These embodied contradictions form what I call Babylonian modernity, the ruins of the present lying amid pasts that are not yet past and paths to a future that is yet to come.
With Operation Iraqi Freedom officially over and coalition forces settling into Operation Enduring Freedom, the University of Colorado Press released in 2007 a revised edition of Brian Fagan’s 1979 Return to Babylon: Travelers, Archaeologists, and Monuments in Mesopotamia. In the preface, the author relates that the publication is timely because ‘recent archaeological catastrophes in Iraq have kindled renewed interest in the long history of Mesopotamian archaeology.’ Fagan’s justifications for the revised edition are symptomatic of widely held assumptions about the nature and history of archaeology circulating in the wake of the Second Gulf War. First, he defends the book’s episodic format on the grounds that the work is a ‘narrative of discovery, not of intellectual trends, which are of less interest to general audiences.’ The second justification takes the form of a qualified apology, that Austen Henry Layard and Émile Botta, the first Europeans to begin large-scale digs in Mesopotamia in the mid-nineteenth century, ‘were appalling excavators by today’s standards, but they placed the Assyrians firmly on the stage of world history.’ Continuing the dramatic metaphor, Fagan ends his prefatory remarks by declaring the ‘adventure story is replete with interesting (p.20) characters, at present with a tragic ending but surely with hope for the future. The stage is set. Let the play begin!’ (ix, x, xi, xii).
That Fagan displaces the motives of his revision—the destruction of antiquities in wartime—into an ‘adventure story’ prompts an important question: can the notion of a ‘return to Babylon’ for readers in the post-Gulf War era be so easily harmonized with a romantic history of travel and excavation?2 Subordinating ‘intellectual trends’ to a ‘narrative of discovery’ is itself an ideological position that ignores the long and contentious history of colonial attitudes and structures under which Western archaeologists have practised their discipline in the region. His assertion in the concluding chapter that looters are ‘selling Iraq’s birthright and the cultural heritage of all humankind, which we all should collectively hold in trust for generations as yet unborn’ (342), ignores underlying connections between looting and the global interest in and market for material remains from ‘the cradle of civilization.’
The familiar tropes of discovery, adventure and global heritage Fagan employs are, furthermore, implicated in the discipline’s ‘other’ history of geopolitical service. Sensitive questions about archaeologists’ complicity with national and (neo)imperial agendas have proliferated since the invasion.3 Archaeologists Lynn Meskell and Robert Preucel, for example, argue that the Gulf Wars ‘underscore the intensely political nature of the archaeological enterprise,’ for the international outcry against the bombing and looting of archaeological sites reaffirms the entrenched view of the region as a precious repository of world heritage ‘that requires control and management by Western experts and their respective governments’ (315).4 In this vein, Yannis Hamilakis identifies the emergence of a ‘military-archaeology complex’ in Iraq, a phenomenon in which the problematic issue of culpability for destruction is redressed by ‘embedded’ archaeologists coordinating with military (p.21) forces to ‘rescue’ antiquities.5 While the history of archaeology is ‘replete with examples of scholars operating as part of military structures’ dating back to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, since 2003 this relationship has fundamentally changed with the equation of occupation with heritage protection (2009, 39, 42; cf. Emberling; Teijgeler). In U.S. Cultural Diplomacy and Archaeology: Soft Power, Hard Heritage, Christina Luke and Morag Kersel discuss the many ‘soft power’ initiatives designed by the U.S. government to cultivate ‘democracy building’ through appeals to ‘common heritage of humankind’ (7). Several initiatives overseen by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs exemplify this soft power approach, such as the Fulbright Commission, the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project, programmes of the Office of Citizen Exchanges, and special project funding through the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (5). That ISIS has vehemently rejected these soft power initiatives by distributing footage of its own large-scale destruction of ‘common’ heritage at places like Nimrud (of which I have more to say in the envoi) illustrates that archaeology cannot be separated from politically motivated cultural claims by the West dating back to the nineteenth century.6
Constituted historically within geopolitical contestation over the ‘cradle of civilization,’ archaeological practice is entangled with the very image of Babylon that Fagan chooses for his title. It is in this sense that another book bearing the name of the ancient city in its title was also published during the occupation era: Nicholas Mirzoeff’s Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture (2005). An analysis of news coverage of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Mirzoeff’s book locates in the mercurial figure of Babylon the multiple and often contradictory manner in which North Americans consumed ‘images of the exercise of power on a global scale’ (3). Mirzoeff observes that (p.22) mainstream media have themselves become ‘weaponized’ expressions of a world order committed to securing tacit acceptance for the invasion. He begins his analysis from a particular domestic location, Babylon, Long Island, a suburb near the author’s home. The town is evocative of the broader geopolitical tensions in the Middle East signalled in its name, for here ordinary cultural practices like driving military inspired Hummers and SUVs, going to gyms in camouflage exercise outfits, and tuning in to the war in ‘hyperhouses’ on enormous home theatres perform and replicate complicity for global power playing out in mainstream media.
