“What year is this?”
It was an extraordinary last line for a wide variety of reasons. Aside from those relevant to the narrative, it’s a question I hear asked often of pop cultural events. Like: “Nintendo is releasing a mini NES? What year is this?” “Billy Idol is opening for Morrissey? What year is this?” Even and maybe especially: “A new season of Twin Peaks? What year is this?”
Sunday night’s anticipated finale of Twin Peaks: The Return capped an extraordinary run of television. That certain chunks of this 18-hour avant-garde odyssey are out there in the stream now — for everyday channel surfers to just stumble upon — blows my happy mind.
This post is not a review of the show — there are plenty of good ones out there now — but just a quick knocking together of some thoughts about the series’ intriguing engagement with representational technologies and death. (And it does contain spoilers!)
My dissertation project examines specific technologies — holograms and digital hologram simulations (i.e., augmented reality) — that manifest or materialize dead people. A chunk of my research is historical: I’m claiming that such tech manifests a particular media effect that has been produced through previous technologies for similar goals of negotiating human mortality. The Tupac hologram, for example, was a resurrection — one with a specific commercial purpose (and one that produced its own “What year is it?” confusion), but a raising of the dead just the same. That illusion presented a Tupac that was different in certain ways, of course, but at root it was an attempt to present a fully embodied presence of an absent (in this case, dead) human being. It was the opposite (far less-theorized) end of telepresence jammed through the looking glass.
Just as many cultural narratives suggest that the raised dead would be changed to some degree from their original selves — either by the technical-magical process of re-presenting or simply because of the shift in identity inherent in a new material bodily presence — the resurrected body ideally exhibits enough of the same communicating markers to move any phenomenological encounter with it from one of walking through the valley of death to one of climbing the far side of the uncanny valley. This new Twin Peaks incarnation is itself a resurrection that resembles its antecedent while also exhibiting clear individual (and highly uncanny) differences.
Underneath that meta level, the narrative’s multiplying human doppelgangers — presented via magic, it seems, though situated technical structures and small metal objects apparently play important roles in the process — appear to operate between the division of life and death. The TV trope of evil twins eventually are introduced in this show as something more unusual. They are tulpas, a concept from Tibetan Buddhism in which focused meditation produces a material being. True to Cartesian bias, the resulting physical manifestations are slightly inferior to the mental powers that delivered them. Tulpas are not quite whole, a bit wonky, and, especially in the case of this narrative, unruly fugitives from the thought realm. The intriguing idea of the tulpa, though, per my rudimentary understanding, is that the created body, if it’s a copy of a living body, is manifested from ideas about the original person. One description of them suggests a tulpa can be, in a sense, read or talked into existence; then the tulpa will “behave like the being whose form they happen to have” (106). Another definition states that the tulpa is a class of beings that
originate in the mind and then, through intense belief and visualization, actually become physical realities. It’s not a case of a person or group of people becoming so convinced, through rumors and legends, that they all imagine the same entity out of some kind of shared hallucination. It’s a case of one mind or several minds creating a very real, physical, living being that eventually takes on a life of its own, gathering strength as more and more people begin believing in its existence and usually becoming harder to get rid of than it was to visualize in the first place. (16)
That, to me, is a fairly elegant metaphor for the kinds of beings, both posthumous (Tupac and his dead, dancing breathren) and wholly new (Asian Vocaloid singers), manifested by collective (and usually invisible) intellectual and technical labor!
I’m drawn to the messiness this definition implies, too — especially that the defects of analog copies might also apply to the alleged perfection of the digital — as well as to the genie’s one-way exit from the bottle. I suspect that those at Crypton Future Media facilitating the continued performative existence of the digital idol-singer (tulpa-singer?) Hatsune Miku would nod knowingly and firmly about their project taking on its own life as more and more fans believe in her existence. I’m also drawn to the notion that, as beings created from particular subjectivities, the identity of tulpas may inevitably seem left-of-center to others. Tupac looks this way to me, but that way to you. This is a chief reason why I’ve studied the discourses of such designers to understand how subjectivities are accounted for in the collective creation of a singular performing object.
