Battlestar Galactica and the Death Drive

Catherine Boutwell’s most interesting post on movies depicting an apocalypse, our fascination with the end of all life as we know it, and a tad of perverse disillusionment when nothing happens on the day predicted to be the end of times, brought to mind other films and television series depicting Armageddon. Battlestar Galactica is one such series in which the survivors of the human race defy extinction in the midst of endless space. In it we anticipate the ultimate cataclysm as the crew of Galactica careens toward an Armageddon-like end.

And we can’t quite shake the nagging sense of futility that underlies humanity’s flight from the Cylons. Ironically, the Cylons are machines created by humans. If we look at the series in an applied psychoanalytic fashion, (and why wouldn’t we?) we may understand the Cylons as representatives of an unconscious fantasy depicting our struggle with our own death drive.  Freud’s death instinct was one of his most controversial ideas. It posits that in direct opposition to a will to live, there also exists within each of us a drive towards quietude, an unconscious yearning to return to a state of in-organicity, of deadness, that promises to bring the person a sense of peace. This instinct, which he called Thanatos, is in constant conflict with the life instinct, Eros. In line with Freud’s original formulation, Hannah Segal emphasized how this unconscious drive towards death is often accompanied by a conscious fantasy of death bringing about a final union with God. According to Segal, the longing for Armageddon by 35 million born-again Christians in the United States, and other apocalyptic movements in the Western and Muslim worlds, are clear evidence of a death instinct. With self-annihilation the subject will finally be granted everlasting peace.

Cyborgs, Cylons, Replicants and other malevolent machines depicted across science fiction movies, can be understood as representative of our wish to exorcise the death drive and have it be contained externally. Into these machines, we project the aggression that we cannot tolerate in ourselves. We maintain a split between us and them, and we make sure to keep the parts separate so as to not risk having one contaminate the other. In Battle Star Galactica any perceived connection between a Cylon and a human, such as the relationship between Sharon and Helo, reawakens a primitive anxiety in the crew precisely because it threatens the psychological wall erected within each person to keep good and bad aspects of him or herself split off and permanently segregated. And yet the crew can never rest assured that they are not one of “them”.  In fact, they go as far as developing a blood test to determine if a person is in fact a Cylon, because one would never know it if one was.  One also cannot rest assured that others are not Cylons – after all, they look just like humans.

When Cain in the Pegasus crew discovers that Jena Six is a Cylon, she is violently dehumanized in an act meant to reassert the difference between “it” and “us”. One need not go too far to appreciate the role that these same mechanisms can play in world affairs. The less one group of people sees or experiences itself as similar to the “other”, the better able it is to remain insensitive to the human suffering caused by its government’s policies. The demonization of the “other” assures one group of its inherent goodness as God’s chosen people. Yet the price that the group pays is the need to remain in constant vigilance for the return of what it has created and projected. In these particularly paranoid times, it is considered hearsay and tantamount to treason to attempt to understand the enemy’s reasoning and motivation. Consider  the reaction Ron Paul gets in Republican debates when he makes any attempt at understanding why some groups may hate the US. “It” must always remain an “it” — a Cylon must never be thought of as anything remotely human. In Battle Star Galactica we contemplate a future where we have built machines that can serve as containers of the most undesirable aspects of ourselves, allowing us to feel free of those poisonous elements, and yet we are left entrenched in the paranoid position, watchful for the return of our projections. Inevitably, the machines evolve, they do return, and they bring with them all that we have put into them. This idea of machines created by humans returning to harm their makers is a common theme in a number of science fiction classics, including Blade Runner, Terminator and the new Battle Star Galactica.

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