Becoming Machine: Battlestar Galactica, Post-Singularity and Deleuze’s Vitalism

“Are you alive?”  – Number Six

To parody the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci with the new Christ as a machinic queen of our posthuman future could be seen as a tasteless joke, yet there are those who seem bent on a technological escape velocity into either a transhumanist dream of enhanced biotech or a postsingularity in which we re-sleeve each day in a new hypermodern stylistic synth suit prosthesis empowered by a quantum brain devoid of the fleshly attributes of old school humanity. But before we jet off into the posthuman future maybe we should first see what’s in store for us in those metalloid fantasias of a beyond where our cinematized utopian visions of rupture lead us not to some blissful habitat of reason and pure jouissance, but deliver us instead into the machinic arms of synthetic life as humans dissolve and make way for an inhuman Other.

Battlestar Galactica the first time round as a child was for me full of all those old sci-fi stereotypes and cartoon like escapades one expected from space opera, but the latest incarnation takes itself serious and brings us a universe replete with technological gods who have moved way past the singularity and into a limbo time where science and religion seem to merge in a hypersphere of strangeness. What I like about Netflix is being able to rewind, replay, splice, interact with knowledge bases on the fly, info-depots, character studies, background fillers, media-bytes from flip-boards on google or even specialized blogs devoted to the sundry intricacies of BG’s quirky cast, while reading philosophical tidbits on my kindle, etc. moment by moment image fest of datamaxed portrayals flicking along the camera eye’s synaptic nerve through the brain’s infinite sea of cogitation. Contemplating the shifting realities of a posthuman theory-fiction reveals much more than it conceals, bringing us hints of an unresolved nihilism at the heart of our post-postmodern lives. That’s when I ask myself: Is the eye a technology that needs this strange world? Did the eye invent this or did it evolve me to find it? Are we already prosthetic? Is the embodied self already embedded in a prosthetic device? Are our organic bodies alien suits for a strange stranger seeking freedom in a cage of steel and ice?

Who will forget the opening scene of the first season of Battlestar Galactica miniseries as an old warn out officer docks with a space-station in some unknown quadrant of the galaxy to meet a Cylon representative who will supposedly never show up. After the great Cylon wars in which the more-than-human intelligences have opted out of human habitation and enslavement, and moved on to an undisclosed planet of their own choice where they have lived in silence for fifty years we discover that each year the parties meet at a neutral station as agreed in their treaty. The only thing is that no Cylon has showed its metalloid mask in over fifty years.

So our weary almost dead looking officer – that we take to be a human representative undocks, walks down a long corridor that resembles a bare, brassy or bronzed, metal conclave with one small wooden desk and two opposing chairs located centrally between both secured entry ways. The man sits down opens a briefcase pulls out some papers, two photos (we presume of his wife and son), and then proceeds to open an envelope showing the specification charts of an original Centurion model of a Cylon warrior. He appears to study it for a few seconds, then tired and numbed by his journey – scarred from possible old wounds, he nods off in a slight fitful state of rest with his eyes closed. Then suddenly the metal doors open in front of him as he, startled and quite frankly fearful, stares toward the door not sure if he should stay or fly. The key here is affectivity, the emotion laden flesh creels before the unknown and misrecognized.

At that moment two centurions march in, arms cocked and loaded ready to fire if they meet anything harmful, each stepping just to the left and right of the open security screen checking out the interior of this long room with two Cyclops razor eyes that leave us guessing as to what kind of intelligence hides behind the flickering pulses of red lazelight. A split shot of the human officer sees him ready to bolt, looking like a scared rabbit caught in a trap, not sure if running would do anything more that get him shot in the back. So he stays put. At that moment the loaded armatures of the two centurians retreats and handlike fingers appear, elongated and swirling out like spikes as they stand down and watch the officer in the distance with their now well know lazer red eyes floating horizontal, sliding back and forth in constant surveillance like the eye of a medusa, cold and inhuman.

At that moment, as the two centurions move to parade rest, arms akimbo, we hear the echo of shoes drumming along a far corridor,  growing incessantly louder with each step. Suddenly what appears to be a beautiful woman dressed in leather red with spider meshed blonde hair, wearing brown toned riding boots moves methodically into view toward the human male representative. As she strides intently forward we see her nostrils flare and her scarlet encasement trimmed just above her knees slide along the gleaming surface of the metal floors in shadowlike trails.  Instead of stopping at her side of the table where the other chair awaits her, she instead continues to walk around the table’s barrier sliding up next to the official as if to study him like some exotic pet. Her green eyes open brightly as she studies him as if he were a bug in glue, then she grabs the knap of his neck and pulls him close to the smooth pale skin of her almost human face and asks inquisitively: “Are you alive?”

