Battlestar Galactica: Refractive Cloning and Branching Temporal Networks, Part One
Downloading Consciousness: Our Neuro-Buddhist Futures?
What would it be like to live with multiple copies of oneself in the world, each pursuing different destinies? What if you don’t have to worry so much about getting this life right, because if you die, you can just download yourself into a new body and start over again, with full memory and lessons learned? Perhaps this will one day be our future. 3D printers are getting to the point that they may soon be able to print organic matter, including organs. If you could print a copy of your body, including your brain, with the structure of your memories in the patterns of connections between your very physical nerve-cells, then wouldn’t a printed copy of yourself, once given a spark to get its heart going, be able to remember all you do, even though it was really just printed by a computer? Would a living human body with all your characteristics, including the memory of what you ate for breakfast yesterday, be in any way distinguishable from you to your closest loved ones? Certainly not until they started to have different experiences. Maybe you and your clone would even have a hard time telling apart who was the original.
Then again, we all face a similar situation every time we go to sleep. Certainly it feels like the same person who wakes up in the body which went to sleep, but the only way we know we are the person we are is because of the memories we find, pre-installed in us, by the hardware of our brains. The pattern of sync, the dynamic dance of pulses between the hardware of our nervous system which many scientists think is the spark of our conscious selves, vanishes each night when we go to sleep, only reemerge once again when we wake. But is this truly “the same” self, or rather a new self which merely can’t tell the difference , because its memories are the only way it could tell? Buddhists argue that each moment to the next we have a lapse of this sort, and that any continuity in our consciousness is ultimately illusory. And if our consciousness is merely pulses of patterns of sync within our neural wiring, then perhaps the Buddhists are right.
Films dealing with cloning and copying of the self have become more and more prominent since the 1960’s, starting with examples like Chris Marker’s La Jetee, flourishing with the uncanny doppelgangers of horror film classics like Wes Craven’s Hellraiser, and reaching new fantasies of techno-complexity with films such as Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner or Sean Carruth’s Primer (2004). Perhaps the age of 3D printers, cloning isn’t as far off as we might want to think. But perhaps in the age of Facebook, with our various digital avatars running around cyberspace, potentially without our full awareness or control, perhaps we are already starting to live in an age of clones. Certainly Andy Warhol was already cloning himself back in the sixties, but in the age of reality TV, in which real life often seems like a cheap copy of the our televisual virtual realities, everybody is increasingly just a clone of just a handful of models. If fantasy tends to foreshadow the invention of new technical realities, then it would hardly be surprising if we’ve got some futureshock on the horizon.
Taking this to a new level, the world of Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) is full of uncanny repetitions, clones and doubles, enough copies and loops in time to make any horror or time-travel film fanatic happy. While psychoanalytic film theory has been the primary paradigm used to theorize the uncanny, doubling, and even time-travel in films, the notion of the crystal-image, developed by Gilles Deleuze in Cinema II: The Time-Image, provides Deleuze’s attempt to think beyond even the complex mechanics or narrative and character repetitions theorizable by psychoanalysis. If we are to make any sense of Battlestar’s complex sets of repetitions and branching pathways through time, narrative, and characterization, not to mention its lengthy story arc, psychoanalytic models, despite their complex temporal dialectics, simply won’t do. The need arises then to go beyond psychoanalytic models and employ the sort of complex temporal mechanics used by Deleuze to make sense of post-war avant-garde film, and make use of his crystalline notion of time.
Battlestar Galactica has been justly hailed as a television masterpiece, a gritty drama which clearly transcends the limitations of its sci-fi genre source material, and a commentary on the Bush-era socio-political issues of the “war on terror.” And of course, the show deals with issues of religion and technology as well. But to merely examine the content of the show misses the radicality of its form. When its content is reevaluated in terms of formal concerns, however, despite the manner in which it rather conventionally cites tropes of television action drama, it become apparent how the series presents a highly sophisticated set of ruminations of time. Such a perspective also allows for the otherwise seemingly either baffling or superficial use of non-Western religious and philosophical concepts to be recast in ways which comment not only on the time of the show, but our era. In fact, even though the popularity of the show is likely largely due to its absolutely conventional characters and episodic storylines, taken as a whole, Battlestar represents one of the most developed examples of a networked temporality structure of any flimic or television work to date.
