In Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, feminist philosopher of science Donna Haraway (2016) attempts to imagine an alternative to what she terms the “prick tale” of the Anthropocene. “In a tragic story with only one real actor,” Haraway (2016, 39) writes, “this is the Man-making tale of the hunter on a quest to kill and bring back that terrible bounty.” Human-centric and tragic, destined to end in “double-death,” as doomed humanity—coded male, white, straight, and cis—brings about its own end from the brilliant spectacle of its own hubris (Haraway 2016, 49). Haraway attempts to imagine an alternative to such prick tales, emphasizing the promiscuous mixtures of thinking and becoming-with, of species, of animal, plant, and mineral matter churning together. “To think-with is to stay with the naturalcultural [sic] multispecies trouble on earth” (Haraway 2016, 40). As a means of learning how to stay with this trouble, Haraway ends her text with an instance of collaborative speculative fiction (SF), the “Camille Stories.” Camille is a child of the “Children of Compost,” a community that has learned to survive on an even more damaged earth than our own through becoming-with different species, viewing themselves as “humus, rather than as human or nonhuman” (Haraway 2016, 140). The generations of Camilles that Haraway envisions originate as a mixture of human and monarch butterfly, developing as symbiotic beings with traits of both originary species in a community of similar beings (e.g., Haraway 2016, 149). Crucially, the initial bonding between the two species takes place before Camille’s birth, implying that consent to species admixture might no longer be desirable (or even possible) in a world that must learn to reject prick tales and the monomyths of human dominance they represent.
Godzilla, the endlessly destructive saurian avatar of nuclear modernity, might seem an odd bedfellow for Camille’s “tentacular beard” of butterfly antenna (Haraway 2016, 152) and the postmodern species mixture that they embody. And yet, consider the words of the character Dr. Ishiro Serizawa as portrayed by Ken Watanabe in Michael Dougherty’s recent Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Testifying at a congressional hearing on “Titans,” the film’s name for the giant monsters who have begun to emerge throughout the globe, Serizawa is asked whether he intends for Godzilla to be humanity’s pet. “No,” Serizawa replies, “We are to be his.” While prior Kaiju films might take a statement like this as evidence of madness or even outright villainy for a character, Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters takes Serizawa’s perspective absolutely seriously, presenting him as heroic and justified in his ideas throughout its run time. Indeed, both the film’s protagonists and antagonists seem fundamentally to agree with Serizawa’s primary contention: humanity has lost the rights to its own autonomy given the catastrophic effects of human intervention for the Earth. Godzilla and the other Titans are the only beings that can reverse humanity’s impact on the planet, acting as a kind of “antibody,” in the film’s words, for the planet itself. This Godzilla, in other words, is just as disinterested in the prick tale of the Anthropocene as Donna Haraway.
It is worth emphasizing how much of a departure this is from Godzilla’s prior iterations. In his original appearance in Ishirō Honda’s stark Gojira (1954), Godzilla is a radioactive mutation, an almost divine being created when atomic bomb testing in the Pacific awakens and transforms the last of a primordial species resting at the bottom of the ocean. Arriving in Tokyo, the monster incinerates the city with “atomic breath,” the kitschyness of the phrase belied by the scenes of mass death and destruction that make up much of the film’s second half. Indeed, a popular rumor at the time was that the director had interspersed real footage of the devastated post–atom bomb landscapes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with his scenes of Tokyo after Godzilla’s rampage, a rumor that was all the easier to believe because Honda’s film is so interested in scarred bodies and destroyed buildings. Far less interesting for Honda are Godzilla’s motivations in his attack. We never discover why he targets Tokyo or what his reasons for destruction are, nor do the film’s characters spend much time pondering such questions. The Godzilla of Gojira simply is, incarnating nuclear modernity in its most destructive aspect and laying waste to Japan in ways that seem paradoxically both incomprehensible and intentional.
Godzilla’s origins are, of course, distinctively Japanese, and they form part of a much longer confrontation with the legacies of the atomic bomb and American occupation cum alliance (Noriega 1987). And yet, this particular history alone cannot quite account for either Godzilla’s enduring presence in Japanese cinema nor the international popularity of the creature, who has featured in American comic books, cartoon series, and two individual attempts to launch American Godzilla film franchises, of which 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters forms the most recent part. To help us better understand why Godzilla has become such a potent international presence, it might be useful to pay a bit more attention to the pricks of Donna Haraway’s prick tale. Consider, in this regard, Sigmund Freud’s “late” theory of mind, which posits that alongside the sexual or “life” instincts, Eros, which pushes organisms to combine into ever more perfect unities, there is an opposing, aggressive instinct, the “death” instinct, Thanatos, that seeks the organism’s dissolution (Freud 1961a). The struggle between Eros and Thanatos, Freud argued, constitutes both the individual and society itself, twinning together the erotic and the sadistic as simultaneously sexual and civilizational forces (Freud 1961b). Tellingly, Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, one of the final articulations of these ideas, was written on the eve of the Nazi regime. In its final lines, Freud (1961b, 112) writes:
Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness, and their mood of anxiety. And now it is to be expected that the other of the two heavenly powers, eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary. But who can foresee with what success and with what result?
