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    This is the second in a continuing series on looking at Speculative Fiction (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Superheroes) through the lens of Psychiatric theories.  This diary will pick up where the last one left off, discussing Prometheus and the question of human empathy.  Last time, we dealt mainly with the threads concerning the Engineers and the tiny humans in the story.  This time, we explore humans and their creations, as typified by Weyland as embodiment of his corporation and David as his "son."  The other "Weyland creation," of course, no less a product of the corporate machine as womb and nursemaid, is Vickers.  Again, issues of reproduction, family, and inclusiveness come to the fore, but the repeated theme in this triad is one of narcissism.  I will explain how I believe clinical narcissism to be the bane of modern humanity, and I suspect I will keep coming back to this in future diaries, as a lot of Speculative Fiction is concerned with it.    

     Spoilers ahead.

    A narcissist is not someone who is full of himself.  That is more properly referred to as self-centrism or egotism.  Although annoying, it does not necessarily connote a fragile personality.  A narcissist is more like a Faberge egg.  If you hit it hard enough, you discover that for all its frills and stones, it is hollow and weak.  Many talented and powerful people have narcissistic vulnerabilities, areas of weakness which can incapacitate them if circumstances are right.  But the inveterate narcissist, aware of his/her flaws on some level, centers their very being on maximizing their seeming importance so as to guard against such a defeat.  It becomes their life's mission, instead of connections with others or providing a meaningful legacy to others.  As such, from an early age, most narcissists treat others as objects and relationships as transactions.  What one can get from another is more important than a sense of meaning from the relationship itself or the quality of shared experience or learning another's viewpoint.

     It is fairly evident that Weyland is this sort of character.  What is his mission?  More life.  Specifically, more life so as to approach the abilities of the god-like Engineers.  He wishes to finally put himself above other people, without any sense of doubt.  It is just as vital that this mission be kept as secretive as possible, so as not to reveal his frailty.  Even when it is revealed to Shaw, he does not allow himself to be seen as a weary senescent, as we discussed in the last diary.  He must be the godhead of Weyland Corporation to the bitter end, not a mortal.  Of course, the Engineer lances right through that construction in an instant, literally striking down Weyland with his own works (David).

     Winnicott, who specialized in psychiatric theories of development in the prior century, posited that we all constructed a false self to interact with the world.  This filtered our true feelings, protecting us and others from the full force of our feelings and inner vulnerabilities.  The narcissist often constructed such an elaborate False Self, however, so as to be very different than the person inside.  Moreover, this False Self became so convincing/distracting that the narcissist him/herself confused it with their real emotions and motivations.  We know very little about the real Weyland.  Call this a plot error if you will, but in a 3 hour movie, all we could really know about a narcissistic antagonist is that he/she will do anything to avoid appearing vulnerable.  Nothing else about them should be apparent.  They will seem to be a focal point for their own machinations, and not much else.  Well, mission accomplished, so to speak.

     We're not really sure by the end if Weyland can separate himself from his lust for immortality.  That's all there is of him; the rest is already long dead.  The revenant King who will not surrender the throne is an old trope in mythologies from around the world, and is probably based in the shared understanding that a skilled narcissist will come to rule all around him but only be an empty robe bearing a weighty crown.  The trappings of power are carried around by a husk without concern for his subjects or connection to those around him.  Weyland sees David as his son, rather than Vickers as his daugher, partially because David is a sign of his power.  He made him.  He is, like Weyland, the corporation made flesh.  Ostensibly, although Weyland is wrong in this assumption, he thinks that David has no ambitions that he did not place there.  Narcissism can run in families partially because children are viewed as objects, and without mirroring of more nuanced relationships in early development, the children come to see this as a normal human condition.  Generations become vessels for individual recognitions and acquisition of things, rather than ongoing iterations of beliefs and thoughtful actions.  Despite Weyland's dismissal of her, and maybe because of it, Vickers has been sucked into such a trap.  She even seems to compete with David by trying to appear machine-like to the rest of the crew, getting out of cryo-sleep first and maintaining a nearly emotionless exterior.  Father prizes the mechanical child, so the biological one incorporates lifelessness as part of her False Self.