I am many others: Battlestar’s Networks of Divergent Clones
Seeing a copy of yourself in a mirror, on a film or video-recording, or in memory or fantasy is common enough, certainly in film and television themselves. But Battlestar Galactica uses the repetition of characters and their “avatars” in ways which are startingly complex early in the first season. The basic plot of the series revolves around a group of humans, stranded on a fleet of ships in space, who are fleeing pursuit by a group of humanoid enemies, the Cylon, who wish to destroy them. Created by humans, the Cylons, metallic looking android creatures, broke away from their makers, and started the first Cylon war. After signing an armistice and vanishing for forty years, they come back essentially undistinguishable from humans, infiltrate their defenses, and wipe out most of the humans, with the small fleet in space being the only remanent left. Early in the first few episodes, the humans realize to their horror that “the Cylons now look just like us,” such that “any one of us can be a Cylon.” One of the characters, the scientist Gaius Baltar (James Callis), begins to see the image of a woman who he dated who revealed herself to be a Cylon agent just before the attack began, and who we are told died in that attack. After he realizes that the image of the woman isn’t real, and that only he can see her, he assumes she is a hallucination. His hallucinated woman, however, has all the memories and personality of the woman he remembers, seems to know things that Baltar doesn’t, and seems to have insights that only an actual Cylon could. She suggests to Baltar that she could potentially be the result of a chip “she” implanted in his head while he slept, allowing for the possibility that she is somehow a projection from a remote location, one with more knowledge than Baltar of the situation. Or perhaps she is simply a computer program.
The show leaves all these possibilities in suspense for most of the duration of the series, even as it complicates them. Firstly, a real live version of the same woman appears on the ship at one point, an at first Baltar doesn’t realize that others can actually see her. At this point in the series viewers have been informed that there are only twelve Cylon “models,” but each can have multiple copies. We assume then that this “real” version of the woman, a version of model Number Six (Tricia Helfer), is a version of the same model that Baltar knew before the attack, and while she is on the ship, Baltar ceases to see the “image” of Six “in his head.” When Baltar confronts her, she doesn’t seem aware that “she” is appearing in his head, leaving us to wonder further as to who or what exactly he is seeing. Once the “actual” Six leaves the ship, however, Baltar begins to see “his” Six again, in his head, though it is unclear how or why, as the Six “in his head” always seems to skirt around the issue of her relation to the “actual” Six that showed upon the ship.
As this is happening, in a parallel plot, we see two different versions of a different Cylon, model Eight, pursuing different plotlines. The same actress, Grace Park, plays both roles, one of whom has the identity of Sharon Valerii, nickname “Boomer,” while the other will later become known as “Athena.” While the characters are physically indistinguishable, they begin to act differently. When Sharon Valerii, who isn’t aware she’s a Cylon, commits an act of violence that even she, it seems, could not anticipate, the audience becomes aware that Cylons can perhaps be activated after the fact. The parallels to the “war on terror,” in which it was assumed that “anyone could be a terrorist,” in which governmental agencies spoke of things such as “sleeper agents” and “sleeper cells,” makes a visible appearance here. Of course, so do the dynamics of the unconscious, the notion that one can have aspects of oneself about which one isn’t aware. Other anxieties of the past, such as hypnosis, brainwashing, or “programming” by various ideological or religious movements, also find resonances in this aspect of this fictional world.
Furthermore, as the series progresses, several of the main characters begin to question whether or not they may be Cylons, and the show plays on the suspense this creates. No one seems able to fully be sure that they can know themselves with any certainty. But beyond psychology, each character now has to fear that, at some point in their adventures, they may run into another copy of themselves, and only in this way come to realize that they “aren’t real,” which is to say, aren’t who they thought they were, and won’t become who they thought they might.
To quote Deleuze’s cituation of Rimbaud’s famous line “I am another,” and in the world of Battlestar, perhaps many others. Deleuze uses this phrase to describe the fundamental multiplicity, not only of characters in avant-garde cinema, but within all of us, no matter how much we may try to keep this fact under wraps and develop a unified sense of self more in line with that we present to others. Beyond the psychoanalytic unconscious, or ideological programming, Battlestar presents a world in which there may be multiple versions of ourselves, programmed differently, or even, able to make different choices, and become different people.
The World Gone Mad: Battlestar’s Powers of the False
Viewers are kept in the dark about many of the details of how Cylons operate, and it is only revealed slowly that the Cylon are able to “download” their consciousness into a “resurrection ship” when their bodies are killed, allowing them to reincarnate, with all their memories, in a new version of their old body. Nevertheless, this and many other details are witheld, such that, particularly in early episodes, it is often difficult to tell precisely what to make of what we are seeing on screen. Thus, there are many moments in which the truthfulness of what we are seeing is unclear, as is how exactly we could determine this, and whether or not the truthfulness of the scene is of ultimate importance. Such moments make use of what Deleuze has called film’s “powers of the false,” the ability to present meaningful and often consequential images, even to the diegetic world of filmic plots, which nevertheless may not have been strictly real or true. Fantasy, hallucination, and dreams may impact reality as much as reality itself, and film is one of the privileged media for helping us see this, precisely because this is the medium used by film itself in the first place, its ability to create truth-effects out of images flickering on a screen.
When viewers come to realize that some of the images they see may or may not be “real” or “truthful,” and yet, they can’t tell in advance which these may be, it becomes necessary to watch film differently, in suspense, as it were, knowing that any image may turn out, retroactively, to be “not real.” While this is implicitly always the case, only films which foreground this notion require we watch them with an awareness of the potential for retroactive reworking at the forefront of our minds. While many films only reveal at the end of a film that what we saw previously might not have been real, or not fully real, it is usually only films in which we see the world both from the perspective of a character who is insane, as well as from the perspective of other, non-insane characters, which force us to view the world this way.
