Monday, July 25, 2011

The Star Trek Myth: towards a historical materialist critique

The following text is still one of the best things I've read on Star Trek. It was originally published in a magazine called Melancholic Troglodytes by somebody who I had some ultra-leftist adventures with back in the day. While respecting their anonymity, I don't think it will be giving too much away to say that they may have had something to do with the remarkable book Zones of Proletarian Development. Later in 2002 I published it on Red Giant, a radical space site that was killed off when the Death Star obliterated Geocities - some of it still exists on a mirror site, but as that is rather precarious and this text doesn't seem to anywhere else I'm going to stick it up here.

The Star Trek Myth: towards a historical materialist critique

by Fatemeh Faza-navard

Abstract: Where Donna Haraway (1985) holds, "the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion", the Trekkician (Trekki Dialectician) boldly goes where no academic has gone before: sci-fi (and in particular, Star Trek), s/he contends, is the indispensable tool for demystifying capitalism (and in particular, US capital). The text starts off by analysing the mythological aspects of Star Trek using Levi-Strauss and Barthes. It then offers a conceptual map of Start Trek based on Debord's differentiation of the spectacle into concentrated, diffuse and integrated. Finally, it looks at how labour power and class struggle are mystified by the Star Trek saga.


The mythological aspects of the Star Trek phenomenon (i.e., the whole shebang, five TV series, movies, comic books, novels, computer games, ritualised acts of celebrity-worship, etc.), resemble a Levi-Straussian bricolage, an assembly of disparate factors which "using the disarticulated elements of the social discourse of the past ... creates structures out of events". The signs that the bricoleur collects are already shaped by their particular history and previous uses. It is not inconceivable that what myths say collectively, and in a disguised form, "is a necessary poetic truth which is an unwelcome contradiction" (quoted in Leach, 1970). In this sense, they can have a positive role to play.

Alternatively, according to Barthes (1979), "in every society various techniques are developed intended to fix the floating chain of signified in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs". This is the "repressive" value of myth, and "it is at this level that the morality and ideology of a society are above all invested"(ibid, p 40). This repressive impulse is magnified during times of structural and cultural transformation. This explains why Star Trek is prescribed viewing at some American psychiatric wards! (Zerzan, 1995)

Barthes's work could also be used to demonstrate how Star Trek's constant allusions to the troubled past work as inoculation, "by holding out the promise that the issues of the past (and the present) will eventually be solved by the same system that engendered them" (Boyd, in Harrison, 1996). Viewers are de-memorized by being inoculated with a harmless version of history. This de-historicization is one of Star Trek's most pernicious strategies for dealing with the resurgence of a collective proletarian memory.

Star Trek's civilizing mission is encapsulated in the 'Prime Directive', which is Starfleet's moral code of conduct for dealing with primitive species. The Prime Directive reveals itself for a non-too-subtle privileging of a positivist model of development. This model of development has a 'modernist' and a 'post-modernist' phase. Within its 'modernist' phase, it opts for barefaced expansionism (as seen in Enterprise with the hopelessly wooden Captain Archer and the Original Star Trek with Kirk and co). Later, in its 'post-modernist' phase, it employs a more sophisticated policy of post-colonial 'non-interference' (as seen in The Next Generation and Deep Space 9).

Star Trek (ST) can perform successfully as myth, bricolage, and inoculation against subversion, precisely because of its ability to be a cocoon of warmth and security in an increasingly turbulent world. Following Benedict Anderson (1983:16) we could call ST an imagined community, "because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in it, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship". This false community is at evidence most explicitly in Voyager, where the crew stranded behind enemy lines, has to battle not only for its physical survival but also for its very identity. In the journey home, captain Janeway forges an extended family identity and then uses this group identity to secure the royalty of her crew.