For Mirzoeff, Babylon is a potent symbol of the war and its discontents because as an ambiguous sign of civilization and its corruption Babylon resists conscription into ‘grand binary schemes’ and is the ‘irritating complication’ that confounds any neat division of past and present, us and them, East and West (5, 4). The central image of Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction project—the idea that meaning is endlessly deferred through the very binary systems of difference in which logocentrist meaning is created and policed—is the Tower of Babel, a structure that resists structure (Derrida, 2007). Born out of an impossible dream of completion, the building and the world order that conceived it were abandoned. In biblical-historical terms, the tower is both the origin of globalism and its inevitable demise, the place where meanings became literally different through multilingualism, and where new cultures began to compete rather than cooperate for God’s secrets and authority. Since 9/11 Babylon’s ‘opposite’ meaning emerges from the controls we try to place upon it: that as exporters and guardians of global culture, we in the West are also citizens of Babylon. Mirzoeff contends that as a ‘physical and historical space that is […] profoundly disjunctured and ambiguous,’ Babylon intersperses ‘the contemporary and the future it is trying to dream with the primal past,’ thereby providing ‘a frame within which differing methodologies and histories can be productively thought alongside each other to generate knowledges that might be […] different to the received, disciplinary information that surrounds us’ (4, 10).
A poignant illustration from the recent war is the U.S. military’s decision to establish its base of operations for Southwest Command on the ruins of the ancient city.7 Notwithstanding the extensive and irreparable damage this caused, the placement of Camp Alpha on ‘a famous and iconic site of local cultural mythology’ is, in archaeologist Zainab Bahrani’s words, a deliberate demonstration of the ‘appropriation of historical consciousness for the west’ (2006, 245; 2008, 169). What (p.23) then could be a more fitting reprisal for the attack on the Twin Towers than the actual and symbolic destruction of the ancient city and its own tower? Both attacks have left gaping holes in the earth and on the cultural landscape. Both are terribly present in their absence. Each perfectly mirrors the other as an image of the inevitable collapse of centralized sites of knowledge and power, and the terrible destruction such dreams of totality inevitably unleash on others. Both towers seek completion and ruination at the same time, the raising and razing of monuments to power. Both are ground zero for the war against terror, the Twin Towers twinned in Babylon.
SFFTV is also critically engaged with Babylon. Exerting a monumental force in the dystopic futures of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and serving as the governing metaphor for Babylon 5’s five-year adventure in intergalactic diplomacy, Babylon has been reinvented many times over as a locus of geopolitical and cultural crises for SF audiences. What follows is a brief genealogy of Babylon in these works and their legacy for the post-9/11 SFFTV productions Manticore, Stargate SG-1 and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen.
Building Babel: from Metropolis to Babylon 5
Scott apparently was concerned more with design—imaginative and obviously terribly costly sets and visual gimmicks—and allowed the script’s ideas to be as confused as the Babel-like world of polyglots who roam the streets.
