Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Two more readings of BSG's finale: a recuperation and a rebuttal

1. I complained in my original response to BSG's finale that it seemed horribly irresponsible to advocate forgetting as a means of healing - that joining together as one big community, following decades of animosity and multiple attempts to commit genocide, fails to adequately address (and even avoids or brushes aside) the themes that the show has been trying to tackle and the actual conflict that had underpinned it.

That isn't to say that it's an incoherent conclusion, though. To quote Agamben, one could argue that the finale "affirms the site of bare life as the route through which, and by which, redemption occurs. It is an affirmation of the redemptive value of extreme degradation." Bare life, in this case, is the decision to not only forget but to cast the ships into the sun and start over with nothing. And in the face of such an overdetermined history and a conflict which offers no clear or easy solution, perhaps this is the only viable means of attaining redemption.

2. Of course, it's worth asking whether attaining redemption is actually a worthwhile, or ethical, aim. Redemption is rarely an unproblematic process - especially racial or national projects of redemption, which is what the humans' effort to affirm their existence most resembles - and they're often motivated by guilt and selfishness. Too often, redemption manages to situate the vicitimizer as the victimized: the humans enslaved the Cylons and must conveniently forget (or diminish the importance of the fact) that they supplied the Cylons with the means and motive to destroy them. Redemption can also deflect or displace guilt on to a sort of sacrificial lamb, a figure deemed abnormal who is ejected from the whole (again, forgetting that he or she was produced by and within that whole in the first place) so that the whole can be recuperated: Baltar is the ideal figure, here, but Cavil also becomes a scapegoat for the Cylons.

Aimé Césaire's notion of "bourgeois shock" brings this critique of redemption into conversation with Agamben's bare life in a really nice way, offering the term as a way of characterizing the realization by Western Europeans that the methods of dehumanization and violence which commonly employed in their colonies could be turned against them and deployed within Europe itself. (Nazism is the prototypical example of such strategies turned inward, though 9/11 is also an excellent one - and both are often applied allegorically to BSG.) The redemptive reading of BSG through Agamben, then, is undone if we can read it as an expression of reactionary "bourgeois shock" - as a moment in which the self-important subject of history and bearer of civilization is shaken from its complacency and its assuredness that it could never be made the object of its own violence.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A quick thought on Lost

Just as there was back when we were trying to figure out what made certain survivors "special" in the minds of the Others, there's a lot of discussion now about why Jack, Kate, Hurley and Sayid were cast into 1977 while Sun, Frank, Ben, and Locke ended up in 2007. Surely, the discussion goes, there must be a good reason - having to do with the recreation of the original crash, with their personalities or actual physical bodies, or perhaps (and this one is my favorite, since it implies some new mysteries) because they're already present on the island in 1977.

What I suspect, though, is that the most obvious answer will be the right one - that it's simply that The Island wanted some of them in 1977 and others in 2007 in order to complete some sort of job. This is better than revealing that it's totally random, but only barely. I'm reminded, again, of the first season of Lost, when people were trying to figure out what the common bond among the characters was - that they were all in need of redemption, that they had all killed someone, that they had all cheated death, etc. - so as to explain why they ended up on that island. But as the show goes on, it seems increasingly likely that the only reason we'll ever get is 'because they were supposed to end up on the island', which is really just another way of saying 'because The Island wanted these specific people'. And that's just disappointing.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The BSG finale

This show left me feeling confused. And not a good-confused.

I felt happy, i suppose, for the characters, but my actual emotional response to characters usually diminishes within minutes of a stories end and the narrative and thematic elements are the ones that ultimately resonate. And that being the case, it felt like a waste.

I mean, I liked the build to the final battle, I liked Baltar's decision to stay, and I was even a bit struck by the cuteness of this Earth being the real Earth and the other Earth not really being Earth - BSG has been filled with revelations that contradict previously accepted truths, so it didn't seem so unbelievable. I found Adama and Roslin, and Baltar and Caprica's, endings sweet and appropriate, even if I didn't really understand why Adama, the character, would resign himself to years of solitary life, and I didn't really buy Baltar and Caprica's reunion. (The latter, at least, had a certain logic to it within the larger format of the show. Which, it turns out, makes it pretty exceptional. Except that they should have been raising Hera, too.)

I disliked Kara's sudden disappearance and the show's refusal to explain just how she came back from the dead and just what she came back as. I also found it ridiculous that they could have so easily infiltrated the massive Cylon base, found Hera, and had so few casualties. Suicidal Final Battles need to show that the good guys have paid a price. This one didn't.

