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Battlestar Gallactica: A review

Having just finished watching the entire four series of Battlestar Gallactica, rather modestly, the conclusion of the show evoked a wide range of thoughts, emotions, arguments and queries about the nature of society, religion, philosophy and morality. So where to begin?  Not much to deal with is there?

First things first, if you haven’t seen it all then stop reading now; go out and buy the boxset (or download it), stop watching any series you are currently engrossed in (unless it’s The Wire, or the first half of season 1 of 24) and clear a week in your diary.

A detailed synopsis is available on the Battlestar wikipage, but very briefly, the series details the journey of humans as they escape from their home planets (called the 12 colonies), having just been nuked by humanoid robots (Cylons). The Cylons then chase the remaining humans, led by a military ‘Battlestar’, called Galactica through the universe. The president of the fleet, inspired by mythical visions and prophetic texts (akin to the Bible) is leading them to a new home, ‘Earth’ (the fabled 13th colony), only to find that this planet has also been nuked. It turns out that this destruction-chase-resettlement cycle has been going on for a while, with humans creating Cylons, Cylons rebelling against the humans, war, then resettlement. However, in the final battle, a truce is agreed, and together, they find ‘Earth’ (as we knew it 150,000 years ago) and decide to forgo their technologies and create a new civilisation with the primitive hunter-gatherers they find on the planet, based solely on their interactions, language and minds (and all the culture and socialisation therein imbued). Hence, throughout the series, what we see as human-like technology and culture, is in fact the basis of our current society. This is ossified by the final scene that is set in our present New York City (some 150,000 hence) – with the cycle seemingly over. However, it concludes with what feels like a warning that our current obsession with AI and technology may be fueling another occurrence of man-made robot rebellion (re Frankenstein, Terminator or any other Sci-Fi cyborg-related story out there) and the cycle will start again once more (note – this echoes the message I teased out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in a previous blog post).

The show is rich in philosophical and societal tangents and it seems almost ignorant to boil the show down to one ‘theme’, but if there is one thought that permeates throughout the series (for me anyway) is the spirituality of it – references to God, gods, souls, angels, demons and a ‘higher purpose’ are rife throughout and ultimately conclude the show. However, this is not to say that the show has a preachy evangelistic message, far from it. The adult dialogue and (for the most part) undiluted and deliberately esoteric language demands attention and forces the viewer to engage with what religious people will proclaim is ‘God’, and what other people ignore or fail to comprehend. There are many Christian references, with Christ-like resurrection, angels and even the importance the Bob Dylan track ‘All Along the Watchtower’ with it’s direct biblical quotations, namely Isiah 21:5-9. The hook of the show is essentially that some ‘higher power’ has been guiding the fleet and presiding over (or the direct causation of) the ‘cycles’ of destruction and rebirth, and with freewill the way it is, waiting for the humans to decide to stop the cycle by engendering a ‘clean slate’ which is what we see in the finale.

What is interesting to me is echoed in the closing dialogue of the show:

The reference to mathematics and complex systems is elsewhere in the series, however, the interplay between the workings of mathematics and the planning of a deity is a deliberate attempt to align the two. They are further interwoven with the remark “You know It doesn’t like that name”, with the word ‘it’ used instead of ‘he’ – the more traditional definitive article of a deity (the retraction of this afterwards I put down to a final exchange of comedy between these particular two characters that has played out throughout the series). Herein lies the crux of the matter. The producers of the show, while they have talked about how they like the show to be interpreted however you choose, seem to be alluding to the visceral knowledge of ‘something else’ other than what can be attributed to empirical observation. This ‘ether’ can be interpreted though a range of experiences, idioms or processes including complexity and mathematics, an infinite and collective consciousness, the emotional swell felt with a piece of music, or by assigning it the name ‘God’. Unlike The Matrix, which also has as its hook the breaking of a cycle of war between humans and machines, Battlestar Galactica plays on the otherness of experiential humanism by engaging with the significance of it to our behaviour, both individually and collectively. The limitations of the human body to experience this otherness is all too obvious (such as the fact that the human eye only sees only a small percentage of the electromagnetic spectrum) and there is a wonderful piece of dialogue between two Cylons earlier on in the series which alludes to this fact. The characters struggle with these other ‘forces’ at work (interpreted as either destiny, God, luck, angels, fate etc) and some accepting their humanity for what it is, others fighting it every step of the way. The exploration of this matter is far from perfect (as it is to be expected, laced with Hollywood banalities), however, for the thoughts it leaves you with alone, it is worth the hassle.

