When does imperfection become ugliness?

The aliens in “District 9” are not humans. So this is not an obvious case of enhancement. However, I choose this image to show that “imperfection” is a matter of gradation. Prof. Thomsen pointed out that the imperfect can be an aesthetic quality and is indeed what makes us human. We should therefore be very leery of attempts to remove all human imperfections. Yet the question is at what point imperfection shades into ugliness, deformity, or monstrosity? How much imperfection/ugliness are we willing to tolerate before we feel the urge to correct or reject it? The aliens in the film have repulsive appearances and make funny noises when they speak. Still, we are shown that they are extremely intelligent and technologically advanced, that a father loves his son in the same tender and protective manner as a human father, and that they are capable of trusting and cooperating with humans and even saving the protagonist’s life. In other words, they have all the inner attributes that make up what Fukuyama calls the “essence” of humanity (moral agency, language, and empathy). Except that they are aesthetically challenged (to put it mildly) and technologically hypertrophic.

The disconcerting combination of horrid countenances and superhuman powers is to me a kind of warning. As Francis Fukuyama notes, we cannot anticipate all the complications that might ensue from our pursuit of biotechnological enhancement: what is an unalloyed good from an individual’s perspective (such as longevity) may have highly undesirable social ramifications. Also, we tend to think of the techno-posthuman condition as one in which we will all have such wonderful prosthetics as wings and can dance in space like angels. Instead, we might do well to prepare for the possibility of a very un-beatific future. Indeed, if all we want is stronger bodies, longer life, and superior brains, what better form to assume than that of the bug-aliens in “District 9” or Philip K. Dick’s “electric ants”?images

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3 Comments on "When does imperfection become ugliness?"

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Leon Human
Hi Haiyan. Interesting take on the fact that a hierarchy of wants could lead to unbeatific futures. As I’m sure you know, District 9 has many resonances with South Africa’s apartheid history, and Cape Town had a District 6 that was bulldozed and the people relocated as not being ‘normal’ white Caucasians. The language that the ‘Shrimps’ speak is reminiscent of the clicking languages of the Khoisan (bushmen) and Khoikhoi (hottentot), and many current indigenous languages like Zulu and Xhosa still employ 3 or 4 distinct clicking sounds. Of course, this did not sound very soothing to the European ear… Read more »
Mads Søndergaard
Interesting observations indeed. But it is, perhaps, also worth considering general trends within aesthetics themselves. In the same fashion that it was once beautiful to be well-insulated, so to speak, back when it was a sure sign of wealth and prosperity, or when having a tan was deemed unsightful, because it reeked of manual labour and poor social status, we might see that, whatever aesthetic alterations that follow in the wake of our search for cognitive or physical enhancement, in itself becomes a standard of beauty. Say cerebral implants are invented before the fall of capitalism, making them a thing… Read more »
Eva Krarup
Eva Krarup
Thanks for these interesting questions, Haiyan. I haven’t seen District 9 but when reading your post and the questions it has provoked in you, I was reminded of Frankenstein. When you described how the extraterrestrials are depicted as tender, loving, protective etc., it made me think of the way Shelley depicts a (at the beginning) very kind and tender monster that only comes to identify with his monstrosity through the way people treat him (and thus gradually evolves into someone “evil”). I don’t know if the same development is present in District 9 as well but it seems that both… Read more »