and made him the lord of the planet .... These sacred truths are self-evident. The proper study of apes is apes. But certain young cynics have chosen to study man—yes, perverted scientists who advance on insidious theory called “evolution.”

The talking human animal, the ape Honorius declares, is a “speaking monster,” possibly the result of experimentation by a corrupt medical team. Appealing to the court to treat the human with dignity, another ape declares that “Not only can this man speak. He can write, he can reason.” Here the Cartesian distinction between human and animal joins the legacy of evolutionary and Judeo-Christian depictions of animal otherness: humanity is separated from the animal in the capacity for rational thought, but in the world of Planet of the Apes, it is the humans who are placed outside of boundaries of reason.           

Several scholars have interpreted Planet of the Apes as an allegory for the history of race relations and the civil-rights struggle (see, for example, Greene 1996).7 It is also useful to ask why these representations of apes, the subject of both a television series and a twenty-first century remake, have been so popular. While challenging earlier depictions of the ape as the animal-antithesis of human nature, the Planet of the Apes simultaneously reinforces notions of liminality that have for centuries characterized Euro-Western depictions of primates. In the film, the apes’ boundary-crossing situates “humanness” as a stable subject position and yet also challenges and subverts the superior status historically held by humans. Like the cyborgs in sf film, the image of the ape opens up questions of humanity’s inhumanity, its demarcation of subalternity, and its destructive dominion over the environment. Yet unlike the robot/android, the non-human animal reaches down into an ontology of the human that resides in the nature of embodiment: human bodies do animal things (there is a reference to “dirty humans” in Planet of the Apes), human bodies have animal impulses, and “humanity” cannot escape the “animality” it consistently defines itself against.            

The ape, endowed with the instruments of human material-culture in a future world, continues to remind its audience of the pliability of the human/animal interface. The muddy, grunting, scampering humans of the ape-world evoke themes of corporeal degeneracy and devolution. Yet while challenging self-aggrandizing Western identity politics, the film continues to reinscribe the logic of the Euro-Western telos: the humanizing of the animal-like other continues to rely on an animalizing of the liminal, the outsider, the “wild” human/animal. Here scampering humans might be seen as substitutes for the discourses of animal-like otherness that have defined the “primitive,” the “black” and “the animal” as objects of difference within and against which the “human” subject is constituted. As in earlier simian sf, subjectivity itself is constituted in opposition to a world that embodied animality threatens to overrun.

Simian Selfhood: Project X (1987) and Congo (1995). While the planet of the apes franchise (films and a television series) can be seen as a reflection of historical anxieties about the nature of the boundary between human and animal, they also reflect the particular discourses of their eras. Since the 1960s, scientific work in the fields of animal consciousness, primate ethnology, and ape cognition and tool-use have been transforming how humans perceive apes; research has been reconfiguring debates over the boundary between human and nonhuman primates. If apes are capable of using tools and language to communicate their thoughts and feelings, the primary qualities that once separated the human from the animal again are under threat. The uniqueness of the human, built on the capacity for complex thought and the translation of thought into constructing both material objects and methods of communication, has been challenged by experiments in simian sentience and symbol use.            

While the possibility of a speaking human shocks the ape community in Planet of the Apes, the notion of a talking ape has long been a source of contention and debate in European philosophy and scientific research. One of the key features defining the boundary between human and ape has been the capacity for speech. In a well-known treatise, Descartes declared in 1641 that “we should not confuse speech and all those signs which in the practice of human beings convey thoughts, with the natural sounds and movements that indicate passions and can be imitated by machines as well as animals” (43). Modern scholarship recognizes that the Cartesian separation between human and animal laid the epistemological foundation for subsequent knowledge practices, but Descartes’s contentions were not unchallenged even in early discourses on the tenuous boundary between human and ape.            

