Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lazy thinking about the apocalypse

Warning: This blog post spoils in detail the Battlestar Galactica series finale and the unaired "Epitaph One" episode of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. Both are excellent, and their craftsmanship is undone by advance knowledge of the plot. If you haven't seen them yet, skip this post.

It's a warm summer day in San Francisco -- the first of only a handful this year. We know that good weather in NYC influences the stock market; has anyone ever studied how San Francisco's history of atypical weather nurtures atypical thinking?

Surrounded by fog, I spent much of the calendar summer thinking moodily about collapse: social, ecological, economic. And we're finally living in an era where apocalyptic thinking -- part of the human and American character -- seems more justified than ever. The latest scientific evidence on climate change suggests that human civilization as we know it is on collision path with a brick wall.

The cure for apocalyptic thinking, though, as with any unproductive mindset, is to change our beliefs to match reality. The more we internalize the real data, say, of climate change, the more we can think "the unthinkable," the less we are compelled to fight for old and familiar systems that are clearly insufficient. We shift from focusing on what there is to lose to what there is to gain. I've taken to characterizing this difference as "at the end of day" vs. "at the end of the century" mindsets. If we are continually living at the end of the day, we are haunted by the risks and dangers of the futures we know we're avoiding.

Art has always been a good litmus test for what haunts a culture—what it chooses to avoid, its unfinished business. Popular art -- in the sense of mass art, and successful art -- makes our concerns, our collective dreamwork both visual and concrete. So I hold art to a high standard. And earlier this year, it irritated me that two otherwise compelling works of art came so close to making our unconscious fears and half-glimpsed truths concrete and discussable, only to shy away by blaming, of all things, technology.

The denouement of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica series found the surviving characters touching down on our planet 150,000 years before the present day. After four years of running from a nuclear holocaust, this resolution, and with it shots of unspoiled, lush African plains, came as bittersweet wish fulfillment—its joy tempered by the death and breakdowns of major characters, and by the fact that this ache to go back, to do over, to inherit an undamaged world, is what we the viewers most want and cannot have.

A necessary and yet implausible plot point involves the BSG survivors deciding quickly en masse to give up technology. This was a momentary loss of grace and intelligence in an otherwise perfect episode. BSG from the beginning to the very end was fundamentally "about" religion, and like any great art, it refused to resolve its own central concerns. Deflecting attention and making technology the scapegoat was a moment of creative weakness. And moral weakness... Kevin Kelly and others have argued passionately and persuasively that technology is not the cause of human suffering; in the final analysis, it expands opportunity. It's ideas we should be worried about, and as an entertainment product, BSG is nothing if not a set of ideas, seductively packaged.

BSG drew a respectable viewing audience for four years, and it tapped the zeitgeist enough to say "it tapped the zeitgeist." Far less successful, artistically and commercially, is the Joss Whedon drama series Dollhouse. Like BSG, Dollhouse takes a provocative and uncomfortable topic—this time misogyny, not religion—and transplants it in a dystopian science fiction environment. Again, like BSG, Dollhouse attracts acclaim and ire in equal doses for its sophisticated take on a sensitive cultural issue. Yet presumably due to ongoing interference from Fox, the show is wildly uneven in tone and quality. Its unaired season 1 finale is its artistic high point, involving a leap forward ten years, to a barbaric post-apocalyptic world destroyed by widespread, hostile use of the Dollhouse's human programming technology. In the show's final moments, looking out on a wrecked LA cityscape, the main character blames "kids playing with matches—and they burned the house down."

Again, on a show about ideas, technology is the culprit.

Slate magazine ran a piece a few months ago called Choose Your Own Apocalypse—a bit of fun that exposes the dangerous laziness of our apocalyptic thinking. The truth is we see our facts through the filters of our ideas. When we individually and collectively can talk about our ideas, including our most treasured or dangerous ones, maybe we'll see that the apocalypse is avoidable if we have the willpower. Maybe the breakdown of old systems isn't such a bad thing.

Maybe we're standing in the midst or on the brink not of winter and decay, but warmth and abundance.

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