ST achieves its civilizing/domesticating mission through many mechanisms, chief amongst them the practice of marking and transcending frontiers. These frontiers are conceived of as both internal markers in our imagination and external signposts in the galaxy. Internally, Deep Space 9 (DS-9) and Voyager, play upon the insecurity of the boundary between 'I' and the 'not-I' and present the 'Other' (be they alien, Arab or Communist) as a threat to identity (Jameson, 1981:115). This groundwork then permits "the surfacing of social norms as personal traits and desires"(Donald, l992:92). Externally, "it constructs a limit-text, an imaginary frontier in space where rationalization of colonialist practices take place" (Harrison, 1996:158). The Original Star Trek and Enterprise specialize in this type of missionary colonizing.

The de-memorizing agenda of Star Trek alluded to above is linked to the acceleration of the effects of history. Baudrillard (1994:6) talks of the acceleration of the effects of history, as its meaning is slowing inexorably. "Right at the heart of the news, history threatens to disappear. At the heart of hi-fi, music threatens to disappear...Everywhere we find the same stereophonic effect, the same effect of absolute proximity to the real, the same effect of simulation". History disappears by becoming its own dustbin: "History has only wrenched itself from cyclical time to fall into the order of the recyclable"(ibid., p 27).

It is precisely this simulated recycling of history that ST is so good at. Haraway attests to its power when she writes, "We have all been colonized by those origin myths, with their longing for fulfilment in apocalypse". And as Barthes (1993:121) says, "Myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear". However, the "mode of presence" (Barthes) of a mythical concept is not simply literal, it is also memorial. John F. Kennedy and Reagan's theories of a 'Communist' offensive, and Bush's warnings of annihilation at the hands of Iraqis "rang true because many voters had heard -and seen- it all before" (Carter, 1988:141). Star Trek treats the viewer like the Macintosh game Deja-vu, "where the player 'awakes' as an amnesiac, and where part of the task involves the rediscovery of identity and the recovery of memory" (Stallabrass, 1993:95). Only what is 're-discovered' is the bourgeoisie's version of history whilst the collective memory of the proletariat is fragmented, ignored and distorted in various ways.

For nearly four decades, ST has been the perfect vehicle for disseminating the US bourgeoisie's message worldwide. It does not so much imagine the future, as to "defamiliarise and restructure our experience of our present" (Jameson, quoted in Bernardi, 1998:12). And yet its success masks a deep rnalaise. For "the universalization of facts, data, knowledge, and information is a precondition of their disappearance. Every idea and culture becomes universalized before its disappearance" (Baudrillard, 1994:104). From within, a culture seems immortal. Thus the insolent triumphalism of ST fails to recognise itself as the bourgeoisie's protracted and spectacular death agony. The suicide of the New World Order, serialised!

Myth: Levi-Strauss's version

Myth and racism

Levi-Strauss (1990) argued, "there is more structure to a myth than the mere narrative succession of episodes". He also suggested that resemblances are not the only close links between them, inversions typify another link. The mythic bricolage is a mode of representation and not a mode of explanation. The Egyptologist, Gerald Massey (1995), understood this a century before Levi-Strauss.

The racism permeating Star Trek requires easily recognisable stereotypes for the smooth transfer of prejudice. Masks and make-up allow the sign to adopt a hybrid position, "at once elliptical and pretentious, which is then pompously christened nature" (Barthes, 1993: 28), as with the wearing of fringe in Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar. Such masks, says Adorno, "which freeze what is most living in the real face, are 'emblems of authority' - allegorical combinations of image and command" (quoted in Stallabrass, 1993:87).

In The Way of The Masks, Levi-Strauss (1975) made a further contribution. By concentrating on three types of masks, he showed "each individual mask was, from a formal point of view, a transformation of another mask in the system". The technological invention of 'morphing' (e.g., the Dominian changelings) takes this to extreme and "codifies the similar function of extra-terrestrials and non-white humans as threats to whiteness" (Bernardi, 1998: 89). The Dzonokwa mask, for example, is an inversion of the Swaihwe. The former is painted black, eyes half closed with a rounded mouth, the latter the exact opposite. These masks should be seen as part of a structural relationship, reinforcing each other through inversion and similarities. Their authoritarian and stereotypifying tendencies are due to them being part of a closed system of representation.

