Some Archival Metaphysics: Caprica and Digital Heaven

January 18, 2011

[Note: I'm not wholly satisfied w/ this post, but that has more to do w/ the fact I'm just beginning to formulate some of these questions/ideas, and they consequently are quite obviously not developed.]

The SyFy network’s recent attempt to capitalize on the success of Battlestar Galactica (Redux) ended fairly inauspiciously after only one season.  Caprica was canceled in October, 2010, and was off the air until SyFy “burned” the last five episodes on January 4th, 2011.  I only realized this a week later, and experienced the odd enjoyment that comes from watching five hours straight of a serial television show that ends coherently.

What I finally understood about Caprica in the end, something I was perhaps conscious of during its short run but didn’t really articulate to myself, was that I don’t really think the Caprica vs. BSG comparison is particularly interesting.  Yes, they’re clearly in the same universe, and are a compelling example of what Pawel Frelick calls a “dispersed narrative”[1] when considered together, but in terms of the aesthetic unity of their very different projects, it was always clear that Caprica’s production strove to distance itself from BSG, not only to attract new viewers (of course), but to create something stand-alone.  The various monetary reasons for such a goal aside, I not only appreciated this consistently, but it made the Caprica/BSG discussion slightly moot/obvious/metacritical/etc., because the show ultimately achieved being able to be considered on its own, and I think it did this primarily through having as its major point of intertextuality posthuman singularity narratives in general, rather than BSG specifically.  Sadly, it also failed to draw enough viewers to underwrite its fairly large budget.

Which, if there is an assessment to be made of the last episode, was ultimately in the show’s interest.  They were able to give a glimpse of “Things to Come” that was not only satisfying narratively, but implied more story.  W/ the dismal failures of final episodes in epic SF series of late (you know who you are), Caprica was refreshing in many, many ways.  (Which is also perhaps b/c it doesn’t have to end, but just give a glimpse of the future of the world the BSG franchise is building.)  But of course all of this is to say that though there may be some compelling discussions involving many aspects of this show, most of them are underscored by a persistent self-consciousness of not only SF conventions, but more importantly posthuman SF conventions; so I think it would be safe to say Caprica is entering into a posthuman discussion tropically: i.e. certain aspects of posthuman SF have enough widespread use at this point that we could categorize/list how Caprica draws from the posthuman archive.[2] Perhaps just such a list:

1)  Digital, simulated utopia/heaven.  Caprica projects the possibility for a space of limitless potential where immortality is a “reality.”  That this space is necessarily flawed is also part of the point.

2)  AI.  The emergence of AI, both in anthropomorphic terms and more machinic ones.  (This should probably be #1. . . .)

3)  Robots w/ guns.  Self-explanatory.

4)  Eerily contemporary in terms of dress/civilization, but of course aestheticized in some other historical time period, in this case the American 1950s.  The mobster stuff was cool, but difficult to care about other than its twist on Adama’s origin story, which, well, rests on the kid’s eye color.

5)  MMOs.

6)  Digital terrorists.

7)  A Media Mogul, in this case a protagonist.

8)  And though there are surely many others, the most important one for me: a sense of hyperarchival realism.[3]

Part of how I’m imagining hyperarchival realism as a project is that it not only attempts to underscore the posthumanity it is tropically imagining, but to do so in a fashion that shows a thorough fidelity to contemporaneity.  There is a seamless integration of technology and humans throughout Caprica (always of course blurring the distinction b/t the two), but, and this is the point, it achieves this integration mostly w/ technology we already have.[4] And the dominant technology is obviously information.

