Remediating the apocalypse

Californian Heroes

At the end of season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy sacrifices her own life to avert yet another apocalypse. She is buried with the epitaph: "She saved the world - a lot". The epitaph points to two of the series key elements: its constant re-envisioning and averting of apocalypse and its quirky humor and adaptation of colloquial idiom. You might say the series created and recreated a colloquial apocalypse.

24's Jack Bauer has also saved the world - or at least LA - a lot. In series one he stopped an assassination on Presidential candidate David Palmer, in series two he stopped terrorists exploding a nuclear bomb in LA, in series three he averted the release of a deadly virus and in series four, currently airing on Australian television, he faces a rolling series of crisis including the potential melt down of all US nuclear power plants.

If Buffy is colloquial in its unique blend of mythology and Californian teen speak, 24 is no less idiomatic but not in such a fun way! Buffy and Jack may both be cool but Jack is awesome - as in shock and awe.

LA is of course the perfect setting for Jack. It is an "apocalypse theme park" according to Mike Davis (1999) who has written extensively about LA, militarisation and disaster. Not only does its fragile ecology make it subject to earthquakes and floods, it is the scene of well documented crime and urban tensions. It has also been a favorite site for literary and cinematic destruction with the city being raised at least 139 times in different fictional scenarios according to Davis. This all goes to make-up what Davis terms LA's "ecology of fear".

LA is not just ambience in 24. It is hunting ground. It is constantly refracted and remediated through video screens, surveillance devices, radar, mobile phones, tracking devices, traffic cameras, the internet and computers. From the offices of the Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) - a softly lit modernist concrete cave - the whole city can be surveilled.

In many ways Jack is a contemporary Rambo: an outlaw hunter. But he is Rambo's instinct transformed. Rambo is a body instinctively moving through the forest. Jack acts instinctively - we are constantly amazed at his just-in-time reactions - but he is also a flashing mind driving through the city and navigating through cyberspace, cracking computer code as well as tracing footprints.

If Rambo was a classic Reagan era cinematic "hard body" (Jeffords 1994) Jack is the archetypal Bush "smart warrior," in a post-Patriot-Act-era of surveillance and high-tech "interrogation techniques".

The key to Jack's character and to the unfolding drama of the series is revealed half way through series one, episode one. Explaining his actions to Nina, which have included shooting the divisional deputy director in the leg with a tranquilizer gun to get information he needs, he says:

"You can look the other way once and it's no big deal except that it makes it easier for you to compromise the next time and pretty soon that's all you are doing is compromising because that's how you think things are done.

"You know those guys I blew the whistle on - you think they were the bad guys? Cause they weren't. They weren't bad guys they were just like you and me except they compromised - once!"

George Mason the agent Jack shot in the leg has a different take on this. Later in series one Jack has gone AWOL tracking a suspect. We watch him chasing a suspect through a rabbit warren of a warehouse. He is being assisted by a police officer who has stumbled into the action.

Jack: I wish you hadn't called for back-up.

Officer: Why?

Jack: Because cops have to play by the rules and I might have to break a few with this guy tonight.

We cut back to CTU where Mason is interviewing Nina trying to get information about Jack's whereabouts. He says:

He's a loose cannon. Rules don't apply to Jack Bauer. He does what he wants when he wants and he doesn't care whose life it affects. I mean he shot me in this office with a tranq gun for Christ sakes.

This negotiation between no compromises and no rules creates a constant tension in all four series of 24. It is a clever narrative device but it also clearly situates Jack in a much larger tradition of American outlaw heroes that Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence have described in their books on the American "monomyth" and the "Captain America complex" . In a recent article they write:

The Captain America complex is a bipolar form of civil religion that periodically blesses crusades against evil enemies, often adding the stamp of biblical authority, in the pursuit of peace. Since Captain America must always take the law into his own hands to rid the world of evil, this civil religion produces acute conflicts between the impulse for holy crusades and a commitment to the rule of law.

While Buffy may be a comic book hero, no-compromises-Jack is Captain-America.

But there is none of the camp of Buffy or comic book style. Buffy says at the end of season one: "We saved the world. I say we party!" There is no place for such humor in 24 even after the apocalypse has been averted, Jack seems to end each series under some kind of a cloud. As the sacrificial hero happiness is denied him.

While the production of Jack Bauer in 24 rarely deviates for even a counted minute there are a series of other Jacks that are being produced by fans. some have even detected a kind of inverted camp in Jack's absolute seriousness and his impossibly somber demeanor giving rise to parodies that are none-the-less acute in their typification of Jack's character.

This web project is an evolving space exploring contemporary manifestations of the apocalyptic in current affairs and popular culture. It is being developed in association with my Ph.D. research and is both a research method and a presentation of that research. In exploring the apocalyptic I am particularly interested in mapping a series of multimodal mythic clusters that are evolving through a process of remediation which I identify as a key cultural logic for an age in which electracy is the new literacy of nomadic subjects. This hypertextual presentation foregrounds affiliational logic and although I hope the project accumulates meaning it does not seek to present a single, formal, linear argument. I have presented some of these ideas in more traditional academic formats in other places. Although the navigational choices are the user's own these tips may be useful. Feedback is very welcome.

Marcus O'Donnell 2005-2006