But what if the world itself is insane? In Jacqueline Rose’s essay “Paranoia and the Film System” (1977), Rose uses a Lacanian psychoanalytic model to describe Hitchcock’s film The Birds (1963) as a “psychotic” film. That is, we as viewers see a filmic reality which is that of the paranoid fantasies of the protagonist Daniels. Rose argues that since the bird attacks only occur after scenes in which Daniels is snubbed or otherwise has reason to feel threatened or enraged, that they are Daniel’s projected anger. None of which is to say that we see the film only through Melanie’s eyes, because there is clearly more than first person camera employed in the film. Rather, we see the world as experienced by Daniels as if it were reality. Hence, Rose argues, the world of the film, and hence the film itself, can be thought of as psychotic. This is different from a neurotic film, such as the majority of Hitchcock’s other films, in which there the film makes clear the difference between the hallucinations or distortions to reality present to a character, and the structure of the “real” world experienced by others.
Rose further indicates that while neurotic films tend to present the anxieties of characters as focused on particular objects, so many neurotic symptoms, psychotic films are those in which the very fabric of reality seems to warp around the anxiety of the characters, even to the point of the breakdown of that reality. From such a perspective, films like Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), and David Cronenberg’s Spider (2000) would be films which are, in part if not completely, psychotic, in that they represent films in which the anxieties and desires of characters don’t merely inflect the world in localized ways, but seep into the structure of reality itself, whether by means of duplication of traits, or even more profoundly by becoming the coloration or warp of the world itself.
Deleuze’s notion of the “powers of the false” goes beyond this, because rather than assume that there is a world which is “true,” or that a series of characters exist in a shared reality, it rather puts forward the notion that all the world can be seen as so many “fabulations” created between people, each of which can give rise to truth effects and hence become a reality for them. Science fiction seems designed to help us imagine worlds like this, and in the world of Battlestar, in which the impossible has become possible, characters as well as viewers no longer know what to expect. The result is that it becomes necessary to watch the film in a mode of suspension, never knowing if what one sees can be trusted. Just as with films such as Mulholland Drive or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris manage to convince viewers, by means of their very structure, to watch them in this way, so a series like Battlestar engages similarly in what Deleuze calls a pedagogy of the image. That is, this series, as much as these sorts of avant-garde films, teaches us to watch it in a manner which suspends our ability to determine ahead of time which aspects of the images we see will have been real. As Deleuze says, this teaches us that montage can be within the image itself, that difference can be between the seams of what see. In this case, the very image itself can be other, liberating it from the need to simply represent a particular reality which is “really there,” a group or individual hallucination, or something else completely.
Ultimately, Deleuze wants to dispense with the with the notion that there is a firm distinction between mad and sane, real and unreal, true and false. For Deleuze, this goes beyond the restrictive notions of psychoanalysis which still believe that the world needs to be normal to be of value. None of which is to make reality simple, for according to Deleuze, it is reality as multiple which is free, and which our societies and psyches try to restrain. Liberation, which can only ever be done gradually, can start when we begin to stop trying so hard to make the world merely neurotically the same. Deleuze desires a world of multiplicity, of multiple realities, yet not that of madness and suffering. According to this writings with Guatarri in Anti-Oedipus (1972), it is our desire for a singular reality which makes multiplicity and divergence between and among realities seem so threatening in the first place. Nevertheless, from within a world which is otherwise normal, a little difference can be terrifying indeed.
Not knowing whether or not Gaius Baltar is hallucinating or has a chip implanted in his head, we nevertheless come to see Baltar function well in society, despite some comic moments in which he seems to interact with the Six in his head in ways which confuse others around him. But just as the show seems to establish a rhythm with Six’s appearances to Baltar, often at the end of an episode so as to unveil a new wrinkle to the plot to create suspense for the next episode, the show takes a turn to the even more strange. The crew is informed that the wife of the second in command of the ship, Col. Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), has been found alive on one of the other ships of the fleet, even though she was presumed dead in the initial attack. Ellen Tigh (Kate Vernon), says she received a blow on the head, and hence developed amnesia, and that this explains why she didn’t realize to contact Saul immediately. Needless to say, everyone on the crew suspects she could be a Cylon agent.
What is likely to shock most viewers, however, is that the actress who plays Ellen Tigh has a remarkable resemblance to number Six, who appears to Baltar on a regular basis, and appeared in the flesh and then mysteriously dissapeared off the Battlestar only two episodes ago. In fact, Ellen Tigh looks like she could easily be an older version of the same actress. While it is unclear if Cyclons age, it has been implied so far that they do not, but were this not the case, there is no way of knowing if this woman is not a Six altered through time travel. Complicating this is the fact that in the preceding episode, another Cylon model, number Two (Callum Keith Rennie), is show to be able to show up in the dreams of another character who has never seen her before, and in a way which prefigures the action which comes later in that episode. It is now unclear if Cylons are able to project themselves in the minds of others by some sort of telepathy, new technology, or if the character in question, otherwise assumed to be human, may herself be a Cylon.
