I wrote this essay for a seminar about democracy back in the spring, pretty well on a whim, once it became reasonably clear there wasn’t to be an Indian summer for the JNU protests. The midterm was a far more earnest affair about Laclau and Modi and Real Politics, and I’m sure my professor will be very grateful if you can enlighten her about what any of this has to do with democracy (in my defense, she assigned the Derrida and the Benjamin and it’s really all their fault.) She seemed to like it though, and it continues to amuse me, and it is sort of a companion to “Map of Lost Longings” if only in my own head. I was going to publish it, but I realized that I’m not done thinking it, not yet. Which means, naturally, that bogey was yanked away from her happy holiday. (It is far, far, far longer than Map, maybe move on now?) Anyway, onward. Oh, also, spoiler (?) alerts for the first nine seasons of the new Who. I haven’t seen the tenth yet, but I’m madly curious about the Return to Gallifrey.
The Prosthesis of the Other.
If you are looking for me,
I am beyond nowhere
—“The Oasis of Now” by Sohrab Sepehri, translated from the Persian by Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati.
“I only have one language; it is not mine” begins Jacques Derrida’s Monolingualism of the Other or The Prosthesis of Origin. A few pages later, he heightens (and arguably dissolves) the paradox into an antinomy: “We only ever speak one language—we never speak only one language.” Perhaps it is the verb that makes the second observation seem more quotidian than the first; it troubles my categories less: I speak in many tongues, but I express only myself. So long as the ipseity of “I”— a speaking-thinking-knowing subject—remains undisturbed, that’s an easy claim to accept.
What does it even mean, though, to “have” a language?
Treating language like a possession entails breaching the boundary between words and things, an unsettling provocation for anyone trained within the assumptions of a certain (mostly modern) rationality. To own a language is to exert a claim over a shared reality, an assertion that is both intimate and violent, and anything but natural. That is, I think, Derrida’s point: there is terror in language—“soft, discreet, glaring” (23)—and highlighting that terror points to the processes of historical and colonial usurpation that make more material hegemonies possible. I speak, I have, the language I am given; I am trapped within the language that allows me passage, that makes my truths heard and hearable, inasmuch as I survive within the only history that makes me inevitable. Language makes reality credible and legible, and so makes reality itself.
I inhabit a world made by language and by the promises that it extracts. But what if I didn’t? What if I could slip, magically and at will, across idioms, making them legible to myself even as I remain a cipher to them? What sort of being can traverse, but not transcend, the trap of wandering meaning? What if I lived, precisely, within the “incommunicable” that Khatibi identifies: lost in the translation between worlds? Would such a chimerical, alchemical figure even possess an “I” to speak from? Is that the bargain, then, that the price of having the impossible, universal language—and thus the capacity to narrate a universal history—is to be deprived of a stable self? Is that the only sort of creature that isn’t destined to write, but instead writes their own destiny?
It was in search of this quixotic beast that I began thinking about Doctor Who.
Doctor Who is the story of a time-traveling alien pacifist that travels the galaxy in a stolen spaceship called the TARDIS. The show’s mythology allows the Doctor to regenerate— to survive death by becoming an entirely different person— and we are currently in the era of the Twelfth Doctor. Each Doctor is unique, in personality as in physique, and one of the show’s enduring mysteries is how much of his essence (his ipseity, Derrida might say) survives the process of reincarnation. The Doctor is both singular and collective: a specific individual drawing on the memories and experiences, but rarely on the emotions or the desires, of all those who came before him. He is, quite literally, haunted. The ‘new’ Doctors are perhaps more haunted than those in the show’s earlier run; in the interval, we learn, he annihilated his entire species, The Time Lords, in order to end a brutal war that threatened “all of time and space.” The classical Who explored the Time Lords extensively: elaborating on their role as wise-but-corrupt “celestial custodians” as well as their status as the most scientifically advanced species in the universe. That Doctor was the eccentric renegade who spoke truth to power; this one betrayed and murdered his people in service to an abstract cause.
The Doctor’s guilt about Gallifrey, his home planet, is a theme that stretches across the nine seasons of the new Who. It’s never quite clear why genocide was the only possibility; the show expects us to trust the Doctor’s desperation and his best intentions. The Time Lords are only present in the new Who as a vague and imperious threat, while their antagonists in the Time War, the Daleks, are the show’s favourite villains. A mutant cyborg herd-species that is incapable of emotion and dedicated to destroying all other forms of sentient life, the Daleks are Whoverse’s most enduring manifestation of radical, fanatical evil—a species with whom no compromise can be achieved and from whom no flight is possible. The Daleks don’t want to rule, they simply want to exterminate.