Similarly the masks in ST are the result of multiple series of semantic associations that relate to their specific cultural contexts. The human visage is the norm and the other species represent deviations from this 'perfection'. The rigid forehead of a Klingon signifying aggression, the heavy jaw and projecting eye ridges of a Cardassian signifying criminality, and the large nose, ears, bad teeth and protruding cortex of a Ferengi signifying greed (the unacceptable face of usury capital). This, of course, is phrenology at its crudest, a pseudo-science that having been thrown out of the party (Rose, 1984:53), tries to crash it through the back door.

This racism is connected to the binary opposition between sacred and profane. Mary Douglas (1970), in a structuralist analysis of Leviticus, observes that etymologically, holiness means 'set apart': "Holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong. And holiness requires that different classes of things shall not be confused". Hybrids are, therefore, impure and unclean, because they confound the general scheme of things.

Likewise Edward Leach pointed out in 1966 that "in England the only common fish subject to killing and eating restrictions is the Salmon"- an "anomalous" fish as it is red blooded as well as being both a sea fish and a fresh water fish. Leach postulates that: "We make binary distinctions and then mediate the distinction by creating an ambiguous (and taboo-loaded) intermediate category". The close, domesticated animals are usually denoted by monosyllables, the wild ones distinguished by giving them semi-Latin names- elephant, hippopotamus, and so forth. For example, house animals like dog and cat are inedible, farm animals (pig, cattle) are edible if sacrificed, forest animals (deer) are edible (no rules), and remote/wild animals (tiger) are inedible. The hybrids in Star Trek are always under greater scrutiny for acts of disloyalty.

Myth and morality

Racism and the sacred/profane axis are closely related to secular morality and Star Trek is certainly permeated by morality. A book like Star Trek Speaks (Sackett: 1989), a compilation of quotes and axioms from the Original ST, is the concrete manifestation of this home-spun (common-sensical in Vico's vocabulary) philosophy. The book contains chapters on Universal Truths (e.g., Kirk: "All your people must learn before you can reach for the stars"); Emotions and Logic (e.g., Spock: "it would be illogical to kill without reason"); The Military (e.g., Kirk: "I'm a soldier, not a diplomat. I can only tell the truth"); On Women (e.g., Spock: "Extreme feminine beauty is always disturbing"); On Government (e.g., Lokai of Cheron: "You're from the planet Earth. There is no persecution on your planet"); On Religion (e.g., Kirk: "Mankind has no need for gods. We find the One quite adequate").

This 'secular' morality seeps into every nook-and-cranny, including the architecture, the food and the fashion on display. Nothing escapes its malevolent influence. For instance, in The Original ST and The Next Generation (TNG), occasions arise where essence and appearance are at odds. The Trekki knows that under the enlightened guidance of Kirk/Picard, the 'essence' of the problem will eventually emerge out of the shadows. The modernist and liberal-humanist assumptions in such a narrative are explicit. Accordingly, the architecture of the Enterprise is open, bright and pristine like the interior decor of any modern office block (Altman: 1 994). The division of labour amongst the crew is likewise, sharply delineated. By the time the movie Insurrection came out, the naivety, optimism and heroism associated with Kirk's humanism has degenerated into Picard's halting, humbled and self-conscious humanitarianism (see Paul Mattick for further clarification of the difference between humanism and humanitarianism, 1978:158).

The decor of Deep Space Nine (DS9), on the other hand, is hard, dark and angular. The sets have more contrast, reflecting the shadowy nature of characters and alliances conceivable. Quark's holo-suits (recreational offspring of today's virtual reality equipment), which merge the sharp distinction between reality and simulacrum, play a more prominent role in the 'postmodernist' DS9. On Voyager the copy/simulations frequently pose a threat to the crew's survival, as the "skin-jobs" in Blade Runner threaten the status quo.