And I hated a bunch of things.
  • What about the Cylon 'plan'? We were told from episode one that 'They Have A Plan', and then one was never actually revealed? Was it simply that they were torturing the 'final five'? Because that's as near as I can get to a 'plan'. And that sucks.
  • Religion had always been used as way of critiquing societies for justifying their banal existence by way of laying claim to an exceptionalism that we should rightly be wary of. And how we're told that there is a god and the whole series has evolved according to his plan. ...say what?
  • We also have Lee deciding, unilaterally, to break up human and Cylon civilization and banish them to the various corners of the world. His rationale is that if they start over with a blank slate, they won't make the same mistakes. Except that this contradicts every bit of accepted wisdom on remembrance, redemption, and humanity's ability to learn from the past and imprve themselves - actively forgetting the sins and ignoring the oppressions of the past is the surest way to ensure that they would fall into those patterns again. I mean, for fuck's sake, wasn't that why the 'final five' travelled to the 12 colonies in the first place? To warn them because they had forgotten and would commit the same error? I wrote in a previous post that BSG has a troubling aversion to communalism and collectivism, and it seems that it pertains, too, to a collective memory. But collective memories are the best weapons against exactly the sorts of abuses and oppressions that this show ostensibly opposes. So this is a terrible lesson.
  • And what about that fucking awful ending? Here's a show that has tried (with varying levels of success) to push the human-Cylon conflict as a metaphor for WWII, for the War on Terror, for Israel-Palestine. And at the end, we find out that it was actually a metaphor for... well, actually, it wasn't a metaphor at all. It's message was the most literaly one possible - it was a warning about treating our robots well, because, you know, they might decide to turn against us and kil us. Are you fucking kidding me? Not only is it ham-fisted and absurdly preachy in its delivery, but it's also insultingly stupid. It is possibly the worst closing scene to a series that I have ever watched. Ever.
Geoff asked over on his blog how other people would've ended the series. Given that one of the few consistent thematic threads on the show was the need to prove that humanity deserved to survive and continue, I suggested that the show should not have properly ended at all - that the quest to prove your own worth is an ongoing one that will never be resolved, and so to will the fleet never actually find a home. (At least, not in the finale.) Most of the major characters should have died in the battle to give it some actual resonance and to allow the characters least fit to usher in this new existence the opportunity to redeem it. Baltar, Caprica, and Hera, at least, could have survived to return to the fleet, thus allowing one storyline to run full-circle from start to finish and provide satisfaction and assurance that they knew what they were doing all along. Maybe Roslin could ironically out-live Adama, only to die as they resume their search for a new home - and so Roslin's death, in closing the prophecy, signals that it is space itself that is their new home. It wouldn't even necessarily be depressing - there are plenty of ways to put some sort of optimistic spin on it, to give some small hope, or at least to make it seem like this society is one worthy of survival, even if it never finds a permanent place to lay down roots. Something like that.

But my god - what we were left with? It boggles the mind.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

BSG: On symbolism, politics, and the triumph of individualism

There's a quite thorough political analysis of the allegorical message of Battlestar Galactica at this blog, though I would stop short of recommending that anyone bother to read the whole text. (It's long and rambling. But I suppose that I'm about to post a long and rambling response to it. Still, I don't think this is hypocritical - I'm trying to save you from having to read two long, rambling blogs.)

But there's also some very good, and very apt, points in there that are worth repeating. For instance:
"it’s kinda dishonest when the great defining symbol of this culture-clash, the narrative linchpin of your ideological conflict, binds conceptually not to 9/11 but rather to the Holocaust."

"that very act of symbolic hyperbole articulates, I think, something about 9/11, about how Americans in particular, but by no means only Americans, responded to it emotionally, ascribing it a grossly-exaggerated import. That narrative misstep of a dubious analogy is revealing of the degree of faith, the depth of the fall, the jawdropping level of… well… self-importance necessary to place an albeit horrendous act on that level."
Whether or not the show's politics and message are reduced to incoherence, as Hal Duncan suggests, by this sloppy symbolism is almost beside the point. The show's juxtaposition of 9/11 and the Holocaust suggests that we're meant to understand the two as equivalent, and while this is hugely problematic, I think that what it says about American nationalism and identity is tremendously too interesting to dismiss because it makes for bad writing. We might even have to debate whether it necessarily leads to bad writing - while he and I might find the juxtaposition of these events distasteful and ludicrous, I think that the narrative manages to merge the two quite effectively for the purposes of storytelling. But regardles - even if it might be a narrative failure, that failure shouldn't preclude a discussion of it as a telling artifact of its time.

