Saturday, May 08, 2010

In The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone

Fed up with politics? Need some food for thought (well more like a snack) while lost in our current political limbo? Here, have some angel cake:

In perpetual motion, travelling between time and worlds, Dr Who makes perfect limbo viewing. Now – pre-emptive disclaimer – (‘cos real Dr Who fans are hardcore and scary – I should know, I dated one) – I’m not a regular Dr Who viewer, so I’m not sure if the realm of the symbolic is commonly explored territory(!), but I remember the weeping angel monsters from David Tennant’s shift (though the episode mainly featured Carey Mulligan, if I’m not mistaken) and these particular monsters caught my attention then, partly due to their being a bit outside of the usual Dr Who box, (I couldn’t quite squeeze in a tardis pun there, though not for want of trying), but also I think partly due to their symbolic potential.

As a result, the weeping angels have become my favourite Dr Who monsters. Here’s why:

All the real trouble of the two episodes starts when Amy Pond “stared at an angel… (When) she looked into the eyes of an angel for too long.”

In the first of the two episodes, the Doctor must work out how a weeping stone angel captured on film manages to escape the film reel to cross the screen and enter the room in which the film is being played (‘Ring’-style).

In the second of the two episodes, the Doctor must work out how his companion, Amy Pond, who witnessed the angel’s escape from the video, has been now embodied by the angel. The Doctor works out that the explanation for both these events is the same: “The image of an angel is an angel.”

It’s like Baudrillard meets Irigaray!

No, really, it is, look:

The Image is an Angel:

First of all, we’re being asked to consider the authenticity of images. The Doctor thinks, “The image of an angel is an angel”. He’s suggesting that simulacrum (the replication of something that has lost its point of origin) can figure for the thing itself: that an image can become the thing itself. The image of the angel transforms into being by crossing the television screen. It’s this process – the transformation of an image into being and meaning by transgressing the screen – that causes Baudrillard such consternation. To him, society’s acceptance of images in place of the real represents a loss of meaning – an endorsement of shallowness and superficiality:

"[T]hat which was previously mentally projected, which was lived as a metaphor in the terrestrial habitat is from now on projected entirely without metaphor, into the absolute space of simulation" (Baudrillard 1988).

(But as far as I’m concerned, Baudrillard is missing something. For me, simulacra doesn't diminish meaning, it simply changes it. Its potential is for transformation, not termination. So eat that Baudrillard!)

Don’t Blink:

The second thing has to do with the Doctor’s combative approach to the angels’ attempted assault on the humans. He demands that, though everyone must look unblinking at the angels, in order to stop them advancing, (the angels can only move when you blink), no one must look directly into the eyes of the angels.

In the Doctor’s words, “As long as their eyes are open they [the angels] can climb inside.” This is because – at least in the language of the symbolic order – not only are eyes like windows, they are at the same time like mirrors (see Lacan) and like screens (see Baudrillard): sometimes we can see through them (the window), sometimes we see only our own image reflected in them (the mirror), and sometimes what’s reflected in them is not an accurate image of ourselves, but an idealised, fantastical desired version of ourselves (the screen). Direct eye contact brings the human no return of self, because the weeping angels’ eyes are stone – neither window, mirror or screen – and so eye contact allows the angel unhindered access into the human mind via the windows of the human eyes.

Amy Pond opened her eyes and engaged the angel’s in order for the angel to enter in, and so permitting it to inhabit her mind. Now the angel looks out through the same window, but from the inside. It means the angel is imminently poised to take over Amy Pond’s body, because Amy has taken the place of the video recorder: she is the recorder and container of the image, and her eyes are the screen through which the angel can now emerge, travelling back across the screen, back into the realm of the real, but this time with a real body (Amy’s) and its own agency and meaning; because the image of an angel is an angel.

So when the Doctor looks into Amy’s eyes, he does not see Amy through a window, or himself reflected in a mirror, but an angel on a screen inside Amy – a screen the angel is about to cross:

“As long as their eyes are open they can climb inside… Now there’s an angel in her [Amy’s] mind… There’s a screen inside your mind and the angel is climbing out.”

What the Doctor sees inside Amy is not his projected fantasy (either of himself or of Amy) about to take on illegitimate and undeserving agency, as Baudrillard might assert, but the image on the screen showing signs of life, the simulacra speaking, the image taking agency for itself. Unfortunately for Amy, the life of the projecting angel is to be at the cost of her own, revealing the root of the human’s – and perhaps Baudrillard’s – fear of the image and of un-human/post-human agency: - that life for them will spell death for us.

Don’t Shoot the Messengers:

Lastly, there is the symbolic choice of the angel as monster. This is an interesting subversion, because angels are more commonly recognised as benign messengers, as harbingers of the divine, as go-betweens enabling god to communicate with humans (see Irigaray); the very antithesis of the monstrous. But in Dr Who the messengers have turned self-serving: they have their own agenda. No longer passive channels of communication, they have taken agency for themselves and come to the humans with messages of their own.

According to Irigaray, angels “circulate as mediators of that which has not yet happened . . . Endlessly re-opening the enclosure of the universe, of universes, identities, the unfolding of actions, of history . . . . Angels destroy the monstrous” (Irigaray 1993).

“What Irigaray is alluding to is a time when the divine will be known to us, will be incarnated in us, and mediation by an angel will no longer be necessary” (Tilghman 2009). In other words, angels-as-intermediaries is a temporary state: their potential is greater and fuller than this. So that when the time comes for transcendence (“that which has not yet happened”), or a similarly momentous event, they will change. In this episode of Dr Who the end of time is coming, the universe is spilling into the world (or time is spilling into the universe, or somebody’s spilled something into something else… Ok, so I was bit hazy on the details of that part…) through a crack in Amy Pond’s bedroom wall. But the angels have not come to warn the humans, as Irigaray might assume they would, or to surrender themselves to a union between divinity and humanity. Quite the reverse; they are concerned only with saving themselves, and the imminent ruination of time/the universe (after it would seem they have indeed been successful in “re-opening the enclosure of the universe”) has transformed the angels into ‘being’ – into monstrous being, to be precise.

Could it be then that when “that which has not yet happened” does in fact happen, angels will indeed realise their potential for agency, not by destroying the monstrous, but by becoming the monstrous? With their role as messengers and harbingers redundant, what does Irigaray think will happen? That they’ll just roll over and die quietly: surely every entity fights to preserve its being? Or are angels immune to evolution? If angels did come to “herald the arrival of a new birth, a new morning” (Irigaray 1984), there is yet no way for Irigaray to be sure what will happen the morning after. And if the fate of most of the characters in those two episodes is anything to go by, waking up ‘blinking’ into a new dawn will result in an almost instant death in the arms of an angel.


Angel S Bolander said...

Possible the greatest Doctor Who episode there is! Such great monsters!

Jenglo said...

I agree with you - that's why I had to find an excuse to write about them! I hope they'll make an appearance in the next series...