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Vico, Montaigne, Condillac, and Rousseau each pondered whether the ape might possess a latent potentiality to communicate with human beings. Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) wondered whether an ape might be taught to speak, commenting in his diary of an ape brought to Europe from Guinea that it “is so much like a man in most things … I do believe it already understands much English; and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak and make signs” (Pepys 160). La Mettrie (1748) also wondered whether the ape might be taught to speak a human language, given that it “shows more intelligence” (100) than other animals. He suggested that an ape endowed with speech might develop from animality into humanness:

The ape resembles us so strongly that naturalists have called it “wild man” or “man of the woods” …. [S]uch is the likeness of the structure and functions of the ape to ours that I have very little doubt that if this animal were properly trained he might at last be taught to pronounce, and consequently to know, a language. Then he would no longer be a wild man, nor a defective man, but he would be a perfect man, a little gentleman, with as much matter or muscle as we have, for thinking and profiting by his education. (100-103)          

Monboddo (1773) suggested that “the orangutans of Angola” might be seen as a “whole nation” of wild men with a latent capacity for speech. It “appears certain, that they are of our species,” he wrote, but “though they have made some progress in the arts of life, they have not advanced so far as to invent language” (187-88). In 1925, the primatologist Robert Yerkes suggested that it might be possible to teach an ape to use sign language, an idea later controversially realized in several research sites across the United States in projects that remain ongoing.8 In late twentieth-century sf cinema, apes who use sign-language are embroiled in a politics of representation that explores the moral and corporeal parameters of being human.           

Like King Kong, Virgil, the ape who uses sign-language in Jonathan Kaplan’s Project X, suggests a fundamental ethics of relationship between human and animal. The story follows an Air Force pilot, Jimmy, as he is demoted from flying planes to the demeaning task of teaching lab chimpanzees to operate flight simulators. As he makes friends with the sentient, communicating ape, he becomes caught in a moral dilemma central to contemporary animal-rights philosophy having to do with the use of great apes as objects and instruments of scientific research.9           

Born in the jungle, captured and taken to an American university animal behavior program, and then sent to a scientific flight simulation lab, the ape progresses from wildness to technoscience in a way that curiously mirrors the story of human progress that underscores human origin-narratives. In the figure of Virgil, we are reminded of Haraway’s critique of the representation of HAM, the chimpanzee sent into space in 1961 as part of the US “man-in-space” program. “Space and the tropics are both utopian topical figures in western imaginations,” she writes, “and their opposed properties dialectically signify origins and ends for the creature whose mundane life is outside both: civilized man” (Primate Visions 137). Haraway argues that “HAM, his human cousins and simian colleagues, and their englobing and interfacing technology were implicated in a reconstitution of masculinity in Cold War and space race idioms” (138). Fitted out in astronaut suit and armed with the gadgets of the military machine, HAM might indeed be seen as a form of cyborg, “simultaneously a myth and a tool, a representation and an instrument, a frozen moment and a motor of social and imaginative reality” (139). Yet the ape who uses sign-language in this film signifies more than the meeting of animal and machine in the context of industrial masculinity. Endowed with a capacity to communicate, the ape is like Taylor, the astronaut in Planet of the Apes—separated from the others of his kind by a capacity to talk and reason, Virgil becomes an icon of an inhumanity towards the other: he is different from the grunting, crouching animal pack.            

When Jimmy learns that Virgil and his fellow chimpanzees will be killed following their term of usefulness in military experiments, he becomes determined to rescue the primate: the noble human soul again tries to overcome the destructive impulse by rescuing the other from its animal fate. It is sadly ironic that two of the chimpanzees used during the filming of Project X were sent to a scientific research institute following their usefulness on the set. Eventually rescued and placed at the Primarily Primates sanctuary, the chimps, Willy and Harry, suggest the gap between the mythological world of sf and the concrete reality of scientific “fact.”10           

While Virgil spends his time in the space-world of the flight-simulator, the language-using gorilla in Frank Marshall’s Congo (1995) is returned to that other mythological pole in the Western imaginary, the tropics. In this story of a scientific quest to discover mythological blue diamonds on the island of the Lost City of Zinj (again with spurious military motives), human and ape journey into the sensuous, fecund world of the jungle armed with the cameras, notebooks, and satellites of twentieth-century technoscience. Like Virgil, Congo’s Amy has been trained to communicate at an academic research institute, this time using a computer keyboard.11 In the tropical wild, however, Amy’s character is pitted against a gang of violent grey apes zealously guarding the diamond treasure. Armed with her computer keyboard, the gorilla translates the ape gruntings into human language, mediating between the human world and the mute, libidinal world of animals. Amy’s position is clear in the human/animal hierarchy: the other gorillas are “dumb things,” she states, in a moment that iterates an encounter between a “real” sign-language-using chimpanzee and a chimp lab colony.12           

Amy can communicate using the instruments of technology, yet she also dreams of her childhood in the jungle, remembering a pre-cultural world prior to language and the discontents of civilization. Why does the language-using ape dream of a world of animality? Again, subjectivity is represented in conflict with animal origins. Like the other “progressed” apes of sf cinema, a simian sentience situates Amy as a being beyond the brute world of the jungle—yet her instinctual animality resurrects itself in dreams. For Freud, this might be read as a regression to the id; in colonial narrative it might be seen as a journey back into the heart of darkness.            