Additionally, numerous specific performances in the new Twin Peaks were delivered by actors who were almost but not quite the same, as well. In fact, they were dead. Nonetheless, Lynch incorporated these actors into the series posthumously, often pretty seamlessly. Nearly all of them rose well above the level of sentimental tribute, few were mere cameos, and most participated in performances that remained central to the plot. Some actors were actively dying during production of the new episodes, such as Warren Frost and Catherine Coulson. Frost (died in February) appeared via Skype as Dr. Will Hayward to discuss an incident from the original series, and Coulson (died in 2015) appeared repeatedly as the Log Lady, one of the series’ most famous and endearing eccentrics, even announcing the parallel death of her character in a moving scene that warped the boundary between life and fiction as it purported to dissolve the one between life and death. Miguel Ferrer suffered from cancer throughout his multiple appearances in the new episodes and died in January. In episode 12, Lynch’s own character Gordon Cole and Ferrer’s Albert Rosenfield conclude a scene amid a typically offputting Lynchian moment, in which the camera lingers at length within a seemingly everyday but now elongated conversational pause. Cole eventually reaches out, puts his hand on Rosenfield’s shoulder and says, somberly, “Albert, sometimes I worry about you.” It’s a stunning moment that not only slices through the usual slapstick of both characters but melts away Cole and Rosenfield to reveal an intimate moment between Lynch and Ferrer. The augmented reality gives way to highlight a simple reality.
In other cases, the actors had died long before production on the series revived. But rather than lean on stock footage for the trope of full-framed flashbacks, Lynch lifted imagery of some actors from such footage in order to remold their likenesses into, well, rather tulpic new creations. Frank Silva, for instance, died clear back in 1995, yet his maniacal disembodied character Bob remained a vital figure in the new series all the way to last night’s finale, one apex of which was the beating of Bob into spiritual submission. Don S. Davis played Maj. Garland Briggs, a character square at the center of this show’s underlying X-Files-ish mythology. (If you’re a fan and you haven’t read Frost’s The Secret History of Twin Peaks, I recommend it highly. The truth is in there.) He died in 2008, yet Briggs’ body and his extraterrestrial interests drive the core of the new series’ crime capers. Special effects produce a body, conveniently decapitated, as well as Davis’ familiar face digitally clipped and inserted to float through several supernatural extravaganzas (above).
The show’s star, Kyle MacLachlan, commented on these posthumous continuances in an interview, saying, “As actors, this is how we stay around. … The characters are still making an impact. As an actor, that’s what you want.” Keep on and carry on, sure, though I suspect most actors would want some control over the agential power of these representations. Frost and Coulson, for instance, had a direct say in how their likenesses were presented within the show; Silva and Davis likely did not. Would MacLachlan want to “stay around” as a digitally revived pitch man for, say, toilet tissue? Doubtful. As digital simulations begin to proliferate throughout cultures, these are important questions to consider, at the very least legally.
Then again, one of the morals of Twin Peaks, especially the new one, is that striving for such control is futile. Just when the narrative seemed finally to be wrapping up tidily, it was rewound and unraveled. But Sunday night’s final hour also seemed to bring us home to the idea that the difference between tulpa and tulpamancer is as murky as the mists over the falls. Everything circled back to Laura Palmer, the alpha and omega of this tale. Laura Palmer — a person we first met as a dead body. Since that gruesome discovery, Laura Palmer as an entity has ebbed and shifted, a ghost of herself, a mixed-up mediated entity, a tangle of resurrections. From a Variety postmortem this morning: “Even though she is dead, she is also brought to life again and again by the camera, either as a spiritual being, in a flashback, or as a different person entirely.” This power of media to bring a person to some semblance life again and again is one of the vertebrae of my own inquiries. Is the mediated person less real than the material? Yes, but the degrees matter. Just as consciousness itself is not a yes-or-no condition — it exists or is inhabited by degrees — the consciousness of consciousness may have important ramifications along similar scales.
I'm THOMAS CONNER, communication researcher and culture journalist.