Dossier » District 9

“Ceaseless Social War”: District 9

by Jason S Polley

Urban segregation is not a frozen status quo, but rather a ceaseless social war in which the state intervenes regularly in the name of ‘progress,’ ‘beautification,’ and even ‘social justice for the poor’ to redraw spatial boundaries to the advantage of landowners, elite homeowners, and middle-class commuters […]. The contemporary scale of removal is immense: every year hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of poor people—legal tenants as well as squatters—are forcibly evicted from Third World neighborhoods (Mike Davis, Planet of Slums)

District 9 - “Ceaseless Social War”: District 9 -

District 9 begins with an office man being told how to perform for his second-take in front of the camera: “just look straight into the lens.” Named Wikus, the everyman clarifies that he and his fellow “Alien Affairs workers” “engage with the Prawn on behalf of MNU, and on behalf of humans.” The scene abruptly shifts to a wide-angle shot of Johannesburg from a distance: suburbs in the foreground, city in the background dwarfed by a colossal ship hovering above, its insidious shadow darkening half of the no-man’s desert- and scrub-land at screen centre. The reach of the looming ship, it appears, almost trespasses into the sanctity of the suburbs. Perhaps the safe, securitized suburbs are violable.


A new voice then recounts the events of the ship’s arrival two decades earlier. This narrator focuses on the communal surprise that accompanied the spacecraft’s materialization in South Africa, rather than Manhattan, DC, or Chicago. The anachronistic implication (the ship arrived 15 years before 9/11; 20 years before Obama) being that these US sites are more worthy of alien visitation, be it ambassadorial or terroristic.


Spliced with shaky vérité shots of urban congestion, smoky fire, helicopter surveillance, and the hull of the Starship Enterprise-like alien vessel, Gray Bradnam (UKNR Chief Correspondent) informs us that the craft silently hovered for three months before, “after much deliberation,” MNU personnel “physically cut their way in.” From behind yet more shaky shots (each beset by sponsor logo and/or time indicator), the voice of Sarah Livingstone (Sociologist, Kempton Park University) explains that “We were on the verge of first contact. The whole world was watching.”


Mylar-suited human resources, their white boots toeing slimy torch lighted darkness, then monopolize the movie screen. And another voice, echo-y, aghast, lunar, exclaims “Oh my God” as what can only be described as a horde of nonhumans recoils from the new light, circling tighter around their very human bin fires.        


Gray: “The creatures were extremely malnourished. They were very unhealthy.
They seemed to be aimless. There was a lot of international [pause] pressure on us at the time. The entire world was looking at Johannesburg. And so we had to do the right thing. The government then established an aid group that started to ferry the aliens to a temporary camp that was set up just beneath the ship”
Sarah: “We didn’t have a plan. [Pause] There was a million of them. So, what
was a temporary holding zone soon became fenced, it became militarized, and before we knew it, it was a slum.”    


As alternate cameras capture omnipresent helicopters, surveillance towers, crude fences, and UIO aid workers, not to mention the possibly infighting Prawns, one of whom claws meat from a cow skull, Francis Moraneau (CIV Engineer Team) offers the last words of the film’s ominous opening: “Well, the truth is, nobody knew what this place was. There’s a lot of secrets in District 9.” As the camera pans out, we see what we’ve all seen before, if only onscreen or through the TV-like tinted windows of hopefully-never-stopping SUVs: a giant heap of unplanned, informal, shantytown shelters. “Kurtzian horror,” as Mike Davis would label it, promptly follows (198) when MNU begins the legalized banishment of the now 1.8 million Prawns to the fringes, a “camp” 200 kilometres outside Johannesburg.