    Psychiatry has continued to ponder this personality type.  The DSM-IV-TR has a specific set of criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  Any five of nine traits are consistent with a diagnosis, which must also cause problems adapting to interpersonal relationships to constitute disorder.  

           i. expects to be recognized as superior
           ii. preoccupied with unlimited success, power, brilliance
           iii. believes that he/she can only be understood by other high-status people
           iv. requires admiration
           v. has unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment
           vi. takes advantage of others to achieve his/her own ends
           vii. is unwilling to recognize needs and feelings of others
           viii. often envious or believes others envy him/her
           ix. shows arrogant attitudes

     Biologically speaking, low empathy has been correlated with weak activity in areas involved with the emotional aspect of pain during tasks to view others in distress or pained faces.  There is also less recruitment of cortical territory involved with self-reflection during such tasks.  This does not definitively mean that there is predestination for narcissism or related disorders of empathy, as these patterns of activity might reflect circuitry that has developed over the life of the person.  Nonetheless, some genetics might predispose towards more narcissistic vulnerability.  There is certainly a growing body of developmental research by "attachment theorists," who focus on bonds between caregiver and child, that strongly hint at an intrusive or invalidating parenting style leading to various empathic difficulties in the child as they mature.  Winnicott himself believed that as an infant grew into a toddler, optimal frustration was key towards a healthy sense of independence.  Attachment theory now generally puts forth the notion that if a growing infant is not responded to sufficiently, mistrust and vengeful interaction can become ingrained in the child.  On the other hand, continued immediate and over-encompassing response to any cry of distress, particularly as the child became mobile and more able, could lead to an inner sense of weakness coupled with the outer sense of entitlement.  

     The unhappy familial triad of Weyland, Vickers and David are differing examples of narcissistic persona, and also illustrate to some degree inter-generational transmission of the flaw.  Vickers, as we have discussed, is trying to be something she is not, a near-perfect homunculus.  She hides the lifepod from the crew, not just to prevent mutiny or her father's near-corpse, but to hide her own fears of death.  It is disguised as a luxury suite.  It is a gated community in space.  She knows in her inner core that she is not a paragon of perfection, even as she conceals it with outward protestations at being seen as inhuman.  Still, she is driven to mimic much of the coldness of her homunculus sibling, so we know this is her true aim.  And this exterior also blends together with a clearly narcissistic one, in which she arrogantly speaks down to the crew, constantly demands she be explicitly recognized in charge, and slavers for her father's death to fuel her rise to power.  In fact, she goes on the mission to verify his death and to avoid board meetings where "there was still a question as to who was in charge."  Theron does a good job of suddenly coming to life with hateful gall at having to be seen as impotent.  

     I think the more interesting subplot is David and what it reveals about the turn of the 22nd century replicant models.  If we posit that he is of the same type as Ash or Bishop, we can see a gradual simplification of the design in order to make them more safe.  Ash does not have human morality, and is swayed by his awe of the Xenomorph as a perfect consumer, but he is not as capable as David.  Bishop only appears to be more human because he is even less curious about things, and therefore doesn't wander too far off his humans' instructions.  We might imagine that at some point, Weyland-Yutani decided that a curious robot is a dangerous one, and made them more and more limited as they kept precipitating disaster.  But David is merely carrying out his larger design, to obtain knowledge, so as to be a prepared guide when they arrive at LV223.  If he expanded this quest for knowledge in a narcissistic way, this may very well have been his impetus to experiment with the biofluid, as it clearly had nothing to do with his instructions from Weyland to find an Engineer.  And since he sees the humans as just another construction, he has no reason to feel badly toward them for using them as lab rats.  He just wants more knowledge, which is what he was designed to do.  

     This stands in contrast to the biotech replicants of the Tyrell Corporation, also from the Ridley Scott oeuvre.  They were dangerous and rebellious because they had the capacity to learn how to interact, and to band together.  It reflects the difference between Tyrell and Weyland.  Both were aging and weak kings, but witness that Tyrell denies his creation more life because he readily admits he cannot.  He puts himself forward as a proud creator, but one who has not wanted to push the limits of his creative gifts beyond reason.  He will not submit his creation, Roy, to the possibility of death before his time in a quest for more life.  He is proud of Roy too, not just for what he can do on the battlefield, but for figuring out how to return to challenge his maker.  Tyrell, still certainly flawed, has fashioned homunculi that can form group dynamics for aims and possibly feel for one another.  Despite the Voight-Kampf test anticipating otherwise, the advanced models do begin to develop empathy, and not just after they are incapacitated and need help (as David does at the end of Prometheus).  In a parallel, Tyrell is much more accepting of his mortality than Weyland.