Viewers are left in a world of the false indeed, one in which many possible interpretations can be developed for what we are seeing, any of which can retroactively be determined to have been true. What remains to be seen is whether or not there may even be several possible interpretations which will remain unresolved, as seen in film such as Bergman’s Persona, the ultimate meaning of which depends on which of the episodes one considers to have taken place in fantasy or reality.
None of which can likely prepare us, however, for when Ellen Tigh walks onto Battlestar looking uncannily similar to, yet also demonstrably different from a character who has been central to the narrative so far. How are we supposed to read her face? In the world of biology, a copy of something which is not exact yet doesn’t stray incredibly far from the original, is known as a “degenerate” copy. The term is often used in terms of the replication of genetic material, which often happens with minor mutations. While degeneracy can be detrimental to the survival of a species, it can also lead to greater diversity and robustness. While the term degeneracy has often had negative connotations, for biologists, degeneracy is the source of diversity, and hence, all adaptation and growth.
Ellen Tigh is far from a mirror double of number Six, but she is clearly not fully distinct either. Rather, she can perhaps best be thought of as a degenerate copy of number six, a mutation of sorts, at least, in regard to our previous perception of her, because at this point, we don’t know exactly what to make of her. As with many other such plot lines, the series doesn’t resolve these issues until much later. While most suspicion that she is a Cylon is removed relatively quickly, the issues is never fully put to rest until much later.
Nevertheless, psychoanalytic notions of doubling and mirroring fail to be able to adequately describe the manner in which Ellen Tigh both mirrors and doesn’t mirror number Six. While psychoanalytic models often differentiate between “good” and “bad” copies of a double, the binary nature of such structures is hardly equipped to deal with the possibility of varying degrees of similarity between copies and originals, or situations in which the difference begins to break down. This is where the Deleuzian notion of crystallization can be helpful.
Crystalline Time and Filmic Structure
In Cinema II: The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze describes what he calls a “crystalline” form of temporal structuration which manifests in avant-garde films of the post-war period. Eschewing linear temporality, films like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), Federico Fellini’s Occho e Mezzo (1962), or Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1962) used a variety of techniques, from dreams to flashbacks, fantasy to hallucination to films within films, to weave films which fundamentally rethought the notion that time needed to flow from beginning to middle to end in a film. For Deleuze, these new types of temporal structure, a notion which Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin refers to as a “chronotope,” indicate the attempt to describe the manner in which, after the trauma of World War II, time was felt to be “out of joint.”
For Deleuze, the structure of time in these films was best described by the metaphor of a crystall. Any moment in a film could serve as a branching point within a network of pathways, such that rather than merely flowing in a straight line, time could loop back upon itself, or even explore more than one possible pathway through the world. Deleuze addresses the possibility of “incompossible” paths through time, such as a person doing something in one timeline, and not doing that very same thing in another, as the manner in which these films explore time not only as actual, but virtual as well. One explores time as one would space, like the rooms of a house (or in one of Deleuze’s examples, the famous hotel from Marienbad), one can revisit a moment many times, before or after one visits another room.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, this is the time of many contemporary videogames. While in simple games there is often only one pathway through the game, in more developed games, one explores a terrain, and in such a way that there are multiple possible pathways through the games’ space and time. If one explores territory A and does action B, this may make it such that one cannot then go to territory C and do action D. This is, of course, much closer to life in our everyday realities. But where videogames differ, of course, is that one can then restart the game, choose a new character, and start the process over again. And with a slate wiped clean, one can then pursue the “road not taken” in this virtual world, with one’s virtual lives which, instead of actualizing in an exclusively linear sense, are actualized serially. Ultimately, one then explores the networked terrain of a game, not only in space, but time as well, one maps the spacetime of the videogame’s world. When one plays a videogame over in this manner, some of the crucial events of the game’s world repeat, while others depend on the actions of the player. Games of this sort incarnate a crucial fantasy, of being able to do aspects of one’s life over again, and see what might turn out differently.
While Deleuze analyzed how avant-garde films of the postwar period used these sorts of temporal logics, today such chronotopes have become almost commonplace. If flashbacks challenged filmgoing audiences around the time of World War II, today’s films make frequent use of increasingly complex temporal logics, often by means of science-fictional devices such as time-travel. In films such as Twevle Monkeys, Moon, Inception, Looper, the levels of intricacy and the frequency of such films seems only to increase. The paradoxes inherent to time-travel are becoming genre commonplaces of their own to the movie-going public, with the time-travel film as a genre with increasingly defined conventions. If, as Deleuze arged, crystall-image films were an attempt to deal with the shattering of narratives of development and progress by the traumas of two world wars, the time-travel film seems to be the popular genre which speaks most to the increasingly web-like futures of our networked times.