This review approaches Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 documentary-realist film District 9 mainly through the intersecting lenses of urban studies and biopolitics. Though prima facie a sci-fi thriller pitting the human against the alien, at the heart of the possible-world that Blomkamp cinematizes is an all-too-modern, all-too-human war: the one between the vanishing urban middle-classes and the explosion of urban poor. Nigerian fiction writer Fidelis Balogun details this social war when he describes the literal results of the Big Bang of urban poverty in Lagos, Nigeria: “The middle class rapidly disappeared and the garbage heaps of the increasingly rich became the food table of the multiplied population of abjectly poor” (80). But the squatter is not only “condemned to forced anexoria” (Esposito and Campbell 58). Nor is he simply forced to abide the “excremental surplus” that characterizes the “poor cities on every continent [that] are little more than clogged, overflowing sewers” (Davis 137). The squatter is controlled in terms of his forced itinerancy. The urban poor, in other words, are nomads, “transients in a perpetual state of relocation” as urban planner Tunde Agbola depicts their predicament in his home-city Lagos (in Davis 98).


But enforced transience is not only a global Third World phenomenon. Official dispossession of the urban poor occurs in the First World as well. This from “The Harper’s Index,” October 2009: “Amount New York City spends each year on air, bus, and train tickets to send homeless people out of town: $500,000” (13). Blomkamp’s illegal aliens, or Prawns, as MNU calls them, therefore translate into more than just the Calibans of apartheid Africa. And their demarcation as dark others has not changed much. Instead, this differentiation has spread globally—and often beyond race. The clash of classes, the rich stealing from the poor, the poor feeding off the remnants of the rich’s excess, is materialized physically in the slum and polito-culturally in the fear of contamination.


Both urban studies and biopolitics focus on the appropriations and divisions of space and the interactions of human populations within increasingly policed zones. Davis offers a sobering image of the contemporary cityscape: “Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement and decay” (19). He qualifies this dystopian depiction with hard data: “Residents of slums, while only six percent of the city population of the developed countries, constitute a staggering 78.2 percent of urbanites in the least-developed countries; this equals fully a third of the global urban population” (23). Building on Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics and racism in 1975 and 76, the little-translated work of Roberto Esposito clarifies the essential social connections between community and immunity. Timothy Campbell explains: “Esposito will argue that the idea of the modern subject who enjoys civil and political rights is itself an attempt to attain immunity from the contagion of the possibility of community. Such an attempt to immunize the individual from what is common ends up putting the community at risk as immunity turns upon itself and its constituent element” (3-4). In Esposito’s own words, “what safeguards the individual and political body is also what impedes its development, and beyond a certain point risks destroying it” (Esposito and Campbell 51).


The immunitary paradigm, the dread of the always-already alien other, the fear of contagion, and the ensuing balkanization of modern (urban) life, sits at the heart of the heart of the city in District 9. District 9 thus masterfully contextualizes the apocalyptic—and thanatopolitical—tenor of our most pressing of contemporary predicaments. Blomkamp’s faux documentary narrativizes (as I will show while unpacking a series of questions that I’ve embedded into this claustrophobic introduction) what Davis would call “the true ‘clash of civilizations’” (205).

Johannesburg? Given South Africa’s notorious legacy of forceful eviction, not too mention the apartheid in effect until 1994, as featured in Anthony Fabian’s Sandra Laing-biopic Skin (2009), this setting should be anything but extraordinary. South Africa’s still-extant racial segregation accentuates the neediness and otherness of the uninvited Prawns. “They’re spending so much money to keep them here when they could be spending it on other things. But [pause] at least, at least their keeping them separate from us,” reasons one of the black “interviewees” in District 9. “They must just go. I don’t know where, they must just go” agonizes another black speaker. And another (and this un-ironically): “if they were from another country we might understand, but they are not even from this planet.”  


Even if one manages somehow to ignore Blomkamp’s thinly disguised allegory of institutionalized racialism and consequent racism, his critique of social and class segregation in the South African context should be transparent. In fact, the film’s location might even appear as perversely nostalgic since the city’s centre is now “a mixture of slum-tenements and middle-class apartment complexes” (Davis 33). No longer “the financial capital of the entire continent,” Johannesburg’s business district “has become a center of informal trading and African micro-enterprises” (33). A dystopian future no longer waits in the wings to supersede Johannesburg’s past. The dystopic is happening now. Blomkamp’s Prawn slum population in Tembiza has basically doubled. Tembiza’s now thus a megaslum, now the equally unruly (and bigger) twin of Soweto, in Johannesburg’s township Gauteng, which currently slumhouses over 1.2 million squatters.  


