Transcending a mere multiverse

Is The OA (now on its second season) profound or pseudo-profound? It depends on where you’re looking for depth. Seen from one angle, it’s all surface: a hackneyed many-worlds premise, a never-ending series of symbolic puzzles which never resolve when they could proliferate instead, a stylishly-maintained atmosphere of general portent. It is, as one reviewer complained, pure hokum, presented with all the trimmings of prestige TV. But I think this complaint is misdirected: like Twin Peaks, The OA is more of a pulsing colour-field of emotion than a precisely-detailed technical diagram. The hokum is there as a carrier-wave for something else: a gnostic sensibility, which focalises a genuinely profound sense of grief and disconnection.

By “genuinely profound” here, I mean that grief and disconnection are at the heart of The OA’s strangely becalmed world: they aren’t merely personal attributes of its heroine, but are rather a kind of affective medium through which she and the other characters pass. The rebus-like symbolic tangles that emerge within this world are a kind of apophenic sense-making. You can’t seriously suppose that any of it will add up to anything in the end — it is as likely to turn out to have been All A Dream as anything else — but the shared activity of following the threads, puzzling out your collective condition, is all you have. The OA is captivated by gestures of trust, appeals to “love what you will never believe twice”: you could argue that its central theme is courage, not in a heroic leaping-into-battle sort of way, but as a kind of steadfastness in the truth.

Season 2 of The OA collides two seemingly disjoint epistemological stances, which I’ll describe as the “local knower” stance and the “big data” stance. The “local knower” stance grounds knowledge in embodied, situational, phenomenological experience, mediated via communal meaning-making practices; it eschews the global ontology of the scientific “worldview”, favouring a “view from somewhere” over the “view from nowhere”. Local knowers know things by sharing testimony, telling stories to each other, and weaving theory out of personal narrative anchored by shared mythopoetic co-ordinates. In season 1, The OA unfolded its cosmology via a kind of campfire storytelling; in season 2, its protagonists are again thrown into the midst of a fundamentally disordered situation, in which the most basic parameters of identity and object permanence are thrown into disarray, and have to develop between themselves a narrative through which they can comprehend and negotiate what is happening to them.

It’s no coincidence that Hap, the “mad scientist” in this scenario, is a figure of evil: an ontological malcontent who refuses to abide within the finite stance of the local knower, and treats the world around him as experimental material in a deranged and violent quest for transcendence. The truth heralded by the OA, embodied in the “five movements” (one for each of the senses), is a truth of revelation: it is not acquired by testing and falsifying hypotheses, but by becoming incorporated into a narrative. Such knowledge is “proved upon our pulses”, by trial of personal commitment. It is Hap’s prescribed fate to remain permanently hapless in the face of this way of knowing, which eludes him as the Roadrunner eludes Wile E. Coyote.

Season 2 introduces a second antagonist, Pierre Ruskin, a Peter Thiel analog (it’s not particularly subtle — Pierre = Peter — although having watched only up to the end of the second episode I don’t yet know what may be wrapped up in that surname) whose approach to knowledge-gathering is neither that of the local knower, nor that of the mad scientist, but the turbocharged Humeanism of “big data”. In this dimension, such world-changing innovations as blockchains and ride-sharing have been “discovered” by Ruskin by sifting through the aggregated dreams of subjects who have demonstrated a particular talent for pattern recognition. There is no ambition here to discover the underlying laws governing reality; rather, it’s a question of finding points of strategic leverage within the weft of seemingly-random happenstance and occasion. It happens that this process has accidentally uncovered “unnatural” phenomena, locating a fragment of dream-logic that is somehow germinating within the waking world. Here, the threshold of knowledge beyond which lie horrors and wonders that “mankind was not meant to know” is crossed not by conducting strange and unnatural experiments, but by correlating, at massive scale, the banal disjecta of everyday experience.

The OA thus brings together, in a single imaginative gesture, two kinds of ontological excess. On the one side, there is the local knower confounded by unrepresentable trauma, grief and loss, who has only experience with which to make sense of experiences that don’t make sense, and who must assemble a liveable world through shared narration and ritual practice. This assemblage is scaffolded by a network of arcane connections between symbols, which cause everyday objects and events to become charged with excessive meaning, to function as the pieces of an endless puzzle. On the other side, there is an apparatus of surveillance, a machine which indifferently aggregates data points, looking for network effects that can be exploited in the search for profit. This machine has discovered, in its own grindingly impersonal way, the “truth” of the local knowers’ universe of private meaning, locating it within the global symbolic order represented by the dreamers’ shared anima mundi. The fantasy here is not merely that an individual’s apophenic pattern over-recognition has a foothold in material reality — that there really is something special about every thirteenth paving stone — but that this over-recognition is mirrored by a breakdown in the global order of knowledge: the machine dreams the same impossible thing into being that we do.

There is a kind of theory of vibe at work in The OA, according to which the affective tenor of a lifeworld, its phenomenological palette, is correlated with the kinds of patterns that can be recognised within it, and the particular objects and occasions that a machine seeking those patterns would most faithfully recognise and reproduce. The series itself is more persuasively attentive to mood and incident than it is to plot: it short-circuits the logic of narrative, instead creating and sustaining a “feeling of meaning” that can attach itself to almost any event. It is the kind of series from which you come away slightly dazed, looking at the world around you as if daring it to come alive with meaning in the same way. Which would be terrifying — but at the same time, wouldn’t it also be strangely welcome?