Deleuze does not, however, call these films networked, which he may have, though the metaphor was much less prevalent at the time he developed these notions. Rather, Deleuze builds upon Gilbert Simondon’s philosophical ruminations on the manner in which crystals form. Simondon describes the process of crystallization as one of the individuation of a crystal from the interaction of a seed which germinates in a medium. Rock candy, for example, will grow naturally around a string when sugar in a water solution reaches proper conditions of concentration and evaporation. The shape of the individual crystals, and the crystal structure of the whole which develops from these, as determined both by the shape of the strands of fiber on the string hanging down into the sugar water, as well as the interaction of the sugar and water molecules with each other in the medium. Without both seed and medium, no crystal. And while the medium is relatively homogeneous, the seed is always particular, an imperfection, often a grain of sand or scratch in the glass in which crystals are grown in labs. Without such imperfections to break the symmetries of the molecules in the medium, however, the disequilibrium needed to get the process of crystalization into a state of metastability in which it can grow and feedback upon itself can never get going. The very coherence of the molecules in the medium require something less coherent to get them moving, to star their pattern of repetition. The resulting process, however, an intertwining of difference and repetition, gives rise to an echoing of the seed in the shape of the crystals themselves, each cell a metamorphic expansion of some of the aspects of the seed in relation to the crystallizing qualities of the medium. The result is a new and unique synthesis of both, and as the cells of the crystal intertwine yet further, each cell serves as seed to more layers of crystallization, allowing for the meta-articulation of the layering process.
For Deleuze, this is similar to what happens in crystal-image films. Let’s say a character sees an object in a film, and this calls up a memory of seeing a similar object in the past. These objects “repeat” or “mirror” each other. This is similar to the way in which a cell of a crystal resembles that of a seed, though the relation is one of repetition with difference, rather than sheer repetition. Essentially, the image in a mirror is enslaved to the “real” object which brings it about. In films which take a relatively linear conception of time, flashbacks are always true to life, and are only there to accurately depict, to mirror or repeat, that which “actually happened.” But in postwar films like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1949), as Deleuze points out, we see incompossible pasts, memories which can’t all be true, because some of their telling of the same events contradict. For Deleuze, flashbacks in memory occur when a moment in the presents reminds us of aspects of the past, and the resemblance between these two, their mirroring or repetition, calls up a scene from the past. But unlike images in the mirror, those in memory, or fantasy, don’t have to necessarily remain the same as what they image. Images in the mirror of the mind can reshape what they image, even if there is always some mutual interplay between the mind as medium, and the original seed of the image produced in fantasy or memory. Like in a growth of physical crystals, the growth of images of fantasy or memory from those in the present intertwines aspects of seed and medium, and as these present moments progress, they give rise to complex crystals of memory and fantasy which layer on top of each other in the process.
Temporal Webbing Beyond Linear Temporality
Deleuze calls this a process of the crystallization of time, and he terms the result time-crystals. While our normal waking consciousness is, in many senses, a constant interplay between the “linear” passage of time in our particular pathway through the spacetime of the world, and the various depths of crystallizations of memory and fantasy which encrust this at any given moment within this, films up the ante of complexity. The reason for this is that what is crystallized in films isn’t the present of a living human consciousness, but rather, images of a film. And so, that which is crystallized as memory or fantasy isn’t actually remembered or fantasized, but rather, pulled from the imagined consciousness of a character, from a void of sorts, from the film as such. And since characters and narratives only really have coherency because a film gives them this by means of the creation of an imaginary world, images crystallize in pure avant-garde films, which dispense with this, from some sort of image void itself, a void of pure future and past, beyond memory and fantasy. In narrative films with characters and plots, these forms are coated with the structures of memory and fantasy, events and plots, the logics of a world with defined rules, but ata deeper level, for Deleuze, lies past and future itself.
That is, in any and all films, what we see is a crystallization of time. Images lead to other images, and there are some repetitions and some differences, and we use patterns between these to make sense of what comes before and after. Linear temporality and traditional plots, stable characters and worlds with rules, these are themselves merely repetitions within all the potential differentiations which could arise. Time only ever arises from within the networks of these, and only has the appearance of linearity and progression when there is a high degree of repetition, such that each moment repeats so much of the last that the crystalline nature of time itself is obscured.
“Normal” time, then, in which we imagine time flowing as simple movement in a straight line, can be thought of as a flattened crystal, one in which the past and future mirror each other in mechanical regularity. Calendars and digital clocks help support the fantasy that time is really like this, but ultimately, time is also cyclical, as analog clocks remind us, and lived time is full of crystallizations of various sorts of complexity. Memory and fantasy distort and reshapes the past, future, and present in often startling ways, and the intertwining of memory and fantasy in our present moments are like so many loops and jumps from the present into past and future that perhaps it is only crystalline films, previously the province largely of the avant-garde but now the stuff of popular science fiction films, which approach what it feels to actually live time.
