Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

'Not an Apocalypse, the Apocalypse': Existential Proletarisation and the Possibility of Soul in Joss Whedon's Dollhouse

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

'Not an Apocalypse, the Apocalypse': Existential Proletarisation and the Possibility of Soul in Joss Whedon's Dollhouse

Article excerpt

In a 2009 debate with political theorist Alex Callinicos on the nature of contemporary revolution, Slavoj Zizek argues that the wide-spread acceptance of global capitalism as a workable system, despite its inherent and dehumanising functions, 'compels us to radicalise Marx's notion of the proletariat, the exploited worker whose product is taken away from him so that he's reduced to subjectivity without substance. It should be radicalised to an existential level well beyond Marx's imagination to a subject reduced to the vanishing point . . . deprived of all substantial content' ('What'). Here, Zizek transforms Marx's practical notion of the proletariat into a metaphor for the contemporary individual engulfed in the nebulous workings of global capitalism, which, according to Zizek, deprive us of the natural, social, psychological, symbolic and genetic substance of our lives. By extending Marx's political theory of proletarisation to encompass multiple spheres of discourse regarding human identity, Zizek begins to read proletarisation as an apocalyptic process. After citing 'ecological breakdown, biogenetic reduction of humans to manipulable machines, [and] total digital control over our lives' as partial but paradigmatic evidence in support of his claim, Zizek simplifies his rhetoric and announces a conclusion that is perhaps more fitting a dystopian sf narrative than a speech at an academic conference: 'We live in apocalyptic times' ('What'). While speculative narratives often employ apocalyptic imagery, defining the apocalypse as a contemporary confluence of actual technological, ecological and cultural forces invites a line of analysis that enables us to treat our current historic moment as science-fictional and, conversely, contemporary sf narratives as commentary on our current historic moment. Thus, Zizek's reading of the existential proletarisation of our culture offers new insight into the ways in which the apocalypse has been depicted in recent speculative film and television, most specifically, in the work of Joss Whedon.

Since the inaugural episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (US 1997-2003), Whedon has positioned the apocalypse as a backdrop for his speculative drama, and throughout Buffy, Angel (US 1999- 2004) and Firefly (US 2002-3) he utilises it as a metaphor to reflect and critique Western culture.1 Dollhouse (US 2009- 10) incorporates the apocalypse in similarly critical ways but extends his earlier criticism by seeking to complicate and problematise the fundamental question of postmodernism: 'What if the core of a person's identity, his "personality", was nothing more than a conglomeration of images and attitudes assimilated from the external environment?' (Hawkes 1).2 The show centres on an underground organisation, eponymously titled the Dollhouse, which offers individuals, after five years of 'service', the promise of a clean slate from whatever personal, economic, political, social problems that they may have. Once they 'volunteer', the dolls - actives, as they are now called - have their identities removed from their bodies and stored on hard drives. For inordinate amounts of money, clients can purchase engagements with these actives and have them imprinted with identities: hostage negotiator, lover, friend who loves comics and so on. Of course, this process does not run smoothly, and the actives' identities - who they were before they volunteered and the imprinted identities - begin to interrelate and possibly merge.

Through his depiction of dolls, Whedon explores not only the ineffability of identity but also the myriad possible relationships between body, mind, soul, culture and technology. Dolls' bodies are manipulated to affect identity: Topher (Fran Kranz) makes Echo (Eliza Dushka) blind in one episode, lactate in another; a dead woman's identity is embodied inside of a doll; copies of single identities are placed in multiple bodies; remote 'wireless' technology is used to imprint dolls and people; brain-dead individuals are made into dolls and imprinted with their original identities; pre-formed identities are accentuated with particular skills via flashdrives; fully formed identities cohabitate in a single body simultaneously. …

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