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Excavating the FutureArchaeology and Geopolitics in Contemporary North American Science Fiction Film and Television$

Shawn Malley

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781786941190

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781786941190.001.0001

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(p.191) Envoi
Excavating the Future

Shawn Malley

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Excavating the Future concludes with a discussion of two real-world archaeological events: ISIS’s destruction of artefacts at Palmyra and Nimrud and the reaction by heritage preservation organizations to simulate destroyed artefacts through 3D printing, stereoscopic modelling, and crowdsourcing projects. The envoi contends that these reproductive countermeasures to the world-wide media dissemination of terrorist attacks on material history serve to perpetuate a desired future born from the very logic of globalization and progress that has made World Heritage sites such irresistible targets for Islamic extremists. The envoi argues that SF’s response to the material conditions of history in the post 9/11 world invites attentive audiences to remain suspicious of such iconodulist claims upon the past and future.

Keywords:   science fiction film and television, archaeology, geopolitics, ISIS, Palmyra, Nimrud, 3D printing

‘These ruins that are behind me, they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah. The Prophet Muhammed took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.’

Anonymous ISIS soldier1

[The iconoclasts’] rage to destroy images rose precisely because they sensed this omnipotence of simulacra, this facility they have of effacing God from the consciousness of men, and the overwhelming, destructive truth which they suggest: that ultimately there has never been any God, that only the simulacrum exists, indeed that God himself has only ever been his own simulacrum.

Jean Baudrillard2

As I compose this on St. Patrick’s Day of 2017, Iraqi and coalition forces are poised to recapture the city of Mosul, the last major ISIS stronghold in northeastern Iraq. Over the past few weeks, the army has painstakingly reclaimed much of the eastern section of the city. The timing of the offensive is coincidental yet significant for the role of archaeological remains in the struggle to establish an Islamic caliphate. Nearly two years ago to the day, ISIS released a video documenting their vandalism of the Mosul museum (26 February 2015).3 The horrified world watched (p.192) ISIS fighters laying waste to artefacts gathered from the Assyrian cities of Nineveh, Nimrud and Khorsabad, as well as the ancient city of Hatra. The video’s coup de grâce is a soldier drilling into the face of a winged, human-headed bull known as a lamassu. The videographer employs a split screen to juxtapose a photograph of the artefact being excavated in the mid-nineteenth century with a contemporary image of the object in situ at the Nimrud complex on the outskirts of Mosul. An Arabic caption scrolling across screen completes the triptych: ‘These idols and statues are not from the era of the prophet (pray to him, peace be upon him) and his companions, but (rather) are inventions from the servants of satan.’4 The sentence is passed and the lamassu is beheaded.

The choreographic effects of slow motion photography, staccato and montage editing, and background singing overlaying the sounds of battle are integral to the iconoclastic message. While a pale comparison to the kinds of artefact and monument destruction choreographed by Michael Bay in his Transformers films—how could actual demolition compete with the rolling fireballs of Hollywood action blockbusters?—the Islamic State hijacked in kind the visual vocabulary of Bay’s brand of state-sponsored violence. In this asymmetrical war, global audiences are confronted with a low-budget but equally high-concept war film with the power to outrage and inspire (cf. Parkin).

Liberated by Iraqi forces, the ravaged museum forms a grotesque book-end to the looting of the Baghdad Museum in April 2003. It seems that ISIS learned an important lesson from what was incidental (though predictable) damage to archaeological remains during the Second Gulf War. A weaponized expression of fundamentalist Sunni ideology, smashing artefacts has another, far more cynical objective. Iconoclasm inflates black market prices and promotes a cottage industry in looting from which ISIS levies taxes. Looting and destruction thus conspire in a global network in which Western buyers help finance the caliphate. Bearing witness to the ‘general exchange of all cultures’ (Baudrillard, 2010, 102), these ravaged ‘beach-heads of globalization’ (Coulter, 5) are attractive, highly valued terrorist targets and commodities.

Toppled, smashed and humiliated, the statues are, furthermore, destroyed in a manner suggestive of an execution, a parody of the snuff videos prepared for world-wide distribution by militant fundamentalists. These gruesome exhibitions of ISIS resolve emerge as perhaps an inevitable and predictable response to the fatal history of Western intervention in the region. Parodying and exploiting the symbolic value of archaeology as a science of shared origins, the iconoclastic impulses of (p.193) ISIS pay homage to the power of archaeology to generate authentic signs of the West. The outrage of Western civilization at artefact destruction is a version of the outrage expressed by fundamentalist revolutionaries who understand their value as symbolic capital. While the brutality of the attacks on the museum may be interpreted as a vestigial expression of a primitive mentality, the logic of iconoclasm has a remarkably postmodern significance: to recognize, in Baudrillard’s terms, the mighty reality of the simulacrum, the god of global monoculture that equates sanitised Hollywood images of war and violence with democratic legitimacy.