Regardless of their psychoanalytic validity, Freud’s ideas are useful epitomizing examples of particular twentieth-century cultural sensibility, a sense of the creeping dissolution of modernity into a violence tinged with erotic undertones. And Godzilla, emerging from the waters after one of that century’s most devastating periods of violence, would seem to be Thanatos incarnate, the death drive given material form outside of the limited confines of humanity itself. Godzilla turning on Tokyo—and, by extension, humanity as a whole—becomes a righteous act, the scouring by nuclear fire of a modern order that can create only more and more inventive means of mass destruction.
Godzilla’s chimeric nature is crucial to this narrative. He is at once man-made and utterly inhuman, a product of nuclear technology that slips not only its control but its very comprehension. This gives Godzilla and the destruction he brings a sublime quality that is familiar in nuclear narratives, a sense that we have finally hit the limits of scientific, destructive possibility and we are awed, overwhelmed, and entranced by it even as we imagine our own immolation (cf. Masco 2004). The fact that we so clearly deserve our fate, that we have made this massive, walking death drive possible even as it escapes our grasp, only makes the aesthetics all the sharper. Take, for instance, Godzilla’s most recent Japanese iteration, Hideaki Anno’s 2016 Shin Godzilla, in which Godzilla’s radioactive rampage is staged to somber, almost elegiac music. Though brief, Godzilla’s destruction of Tokyo is the clear, almost orgasmic centerpiece of the film, replete with slow-motion shots of flames billowing and lovingly rendered beams of deadly atomic light. This, I submit, is Godzilla’s legacy: the bigger prick of them all, come to punish humanity for its sins, the pleasure of the films simultaneously moral and erotic. We deserve this, and yet it is glorious, an achievement so great that it can only end with our own destruction. Godzilla, put simply, is the Anthropocene.
This is why it is so remarkable that Godzilla so definitively opposes the Anthropocene in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Even more compelling, the solution he offers is not the total destruction of the human species, despite its responsibility, explicit in the text, for the catastrophes of climate change. Instead, the film spends some time emphasizing that Godzilla and his fellow Titans are humanity’s primordial gods, worshipped as such until they vanished from human memory. The film ends with a triumphant coronation, Godzilla standing in the center of a circle of bowing Titans, with humans on the outside viewing—and being pushed to recognize—this (re)assertion of a natural, and cosmological, order. Humans will need to live alongside Godzilla—his “pets,” as it were—so that the earth itself can continue to exist. Quite different from the somber meditation on death and frailty that ends Honda’s original film!
In this last image of Godzilla’s assumption of his true status as king of the monsters, both the giant kind and the ones who almost destroyed the earth, is where we can at last return to Camille and Haraway. On face, Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Haraway’s “Camille Stories” are radically different texts. Godzilla ends with a hierarchical assertion of dominance, still coded as male; Haraway and her collaborators’ stories celebrate species hybridity, taking their inspiration from feminist, queer, and non-normative SF. Godzilla wins by destroying a foreign Titan coded as an invader; Camille and the Children of Compost are engaged in arts of living while Haraway (2016, 42) rejects the “trials of strength” model throughout her book as just another prick tale. And yet, both Godzilla and Camille figure ways out of the Anthropocene; more than that, they suggest that, inevitably, if humanity is to continue beyond the current moment it will need to reconsider its very species-being. Camille and Godzilla are thus both aspirational figures, sketching out a new genre of post-Anthropocene SF. These are not texts of collapse, dystopia, or mere survival. Instead, they imagine a world in which humans can finally get over themselves and recognize the possibility of ways of living that go beyond the boundaries of humanity itself.
Freud, Sigmund. 1961a. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton. Originally published in 1920.
———. 1961b. Civilization and its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton. Originally published in 1930.
Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Masco, Joseph. 2004. “Nuclear Technoaesthetics: Sensory Politics from Trinity to the Virtual Bomb in Los Alamos.” American Ethnologist 31, no. 3: 349–73.
Noriega, Chon. 1987. "Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare: When 'Them!' Is U.S." Cinema Journal 27, no. 1: 63–77.