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.

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