Gallifrey was collateral damage in the fight against the Daleks, but we learn fairly early that some Daleks survive and that the Doctor has subjected himself to millennia of guilty isolation for no real reason. It’s a melancholy he expiates, or perhaps evades, by wandering around the galaxy, saving people (always a people, never a person) from various nefarious and ingenious predators and parasites, armed only with his arrogance, his sonic screw driver, his wonderful TARDIS, and a scrappy female companion. If the earlier Doctor was a curious and powerful anthropologist, the new Doctor is far more obviously a superhero. This is the Doctor as white saviour. As white messiah.
The plotting of the new Who is transparent once viewed in light of the superhero curse: the fact that superheroes always generate bigger threats than they can quell. It’s a simple question of narrative balance. An ant cannot threaten a giant, and as the superhero gets more confident, more potent, and more experienced, they have to face entire planets bristling with evil mutant ants shooting space-lasers to stay affectively plausible. The stakes can only ever be raised, the superhero can only grow more insular and more paranoid, until their hubris triggers their anarchic side and the cosmos seems doomed. This is when some notion, or version, of “humanity” intervenes, reminds the superhero that they’re supposed to be the good guys that follow the rules, and a boom and a bang later, a moral compact and a cosmic teleology is restored.
The superhero’s relationships circumscribe the moral universe they protect: the planets full of “little people” that the villains are so eager to conquer and subjugate are, for the superhero, exemplified by a particular little person they happen to cherish. Superhero narratives, with their emphasis on individual agency, usually devolve into a strict set of tropes: the huddled masses, the megalomaniac villain leading an indiscriminate and indistinguishable swarm of bloodthirsty troops, the superhero and their chosen band. Only certain people can act, and they are always intimately associated with the superhero, whether as allies or as a mirror to their own destructive potential.
The restoration of order often demands a sacrifice; given the Doctor’s capacity to regenerate, the price of an unlikely victory tends to be less fatal than it might be otherwise. With the Eleventh Doctor, however, the clock finally ran out: Time Lords are allowed twelve reincarnations, and he was the last.* The next three seasons of the show explored the possibility of the Doctor’s death, until finally resorting to divine intervention in order to grant him a fresh round of regenerations. The arcs of all these seasons delved into the Doctor’s capacity for galaxy-spanning destruction, a fate he provokes and then averts thrice, each time disappearing from history only to be restored by his guile and by his companions’ affection for him. In these seasons the latent question of his name—Doctor Who?— gains pressing importance; answering it, we are told, will end the universe and thus silence must fall. The agents of that silence travel back through time to kill the doctor before he reveals his name, and their efforts to do so propel the narrative, in various obvious and subtle ways, across these seasons.
*There was the War Doctor and then the Rose Doctor, so the eleventh doctor is technically inhabiting the thirteenth body of the doctor.
Seasons five through eight of the new Who thus consider the implications of the Doctor’s mortality by presenting it as a fait accompli: the Doctor dies or disappears, and then must find a way to alter that reality without manipulating his own timeline. In these seasons, the show highlights the structural dichotomy that makes it possible, the fact that the Doctor’s biography is the spine for all history within the show. Despite the visceral volatility of time in the narrative—it explodes, stops, disintegrates, erodes, reverses, or shatters in nearly every episode—and the myriad ways in which the show fractures our assumptions of linear history, the trajectory of the Doctor’s own life is the fixed moment of the eternal present. The Doctor’s lived experience flows within Benjamin’s now-time, the moment in which structural time halts and takes a stand, when a given past is brought within touching distance of an unfolding present. The Doctor, the resourceful time-tourist, is often the only person who remembers what did not happen and what he made unhappen, but only in the context of other people’s lives. He isn’t trapped within a chronology; teleological time remains trapped within him.
The eleventh doctor is a pivot for the show’s mythology: he is the doctor who must redeem his own past. He is the doctor who proves to the galaxy that the Daleks, vile as they are, knew him best when they christened him “the oncoming storm,” a figure reminiscent of Benjamin’s Angel of History:
His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees only one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm. (392, Selected Writings, Vol IV)
In the paralipomena, Benjamin makes his claim more explicit: “Redemption is the limes [the limit, the boundary] of progress.” (404)— the notion of progress, as he repeatedly argues, being the primary obstacle to writing emancipatory histories. Instead of seeking a causal nexus that explains the present, Benjamin insists that we foretell the present. Historical materialism, he writes, is monadological; it searches for the moments when “thinking is crystallised as a monad. The historical materialist approaches a historical object only where it confronts him as a monad.” But what does one do when the monad is the messiah itself? Derrida identifies the problem precisely (too precisely, as ever): “how do we interpret the history of an example that allows the re-inscription of the structure of a universal law upon the body of an irreplaceable singularity in order to render it thus remarkable?” (26)
Does the actual arrival of a messiah exclude history altogether, dooming us to an eternity of theology, debating the nature (but never the purpose) of this intervention and this personhood? Benjamin dismisses the question— for him, as for Derrida, it is structural messianicity that remains crucial, the potential for liberation as it ripples through time, and our constant awareness of vulnerability and catastrophe. As Agata Bielik-Robson** argues, this shared mourning is what allows “survival by contamination”—we can only marry the speech of strangers once we reject the purity of our own experience and suffering and agree to share the promise and the terror of acquiring a common language.