It is not exclusively about androids, endangered animals, retrofitting, corporations, vision, world wars, or colonization. Instead, all of the things combine to form a cultural resonance that is ultimately shared with architecture.
With vertiginous office complexes and ethereal skyways soaring above cavernous factories, the spectacular architectonic mise-en-scene of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis bristles with revolutionary energies threatening to shake the city to its foundations. The epicentre is the Fredersen Building. (p.24) Referred to explicitly in the inter-titles as the ‘Modern Tower of Babel,’ the structure is an ironic monument of the indifference of centralized authority to the dialectic pressures of progress upon which such authority is constituted (Jacobs, 381). The factory girl Maria (Brigitte Helm) is the prophet and social consciousness of Babylon. In her sermon to the workers, Maria transfigures the biblical story of the Tower of Babel into a modern fable of alienation and exploitation. Her vision of a messianic ‘mediator’ who will lead the workers out of bondage is realized at the denouement on the cathedral stairs; but the awkward handshake of mutual understanding between Grot (Heinrich George) and Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) is an unsatisfying resolution to the film’s complex evocations of social disparity and unrest. A powerful archetype of the unresolved social tensions of modernity, Babylon resists romantic endings.
Tom Gunning argues that the disparity between the film’s ‘powerful political critique’ and its ‘cartoon solutions’ is not a sign of a ‘work divided against itself’ but is symptomatic of its allegorical structure, wherein visionary scenes form an ironic counterpoint to the film’s narrative arc. He situates Babylon at the centre of this tension, for the ‘retelling of the Tower of Babel parable involves […] not a pietistic reference but an allegorical refashioning of the original meaning’ (57). While Maria’s sermon is part of the characters’ diegetic experience, Babylon has an extra-diegetic dimension for the audience, for whom the narrative is experienced as a short feature spliced into the main story. The sequence is framed by Maria staring directly into the camera as a ‘sign of authorship’ (58). Shot through a halo-like matte, the narrative digression is layered cinematographically within the film, functioning as ‘quotation marks, marking the images as being at a different level of reference from the images which surround them’ (58). The subversive force of the allegory lies in the dehumanizing images of labour and the despair of shaven-headed gangs hauling an enormous stone block to the construction site. This image of actual work is further allegorized in the powerful composite shot of five columns of builders converging into the ‘hand’ that builds the tower. The montage undermines Maria’s Christian message of remaining patient for salvation. Babylon cannot be so easily forgotten or forgiven with a handshake, for the hand forms into a rebellious fist that levels the tower to the ground. In this sequence, Babylon is both an allegorical story and an allegorical mode of delivering the film’s central message: Babylon is a ‘parable of ruin’ from a mechanized future that is fundamentally at odds with Maria’s naive medieval morality. In the action that unfolds, we see that the ‘visionary scene of the tower has no mediator; the only thing that bridges that deep gulf between the speaker and the masses […] is violence’ (61). (p.25)
Lang locates this future history in the SF trope of the cyborg. When Rotwang (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) steals Maria’s image for his robot, he reproduces mechanically the contradictions of Babylon that inform the delivery and visualization of Maria’s sermon. Transformed into the Whore of Babylon, she becomes a harbinger of Babylonian modernity. Babylon stands both for the class struggle—the subtext of Maria’s messianic sermon—but also, as Gunning relates, for the ‘true conflict in Metropolis, the one which actually produces and energises the film’s system, [which] comes from the collision between the gothic and the modern’ (64). The robot Maria performs these tensions at the ‘exotic entertainment’ arranged by Rotwang. The filming technique—through parallel editing and shot/reverse shots of Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) in his sick bed witnessing robot Maria’s sensuous Oriental dance before the salivating gentlemen of Metropolis—mirrors the cinematic form and allegorical content of her sermon in the catacombs. The Gothic and Babylonian elements fuse in the culminating tableau vivant of Maria as the Whore of Babylon, a modified realization of a woodcut that illustrates the Book of Revelation Freder keeps on his bedside table. ‘Here Lang develops,’ Gunning opines, ‘the film’s most complete apocalyptic vision, as Freder’s gaze no longer links us to the events of the soirée but to entirely allegorical scenes’ (73), which dissolve into the mechanical image of time, the steam whistle reporting shift changes at the heart of the city. The cyborg teaches us that the drunken march of progress cannot be stabilized by Christian teleology. A renascent figure of Babylon, the cyborg reveals that stable points of origin are always on the verge of collapse.