While SFFTV has yet to respond to the war against ISIS—as Tripp Reed’s Manticore did for the looting of the Baghdad Museum—the West has nonetheless prepared a swift and proportionate response to a particular ISIS attack: the systematic looting and destruction of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Palmyra, which was overrun by ISIS forces in May 2015. In October, ISIS blew up the triumphal arch of Septimius Severus, a cornerstone feature of the Silk Road oasis that joined an immense colonnade spanning more than one kilometre in length (the Temple of Bel was also demolished in the same year).5 In one of a growing list of UNESCO press releases, Director-General Irina Bokova condemned the action within the very rhetoric of world heritage that makes these sites irresistible targets for ISIS. She states that this

new destruction shows how terrified by history and culture the extremists are, because understanding the past undermines and delegitimizes the pretexts they use to justify these crimes and exposes them as expressions of pure hatred and ignorance. Palmyra symbolizes everything that extremists abhor; cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue, the encounter of different peoples in this centre of trading between Europe and Asia.6

In terms reminiscent of George W. Bush’s admonition that al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center because it ‘hates freedom,’ Bokova ennobles Palmyra as a prototype of globalist harmony. Her clarion call (p.194) to a new theatre of war ignores the underlying social and political injustices fuelling the civil war against Syria’s president and his allies (as I revise this Bashar al-Assad with Russian complicity unleashed sarin gas on the town of Khan Shaykhun). She continues,

Despite their relentless crimes, extremists will never be able to erase history, nor silence the memory of this site that embodies the unity and identity of the Syrian people. Each new destruction should spur us to share knowledge of the significance of this heritage in museums, schools or the media. This is an important part of safeguarding the city and of the global fight against the cultural cleansing underway in the Middle East. I commend teachers, journalists, associations, and professionals in the field of culture, as well as members of the public, who are helping transmit the story of Palmyra to future generations.

The manner of perpetuating Palmyra’s memory is critical to her message. In lieu of archaeological fieldwork, which has been suspended in Syria since the civil war began in 2011, documentation is key for heritage preservation. She affirms UNESCO’s determination in ‘establishing networks to link the thousands of experts in Syria and abroad working to transmit this heritage, notably with the help of modern technology.’ Digital photography, the medium of disseminating ISIS propaganda, is a countermeasure to the Islamic State’s programme of erasure. Several virtual preservation initiatives are underway, including the creation of stereoscopic models from crowdsource data. Images taken from archives, the internet and even tourist photographs are being used to replicate cheaply sites targeted for looting and destruction in war zones (Spanò).

A decidedly science fictional logic has taken root in the cultural heritage industry’s programme to perpetuate a desired future, an irony evidenced by the highly publicized efforts to synthesize the Arch of Septimius Severus by the Oxford-based Institute for Digital Archaeology in conjunction with researchers from Oxford and Harvard Universities and Dubai’s Museum of the Future. As its name suggests, the organization is dedicated to preserving heritage through a form of digital counter-insurgency. Carved by robots out of Carrara marble, the 12-ton, one-third scale replica is, in the words of the institute’s director Roger Michel, ‘a symbol of defiance against terrorists erasing the Middle East’s pre-Islamic history’ (qtd. in T. Williams, 1). Michel is also on record as stating, ‘My intention is to show Islamic State that anything they can blow up we can rebuild exactly as it was before, and rebuild it again and again. We will use technology to disempower Isis’ (2). This (p.195) questionable assertion—that a reproduction, and even a reproduction of a reproduction ad infinitum, can stand in for the original—demonstrates that these quasi-archaeological objectives are thoroughly invested in the symbolic work of nation-states. Present and tangible, the arch accrues authenticity in relation to the performances of authenticity made possible on this new ‘beach-head’ opened up against ISIS. Digital replication is the latest salvo in an ‘assault of postmodern warfare’ (Bergstein, 38).

In the case of the triumphal arch—whose origin as a monument to the Roman conquest of Persia seems to have been overwritten in the 3-D printing process—the scaled-down model of intercultural dialogue has gone on a world tour. The replica was unveiled first in Trafalgar Square in April 2016, and then in New York City in September. While the symbolism of the exhibition site in London is sympathetic with the commemoration of England’s own imperial victory at Trafalgar (and of the stockpile of Egyptian artefacts that Nelson confiscated as war booty from the French), the second ceremony in the U.S. creates new histories for the replica that are entirely in accord with the Institute for Digital Archaeology’s ‘other’ motive for artefact simulation. The promotional material on the Institute’s website celebrates the arch’s admission into New York City’s pantheon of democratic icons.7 Entitled ‘A Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ the second exhibition has a theme song to commemorate what Mayor William De Blasio calls a ‘powerful act of solidarity with all those lost and hurt in Syria.’ The arch also commemorates the 35th anniversary of Simon and Garfunkle’s 1981 reunion concert in Central Park. The Institute posts photos of performers paying homage to the folk duo on a small stage fronting the arch. The display has since moved twice more: to Dubai for the World Government Summit in February 2017, and then in March to Florence for the G7 Summit, where it currently resides in the Piazza della Signoria alongside the reproduction of Michelangelo’s David.8 After the tour the arch will be repatriated to Palmyra, perhaps to become an ISIS target, thereby endowing the replica with immediate historical value.