But in defense of the narrative - I do think that Duncan is pouring it on too hard. If the historical resonances are multiple and contradictory, then in fairness you have to point out that it's even more varied and confused than this. Duncan admits this when he notes that the humans' internment on New Caprica reads instead like it is actually occurring in the Middle East, but this time with the Israeli/American role being played by the Cylons and the Palestinian/Iraqi spot by the humans. But the Cylon-human conflict, with the Cylons determining to wipe out their creators and former masters, doesn't fit terribly well into either any of these metaphors, nor does Cylon society (despite the fact that it is radical and monotheistic, sure) fit the usual associations of racial and religious Others with barbarism and incivility as would befit a 9/11 metaphor. So this stuff doesn't fit the above real-world references without ignoring huge and important parts of the story and so reducing them to absurdity.
"even the inherent tension in the basic dichotomy of militaristic autocracy versus democratic bureaucracy is dissipated quickly as Adama and Roslyn prove to be pretty much of a mind."

"The result is a sort of thematic vagueness, where the show doesn’t really dramatise the ideological issues it’s pretending to deal with. It seems unwilling to really come down on one side or another and risk alienating viewers who might find such a stance challenging."
Along the lines of 'thematic vagueness' - it seems clear to me that BSG is trying to do and say something about militarism and nationalism more generally (or, rather, within a plurality of specific references that is so varied that any attempt to limit the field just doesn't work), that it's trying to work additional metaphorical angles that resist placement among those major touchstones because they're not trying to speak to any event in particular over the course of the entire series. Whether this is a good or effective strategey is, of course, totally up for debate. And so while I agree that the show has reached a point where its thematics have become nonsensical - and I've admitted as much in past blogs - I think this has less to do with the ridiculousness or wrongheadedness of a hybrid 9/11-Holocaust metaphor and more to do with the too many references to too many sources that have accrued over four seasons.

If I were to try and pin down an over-arching political message, I would probably push BSG's contradictory messages about autocratic militarism and democratic process aside and focus on its affection for heroic liberal individualism of a hegemonically masculine sort. If anything is consistently villified, it's the sense of collectivism premised on altruism that ostensibly underlies Cylon culture (and is eventually revealed to be rotten at the core and under the fascistic rule of Cavill/John), that is implied by the consensus-based approach of the Quorum of Twelve (who are shown to be spineless and completely ineffective), and which is attempted by various insurgencies (the union under Tyrell, but more aptly the mutiny as it is engineered by the hypberbolically crippled Gaeta and self-appointed man-of-the-people Tom Zarek) that find the autocratic rule of Adama and Roslin untenable.

If it's not already clear from my bracketed commentary, collectivism is always a sham or ploy in the BSG universe. What's curious, of course, is that while autocrats like the Adamas and Roslin are privileged, those sham collectives are usually being manipulated by their own - albeit evil-as-all-hell - autocrats. So maybe the difference is a qualitative one - the autocrat that rules transparently and unapologetically as opposed to the autocrat that rules by sleight of hand and claims, disingenuously of course, to not want to be the dictator that he is. Admiral Cain confuses this distinction because she clearly falls into the former category, and so would require us to make an additional and totally arbitrary distinction between good and bad Caesars, as it were. But her singularity makes it easier to consider her the exception that proves the rule, I think. Salvation is can only be achieved under the leadership of the right ruler. The problem is, aside from their transparency I'm not sure what makes the Adamas and Roslin so self-evidently 'right' in the minds of the show's producers.

Of course, with only a few episodes left, there's still time to up-end the apple cart.

P.S. I should probably also note that, yes, there is a racial subtext to an individualism/collectivism oppositionality. However, given the muddled political analogies that already confuse the ostensible real-world race correlates, I think that adding this additional layer would just make things messier and, so, doesn't contribute a whole lot to the discussion. Unless, of course, I want to argue that this is where the 'real' race politics of the show emerge...

Two final notes:

1) Ronald D. Moore - BSG's head-honcho and also one of the guiding voices on Deep Space Nine - seems to like muddying the politics of his lead characters to the point of unreadability as a rule. Look, for instance, at how Sisko changes on DS9. At some points, he's the fundamentalist protector of democratic process opposed to those who would violate the Federation's principles in order to preserve them - "Paradise Lost", 4.12 - and at others a Machiavellian schemer not unlike the characters he had previously opposed - "In the Pale Moonlight", 6.19. They're unreconcilable positions within the narrative logic of the show, which posits Sisko as civilization's saviour.

2) DS9 also showed a healthy mistrust for collectivism (the Founders) and shadowy autocrats (the admiral that Sisko takes down in "Paradise Lost"). And this might, in fact, go some way to helping us make sense of Sisko - he can get away with being an assassin and schemer because he doesn't desire to cheat his way into more power and influence. Likewise, he turns against that same admiral despite the fact that it costs him power and influence. There's something to be said in the DS9 and BSG universes for getting ahead the right way. Of course, what's right according to Ronald Moore and what's right to some of us in the audience isn't necessarily one and the same.