(p.26) Babylon is the flexible historical and architectural image that resists narrative closure, because it is a structure and social system that resists structure and systematization. The irony of the epitaph over Babel’s ruins in Maria’s sermon, ‘Great is the world and its Creator! And great is Man!’ manifests the cyborg conflict between human and machine. In the end, the crowd’s attempt to burn the ‘witch’ Maria unveils the metallic mechanism beneath, a cyborg body that is impervious and indifferent to such Christian rites of purification, revealing that ‘[b]eneath the whore of Babylon runs the mechanism of modernity’ (Gunning, 81). Born of history and industry, the cyborg cannot be conscripted into either the Madonna delivering a sermon or the whore manufactured by Rotwang.10 As a figure of materiality and modernity, the cyborg deconstructs the dialectical mode of historical reconciliation offered in the handshake between the factory owner and its mutinous worker. Maria’s human flesh may burn, but her cyborg identity, and the historical and political agendas this monster subverts, cannot be cleansed by fire.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner inherits and reworks the architectonic and cyborg imagery of Metropolis. In a film depicting the vast socioeconomic disparities of the industrialized world, the destruction of the natural order and the technological ability to replace humans with machines, power is measured stratigraphically in a dense mass of cultural referents ranging from the gritty criminal underworld to the soaring skyscrapers and sanctuaries of the elite, the fabulous ziggurats of the Tyrell Corporation and the Art Deco police headquarters modelled after the Chrysler Building.11 As in Metropolis, Babylon governs the future. The towers of corporate power are built upon the foundations of a morally and culturally bankrupt Orientalist slough, the natural habitat of Ridley Scott’s own Whore of Babylon, the replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidey), who plays Salome in Taffey’s nightclub. In this freewheeling zone of ‘commercial and cultural exchange and interracial contact’ (Yu, 46; cf. Yuen) we also find Chew’s (James Hogg) Eye Works. Like Tyrell’s ziggurats, Chew’s humble shop registers the ‘globalized, transnational, borderless space of postmodernity, [which] remains racialized and marked […] by history, exposing,’ Timothy Yu relates, the ‘degree to which Western conceptions of postmodernity are built upon continuing fantasies of—and anxieties about—the Orient’ (46). The Babylon of the Tyrell Corporation looms over historical fantasies that, like the slave (p.27)
sequences in Metropolis, critique teleologies of Western ascendancy envisioned as ‘originating in, signified by, and literally built upon the Orient’ (56). Scott’s Orientalist clichés are retro-futurist anachronisms of industrial progress. In Blade Runner, Babylon colonizes and disrupts the future as a matter of style.
Similar to Metropolis, Ridley Scott’s cyborgs embody the simulacral collapse of the human into the city’s industrial processes. The opening shot of an iris—is it human? replicant?—reflecting the gas flares erupting over the city grafts ontological notions of self onto the artificial world being perceived. As the question mounts about who is and what it means to be human, the audience is uncannily implicated in this gaze. As Kaja Silverman observes, the opening ‘shots of the blue eye […] do not work to map out a spectatorial position for us on either side or other of the human/replicant divide, but to posit vision as the site of a certain collapse between these categories’ (1991, 110). In this environment the protagonist—fresh from the exotic climes of Raiders of the Lost Ark—resists scopophilic fixation. Deckard (Harrison Ford) embodies the rather schizophrenic status of humanity within the city. As Richard Pope relates, the ‘film is not primarily about whether or not Deckard is a replicant. He comes to seem like one through his position in the failure of the Symbolic, a failure that is given body through the setting of a city that increasingly seems to overwhelm him’ (81). Contrary to the Denver Post review cited in the epigraph above, Babel is a coherent myth of cyborg materiality and identity. This is evidenced by Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) final words, his last testament couched in the (p.28) inadequacies of the symbolic order to make intelligible his experiences for people absorbed by the city. ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe’ is Batty’s injunction of the sacrifice of the humane to the indifferent gods of post-humanity dwelling in pyramids stretching into the overexposed heavens.
