The best event I attended at ISA this year wasn’t the panel on pirates, nor the panel on war law, nor the panel on blogging, nor the gender and security discussion group, but Saturday morning’s panel entitled “Galactica Actual: How Battlestar Galactica Explains World Politics.” A series of fascinating and witty papers detailed representations of genocide, heterosexuality, techno-determinism, and religion in the show.
Unfortunately the panel turned out to be misnamed however, for none of the papers really spoke to the question of whether BSG has an impact on actual world politics. (Iver Neumann’s paper I mentioned earlier on religion was really about the impact of Mormon doctrine on the show, not the other way around.)
Admittedly, the papers weren’t really trying to do that kind of explanatory work – the panel really was misnamed – so this isn’t a criticism as much as an observation. But reversing the independent variable does lead to some very interesting questions.
Consider this speech by Edward Olmos last year at a United Nations panel discussion on Battlestar Galactica:
Here, Olmos is critiquing and attempting to reconstitute the concept of “race” in United Nations discourse, and through the United Nations, in global discourse. And in so doing he was drawing directly on his identity as constituted by the show, and also invoking his authority as constituted by the show. But the question for social scientists is, to what extent did this speech have an impact on world politics? Can we identify an influence on reshaping the discourse of race at the UN? Are there other influences? How would we know?
Similarly, Dan Nexon prefaced his remarks as a discussant by pointing out that BSG is by far the most frequent topic of discussion around his DoD cubicle. To what extent does the salience of the show in defense circles influence our national conception of grand strategy, civil-military relations, assumptions about gender normativity in the military, dilemmas regarding the field of military robotics, the ethics of interrogations in detention, and other pressing security issues directly dealt with on the show?
Arguably, questions of this type – and a serious research agenda on Battlestar Galactica as a cultural artifact – needs to go beyond interpreting the show and begin studying the effects of those interpretations on national political institutions and global society as a whole.
This raises all kinds of interesting methodological questions to which I don’t have answers. Perhaps my colleague Patrick Jackson, who appeared on the panel and has a forthcoming book on how to do social science, will have some ideas. Over to you, Prof PTJ.