Startled the human hesitates, his eyes dart around seeking a route of escape, then realizing it would be pointless, unsure if he should speak or not, he finally says in an whisper: “Yes…” Yet, one wonders if at this moment he would rather be dead, or at least totally oblivious and unconscious. Then as if she were testing an automata, a simulated machine, she says, “Then prove it…” She proceeds to lean over and delicately kiss him, indifferent and emotionless, a true sociopathic personality as affectless machine consciousness. He allows it, passive and defenseless against her – can we call it – ‘presence’, her hand pressing behind his neck tighter as if to say, “I own you now, you will do what I say.” All the while we fade back to the cyclops-eyed Centurions who seem to be humming in unison at this strange new circumstance, anticipating some as yet unrevealed plot in this inhuman narrative.

While Number Six continues her exploration of this human victim we see a cinematic fade out and the shadow of a large vessel flying over the station swallowing the human ship above, then from the belly of its mechanical recesses it releases a white dart of fire that curves around looping downward in a spiral toward the space station where it suddenly explodes. The old officer gasps, but Number Six in an ironic almost atonal voice looks blankly at this frightened creature of flesh and blood and merely relays the simple news:

“It has begun…”

The scene fades out as the movie begins in earnest…

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Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.

– Vernor Vinge,  The Coming Technological Singularity

Why do we have such a fascination for the inhuman Other? What is it about these technological monstrosities that tempts us even to become machinic ourselves? Ever since Mary Shelley used technology within her counter-sublime novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. She gave us our first sense that modernity and modern technology have always been haunted by an insistent return of the “dead;” a return of what has been repressed by the instrumental or “technological” view of the world. But is a sense of death come alive, or is it rather a sense that everything is already full of life and we need only know how to awaken its dark churning potential, its thanatropic necessity, that keeps us on the treadmill of the technological imperative. Yet, once might suggest that it is this uncanny awakening of the ghost in the machine that makes our skin crawl and tingle as we think about strange machinic intelligences that might in some ways be superior to ourselves.

Arthur Kroker tells us there came a moment when teach a series of lectures on technology and futurism that a strange sense of presentiment overcame him. He suddenly realized that the “dynamic language of futurism expressed first by the utopian spin of new digital media and later by the life science industries and the newly emergent genetic class had about it the smell of something very ancient in the western tradition.”(AK 5)1 He realized that our technology was driving us toward goals we had not set, and into paths we might have not foreseen:

In these visions recombinant of transgenic bodies, phosphorescent skin, jellyfish monkeys, firefly organs, mutant fish, sterile hybrid seeds, cross species organs, there was the awakening again of the siren-call of a society intent on its own suicide, celebrating its coming disappearance in the language of the genetic modification of the species. (AK 5)

Then it dawned on him that our complicity in our own dark movement within this technological imperative of transhumanism or AI dawning was something that needed critique, that in fact we needed to think technology outside the horizon of this technological imperative, only then would we better understand the central truth underpinning this deterministic system of techne: that nihilism is the essence of technological destiny. Or as Nietzsche himself put it “All great things bring about their own  destruction through an act of self-overcoming: thus the law of life will have  it, the law of the necessity of “self-overcoming” in the nature of  life–the lawgiver himself eventually receives the call: “patere legem, quam  ipse tulisti.” Caught in the meshes of these new NBIC technologies (Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology, and Cognitive Science) that seem to have unlimited funding from government and corporate initiatives alike, what is the goal? Are we seeking life in the machine? Is this a Promethean Project unbound seeking through science some literal heaven on earth through the creation of either immortal transhumans (enhanced, H++, etc.), or by the way of cyborgianization and/or a full commodification of life divorced from flesh and installed in the matrix of some quantum mind?

For Freud this ‘uncanny’ sense in inorganic machinic life was the mark of repression returning us to more primitive modes of existence, a return to “the old, animistic conception of the universe;” which Freud sees as an earlier “stage of development” that has been “surmounted” by modern scientific-technological thought. This “uncanny” coming to life of machines and automata represented a return to life of that animistic or magical thinking repressed by technological modernity – a return of the ‘technological other’ hidden within our machinic unconscious. This sense of a vitality within the inorganic reminds us of Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze drew on a vitalist tradition that put sense before and beyond meaning, and before and beyond the organism.2 This sense of vitalism was for Deleuze not a posited substance or force, but vitalism as a problem, or imperative that appears to have mobilized philosophical, theoretical and literary contretemps.(5) As Claire Colebrook remarks, “Deleuze’s philosophy of life is necessarily, avowedly and manifestly composed along a line of internal incoherence: philosophy must, if it is philosophical, think difference, even if difference is that which cannot be thought. Such an impossibility is not confined to philosophy and has to do with the very positivity of life” (7). Colebrook differentiates between an active and a passive form of philosophical vitalism, saying,

An active vitalism has been the proper mode of traditional philosophy: a tracing back of any system, position, dogma or truth claim to the conditions of its genesis, never accepting a truth without also grasping its coming into being. A passive vitalism, by contrast, is a hyper-philosophy or theory (if we take theory to be an acceptance of the distance or relation that necessarily accompanies any perception or looking). While accepting that all positions, figures and forms must have emerged from life, passive vitalism also confronts a malevolence, stupidity, self-mutilation and opacity that thought can never incorporate or master. … For vitalism is at once an imperative to account for the dynamic emergence of forms, ideas, sense and structures, while the acknowledgment of passivity requires an attention to that which cannot be generated from within thought itself. This doubleness is expressed through Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari’s writings in a number of fractures: every proper name deployed is at once a path to true thinking and a symptom. (7-8)

Deleuze’s need to think the plane of immanence realized that there is also a concomitant awareness of the necessary, difficult and inhuman recidivism of transcendence (166). As Colebrook acknowledges “Deleuze’s philosophy is one of immanence, but it is never the immanence of life but of ‘a’ life – a fleeting and fragile perception that at once gets caught up in territories and recognition, only to break down again when life is blessed with enough violent power to overcome self-maintenance. (166).