Linear temporal narrative then would be a carefully constructed fiction, one with a long history in film and literature, but which is a massive oversimplification of what it feels like to live as a temporal human. Crystalline films, such as time-travel films, are perhaps then much more honest than those with simple, linear plots. Time and life are much messier affairs. Applied to film, Deleuze therefore speaks of a “crystalline regime” of description, one in which time doesn’t necessarily flow in straight lines. Rather, there can be repetitions of aspects of characters, objects, events, plots, and any other aspect of a film, beyond that which implies linear continuity through time.
Of course, while avant-garde films or scenes of dream or hallucination do these sorts of things all the time, between the free-form interplay of repetition and difference in these more extreme situations, and the highly structured, rule based repetition of continuity logics of the physical world beyond memory and fantasy, are those narratives which try to show aspects of the inner world of characters, or which make use of science-fictional devices such as time-travel. For Deleuze, whatever the narrative excuse, films which depict time in a crystalline manner between pure freedom of difference between one image and the next and the pure repetition of mirroring sameness give us a more accurate sense of what the world of lived, human time is like. And in a world which is increasingly networked, perhaps the world even beyond our heads is more crystalline than it was previously.
Deleuze’s notion of crystalline time not only works to get us beyond the simplistic temporality of linear progression, but also the retroactivity and mirroring made us of in psychoanalytic models of temporal construction, many of which have had a long history of use in film theory as well. If psychoanalytic models, particularly those of Lacan and Zizek, have been used to think about how the malleability of the past in its recall in the future is precisely what allows for freedom from what may otherwise seem one’s destiny, this still remains bound to a model of temporal progression which follows a single, if continually reworking, pathway through the world. Deleuze shatters the mirror, and shows us how time can function as a web of incompossibilities, a true crystalline hall of mirrors in which we see multiple copies of aspects of ourselves, our actions, and our world, so many refractions which don’t have to always be compared to some absolute standard in regard to which we can think of our destiny or escape therefrom.
Such a crystalline world is that presented in Battlestar Galactica. At around fifty hours or so in length (about seventy-five episodes, each forty-five minutes in length), Battlestar dwarfs most feature films in sheer size. And if we think of it as one, complex, multi-part image, then it can be thought of, following Deleuze, as an image crystal. Of course, any film can. But unlike even most time-travel films, Battlestar presents deviations from traditional forms of image repetition which stray much further from linear temporal progression than even some of the most complex time-travel films developed. Even a film like Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012) hardly approaches the complexity shown in Battlestar. In fact, only avant-garde films such as Marienbad approach this, and in some ways, Battlestar may even represent a new stage of exploration in what crystal imaging can do.
Arguing with the Structure of the Real
Ultimately the origin of Ellen Tigh, and her relationship to number Six, is revealed. And while their resemblance is explained in a way which forecloses many of the possible interpretations, it does so in a way which creates whole new sets of questions which destabilize the nature of what we have come to know as reality so far. Nevertheless, there are few films or television shows of any sort which have used degenerate copies, which is to say, crystalline characters, so extensively. As mentioned earlier, most films which do use doubling make use of identical doubles, often played by the same actresses or actors, often differentiated by only a single trait, such as the famous black goatee to indicate the bad version of a character.
Of the few films to make use of truly degenerate or crystalline modes of copying before Battlestar, two of these were made around the turn of the century. David Cronenberg’s Existenz (1999) makes use of multiple iterations of similar characters and plot devices, due to the fact that each is revealed, one after the next, to be a videogame simulated world within the one which came before. By means of this game-within-a-game structure, degenerate and crystalline copying of varying aspects of the world manifests between the levels. A similar iterative structure of crystalline copying can be seen in Cronenberg’s next film, Spider (2002), in which a schizophrenic character’s delusions are revealed only gradually, with differing the use of makeup to make actresses who only partially resemble each other look increasingly similar as the film progresses.
In nearly the same time period, David Lynch’s two complementary masterpieces Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001) describe worlds which Rose would clearly depict as psychotic, in that we see the world of character’s hallucinations from within, as if they were the world, and only later in the film come to realize, along with the characters, that what we saw earlier was likely only partially true. In both films, Lynch uses various devices to tip off viewers that some of what they are seeing might not be fully to be trusted, and in both films these hints seem to increase as the film progresses to the character’s awareness that they live within a delusional world at least partially of their own making. Both films make use of degenerate copies of various traits of characters, sometimes even giving rise to traits which leap around, as if they were leitmotifs of a world gone false. The color electric blue, for example, seems to take on a life of its own, a pure signifier, which circulates throughout Mulholland Drive. The differences between characters starts to decrease, however, as the psychotic split in the world of the film decreases, and similar to the structure of Spider, what originally seemed to be different characters merge into each other as the psychological needs to keep them separate breaks down.
