Simulacra and the Multitudinous Self: Postmodern Portrayals of Cloning and Existentialism
Perhaps the earliest understanding of simulacrum can be linked back to the Greek philosopher Plato. In his teachings, Plato described simulacrum as a distorted recreation that forces its viewer to think of the original differently, such as a painting that presents inaccurate details of a historic event. Postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard expanded on this, and argued that simulacrum does not merely comment on the original it references but that it’s deliberately distorted, existing with its own truths, distorting the viewer’s relationship to what they believe to be true.
Deliberate distortions of society, reality and the self are common in science fiction, particularly when discussing the topic of cloning, a theme that’s unique in its ability to dismantle fixed truths through simulacrum. In the case of the individual, this method of examination invites a debate as to the existence fixed identities while exploring the possibility of a multitudinous identity, flirting with truth and distortion as the plot moves forward. It doesn’t take long for Orphan Black to establish this as its operating metaphor.
Thrown into This World:
Upon returning home, Sarah Manning watches a woman who is identical to her walk off a platform before an oncoming train. Beth, who had just committed suicide, is one of the many clones Sarah will meet, but this chance encounter contains most of what’s needed to present this simulacrum metaphor as it relates to identity: as soon as she arrives, Sarah’s first priority is to call her foster mother, Mrs. S, and the combative exchange that follows confirms her fixed identity as that of a rebellious daughter; then, her perception of reality is challenged when Sarah sees Beth, an woman who seems to be identical to her; despite this clear similarity, attention is drawn to clear contrasts in appearances and dispositions—Beth’s classy attire against Sarah’s punk style; unease and exhaustion against confusion—yet the camera draws attention to faces just before the suicide, erasing any confusion about their shared genetic profile; and finally, confronted by this challenge to her reality, Sarah decides to defend her fixed identity by stealing from Beth.
Dasein exists as an entity for which, in its Being, that Being is itself an issue. Essentially ahead of itself, it has projected itself upon its potentiality-for-Being before going on to any mere consideration of itself. In its projection it reveals itself as something which has been thrown. It has been thrownly abandoned to the ‘world’ and falls into it concernfully.
Being and Time
Embracing the inauthentic self is the starting position people find themselves in due to the thrownness with which they enter life. As covered in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, in order for an individual to leave their inauthentic self and come to an authentic self they must first locate a state of Being, which is instrumental in distinguishing between the two and comprehending the interconnectedness inherent in nature.
In this state an individual can move beyond false constructs, like that of a fixed identity that’s defined from without, and live an authentic existence that’s defined from within. But before one can progress to that point, there are obstacles to overcome.
To better understand the search for the authentic we must look to some of the systems in control of this setting.
Topside, an enigmatic corporation in control of the Dyad Institute, and the United States Military ran Projects Leda and Castor, which created Sarah and her sisters and their brothers respectively. A third organization, the Christian fundamentalist sect, the Proletheans, influenced one clone of either gender. These systems are all simulacra, in that they are recreations of actual systems that are divorced from their intended representations as the viewers understand them. Topside is a corporation, an entity responsible for creating products of value, yet their creations (clones) are defective; the Military promotes security and order, yet their ranks are insecure, their soldiers dysfunctional; and the Proletheans glorify nature, yet they are willing to manipulate the body through invasive procedures if it can fulfill God’s commandment to procreate.
Postmodernist science fiction has a long tradition of using these systems as villains due to their inherent propensity to promote inauthenticity, which translates to control of the individual. Topside is the embodiment of this criticism. They are foremost in claiming the Leda clones as their own, using them for the purposes of their experiments and claiming ownership of their bodies. This domination of their biology attempts to invalidate the individuality of each Leda clone by presenting them with some uniformity they are expected to adhere to. In fact, subjects becoming self-aware, noticing the inauthenticity of their lives, is what calls Topside to step forward and manage them before they drift towards the authentic and away from control.
This claim of ownership is not something that’s embraced by the sisters who have decided to break free after becoming aware of the falsity in this system.
On their own, drifting away from Topside, Sarah and her sisters develop a need for their own family and construct their own heterotopias, places where the analysis of their bodies and discovery of identities can be processed in environments removed from the hegemonies that have claimed them. This includes phrasing and ritual unique to them.