In his elegant analysis of the novel by Michael Crichton on which the movie Congo is based, Wolfe notes that Amy is “thoroughly inscribed within the singular, individuated, and finally Oedipalized regime of subjectivity” that Deleuze and Guattari recognize in identity politics, so that the colonized animal is superior to the field of animality (the grey apes), yet less than the humans armed with “an immense scientific apparatus … [the] utterly conventional tool-using, technological capacities of homo sapiens” (174). The inherent speciesism in Western cultural/political narrative, he argues, lies in the commitment to inscribing alterity in terms of humanist ethics. In reaffirming the inherent difference of the animal, we remove its perceived threat to “human” identity. In endowing the animal with a “human-like” subjectivity, in other words, we continue to inscribe it into the humanist discourse of difference on which the separation between human and animal has been based.            

We might extend Wolfe’s argument further: the anthropomorphization of the animal is a process through which the very meaning of the human has been produced. The “subjectification” of the ape in sf films is not about containing the animal as an object of difference per se: it is about representing animality as a condition against which the human progresses or degenerates. The figure of the ape exposes the foundation on which humanist ethics and politics are grounded.Each of the sf films discussed in this essay suggests that the threat lies in the animal as a boundary-line that marks a border with the human. Like the representation of techno/human hybrids in other sf worlds, the portrayal of the sf ape might be seen not so much as a reaffirmation of epistemological solidity as an expression of ontological anxiety.

Conclusion. The ape is, as Agamben suggests, an “optical machine” in which the human “looking at himself, sees his own image always already deformed in the features of an ape” (27). The “human” itself exists as an unstable identity category, always seeking to affirm its boundaries. Indeed, sf cinema might be seen as itself an “optical machine” that expresses the tenuousness of identity categories in the shifting context of changes in social and technocultural organization. While many of the films discussed above can and should be read as allegories for postcolonial dominion and conflict, they also point to a broader historical spectrum in which the figure of the human emerges out of, and back into, the field of animal being. Humanness in these films is inscribed in the field of animality itself.            

The great ape is used in sf as a reminder of the corporeal, the earthly. Bodily signifiers are intertwined with conceptions of the degeneration or evolution of human subjecthood. In simian sf tales, human subjectivity is enmeshed in an ontological relationship with technology and also with bodily, libidinal animal origins: the instruments of science are integral to both the becoming-human of the animal and the becoming-animal of the human. Tenuously perched on the tower of Euro-Western telos, with “man” as a rope over the abyss, the great ape continues to swing between the poles of humanness and animality.

                1. See Lippitt for a useful discussion of the relationship between Freudian psychoanalysis and philosophies of animality.
                2. The Tarzan stories, retold in Hugh Hudson’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), can be seen as exemplars of the “triple-coding” of race, gender, and class in narratives of human/ape relationships.
                3. See also Husband, White, and Dudley and Novak.
                4. Another version of this film, directed by John Guillermin, was released in 1976. I have not used this because the contrast between the 1933 and 2005 versions of this film  best demonstrates my point that despite changes in imaging technology and popular/scientific representations of the ape, the narrative of human/animal liminality persists.
                5. Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980) might also be considered in this framework.
                6. The film is based on the novel La planète des singes by Pierre Boulle (1963).
                7. The original film (1968) has inspired a number of sequels: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), the remake Planet of the Apes (2001); and the television series Planet of the Apes (1974) and Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975-1976).
                8. For more details see Patterson and Linden, Savage-Rumbaugh, Fouts, and Desmond.
9. Cavalieri and Singer explore these issues and debates in depth.
                10. See <>.
                11. Amy’s use of a computer keyboard bears considerable similarity to the use of a computer lexicon program in research being conducted by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.
                12. Upon meeting a group of lab colony chimpanzees, the signing chimpanzee Washoe communicated that she thought the animals were “black bugs” (see Fouts 1997).

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