I suspect that many archaeologists are suspicious of the political agendas served by 3-D salvation, if only in the theoretical sense that archaeology is by its very nature dedicated to studying ruination as a process. It is in these terms that Anne Pyburn, the Director of the Center for Archaeology in the Public Interest at Indiana University, (p.196) responds to the digital archive project with a degree of alacrity. For the idea of replication is an ideological intervention into the historical life of things, a programme that aligns archaeology with the economics of ‘the tourist industry and the preservation industry and the projects of nation states,’ wherein artefacts are in danger of becoming ‘renewable resources’ in a system of ‘disaster capitalism’ (229, 227, 230). In the case of the triumphal arch, replication manufactures value for the object alongside ‘stakeholder’ desires to ‘reify the status quo in the present by constructing a primordial pedigree for it’ (228). This is especially problematic in the war against ISIS, for monuments also bear witness to local histories of violence, histories that are in danger of erasure through paradigms of world heritage that protect sites and objects determined to have ‘outstanding universal value’ (Kalman, 1). Pyburn warns that the cultural heritage industry too often imposes preservation schemes that ‘can alienate people from their resources, making them vulnerable to predatory organizations’ (Pyburn, 226).

It is in this sense, then, that Prometheus offers an oblique commentary on the simulacral war on terror. In an article in the New York Times, journalist Kamel Daoud expresses a popular response to ISIS when he argues that the organization ‘seeks to negate and destroy any evidence of the passing of time, in Palmyra and elsewhere.’ ISIS, he says, ‘tries to extend the desert’s domain: to replace walls with sand, to flatten out landscape, to return to a vacuum so as to start history all over again’ (qtd. in Bergstein, 14). The reference to the desert brings us full circle to Ridley Scott’s remediation of Lawrence of Arabia, to a film whose artificial protagonist reminds us that all deserts—all places seemingly devoid of symbolic context—bear the marks and traces of time, and that erasure is always part of the historical context. David’s ironic recitation of Prince Feisal’s axiom ‘no man needs nothing’ resists the forces that seek to collapse diversity through replication, to reduce the world, as Baudrillard famously puts it, to ‘the desert of the real’ (1983, 2). Born out of a postmodern need to generate origins through simulation, the cyborg is an emergent figure of time. Like the lamassu, David is beheaded as a sign of the iconoclastic principles of his human compatriots to preserve stable myths of human origins; yet David nonetheless liberates through his genetic experiments a new cyborg life form as his artefactual gift to the future, one that clearly does not respect its origins and resists the impulse to put the head back on the broken thing, which is to say, to extend the symbolic life of objects with the cement provided by powerful corporate structures like Weyland Industries and UNESCO.

Through David, Prometheus exposes the contradictory logic of the phoney triumphal arch. As an objective manifestation of our dreams for (p.197) a perfect past, the simulation attempts to conceal the scars of imposed origins. For all her scientific training, for all her faith in the gods of origin, Elizabeth Shaw can only—and honestly—conclude, ‘we were so wrong.’ If David’s experiences shed light on the iconoclastic impulses of ISIS, they also reflect the iconodulist demands of UNESCO, which artificially suture through simulation material culture to the flow of life. Like the failures of Lean’s Lawrence, ISIS and the Institute for Digital Archaeology fail to bring antiquity into a new narrative, and instead relegate the past into metonymic images of ritualistic dis(re)memberment that reaffirm the cultural and monetary value of origins through the seemingly endless morphology of perpetuation. Prometheus asks us through the figure of an artificial person to meditate on the manner in which our preservation instincts sacrifice the future in the quest for authentic pasts. Until we can envision a future beyond them, we remain trapped in the circular logic of Fredric Jameson’s prescient aphorism: that SF’s ‘deepest vocation is to bring home, in local and determinate ways and with a fullness of concrete detail, our constitutional inability to imagine Utopia itself’ (289).


(1) Translation taken from Winsor.

(4) My thanks to Jeanette Greven for the translation.

(5) It is also the site of another particularly calculated act of violence, the beheading in August 2015 of the 82-year-old head of antiquities in Palmyra, Dr. Khaled al-Asaad. Photos of his body hung on a colonnade in the central square were published with a sign outlining the charges against him, which included fealty to the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, maintaining contact with senior regime intelligence and security officials, and managing Palmyra’s collection of ‘idols’ (Shaheen and Black).

(7) See Institute for Digital Archaeology website, http://digitalarchaeology.org.uk/new-york-city/.