And if these conjunctions are not enough—coincidences that reach across the country to capital Cape Town, which also holds the dubious distinction of hosting one of the world’s most populated megaslums (Cape Flats: 1.2 million)—we may consider Johannesburg in light of the fear of the Prawns. Whereas the withdrawing rich fear contact with the massifying bottom feeders, the informal scavengers (that somehow manage to subsist and produce under ever-deteriorating conditions) fear the global stage. Davis explains that in “the urban Third World, poor people dread high-profile international events—conferences, dignitary visits, sporting events, beauty contests, and international festivals—that prompt authorities to launch crusades to clean up the city: slum-dwellers know that they are the ‘dirt’ or the ‘blight’ that their governments prefer the world not to see” (104). We might therefore read District 9 in light of World Cup 2010, to be hosted by South Africa. The resistance and rioting early in the film, on the part of alien and human alike, might not only be about control and contagion, but also be about appearances and performances. Each social sector attempts to appropriate and protect its own space.     

Acronyms implode meaning. They lend legitimacy to the oft unexplained. Viewers confront a number of these impenetrable ellipses in District 9. Wicus, newly promoted to head the serving of 24-hour eviction notices to the Prawns—a deportation authorized via MNU’s bill I-27—has recourse to several of these impenetrable statutes when he and his militarized task force confront the aliens. And apart from the acronym MNU, which translates into the half redundant, half satirical Multi-National United, none of these is explicated. This, however, appears to be the point: the aliens do not deserve any explanation.


Nevertheless, this double-think extends beyond the domain of the Prawns. Neither do we the viewers, the audience of the multi-camera, multi-cut news documentary, receive any acronym unpacking. Foreign terms only appear to be readable by MNU. As witnesses we too are therefore controlled by MNU. Wicus makes this plain when he shoves the camera away in the midst of situations beyond his control. Following his clumsy contamination by an unidentified black spray, for instance, “live” filming resumes with Wicus’s discomfited “…you’re gonna cut that part? You cut that?” A version of Big Brother, MNU remanufactures the news.

Secrets? Thanatopolitics? “Off-camera lives,” a TV talk-show host in Don DeLillo’s play Valparaiso attests, “are unverifiable” (83). The Orwellian adage applies to both District 9 and MNU. Despite the cameras and towers monitoring the peripheries of the militarized compound, clandestine activity abounds within. Like any slum, District 9 is “off-world.” Davis explains: “Since the 1970s it has become commonplace for governments everywhere to justify slum clearance as an indispensable means of fighting crime. Slums, moreover, are frequently seen as threats simply because they are invisible to state surveillance and, effectively, ‘off-Panopticon’” (111). Whereas upper-classes inhabit increasingly policed Disneyfied safeworlds, complete with gates, passports, CCTV, curfews, and air surveillance, slumdwellers lurk within informal spaces that escape the camera monitors synonymous to the modern (sub)urban experience.  


But MNU eventually proves to be no-less-clandestine than the proles or Prawns with whom they engage. MNU’s unaccountability emerges when Wicus too is forced to squat off-Panopticon. No longer looming above his social inferiors, he finds some refuge amongst them once his post-exposure metamorphosis lands him in MNU’s underworld corridors and affiliated hospital of horrors. Here, Orwell meets Kafka—and meets Kafka again. Though Wicus arrives home to celebration after his day delivering I-27’s to disaffected Prawns—a day that finds him inhaling an unknown substance, resulting in black bile nose seepage; and flung ten-metres in the air by an unruly alien, leading to a badly lacerated arm—he leaves unconscious after leaking blackness and then collapsing onto the promotion-baked meats. He awakes in hospital. His unwrapped arm reveals Prawn “tentacles.” Alarums sound within, and he’s rushed away. He regains full consciousness with a Prawn weapon in his altered limb. And without human precedent, he’s physically able to fire this foreign biotechnology, thus signaling his contagion, his new membership in the alien community. Even his non-Prawn hand somehow depresses previously untouchable triggers. Contact with the Prawn has infected Wicus to the point that he’s contracted their genetic coding. Doubly emphasizing his exposure and contamination is the fact that when Wicus is forced, by cattle prod, to shoot a Prawn, the victim’s bloody entrails explode all over him. An abject figure, to use the language of Julia Kristeva and Mary Douglas, Wicus fails to shelter his own bodily borders. Wicus leaks. He’s leaked upon. He’s therefore not entirely a subject, not fully human. By analogy, he transforms into an erstwhile member of capitalism’s formal economy. He’s a squatter.


