Dollhouse and the Twilight of the Paranoid Aesthetic

On the recommendation of Matt Feeney and thanks to the consumerist magic of the iTunes Music Store, we watched the first season of Dollhouse, Joss Whedon’s series about a service that brainwashes and reprograms people for custom rentals. I have to register my near-total satisfaction with the show, which does exactly what I want pulp science fiction to do: ruminate on technology and the human condition between bone-crunching elbow strikes to the back of the neck.

For those who haven’t been watching, the protagonists of the show are “actives,” subjects whose identities are warehoused on hard drives while their bodies serve as hosts for customized personae. For an action series on network television (Fox, no less), the show does an admirable job of exploring the moral implications of engineered consciousness, both for the clients and for the actives themselves.

One axis along which I (a non-enthusiast) situate polemical science fiction runs between “progressive” works and “reactionary” ones. A progressive work is intended to help us reshape our moral intuitions and judgment to keep up with changing technological circumstances. It encourages us to make room in our hearts for robots with feelings, or prepares us to suck up to wise, benevolent space aliens. Reactionary sci-fi, on the other hand, seeks to shore up our preexisting moral commitments in the face of technologically-induced stress. It braces us for, say, blowing sympathetic humanoid robots out of the fracking airlock.

In the case of Dollhouse, which is a more humane example of reactionary sci-fi, the technological threat is the commercial engineering of consciousness and memory. Given my own inclinations, I was surprised and gratified to see Dollhouse come down so squarely on the reactionary side (I don’t think I’m spoiling anything, but would-be viewer beware from here on). The division of the person into mind and body, even on putatively voluntary terms and for benign results, is rendered as an abomination and a betrayal of the self. The show suggests, rather naively, that the conscience abides in some deep immutable core of the personality. There’s no case made for technology-as-neutral-instrument, either: “pure” scientific curiosity is as culpable as venal corporate self-interest in creating a technology that human moral sensibilities are left utterly unable to reckon with.

The technological dilemma feels relevant and ominous, but there’s a whiff of obsolescence to the implied power structures of the show, which brings us to my larger point. Among the many victims of the financial crisis is the paranoid aesthetic. The half-assed self-dealing of bankers, the misbegotten wars of the politicians, the pratfalls of our corporate titans; all of it looks way too boneheaded to be deliberate at even the deepest, most obscure level. The System looks less like the work of shadowy Illuminati and more like the emergent results of broadly distributed mediocrity. Thomas Pynchon never seemed so very square.

As someone who enjoyed Pynchon, DeLillo, and the X-Files very much, thank you, this seems like a cultural deprivation. Recreational paranoia once offered to disaffected slackers — the great grandsons of Melville’s sunken-eyed young Platonist — a way to sniff out what Pynchon called “the hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning” [that’s my emphasis, James] in kitsch, tragedy, and the newspaper chess puzzles alike. Today, the die-hard aesthetic paranoid might cling to the hope that They are playing such a deep game that Their interests are cleverly obscured in the noise of abject incompetence, but the larger audience has lost its faith in grand conspiracy. Small wonder that the best thrillers recently have been the Bourne series, in which government skulduggery results from a vicious cycle of ass-covering and bureaucratic inertia. Pity the screenwriter who has to cultivate a backstory in such barren soil.