** I have a much longer version of the paper, email me for a pdf.
The Doctor, by his very presence, disaggregates any notion of unified temporal progress and becomes the messianic force in history that Benjamin urges us to identify, and yet his history offers us little purchase into the history of the planets he spends his life saving. They assimilate within him, while he is either worshipped or forgotten, as is the fate of every lonely god. It is impossible to tell their story through him, especially without committing the cardinal sin of empathising with the victor. What we can do, however, is write a multiplicity of episodic histories that clarify why the doctor was drawn into the constellation of a specific crisis at a specific moment, not what he did once he got there.
A universal history might only be made possible by a messiah suturing and translating difference, but it is only made evident by collecting traces of the absences and the gaps that conjure their presence. Thinking of the Doctor as the medium, and not the agent, of universal history makes his finitude and his particularity finally relevant: what forces and circumstances colluded to produce a desire for that kind of messiah? It also makes the question of identifying him accurately—is he the messiah or the antichrist?— futile, allowing us to conclude, with Derrida, that his “originary promise without any proper content is, precisely, messianism. Unless all messianism demands for itself this rigorous and barren severity, this messianicity is shorn of everything.” (68)
There’s no ultimate unveiling, no choosing between the hope, the sorrow, the guilt, and the promise of the Doctor.
I wrote this essay taking Doctor Who far more seriously than it takes itself, and I don’t mean to suggest that it’s possible to write beyond-the-Doctor histories from within the canon. The show is very consistent in portraying the Doctor’s whimsy as the motivation for his adventures: he shows up and stuff simply happens. He leaves, and the planet slides into obsolescence until his next trip. We have no sense for galactic politics, and while he’s constantly saving humanity, it’s always from alien intruders with planetary ambitions, never from itself. Doctor Who doesn’t offer us an archive through which we may articulate the fragile histories that summoned this particular messiah, my claim is merely that it offers us the inklings of a historiography sustained by now-time.
In my attempt to write by accepting the surreal logic and the expedient world-building of Doctor Who, I ignored equally the sheer pleasure of watching the Doctor and the show’s evasive politics. Doctor Who provides plenty of fodder for an ideological critique, the most obvious of which is to argue that it’s a decade-spanning manifestation of imperial nostalgia. This is a show in which the Doctor is appointed “President of Earth” on multiple occasions, in which he never once visits the colonies in his multiple forays into global history, and in which the indomitable spirit of Britain is extolled while its atrocities are ignored. Doctor Who might embrace heterogeneous history, but clearly certain eras and certain places (Victorian London) accrue more density than others, as they must for anyone who follows Benjamin’s outline for history. It’s fairly easy to read Doctor Who as yet another conservative superhero story, but not, I think, particularly useful. The show uses a fascinating template to tell a triumphant (and ideologically tiresome) story about the eternal relevance of the British Isles. As messiahs go, though, the Doctor is relatively benign. Unlike the Marvel superheroes, he never destroys entire cities in a fit of pique, and I’d rather watch imperial nostalgia than imperial propaganda.
We live in an era saturated with superheroes. Why would we keep manufacturing messiahs if they had nothing important to reveal? Messiahs teach us that the only truths that survive their passage through heterogenous time are those that elucidate (or at the very least accommodate) a paradox. Doctor Who vividly demonstrates the flip-side to Benjamin’s axiom about the legacy of history— it reminds us that there is no document of barbarism that is not a document of culture. We ought to be suspicious of the culture that colonizes us, but we can never deny its potency nor claim privileged access to the better barbarism that existed “before” it. There is no retreating from modernity, only enduring it, which is why I believe the crucial question to ask is not why is the Doctor always a white man but to realize that he cannot but be a white man, because only white men (white gentlemen, at that) have escaped the trauma of global history sufficiently to embody the utterly alien*. Our challenge is to use the Doctor—to mobilize the immanent critique to rapacious and teleological modernity he represents—rather than be subsumed within him.
*yeah, this is where I still go huh! buh! ugh! at myself also, don’t blame you.