Not unlike Kafka’s Gregor Samsa from “The Metamorphosis,” Wicus is at once not human and not not human. Substantially, he remains Wicus. Yet, The Fly-like, he’s swiftly acquiring the physical characteristics of the Prawn. As a result, MNU’s head surgeon makes his final opinion plain: Wicus is in “a key stage of the metamorphosis.” MNU’s chain of command thus deliberates over the “harvest” of his organs, beginning with his heart, in hopes of obtaining what is the corporation’s Holy Grail: the means to operate the aliens’ arsenal of DNA-sensitive weapons. With this cinematic move, Blomkamp references what Davis has called “The most ghoulish part of the informal economy, even more than childhood prostitution”: “the surging world demand for human organs, a market created in the 1980s by breakthroughs in kidney transplant surgeries” (190). And MNU’s decision to operate directly—Wicus watching as open-eyed as us, the privileged viewers of the un-filmed, of the unverifiable—leads us to yet another acronym. The man who finally sanctions the organ harvesting operation with a cool “OK, I say let’s go” is nothing if not CIA.  


Wicus responds by harnessing his novel interstitial strength. An everyman turned alien turned antihero, he escapes through MNU’s Kafkaesque corridors to the relative safety of District 9, thereby reclaiming his sense of subjectivity. He thereby evades what we might label a contemporary form of “Nazi thanatopolitical” doom. “The Nazi immunitary apparatus” Esposito theorizes, “is characterized by the absolute normativization of life, the double enclosure of the body, and the anticipatory suppression of life” (Campbell 14). Campbell clarifies that what is integral “to Esposito’s reading of the biological tonality of the Nazi dictatorship is the recognition of the therapeutic goal the Nazis assigned the concentration camp: only by exterminating the Jews did the Nazis believe that the German genos could be strengthened and protected. And so for Esposito, the specificity of the Nazi experience for modernity resides in the actualization of biology, when ‘the transcendental of Nazism’ becomes life [;] its subject, race, and its lexicon, biological” (15).


Borrowing from Donna Haraway and Esposito, Laura Bazzicalupo counters the Nazi zeitgeist by stressing the transformative hybridity of human agency. She maintains that “the human is not a given, but that which can be modified. We graft the other onto us inasmuch as we are capable of assimilating and metabolizing it. By virtue of this, the corporeal doesn’t dissolve into the virtual or the technological, because body and life represent an active passivity, the mnestic and selective features of that creative assimilation” (115). Whether we elect to read Wicus’ metamorphosis as sci-fi hyperbole or slum allegory, what cannot be denied is how he exposes the MNU’s Straussian noble lie. Prawn contact does not dehumanize him. Rather, it liberates him, even if only conjecturally. After all, he escapes from the MNU compound to the alien one. Unable to publicly validate Wicus’ off-Panopticon survival, MNU disseminates headline news detailing his severe contagion due to “prolonged sexual activity with the aliens.” In light of District 9’s African setting, Blomkamp’s subtext is clear. Even without this subtext, MNU’s disinformative mandate is to perpetuate public fear of the infected off-world urban other.

Nigerians? A motley collection of Nigerians lives with, if seemingly not alongside, Blomkamp’s illegal urban aliens. These others amongst others are at once complexly involved in arms trading, interspecies prostitution, alien cannibalism, postcolonial colonization, and World Bank-like criminally priced rations allotment. The Nigerian presence in District 9 consequently speaks to an array of institutionalized evils attending IMF-sponsored Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs, fittingly) in the Third World beginning in the mid-1980s. “The weird logic of this economic programme,” Balogen marvels, “seemed to be that to restore life to the dying economy, every juice had first to be SAPed out of the under-privileged majority of the citizens” (80). “[F]inanced by offshore lenders like the World Bank and immune to local vetoes,” the mandate of SAPs in Third World cities is to “clear, build, and defend islands of cyber-modernity amidst unmet urban needs and general underdevelopment” (Davis 99).