Just one, I’m a few, no family, too. Who am I?
Metaphorically, this coming together is necessary to shed fixed identities before being able to entertain a multitudinous identity, however ironic the unified components may be. Exemplifying this with women who are genetically identical illustrates that the variety presented in many can be found in one. As with Sarah’s theft of Beth’s identity, the sisters seamlessly assume the roles of one another with most around them being unaware.
Perhaps a more accessible way to view this metaphor is to narrow the focus to the sisters most closely connected, Sarah and Helena. Though biological commonalities are high among all Leda clones, given some exceptions for mental illness and genetic disease, the twins are set apart from their sisters by their unique ability to reproduce and their relation to systems of control.
The struggle for authenticity, and the angst that comes from that search, is best explored through early interactions between the twins. Angst, as defined by Heidegger, is the pure dread that results from attempting to live authentically, coming to terms with the limit of the self to endure that search and truly comprehending the inevitable end to one’s life.
Sarah as the center which these simulacra gather around is intentional. She was the only one born outside of systemic influence, given the autonomy to choose her path in life. It’s no accident, with systemic control so prevalent in this setting, that Sarah’s punk attitude is regularly referenced by those trying to comprehend her. Despite falling into her biological family through happenstance, Sarah eventually chooses to take on Beth’s role and become investigator and protector to her sisters. That responsibility to the others and her acknowledgment of their natural connection has brought Sarah and her sisters closer to that Heideggerian state of Being that is essential in defining the authentic self.
Opposite Sarah, Helena, raised the Proletheans, knew nothing but systemic control. Indoctrinated from birth with a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity led her to believe that she was anointed by God to eliminate these demonic, scientific abominations. Acting in accordance with the hegemony that she lives under is met with warmth and favor, while failure is met with punishment that does not bend to sympathy but requires penance to confirm obedience. To Helena, the clones are without souls, without a fixed identity; to kill them is to please God. This reinforces Helena as defined from without by removing these incompatible sisters who would distort the reading of her inauthentic self.
Split apart by nature, then separated by circumstance, the twins offer up the strongest contrast between any two clones. Sarah is the closest to being defined from within, while Helena, sitting at the other end of this authenticity spectrum, has almost all her knowledge of existence imposed on her from without, which had a profound influence in establishing her identity and hindering her growth as an individual. Together, the twins comprise a fascinating case study that examines the full effects of both nature and nurture, particularly the lasting effect either element has on defining the self.
For Sarah, Helena is an agent of angst, a representation of all the fears that accompany living. When trying to make sense of similar observations, Helena decides that nature is what causes her own angst to manifest and murders their mother. Helena’s act of matricide serves only to set them further apart, not only because killing their mother engages Sarah, causing her great pain, but because it also reminds her of a prevalent and underlying anxiety now that she anticipates the end to her own life.
Despite the pain she causes, Helena still seeks unity with her sister. But Sarah simply cannot accept her twin without processing the toxicity Helena would introduce to their sisters. As if protecting the body from a cancerous growth, Sarah preferred to excise Helena and cast her aside. But Helena, like angst, cannot be avoided; Sarah may attempt to evade the ugly realities of Being, deny them, but such methods don’t endure. Eventually, angst returns.
Restrained (physically and figuratively), Sarah is helpless to resist the embrace of her twin. And in accepting Helena, and thereby learning to process angst, Sarah comes to understand that even this defective component has a place among these multitudes.
Orphan Black’s application of simulacra through clones illustrates that the self is comprised of many sides, however jarring that arrangement may be, and they work in concert to make the authentic self whole. But this can only be achieved when the individual is willing to divorce hegemonic systems that attempt to define them and tailor their relationships to reality.
By placing emphasis its clones, Orphan Black has created a piece of postmodern science fiction that manages to avoid obvious moralizing on issues of bioethics while positing philosophically charged questions that make use of its ability for self-examination.
Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger
“Essays on Deleuze” by Daniel W. Smith
“Our Place in Nature: Toward a Heideggerian Ethos of the Environment” by Crystal Zeba DeLaFuente