The fact that the filmmakers suggest that the present day human race are decedents from the Cylons, with the overt implication that the Cylon-human hybrid little girl (seen in the video above) is Mitochondrial Eve, is also one of many interesting tangents (one that Bruno Latour would no doubt have alot to say about) that could be extrapolated from BSG (there are many books delving much deeper into the topics – this being one of the best). It’s geopolitics and commentary on contemporary American foreign policies is particularly striking, sometimes forehead-slappingly determinate, but always thought-provoking and comes with notable acting performances by some. In answer to the question posed by this journalist, I would levee a big frakking ‘no’, however it deals with a much broader range of issues, and arguably leaves a more emotional lump in the throat than Baltimore’s finest.

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Is ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Latour’s favourite film?

In reading Bruno Latour’s work over the years, one of the overt messages that comes through, and one of his lasting legacies, is the importance he gives to non-humans in society. The actant-networks that constitute the body politic are spun by the constant processes and actions of nonhumans, just as much as they are by nonhumans. Latour’s classic example (it’s when the penny dropped for me anyway) is of Bill Gates and his Microsoft empire. Latour argues that;

“Since Bill Gates is not physically larger than all his Microsoft employees, Microsoft itself, as a corporate body cannot be a large building were individuals reside. Instead there is a certain type of movement going through all of them, a few of which begin and end in Mr Gates’ office. It’s because an organisation is even less a society than the body politic that it’s made only of movements, which are woven by the constant circulation of documents, stories, accounts, goods and passions”.

(Latour, 2005: 179)

The ‘constant circulation’ of nonhuman actants have therefore as much agency in the formulation of perpetual structure as humans do. This sparks one of the major criticism of ANT as it seen as little more than technological determinism and that humans ultimately have dominance over their tools. This rather Kaczynskian view however misses the point. As Latour suggests that power is heterogenously disseminated through a rhizomatic actor-network, to say that one is dominant over the other is erroneous as it implies a linear power-relationship that is pre-existent. Agency, if defined as the ability to ‘thingify’, is just as much inherent in, say a laptop as it is in a human being. Ever since Man picked up a bone fragment to beat his prey to death, tools and nonhuman actants have been intertwined through the networks we generate.

Which leads nicely onto Kubrick’s seminal 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The rest of this post will contain ‘spoilers’ for the film although if you have not seen the film or do not know what happens then I can only assume you are more akin to those in the opening scenes of the film rather than the latter ones. The monolith’s presence at the ‘Dawn of Man’ is symbolic of our use of tools, as Kubrick heavily infers with the ape smashing up the skeleton of his prey with a large femur bone. And the monolith on the moon is a representation of man’s next technological leap, that of space travel. The other monoliths (near Jupiter and in ‘the room’) are Kubrick’s attempt at suggesting that man needs further evolutionary leaps. Debates around the meaning of the monoliths are varied and some more rigorous than others (see this compelling argument – part 1 and part 2), however, if taking an ANT point of view, it would seem that they are indicators of man’s evolutionary ability in their use of tools.

The use of tools and their interdigitisation with humanity effects us all, so much so that the human/nonhuman divide is becoming increasingly indistinguishable. Future inventions blur the dichotomy even further (see this enlightening talk by Dr Kaku at the RSA). Therefore, in 2001, the beautiful and esoteric implications of the way human and nonhuman entities’ futures are intertwined to produce the ‘star child‘ can be, I would argue, an indirect inference to the nature and ethos of ANT. However, 2001 also tells us (or at least, one interpretation of it) that to achieve this state, man has to destroy his dependence on technology (the destruction of HAL) and embrace the frailty of the ‘container’ body. Hence, Kubrick brings the nonhuman aspect to a further ‘dimension’ by implying that the human body itself is nonhuman (to be dispensed with) and what is left can be reborn as the ‘star child’. This is perhaps an uncomfortable ethos for ANT, as it brings an inherently philosophical (and even spiritual) idiom to what is essentially an empirical rhetoric.

Therefore, in answer the question of the post’s title, I would say probably not. What could be however, is Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 masterpiece, Koyaanisqatsi. The film’s basic tenant is man’s increasing tendency to live life ‘out of balance’ with technology. The term Koyaanisqatsi is a word in the Hopi language meaning ‘crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living’. Again, this is perhaps a dystopic view of man’s continuing evolutionary journey with technology, but the film itself is quite haunting and it’s depiction of nonhuman’s agency is meritoriously accurate.

Nonhumans are integral to the way in which society is held together and so, ANT would argue, cannot be ignored when analysing how reality constructs itself. Any visualisations that can help to achieve this are welcome, and 2001 and Koyaanisqatsi are fine examples of this. Whether or not Latour himself agrees would be interesting, and there may be other examples which you could offer. However, if anyone suggests Antz, then your are neither big, nor clever…