Absent

by zunguzungu

On April 27th, I wrote the following, and emailed it to Willie Osterweil after a conversation on twitter about Battlestar Galactica. It was the start of a post that I never quite finished; it just kept getting bigger and longer, and there was no hurry to complete it –we’ve all forgotten about BSG, haven’t we? — so I never quite did. When my laptop was stolen on Saturday, it was up to about 3000 words, I think, even though it was only about half as long as I eventually wanted it to be. Sigh.

Let us mourn for the essay never to be! Let its sacrifice never be forgotten! So say we all!

Battlestar Galactica is nakedly referential to the post-9/11 psycho-situation of the United States, the war on terror, and the scurity state. It wears the directness of this address on its shirt sleeve, and everyone understands that it does. From the occupation in season three – complete with Bush-era cliché’s like “shock and awe” and “Welcome us with open arms” – to the montage of 9/11 visual cues that opens each episode, this is something we are never confrimed in understanding, and never need to be.

But 9/11 was not a genocidal first strike; it was terrorism. And the substance of that distiction is relevent to assessing the substance of the allegory that Battlestar Galactica performs: it makes us think about the US after 9/11 as if it were the human race after a genocidal first strike by a robotic alien other, instead of this simply being (more or less) the lie that our leaders tell us.

After all, the interesting thing the show does is blur the distinctions between cylons and humans. If you had made the cylons into [insert Muslim Terrorist stereotype here] and the humans into [insert Virtuous American War Hero stereotype], it would be seen as blatant propaganda. It would be understood to be making a claim about the rightness or wrongness of the war on terror, and – as its politics became clear – we would bracket it off, inoculate ourselves from its message. So the entire point of the show – everything that makes it interesting – is the way those distinctions fall apart in practice, the ambiguity of a human race that isn’t nearly as good as we expect them to be or a cylon race that isn’t as bad as we expect. This problem is given maximum tangibility by the steady suggestion – occasionally give real substance – that while the cylon attack might not have been justified in the form that it took, it was mounted in response to a real grievance.

And yet, everyone knows that the cylons are the Terrorists. Everyone knows that the humans are the United States. The structure of the allegory – the extent to which it refers to post-9/11 USA – depends on this being the case. And by the same token, while the remnants of the human race inBattlestar Galactica really are facing the constant prospect of continual annihilation – which makes arguments for things like martial law, torture, recourse to extralegality massively more sympathetic – the most important fact about the post-9/11 USA has been the absence of the kind of existential conflict upon which so many of the state’s actions and transformations have depended. The show lets us forget that absence.