“Man is wolf to man,” the saying goes. After listening to Carla Freccero‘s provocative and disturbing talk on the subject of cynanthropic becomings (becoming dog-like) last night, I’m tempted to add an addendum:  and “wolf is man to man.”

It is through our partnership in the crime of evolution, Freccero argued, citing Donna Haraway, that dog and human devour one another. Dog into man, man into dog. Freccero is a polymathic early modernist, and her talk ranged from Mandeville’s Travels to today’s prison-industrial complex. Violent dogs as a cipher for (in)humanity provided the bright red thread through her theoretical and historical peregrinations. Dogheaded cannibals as early modern emblems for geographic peripheries, which become the borders for the species. Dogs as figures of nostalgia for a ‘carniverous virility’ we fetishistically disavow everytime we affirm (pure, innocent) dog nature against the lapses of (aggressive, incompetent) human nurture that produces ‘red zone‘ dogs who kill.

If “wolf is man to man,” that is, if it is through the animal other that we (un)make our pretentious claims to humanism, then what do we make of the recently completed Battlestar Galactica, in which animal alterity was exchanged for a robot alterity that was nonetheless revealed, by series’ end, to be a metonymic displacement of our canine co-evolutionists?

I’m stretching a little here, insofar as the final plotline arcs towards, not premodern dog-men, but a human-cylon hybrid revealed to be ‘mitochondrial Eve.’ There was even a “No Dogs Allowed” sign posted around the re-imagined Battlestar scenario. The pre-finale cast special mentioned in passing that Battlestar’s creators banned dogs from the new show, no doubt in terror of the insufferably cute robo-dog on the original 1970s version.

Muffit II -- the Daggit robo-dog from the original Battlestar Galactica

Muffit II -- the Daggit robo-dog from the original Battlestar Galactica

Cute is precisely what the “naturalistic science fiction” of the new series sought to avoid. But in another sense, given the new series’ obsession with breeding, bloodlines, and hybrids (that is, mongrels), and given it’s general air of brutal survivalism and the dehumanizing effects of permanent war, cynanthropic becomings are the return of the repressed. Rather than cuddly companion species for adorable children, the dog-men now are the viper pilots themselves, with names like Hotdog, and Starbuck, whose “dogtags” become a key cipher for her increasingly ambiguous humanity as the series wended its way toward its conclusion.

Dog-tags worn by Starbuck on BSG

Dog-tags worn by Starbuck on BSG

Battlestar Galactica culminates with the ragtag band of survivors of “humanity” landing on the planet we call Earth, and deciding the start over again by abandoning their technology, weaponry, and embracing their inner noble savages.  And yet, the child among them who goes on to birth the line of modern humans (us) is herself a human-cylon hybrid. The liberal post-humanist message of this resolution means to disclose our narcissistic attachment to homo sapien specialness as a cosmic joke. Mortal enemies, human and cylon live on, in and through each other.

This trans-humanism, however, comes through a partial disavowal of the intra-human alterity of racial difference, a disavowal we confont in the standard Hollywood science fiction fetish of whiteness, which Battlestar is not exempt from (despite important minority actors). Although the show points to the origins of modern humanity in East Africa, the cradle of mankind, this genesis is mythically rewritten as issuing forth from a predominantly light-skinned alien race, accompanied by their equally phenotypically white cyborg others (each with their tokenized black and brown exceptions). Humans-cylons generously ‘blend’ themselves with the primitive race they encounter in Tanzania, a race only glimpsed once from afar but who looked, to my eye, like white folks painted an Amazonian blue. Racial alterity is ultimately domesticated on Battlestar, a suggestion of the ideological limitations of the culture industries at this particular moment in time, certainly, but also suggestive of a contradiction in modernity that is both longer and deeper.

For the “ontological autism” Freccero laments in the Enlightenment division of nature into discrete species, while indeed part of what has consigned mythic dog-men to the irrational outskirts of fable, did not simply install a border between man and animal. It installed that border transecting the human, consigning the racialized other to what Paul Gilroy has called infrahumanity, or humanity on the lower frequencies. To account for modernity and humanism, not simply as that which elevates “mankind” above the animals, naturalizing dogs as cute and quaint companions in the process, but also as that which savagely tears mankind asunder, is to reckon with “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition,” as the title of an 1893 pamphlet by Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass puts it. Their reason, curtly put, was slavery. Slavery not (just) as a pre-modern but as a quintessentially modern (and now post-modern) phenomena.

The exclusion of the wretched of the earth from the self-representation of civilization’s feats of technology, which was Wells and Douglass’ complaint, is part of the deeper logic that still excludes a multihued humanity from co-eval participation in speculative futures like Battlestar.

As the show’s creators noted, in explaining why the first time they showed the ragtag survivors discovering planet Earth (at the end of Season 4 Episode 10) they had to make sure the North American continent was prominently centered: they weren’t confident their audience would recognize it as Earth otherwise.

Advertisements