The subversive power of Roy’s final words is manifest in his ability to make his own memories, ones that we ‘people wouldn’t believe’ because they are too real: mixing the sight of attack ships on fire with tender recollections of C-beams (whatever they are) glittering on the Tannhäuser Gate. The film’s denouement obscures as it critiques the power structures in which he perceives himself as an artificial person. The cyborg is the ultimate artefact, a product whose meaning is like memory itself, lost like tears in rain, pointing to ‘a kind of subjectivity beyond them’ (Pope, 84). Like Metropolis, Blade Runner exploits the historical image of Babylon to critique global capitalism and corporate power, but also to create a future history for the cyborg as a figure that elides like Maria’s mechanized double the Christian imagery of Roy’s soul passing into heaven. Instead, we have an open ending, at least in the director’s cut (1992), in which the cyborg is a critical reminder of the inequities of a world that continues to direct human energy towards reorienting the past on a determinate path to the future.
The most exhaustive use of the Babylon myth in SFFTV is certainly J. Michael Straczynski’s television space opera Babylon 5. The title refers to a Tower of Babel in space, a diplomatic space station where the various races of ‘aligned’ worlds—the Minbari, Narn, Centauri and human—meet with the various ‘non-aligned’ worlds to work out disputes and interspecies affairs. This is the ruling fantasy with which the series is constantly at odds. The hopeful words uttered by Cdr. Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) in the opening credits of the first season that at the ‘dawn of the third age of mankind’ Babylon 5 is ‘the last best hope for peace’ intimate a history of conflict that underlies the five-year story arc. The ‘Babylon Project was a dream given form’ about harmonizing difference; but Babylon is the staging area for a major conflict in each year of the series. Conflicts encompass wars of colonization (the Centauri want to rebuild their empire by destroying the Narns), wars of ideology between the so-called First Ones (the ancient races like the Shadows and Vorlons who vie to control the destinies of the younger races assembled on the station), a civil war in which Babylon 5 breaks from Earth after the assassination of President Luis Santiago (Douglas Netter) and the installation of Morgan Clark’s (Gary McGurk) Shadow-backed totalitarian regime, an ensuing rebellion by the Mars colony, a Minbari civil war, and, in the final season, conflicts between the Centauri and (p.29)
the new Interstellar Alliance orchestrated by the Drakh, former allies of the Shadows.
Sheathed in cobalt tiles evocative of the Ishtar Gate, Babylon 5 is a version of the Tower of Babel laid on its side, a five-mile-long metropolis in space. Internally the structure is a confused labyrinth of corridors, levels and forgotten spaces. Like the architectural milieu of Metropolis and Blade Runner, the station is the structural equivalent of the complex storylines and political issues with which the series grapples. The belly of the station is referred to as ‘down below,’ a sector in which a caste of grifters, refugees and homeless poor known collectively as ‘lurkers’ struggle for survival. The show is a potent reminder that, unlike Star Trek, the future cannot easily escape the class structure and social ills of capitalism. In the second season episode ‘Acts of Sacrifice’ (22 February 1995), for example, a technologically advanced race known as the Lumati visit the station to assess trade opportunities. They are delighted with ‘down below,’ which they interpret as an excellent mechanism for social control. Another episode focuses on the plight of the workers who operate the dock, the commercial soul of the station which doubles as a space port. Job action threatens the very future of the project (‘By Any Means Necessary,’ 11 May 1994). That the strike is resolved bureaucratically by moving funds from the military to the maintenance budget underscores ‘that the series’ conflicts are not only life-or-death confrontations with ancient forces but also familiar struggles with Senate subcommittees and resource allocation’ (Vint, 2008, 249).