How information tech. plays in Caprica: Zoe, the AI “ghost” daughter of the Media Mogul father, has composed an informational-search-algorithm that convincingly passes the Turing test (in short), creating a digital “copy” of herself.  The original Zoe dies, the copy lives on (becoming a goddess in the virtual realm).  This copy of Zoe is achieved through pure information.  Original Zoe’s brain is not downloaded, inserted, copied, or in any other way invaded.  Copy Zoe emerges through a conglomeration of info.  In other words, she is a hyperarchival consciousness, emerging out of the gathering and interpretation of info.[5]

The major conflict of the show, esp. in terms of the historical and political past the BSG universe is trying to articulate, is finding and accessing this algorithm, this program, this info.  The Media Mogul father needs it to run his killer robots(/apps) more efficiently, and the terrorist monotheists need it to achieve what they call “Apotheosis”—which is a kind of digital rapture: you die in reality and then you immediately reappear as a copy of yourself in digital heaven—a landscape and program that is endlessly manipulable.[6]

And this is where the show I think really achieves something, it asks (and doesn’t answer the question), is this as good as a heaven we’ll ever get?  This space, the space of Apotheosis, is composed by the fringe monotheists in the polytheistic world of Caprica.  But the real question of the show should perhaps be, wouldn’t it precisely be the atheists who built such a place?  Those who didn’t participate in belief and faith, and just built an afterlife?  Would this not be better in some way?

The show says unequivocally no, but I think it does so for the wrong reasons.  Digital simulation is everywhere a part of the world of Caprica, something we never get a sense of in BSG.  The original was so steeped in a kind of posthuman steampunk (i.e. 1950s tech.), that to imagine a future world not more dominated by artificial landscapes seems slightly curious even these few years after BSG.

But what Caprica does do is ask the historically major metaphysical questions, and places them firmly upon a ground of information tech., upon the archive.  In this sense, in Caprica and other posthuman objects like it, metaphysics is now “archival metaphysics,” and this to me seems important, for though Caprica may not be doing anything terribly novel in the genre, b/c it is/was such a part of a major franchise, it is codifying the genre in a specific type of fashion, realizing that the old questions have to get asked all over again when the archive becomes a space in which to “live” an afterlife.  And really, hasn’t the archive always been such a place?


[1] Sorry, couldn’t find a link for this one.  He was the keynote speaker at the Science Fiction Research Association Conference in 2010, and delivered a talk called “Gained in Translation: Dispersed Narratives in Contemporary Culture,” where he outlined this term in great detail.  Perhaps the best example of what he is calling a dispersed narrative is Southland Tales, which tells its entire tale over a graphic novel and a film.  I’ve also thought that perhaps a better term for this would be “distributed narrative.”

[2] Of course I’m sure this has been done, and better than myself, but it should be noted that much of my thinking here is very larval at the moment.

[3] Note: I’m working on this term right now, so I do not quite have a coherent definition, but I am getting very close.

[4] This has been where William Gibson has been so strong as of late (w/ perhaps the exception of Zero History).  (Also, b/c I read it awhile ago and didn’t post anything, perhaps a lengthy archival quote chosen somewhat at random from ZH: “‘The holy grail of the surveillance industry is facial recognition.  Of course, they say it’s not.  It’s already here, to a degree.  Not operational.  Larval.  Can’t read you if you’re black, say, and might mistake you for me, but the hardware and software have potentials, awaiting later upgrade.  Though what you need to understand, to understand forgetting, is that nobody’s actually eyeballing much of what a given camera sees.  They’re digital, after all.  Stored data sits there, stored.  Not images, then, just ones and zeros.  Something happens that requires official scrutiny, the ones and zeros are converted to images.  But’—and he reached up to touch the edge of the bottom of the birdcage library—‘say there’s a gentleman’s agreement” [302] [Also, how cool would a bar called The Birdcage Library be?].)  (Also, it is not wholly the case that Caprica uses tech. we already have.)

[5] Also, Watson, the Jeopardy computer, is very scary w/r/t this.

[6] A minor plot question—if the tech. exists for this type of multiplicitous AI, why are there only 13 brands of human-looking Cylon in the original BSG?


American Literary Traditions

January 7, 2011

For the course I’m teaching this spring, American Literary Traditions, subtitled “The American Disaster: Network Subjectivities and Apocalyptic Topologies,” my students are keeping a course blog.  Check it out here.  There isn’t much content yet, but that will change shortly.


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