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.


Jason said...

Man, I actually passed over this blog entry because it was about BSG and I have never seen that show!

And now I see that halfway down you talk about DS9, which I am currently re-watching. How cool!

I wish I had something to add ... the analysis of Sisko's change over the course of the show is interesting. I'm trying to skip to the ending in my mind to see how ultimately the "darkening" of Sisko is resolved -- did Sisko's betrayal of his principles in "Pale Moonlight" in some way condemn him to the purgatory that we are led to believe he lands in at the end of the series?

neilshyminsky said...

I added so many DS9 comments that I really should've just cut them out and added another blog entry, eh?

It seems to play, in some sense, into Sisko's gradual acceptance of the role of Emissary and his own exceptionalism. In the earlier episode, when he's still reluctant to be a religious figure, he talks about how the Federation is bigger and more important than any one man and chastizes Leyton for making the unilateral decision to save the Federation by suspending some of its core values; in the latter episode, when he's fully embraced his minor-god status, he makes the unilateral decision to save the Federation from its own unwillingness to play dirty.

I only see one difference, really, and I think we'd be quite right to point how problematic and arguable it is: Leyton was just a mistake-prone man, but Sisko is the chosen one. For those of us who follow BSG and have wondered why it is that we're supposed to applaud Adama and Roslin's more dictatorial stances but despise their enemies for behaving in the same way... well, they're the ones written about in the Pythian scrolls, aren't they?

Jason said...

Oddly enough, I just watched an episode that had this exchange between Weyoun and Damar.

Weyoun: All this talk of gods strikes me as nothing more than superstitious nonsense.
Damar: You believe that the Founders are gods, don't you?
Weyoun: That's different.
Damar: In what way?
Weyoun: The Founders ARE gods.

Is the show poking fun at its own hypocrisy in how it positions Sisko? Probably a very charitable read of the line and the creators' self-awareness, but ... hey!