Of all these, Battlestar resembles the least psychological of these films, which is to say, the video-game film, Existenz. At the end of Existenz, it is impossible to know if any of the realities we have seen are real in any way. And while the same could be said of anything we see in a film such as Muholland Drive, in which it only ever seems that we get more or less delusionally filtered versions of “reality,” in Existenz, it seems that due to the technological issues involved, a deux ex machina of a new sort than that of the traditional psyche, the question becomes largely besides the point. And so it is in the world of Battlestar. But if films such as Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Spider seem designed to make us question the extent to which we all warp our realities in the manner of the characters depicted, even if perhaps less severely, it seems that a film such as Existenz seems to put forth the notion that perhaps in the future we may not be able to tell the difference between reality and fantasy, not because we are deluded, but because our technology has changed the parameters of the game. If the first three films are psychotic in the sense described by Rose, Existenz, and Battlestar with it, operate beyond this, in the crystalline regime of the false.
Is Battlestar Dystopian? Moebial Switching Beyond Psychosis
Fiction which departs strongly from accepted notions of reality, and yet which doesn’t attempt to indicate that what we are seeing is psychological, is usually described as occurring in the realim of fantasy. While some fictions, like those of Kafka, often straddle the psychological that which is generally accepted as possible in the “real world,” presenting a world “gone mad” without ever telling us if the world is mad, the characters are mad, or if we, the readers, are, such fictions of the “fantastic” are ultimately few indeed. Most fictions can in fact be divided into those which are clearly within the realm of our dominant reality, clear fantasy, or psychological “disturbance.” There is clear security in knowing that we can tell the difference between these.
Of these types of fictions, those which are clearly marked as fantasies, such as The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, often mirror our present moment in ways which can indicate to us our hopes, desires, fears, and anxieties about the present. If “fantasy,” the genre name for those fantasies which are recreations of the medieval past, seems to often yearn for a return to some sort of idealized past, then speculative fictions of the futuristic sort, the genre of “speculative fiction” tends to depict either dystopian or utopian futures.
But while Battlestar starts off seeming strongly dystopian, and the Cylons as completely evil, the depiction of the film’s antagonists complexifies nearly from the start. Of course, the reason for this can be found in the politics of the times, in which the American actions during the “war on terror” and the Bush administration began to make it difficult for the American public to think of themselves as “the good guys.” But as the series goes on, it comes to seem that much more than simply “us” versus “them” is at stake. While the show wants to indicate that the humans and Cylons can learn from each other, the show is about more than this. Rather, it is about the evolution of humanity, in many senses, in regard to technology, but also beyond. Because as our technology begins to make it difficult to tell precisely where the limits of the human are, the more it will be necessary for us to imagine standards of value which can help us determine where humanity should go as we begin to evolve ourselves and our technologies in increasingly supra- and post-human ways.
None of which is to say that fundamentalist religiosity and Euro-American “capitalist realism” aren’t also at stake here, they are, but the show is hardly simplistic about this. The Cylon are at first depicted as fanatically monotheist, seemingly in opposition to their technological superiority to humans, which, it is emphasized, occurs due to the Cylon ability to outnetwork human computers. This hyperreligiosity and ability to network does seem designed to describe the antagonists of the “war on terror,” even if the hypertechnology was on the side of the Euro-Americans. The humans, however, are depicted as polytheists who worship versions of the gods of the ancient Greeks, even if it seems as if this is largely a religion of the past in which few on the fleet believe with any fervor. In many senses, of course, this resembles the multiplicitous idolatry of the masses who semi-religiously worship the products of capitalist production. But the similarities complexify as the series progresses. Firstly, it is revealed that some groups on the fleet do take their religion quite seriously, and one of the main characters, the human President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) has a conversion of sorts once she starts to see visions. Batlar has a conversion of sorts as well, and while the first conversion seems more genuine than the second at first, as the series moves on, this seems like it may switch places, even though both characters seem to walk a fine line between cynical deployment of religion for political gain and belief, even as one does so from the position of the government, while the other, at least towards the end of the series, does so with some sort of counterculture movement. What’s more, it is also revealed that only some of the Cylon believe in monotheism, while others are atheists who feel the other Cylon are deluded.
The series seems to relish in such reversals of expectations, and character arcs do move in some truly surprising ways. As the series progresses, even the atheistic characters begin to speculate that the only possible explanation for some of the correspondences and seeming coincidences in the development of the plot may only be explainable by something like cosmic or divine forces, or something like fate of destiny.
What to make of this, particularly in light of the relatively cynical light in which the show casts both the overearnest religiousity of the Cylon, who preach a gospel of love but feel justified killing off entire planets of humans because they are too violent, as well as the lip service mixed with questionable conversions of the humans. But underneath this, there seems to be a belief in some spiritual or at least philosophical principles about the nature of time which the show takes much more seriously. And these are always voiced by the Cylon. In fact, as the series progresses, the Cylon come to seem less like evil monsters and more like the future into which humanity may evolve.