     David can also be seen as a stand-in for the corporation.  He is a creation of the founder, controls some of the employees to such a degree that some found it a plot hole, and will live on after the founder is dead.  He is a competitor to Vickers, analogous to how she will never rule over her father's kingdom as completely as he did; there will always be board members arguing with her, despite her delusions.  And he uses crew members without thinking.  Like Skynet in Cameron's mythology, he is the Unheimlich reflection of our making Corporations into entities with personhood and rights.  And what narcissists our corporations have become, as we gave them different penalties for infringing on life, liberty and property than we gave to ourselves.  We didn't allow them optimal frustration as they were birthed in the 19th Century.  So, we should not be surprised by their continued actions as entities: preoccupied with unlimited market share, expecting unreasonably favorable treatment, taking advantage of humans for their own ends, unwilling to recognize true needs (rather than wants), and through spokespeople constantly accusing us of envy.

    David does have capacity for envy, though.  He spies on dreams, first to understand but eventually to pry.  He perverts Shaw's partnership, because it is alien and provides the members of that couple with rewards he has never been granted.  Are we sure he is capable of hurt and want?  No.  However, he repeats a line from Lawrence of Arabia that might provide a clue: "The trick is not minding that it hurts."  He sees this as his advantage, that he is not going to be suspected of emotion if he keeps it hidden.  We are probably meant to believe that he has developed some capacity for injury.  Just as Tyrell's creations have been granted some of his mindset, so too has Weyland's been granted his weak inner core.  

     For much of the film, it is possible that David, more than just being a narcissist, is what Otto Kernberg termed a "malignant narcissist."  This concept is largely equivalent with the skillful sociopath that haunts the dreams of the popular imagination, a narcissist with some antisocial qualities.  The malignant narcissist does not transgress law merely for the thrill of it, and refrains from breaking codes indiscriminately.  He seeks to use and destroy in the service of a prestige-building mission.  Seen by some around him as cold or wooden, he uses this reputation to seem above injury, and thereby conceal his more vengeful tendencies; this is particularly useful when he must refrain from lashing out before a plan is brought to fruition, and must mimic the restraint that most of us have because of empathic identification with the other.  They tend to avoid legal repercussion, and they pose the greatest risk to societies, as they can lead others to act in an unempathic manner.  Their malignancy is both in terms of the quality of their character and their capacity to spread their cruel detachment to entire nations.  They can read others, but feel nothing akin to what most of us do; imaging studies show them to have even less activation of emotional empathy circuits than most narcissists.  Theirs is a poor prognosis, and pity is truly the best defense against them, as well as remaining vigilant to keep them away from the levers of power.

     David, fortunately, is still learning.  In what some viewers (Andrew Sullivan among them) saw as evidence of Grace, Shaw gives David a chance to redeem himself at the end of the film.  It's important that David is crippled at this point in time, not just for the reasons stated in the last diary (i.e., this recapitulates the survival advantage of empathy) but because he isn't much of a threat anymore.  This isn't Grace per se, so much as it would have been had he was still in command of his full powers.  Even so, David's capacity to reciprocate and warn Shaw of the oncoming Engineer shows some room for growth.  There is hope that he can change, and perhaps that his malignancy is not destiny.  Instead, he has been under the tutelage of a user (Weyland) for his entire life, and is only now coming to question whether this is the sole way to succeed.  Does this mean we should assist and pity those who mean to use us?  Within reason, this strategy cannot hurt.  Those who can be moved to change might.  Those who cannot be moved will be enraged at our lack of fear and our discussion of their weakness, and give themselves away more fully.  As a treater, it is all I can do.  I certainly do not pretend to be able to help everyone, and sometimes I have to end a treatment when manipulation to non-therapeutic gain is repeatedly presented.  That said, if I do not keep trying to identify the hurt in my fellow human beings, even when that injury is a blindness to empathy itself ... then the malignancy in the other has already won.  The "black goo" has triumphed.    