Infamous SAPing in Lagos proved particularly telling. Speaking of the “repeated forced exoduses to clear the way for highways and luxury compounds” in urban Africa, Davis explains that one of the most “notorious and heartbreaking—rivaling Apartheid’s demolitions of Sofiatown and Crossroads—was the destruction of Maroko in Lagos in 1990. A former fishing village at the swampy end of Lekki Peninsula, Maroko was colonized by poor people displaced in the late 1950s ‘so that Victoria Island and Ikoyi could be drained and developed for Europeans and wealthy Africans.’ Although impoverished, Maroko became famous for its populist joie de vivre, dark humor and spectacular music. By the early 1980s, the once marginal Lekki Peninsula itself was considered a prime site for the extension of high income residences. The 1990 bulldozing of Maroko left 300,000 homeless” (101). Some of these exiled, of these structurally-made itinerant Nigerians make District 9 their new home. And they initially appear to be reproducing the nationalism that itself reproduces the civilizing mission and exclusionary practices of colonialism. After all, they have their own heavily armed Prawn-free compound within the larger, unruly Prawn compound.      


But the arrival of the new Wicus complicates this reading. His position with MNU enabled him to officially (and mysteriously) overlook the presence of the Nigerian others. While circulating the I-27, he cautions a subordinate, “Don’t even look at them, man!” Now a member of the informal economy, however, he has no choice but to approach them, first for food, then for weapons. They are fascinated by his metamorphosis and attendant ability to fire alien weapons. An ironic Jesus, their daunting, deadpan leader-prophet even licks Wicus’ wounds. The Nigerians, we have already learned, have been consuming Prawn flesh in hopes of assimilating themselves. The reason why becomes clear when MNU returns en masse militaire to repossess the AWOL Wikus, who has become “the most valuable business artifact on earth.”  


In order to safeguard District 9, and thus their survival in the informal economy, the Nigerians have formed a guerrilla army. And with Wikus’ help, these avant-garde urban freedom fighters defend their slum sector, thus delaying, for a while at least, their deportation a world away to MNU’s “concentration camp.” The Nigerians martial moves typify what Davis would call the “urbanization of insurgency” (203). Davis rallies for active revolt on the part of the terminally marginal: “the future of human solidarity depends upon the militant refusal of the new urban poor to accept their terminal marginality within global capitalism” (202). His apocalyptic tone should not go unappreciated. “As the Third World middle classes increasingly bunker themselves in their suburban themeparks and electrified ‘security villages,’ they lose moral and cultural insight into the urban badlands they have left behind” (202). Without this human, all-to-human insight, we will only compound the daily violence and class apartheid of economic and communal exclusion, a segregation that is evermore sanctioned and ignored—and perilous. “One sixth of the world’s population—1 billion people—live in slums,” writes Vickie Collins (46). According to the UN, this fraction could double by 2030.

Works Cited


Balogun, Fidelis Odun. Adjusted Lives: Stories of Structural Adjustments. Trenton: African
Writer’s Library, 1995.
Bazzicalupo, Laura. “The Ambivalences of Biopolitics.” Trans by Clarissa Clo. Diacritics
36.2 (2006): 109-116.
Campbell, Timothy. “Bios, Immunity, Life: The Thought of Roberto Esposito.” Diacritics
36.2 (2006): 2-22.
Collins, Vicky. “Off the Beaten Path.” Ode 7.3 (April 2009): 44-46.
Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. New York: Verso, 2006.
District 9. Dir Neill Blomkamp. Prod Peter Jackson. Perf Sharlto Copley. TriStar, 2009.
DeLillo, Don. Valparaiso. New York: Scribner, 1999.
Esposito, Roberto, and Timothy Campbell. “Interview.” Diacritics. 36.2 (2006): 49-56.
 “Harper’s Index.” Harper’s. October 2009: 13.