Monday, April 9, 2007

Postscript to "Cylon Monotheism": Blechman's Communication Appendices (Part 1)

In his blog Lance Strate's Blog Time Passing, Lance answers my questions concerning the monotheism of Cylons on Battlestar Galactic:

"The Cylons are Battlestar Galactica's very own Spartoi, they are the new beings sown from the dragon's teeth, they have a Phoenician/Semitic link”

“Human beings are symbols that stand for God. And the Cylons, being monotheists, want to wipe out humanity so that they can take our place as the primary symbols
of God.”
I think that Lance’s insight that the Cylons are a modern correlative of Cadmus’s dragon's teeth is fantastic!

Before I comment further on Lance’s insights, let me make a few meta-communication comments about these series of posts. I call these Blechman’s Communication Appendices, as in vestigial remnants whose true function no one can figure out, but that can cause a real pain.

Appendix #1: Every cultural artifact has pedagogic content. Lance and I have been having a theological discussion based on a pop-culture artifact, a Sci-Fi program on cable TV that is based on a cheesy Star Wars wannabe from the 1970’s. Just as contemporary Homeric scholars recognize that the Iliad and the Odyssey were cultural encyclopedias for Classical Greeks. (See Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato, Joseph Campbell’s Mask of God series, and, of course, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Mythologiques.), the products of our culture are also encyclopedias, providing instruction on both the content and the medium itself. Every story, art work or musical composition, we read, view or hear contains a lesson in the ways and mores of our culture.

For example, each song we listen to contains instruction in musicology, as defined by our culture. Even the simplest bubble-gum rock song instructs it listeners in our culture’s rules of rhyme, meter, musical notation and storytelling. Some of us learn the lesson better than others, which explains the difference between a Mozart on one end of the spectrum and, say, me on the other. Some lessons can be taught formally and some can be absorbed by osmosis.

Contrary to Jacques Derrida, as I understand him, there is a meaning in the content of a cultural artifact. It doesn’t reside entirely in the reader. For a society to exist, there must be an agreement of basic premises, a basic understanding of the structure of reality and the meanings of signs within that reality. Symbols have meanings which are defined, but even there, a consensus must be agreed upon for the symbols to have any practical use. I don’t mean that you and I can read the same book or view the same movie and not get different meanings out of the experience. However, there must be a fundamental basis that we agree on without interpretation. Just as we must agree upon the Laws of Gravity, even if we don’t approve of them, there are givens without which no culture could function. Pre-literate, technologically less advanced cultures show these “gravity agreements” in their body of myths which, as Lévi-Strauss pointed out, exist to shore up the consensus of reality by denying contradictions or explaining them away.

Appendix #2: Although there are some restrictions, members of a given culture will decide on the use of a particular medium, based on their existing media and cultural biases. As Lance (quoting Lynn White, Jr.)points out: “an innovation opens a door, it does not command.” Still, different media have different biases and encourage certain beliefs and behaviors. Maybe the phonetic alphabet doesn’t force monotheism, but it lays the foundation for its acceptance. I find it inconsistent that, given the diversity of the twelve planets of the Battlestar Galactica universe and the seeming universality of a phonetic alphabet, no one has thought of monotheism before the coming of the Cylons. Maybe they experienced a more rapid transition from a literate to a secondary orality culture, but that still doesn’t explain the Cylon’s acceptance of one God.

Appendix #3: Vestigial elements of past cultures persist within our own. This appendix is the basis of my soon-to-be published paper The Heart of the Matter (Proceedings, 2005 Media Ecology Association Convention) where I trace the concept of the heart as the seat of consciousness through various times and different media. Though we no longer think of the heart as the seat of memory and consciousness, our casual expressions reveal the hidden vestige of past beliefs. We speak of memorizing “by heart.” Our song lyrics remind us that our heart is an open book, or a window into our true feelings and emotions.

Another good example of this principle can be found in most synagogues on any given Saturday. Within the Jewish Shabbat Service are examples and remnants of multiple media environments. In my congregation, the Rabbi leads the service, but most of the heavy carrying is performed (literally) by the Cantor. The Cantor himself is a bard, a remnant of the oral culture of our ancestors. His chants involve mnemonic devices and multiple repetitions to enhance comprehension and memorization. He chants the manuscript of the Torah from a scroll to a group who, while they aren’t making copies as monastic scribes would have, are responding as members of an oral culture would. At the same time, with all these pre-literate vestiges evident throughout the ceremony, Jews are characterized as the “People of the Book.”

Back to Battlestar Galactica
Lance Strate writes:

Which brings me to a point of great significance for our discussion, the myth of the origin of the Greek alphabet, which McLuhan discusses in both The Gutenberg
Galaxy (and see my previous post on Gutenberg!) and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. According to Greek myth, the alphabet was introduced by Cadmus, who was a Phoenecian, in fact the son of the king of Phoenecia. This acknowledges the Semitic origin of the alphabet, and it follows that the Semites of Phoenecia, traders who sailed all around the Mediterranean, would be the source of the alphabet's dissemination to Greece. The Greeks called it the Phoenecian alphabet, from which is derived the term phonetic. Cadmus was told by the oracle at Delphi to found a town, which became the city of Thebes. Before doing so, however, he was forced to slay a dragon, and then, following Athena's instructions, sowed the dragon's teeth, from which sprung up a race of men called Spartes (Greek for sown"). All of them were armed for battle and savage, and Cadmus tricked them into fighting among themselves until only five were left, the ancestors of the five noble families of Thebes, who took Cadmus as their king.

McLuhan felt there was an important insight in this myth, relating to the association between the alphabet and the military. The significance of the teeth is that they occur naturally in a line, looking relatively identical, and therefore are the body's analogues to the letters of the alphabet (alphabet as extension of the teeth); teeth also have much to do with the consonants of the alphabet, as the action of tongue in relation to teeth results in different sounds (e.g., "s" and "t"). Of course, teeth are
sharp, they are natural weapons, and again they resemble an army of men, at least an orderly one of the sort made possible by the alphabet.

So, do you see where I'm going with this? The Cylons are Battlestar Galactica's very own Spartoi, they are the new beings sown from the dragon's teeth, they have a Phoenician/Semitic link It's not a question of whether the Cylons have the alphabet, or alphabetic literacy. The Cylons are the alphabet sprung to life, they are what you reap when you sow the dragon's teeth. They are the alphabet as it evolves into the printing press, and mechanization takes command, giving rise to mass production, the multiple, identical copies that, ultimately, are written in the letters D-N-A, so send in the clones. As letters on a page, the Cylons naturally worship a divine Author-ity. Looking at it from this angle, Battlestar Galactica is very media ecological.

As manufactured copies of twelve prototypes, Cylons are a modern sci-fi analogue to the dragon’s teeth. Created by humans to serve humans, Cylons represent the unintended consequences of human hubris. “Hubris” from the Greek, meaning “exaggerated self pride or self-confidence (overbearing pride), often resulting in fatal retribution [italics added].” (from Wikipedia.)

Lance’s connection of Cylon’s with Cadmus’s dragons teeth illustrates the operation of these Appendices. The notion of infinitely repeatable robot copies is something we take for granted. The Greek myth of the dragons teeth, while not perceived on the conscious level, may help us to understand why the Cylons are adversaries and how the best intentions of their human creators can have unintended consequences.

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