Of course, these seeming idealized humans are charming as they are brutal. When the humans finally decide to settle on a planet, thinking that the Cylon won’t find them due to the presence of a nebula near this planet, the Cylon ultimately do find the humans, and begin an occupation. As a result, the show had their audience rooting those fighting a counter-insurgency, quite like the Iraqis and Afghans were at the same time. Those same likable “good guys” who tortured and waterboarded Cylons earlier in the series now find themselves on the other side, planting suicide bombs. I can’t think of any other mainstream drama which attempted to get audiences in the “coalition of the willing” to root for those fighting an insurgency, thereby turning the tables on most programming expectations at that time.
What’s more, the series increasingly goes out of its way to humanize the Cylon, such as when a Six is captured and tortured and raped to the point of extreme psychological damage. This Six eventually recovers enough to become an undercover fighter against the humans from within the fleet. As part of her disguise, she does her hair quite differently than the other Sixes, and manages to look nearly as different from herself as she does Ellen Tigh. While ultimately the Cylon are still brutal, they only being their occupation after they feel that sheer massacre of the humans was wrong, and that trying to “civilize” their erstwhile creators would be better. But eventually the Cylon splinter, and if the humans often veered into martial law, coups-d’etat, or seemed near civil war, finally it was the Cylon, who believe in complete uniformity in voting amongst the models to make decisions, who actually proceed to fight each other. The blurring of line between Cylon and human, which begins in the series in terms of the child Hera, born of a Cylon mother and human father, or the “good” copy of number Eight, “Athena,” who joins the human side and is finally accepted as one of them, only continues as the Cylon now seem to bicker and fight each other like humans. It seems increasingly like each is mirroring the other around a Moebius strip, like the various sides of characters whose resemblances tend to increase as the split between realities begins to disintegrate in Muholland Drive.
Whether or not the series is dystopian or utopian seems besides the point, as are such simplisitc notions. Rather, the series is an attempt to think about evolution, repetition, and learning from the past. In order to see why, however, it’s necessary to understand more about the Cylon monotheism which, by the end of the series, is now being espoused by the shifty Baltar from his counter-culture movement amongst the humans as well.
Cylon Projection and the Futures of Humanity
Rather than describe its radical monotheists as Islamic or Christian, the obvious targets for social commentary during the period of the “war on terror,” Battlestar develops a form of monotheism which seems inspired by Indian belief systems, Hinduism and Buddhism, instead. While Hinduism and Buddhism are radically different in several crucial ways, most clearly in the fact that there is no “god” or “deity” in Buddhism, even if various strains of Buddhism may have deities in all but name, nevertheless many major doctrines are shared in common between these belief systems. This is largely due to the fact that these religions both arose in India, competed for converts, and ultimately, coevolved in relation with each other for centuries. Doctrines such as reincarnation, karma, dharma, maya, liberation, and the centrality of practices of meditation tie these two systems together. The major difference between these two is that Hinduism believes in gods while Buddhism does not. By the time of the development of Mahayana Buddhism, and the response to this within Hinduism as presented in the Bhagavad Gita, the two systems had become mirror opposites in many crucial respects, as if circling each other on a Moebius band.
The details of the Cylon religion emerge slowly through the series, and though they seem closer to the monotheistic strands of Hinduism than Buddhism, the many similarities between these make it difficult to tell. In addition, the emphasis on the unity of God, the emphasis upon the love this God has for each of us, and the distate for the polytheism of the humans, seems to involve aspects of Islam and Christianity as well. Clearly this is a form of religiosity with a structure not quite like that seen on Earth today.
The use of the word “projection” by the Cylon to describe their beliefs and abilities can help flesh out the stakes of these notions. The Cylon all seem to have the ability to create virtual worlds, and to share them with others, which they refer to ask projection. Cylons use these projections to “navigate” their ships, which humans find a maze of largely identical passageways. The Cylon, however, imagine they are in a forest, or on a beach. It also seems that the Six who fell in love with Baltar, who died originally in the first attack on the human planet, is able to see a hallucinatory image of Baltar as her alter ego just as Baltar sees her, even though neither of the other knows about this. All of which would imply that Baltar is a Cylon. It also seems that the Cylon number Two, also known as Leoben, is able to project himself into Laura Roslin’s dreams, giving her foreshadowings of the future.
Furthermore, Cylon’s navigate their ships, which are intricate networkings of living tissue and metallic machine, by means of special creatures they call “hybrids” which use projection to jump the ship through space. Unlike the human ships, which use computations to determine jump coordinates and computers to execute these commands, the Cylon have humanoid creatures, hooked up to computer cables, who jump their ships for them. These hybrids float in some sort of liquid, and seem to be somewhere between conscious and unconscious, speak sentences of non-sensical streams of words, often inmixing the religious sounding with the technical, in a monotone voice, and scream “jump” whenever the ship is to jump. While the Cylon seem to control the ship’s smaller functions, the hybrids seem to control the major functions, and ultimately, the fully humanoid Cylon seem unable to jump the ship without the intervention of a hybrid. All of which seems to indicate, even if only implicitly, that the hybrid projects into a space to see if it is clear of dangers, and once this is determined, then executes a jump.
Part Two coming soon!.