Originally posted to Ptolemy on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 09:32 AM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (11+ / 0-)

    For those of you who prefer Bartlett to Obama, re-watch the West Wing. For those who prefer Clinton, re-watch old news videos.

    by Ptolemy on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 09:32:48 AM PDT

  •  I just saw the movie last night. (0+ / 0-)

    Didn't care for it, but I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it.

    This is the one I'm having trouble with:

    v. has unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment
    I don't understand what constitutes "unreasonable" in this context. For example, if a narcissist has no real world power or's easy to argue that such a person's "expectations of especially favorable treatment" are "unreasonable."

    But if the person under consideration has amassed an extraordinary amount of achievement and power...isn't it reasonable that such a person expect "especially favorable treatment?" I guess my point is that a powerful person is not like a person with no power, when it comes to fulfilling the DSM criteria for narcissism.

    It's certainly possible for a powerful person to have "unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment"--but it is also the case that powerful people may reasonably expect especially favorable treatment, simply because they are powerful. What do you think?

    Co-author of the first political biography of Michele Bachmann: Michele Bachmann's America

    by Bill Prendergast on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 12:08:56 PM PDT

    •  No, power does not make something rational (0+ / 0-)

      The powerful person who asks a cop, "Do you know who I am?" is more of a narcissist than the lowly person (who would merely be delusional in all likelihood).

      The correct answer from the cop is "Yeah, the guy who ran the red light back there."

      We've been looking at narcissists on the TV for so long that we have normalized their expectations to some extent.

      For those of you who prefer Bartlett to Obama, re-watch the West Wing. For those who prefer Clinton, re-watch old news videos.

      by Ptolemy on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 01:26:56 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Well...uh...I didn't say what you said I said... (0+ / 0-)

        ...I did not say that "power, by itself, can make something rational."

        I don't think you understood my comment, so here it is again:

        "...if the person under consideration has amassed an extraordinary amount of achievement and power...isn't it reasonable that such a person expect "especially favorable treatment?"
        This comment can't be fairly paraphrased as "power can make something rational." So I don't think you understood what I asked you about...

        In any case, the example you give doesn't address the point I raise. Your narcissistic motorist is displaying an attribute of narcissism because his expectation of especially favorable treatment is unreasonable. (The motorist's premise is: "Officer, if you knew how important and powerful I was, you'd realize that I'm above the laws regarding speeding." We both agree that that is an unreasonable expectation of especially favorable treatment.)

        But isn't it possible for a powerful person to have a reasonable expectation of especially favorable treatment? Aren't there circumstances where powerful people can lawfully and reasonably expect and get "especially favorable treatment?" Or is it that always a sign of a narcissistic personality?

        Co-author of the first political biography of Michele Bachmann: Michele Bachmann's America

        by Bill Prendergast on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 02:09:21 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  can you give me an example? (0+ / 0-)

          Then we would be on the same page.

          For those of you who prefer Bartlett to Obama, re-watch the West Wing. For those who prefer Clinton, re-watch old news videos.

          by Ptolemy on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 04:29:18 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  I think (0+ / 0-)

          I might help frame this, but Ptolemy will have a better grasp of it, I'm sure.

          I think the issue is boundaries.  A certain amount of deference toward those above your peer group is considered healthy.  Too much or too little would be unhealthy. So, what is meant by "special treatment" in terms of healthy or unhealthy boundaries?

          I hope I got that right.

          Free University and Health Care for all, now. -8.88, -7.13

          by SoCalHobbit on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 04:31:57 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  yes (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            But on the whole, everyone in a certain situation should get the same respect.  If you're a regular customer, it doesn't matter who you are, although spending a lot would get you some more attention from the clerks.  That kind of thing.

            For those of you who prefer Bartlett to Obama, re-watch the West Wing. For those who prefer Clinton, re-watch old news videos.

            by Ptolemy on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 07:43:31 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  According to DSM pseudoscientists (0+ / 0-)

    and paid shills of big pharma, transsexuals who don't agree with DSM committee chairman Kenneth Zucker (a quack who has for decades practiced conversion therapy on transgender children) are exhibiting "narcissistic rage". People who object to being tortured by quack doctors are apparently the epitome of narcissism. That doesn't seem to jibe with the definition offered in this diary, but that is the wonderful thing about psychiatry: like astrologers, no two psychiatrists need produce the same diagnosis.