As a contrast to the philosophy of immanence portrayed by Deleuze she offers the mathematical purity of Alain Badiou’s anti-immanent formalism. “Badiou seems to offer one of the very few avowedly anti-vitalist and anti-immanent philosophies that would also regard the transcendence of the subject as a virtue.” (167) For Badiou mathematics – or the approach to being as nothing more than a multiplicity devoid of sense – is the proper truth of ontology. (167) And, for Badiou the potential structure of the subject is its radically transcendent nature: it is not a part of this lived, enumerated and embodied existence but a creation of a void or gap in actuality. (167) The point being that Badiou is one of the few voices to suggest that there are values other than life, that the proper subject of ethics is not an embodied, engaged and other-directed social being, and that the truth of being lies in the pure formality of mathematics. (167)

Yet, against Badiou’s stern refusal of the vitalistic tradition which she perceives as the mainstream of thought running Leibniz down through Deleuze and Guattari she remarks,

When Deleuze and Guattari hail a tradition of passive vitalism that runs from Leibniz to Ruyer, they create a line of thought, a way of mapping and sensing a certain play of the world. Their proclamation is both epistemological in its commitment to passive vitalism as a point of view that can account for thinking in all its forms, and pragmatic in its commitment to the expanded creative power of conceptualization that a thought of life as affectivity will enable. (185)

The key word here is ‘affectivity’, and it is to the Affective Turn that we might be better served in our quest to situate ourselves outside the overpowering hypermodernity of the Technological Imperative. This is neither a Luddite implosion nor a relentless gamble for the posthuman matrix, but is instead a way to reweave our ties to Life and its central imperatives of being-in-the-world as embodied creatures whose limits are circumscribed only by the affective relations with each other and all those other non-human beings we share in the spaces of earth. The affects pose a problematic correspondence across each of the divides: between the mind’s power to think and the body’s power to act, and between the power to act and the power to be affected. As Michael Hardt recently remarked we should return to Baruch Spinoza who brought the affects into play to begin with: “The challenge of the perspective of the affects resides primarily in the syntheses it requires. This is, in the first place, because affects refer equally to the body and the mind; and, in the second, because they involve both reason and the passions.”3 Or, as Colbrook remarks “If Spinoza has become fashionable of late, against Descartes, it is precisely because there is no longer mind as a separate substance, for mind is just the ‘feeling of what happens’ at the level of matter.”(84) Yet, if we follow this logic then vitalist or affective turn away from Cartesianism or linguisticism can be characterized through three general features: a rejection of any centre, model or privileged term from which relations would follow (decentring); a refusal to posit any principle outside life that would govern living systems (immanence); and a demotion of cognition or information-based forms of relation to do with calculation in favour of relations that are always determined by specific powers and not some matter in general.(32) She continues:

Once we consider the potentials from which living beings emerged – before the formation of bounded organisms, egos, self-interested subjects and upright citizens – we will then be confronted with the forces of the future. As long as we take the organism as our starting point, then the problems that confront us today, including the certainty that the organism has no future, will remain mired in the narcissistic captivation that regards the world only in terms of the viability of our own sensory-motor apparatus. (42)

But, as Colebrook also suggests, what is retained of vitalism, even while there is no longer a vital force distinct from matter, is a vitalist ethics: ways of knowing and acting ought not operate as detached technical systems but should be adaptive, responsive and open to a milieu that is not represented objectively but felt affectively.(145) So against a vitalism that would center itself on some idealist ‘vital force’ interior or exterior to matter she sees in Deleuze and Deleuze / Guattari a “viral power in life that takes the form of a variability without self-reference, without meaning.” (144) So that instead of attributing mindfulness to nature, and rather than seeing what was once the detached human mind as already part of a dynamic nature, perhaps the figure of mind, and the very concept of the subject, needs to be interrogated rather than extended.(147) Against all those posthuman projects that would seek an escape from the body or an enhancement of its powers beyond recognition maybe we should first begin a methodical interrogation of those ‘self-overcoming’ nihilisms that drive such dreams to begin with.

1. Arthur Kroker. The Will To Technology. (University of Toronto Press 2004).
2. Colebrook, Claire (2011-10-20). Deleuze and the Meaning of Life (Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy) (p. 3). Continuum UK. Kindle Edition.
3. Patricia Ticineto Clough;Jean Halley. The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social (p. ix). Kindle Edition.