(p.30) What makes Babylon 5 such a compelling and forward-looking show is its exploration of the political unconsciousness of Babylon as a sign of Western progress. Wading through the ethical complexities attending democratic government (James and Mendlesohn, 8), liberal politics, terrorism, colonialism and commercialism, the show ‘never reduces things to a binary of good and evil, instead offering a complex analysis of how the category of “right” can be constructed to serve any end’ (Vint, 2008, 251). Babylon 5 invites its viewers into a third space of ideological meditation beyond myths of heroic triumph in which all victories are contingent and temporary.
The final episode, which features the decommissioning and demolition of the station (‘Sleeping in Light,’ 25 November 1998), does not resolve the Babylonian paradoxes and tensions explored in the series. It simply shifts galactic politics to a newly formed Alliance, whose headquarters reside on Minbar 20. Since commerce follows seats of power, the once vibrant centre of galactic affairs is regarded ultimately as a navigation hazard. Its physical destruction is an inevitable and logical completion of the diegetic world of Babylon 5: the myth of Babel is completed in this gesture. Babylon is the last hope for peace, because peace is always a catalyst for the kinds of geopolitical conflict to which SF has always responded. In real world terms, the idea of a futuristic UN and its honest failure in the show to complete its mandate lingers as a testament to recurrent geopolitical crises between the West and the East. Straczynski’s Babylon floats in the space between the First and Second Gulf War, a fantasy of unity collapsing under its own weight.12
This brief foray into Metropolis, Blade Runner and Babylon 5 illustrates how SFFTV mines and transforms historical and mythological materials into futuristic tropes for geopolitical mediation. As a flexible signifier of future history, Babylon likewise opens Manticore, Stargate SG-1 and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen to Mirzoeff’s analysis of global images of war in the Middle East. Like their progenitors, these SFFTV artefacts offer a powerful critique of the ways historical narratives have become weaponized expressions of the military-archaeology complex for post-9/11 audiences.
(3) For critical studies of stewardship in Iraq see Díaz-Andreu and Champion; Kohl and Fawcett; and Ucko. Comprehensive bibliographies on nationalism and archaeology may be found in Meskell and Preucel, 318, and in Kohl and Fawcett’s introductory chapter ‘Archaeology in the Service of the State: Theoretical Considerations,’ 3–18.
(4) Cf. Mourad; Shaw. For a short history of the state archaeology in Iraq since World War II see Bernhardsson, 211–21. For an extensive examination of the Ba’ath party’s use of archaeology see Baram. For a concise study of the political uses of archaeology within the postcolonial Middle East see Bernbeck and Pollock. For studies on the lingering effects of colonialism in Middle Eastern archaeology see Goode; Silberman, 1989; and Steele.
(5) For surveys of the damage see Garen and Carleton; and Polk and Schuster. See also the bibliography of publications on these events and the response by the international community (Polk and Schuster, 226–27); Bernhardsson, 1–4, 222–23; and the special issue of the International Foundation for Art Research, ‘Art Loss in Iraq,’ 30–62. Among the many institutions tracking this developing story on their websites are UNESCO (http://www.portal.unesco.org), the University of Chicago (http://listhost.uchicago.idu/pipermail/iraqcrisis), IFAR (http://www.ifar.org) and the Baghdad Museum (www.baghdadmuseum.org). For a defence of the military occupation and the damage to archaeological sites see Joffe. J.M. Russell covers losses during the First Gulf War.
(6) For a largely positive treatment of archaeologists working in conflict zones see Stone. The essays are from mainly British perspectives.
(8) Andrews, 6.
(9) Fortin, 86.
(10) For readings of the interplay of human and robot in the film see Dover and Huyssen.
(11) The interior of the police station was filmed inside Los Angeles’s Union Station.