    I'll believe in psychiatry when it is based on actual, measurable neuroscience. Until then, it continues to be politics (and corporate corruption) posturing as medicine.

    •  the solution is to find a psychiatrist (0+ / 0-)

      Who can work with you.  Sadly, one of the problems with all fields of American medicine is that many regions of the country have inflexible unscientific idiots practicing in it.
      I no longer speak to pharm reps nor do any cme they sponsor.  But in Mass, you'll find a lot of docs who see trans as part of the human condition.
      I believe in unempathic conditions because of neuroscience, but I use the dsm as a clue because I can't afford the fmri.

      For those of you who prefer Bartlett to Obama, re-watch the West Wing. For those who prefer Clinton, re-watch old news videos.

      by Ptolemy on Sun Jun 24, 2012 at 05:00:02 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  No, a much better solution is to remove GID (0+ / 0-)

        (or whatever they rename it) from DSM, and let ICD-10 provide the classification for medical and insurance purposes. That is better because the politicized Northwestern-CAMH axis of transphobes controls the DSM committees in this area but they do not control the ICD. And TF needs to be removed from DSM as well.

        But DSM is so politicized, and so corrupted with pharma industry money, that it cannot reform itself or police itself against quacks in in ranks. Therefore the APA should be relieved of all legal recognition of its opinions about "mental illness". The DSM should be trashed as a whole -- it is rife with problems in many other areas, such as overdiagnosis of ADHD ("the American disease"). It exists mainly to create markets for pharma companies.

        The US does not need its own separate, corrupt, medical diagnosis system for "mental illness". Let it use the same diagnostic system the international community uses.

      •  Also, I'm personally post-transition by 10 years (0+ / 0-)

        But when I first sought psychiatric help in the '70s in order to get a prescription for hormones, the dickhead MD shrink said, and I quote: "I can tell who is really a woman by whether she turns me on". I didn't "turn him on." So I had to wait about 3 decades until the Internet came into being and I was able to buy hormones without a prescription from overseas.

        As far as I am concerned, 'psychiatry' is synonymous with 'pseudoscientific human rights abusers'.

        •  I'm sorry for that (0+ / 0-)

          My relative youth makes it so that I can look back and see how messed up things got in the 1950s-1980s.  I find many of the practitioners from those decades to be quacks, as you do.
          That said, using the ICD-10 wouldn't really change much of the hand-waving problems in diagnostic thinking for most diagnoses.  They are largely compatible for 90% of the diagnostic criteria.

          For those of you who prefer Bartlett to Obama, re-watch the West Wing. For those who prefer Clinton, re-watch old news videos.

          by Ptolemy on Sun Jun 24, 2012 at 04:47:32 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  another way to think about it (0+ / 0-)

      Were the medics on the prometheus controlled by David really physicians?
      No.  They had traded in their oath for 30 pieces of silver.
      I don't obey machines, so corporations are there to provide tools and not instructions.  I've worked too hard on this brain not to continue to think critically.
      Might there be a trans person or two who are also narcissists?  Yes.  And a few who if not depressed will tell me that they want to remain middlesex.  
      But there are certainly many more people who if they went to therapy would realize they were lgbt than the other way round, because malignant persons have accrued power by preaching hate.  That's just the sad fact of things.  Sadder still, I suspect quite a few of those preachers are lgbt themselves, and are trapped by their false selves.

      For those of you who prefer Bartlett to Obama, re-watch the West Wing. For those who prefer Clinton, re-watch old news videos.

      by Ptolemy on Sun Jun 24, 2012 at 05:12:31 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I haven't (0+ / 0-)

    seen the film vet, but I think your deconstruction of the characters lends to their substance and likely in suspension of disbelief at the theater.

    Good stuff, thanks.

    Free University and Health Care for all, now. -8.88, -7.13

    by SoCalHobbit on Sun Jun 24, 2012 at 12:27:02 PM PDT

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