The architecture of ST is mythic partly because its inhabitants identify themselves as users and not creators. Everything is already available through technological sophistication. As Barthes (op cit, p 146) says: "There is one language that is not mythical, and that is the language of man as producer'. The tension between production and consumption is embodied in contrasting attitudes towards the replicator - a device capable of creating food/clothes, "out of thin air". In one episode, Picard's brother chastises the good captain for eating too much synthetic food. Captain Sisko (and his father) on DS9 and Neelix on Voyager are accomplished chefs. Food preparation in ST is a ritualistic act of familial bonding, which the ubiquitous replicator challenges.

Finally, there is a class dimension to eating in Star Trek that often goes unnoticed. In The Culinary Triangle (1966), Levi-Strauss observes, "Boiling provides a means of complete conservation of the meat and its juices, whereas roasting is accompanied by destruction and loss. Thus one denotes economy; the other prodigality; the latter is aristocratic, the former plebian". This is precisely the reason the ex-Borg (Pleb), Seven of Nine, has difficulty grasping the significance of a "hearty meal".

Myth and Barthes

Racism and civilization

The Negro soldier in French military uniform on the cover of Paris-Match, analysed so perceptively by Barthes (1993:116), finds its Star Trek counterpart in the shape of the 'liminal' Lt. Commander Worf. "Liminality" is a postmodernist term for the social position or state of being "betwixt and between" cultures. Postmodernism portrays this as a malaise and a loss. In fact, the way capital works, it cannot be anything else. Consequently, the signifier of Worf's language-object (his meaning as a Klingon in Starfleet uniform) signifies the greatness of the Starfleet (American) empire.

As meaning (the signifier of the language-object) passes toward form (the signifier of metalanguage), "the image loses some knowledge: the better to receive the knowledge in the concept (signified part of the meta-language)". The knowledge contained in a mythical concept is made deliberately confused, a matrix of "yielding, shapeless association". Myth, after all, is "speech stolen and restored", a "brief act of larceny...which gives mythical speech its benumbed look" (ibid.). Picard's soliloquy on the eve of an impending Borg attack imbues Starfleet's cause with eternal legitimacy and at the same time links racism with the survival of white, Anglo-Saxon civilization. This is an example of "myth as depoliticised speech":

"I wonder if the Emperor Honorius watching the Visigoths coming over the seventh hill truly realised The Roman Empire was about to fall ... Will this be the end of our civilisation?"

Worf, of course, is a far more complex character than Barthes's Negro soldier. The Star Trek narrative usually invites implicit metaphorical parallels between him and stereotypes of African American, Native American and Japanese samurai (Harrison, 1996:59). Worf functions as a site where racial/species, national and cultural tensions collide and are always resolved in favour of cultural assimilation by Starfleet values. Picard employs "inferential racism" (Hall, 1990) in his dealings with Worf, inviting the latter to constantly prove his loyalty to Starfleet. This stereotyping always functions to buttress hierarchy in Star Trek. In fact, this ritualistic avowal of loyalty is expected and enacted in most American narratives as the high percentage of 'immigrants' in U.S. society demands a stricter coherence to the concept of an imagined community than is required in more secure forms of nationalism. Thus 'minorities' are routinely urged to prove their allegiance to their adopted U.S.A. (e.g. the sacrifices made in The Deer Hunter).

In an episode of DS9, the Dominion forces in the Gamma quadrant capture Worf and a number of other Starfleet/Klingons. Worf has to fight his Jem' Hadaar captors in bouts of ritualised combat in order to give his colleagues time for completing their escape attempt. The scene combines the characteristics of wrestling as a noble sport (i.e., Greek/Olympic wrestling where feudal concepts like honour determine the conduct of champions), and wrestling as a spectacle (here analogous to the Elizabethan Masque based on bull-fighting and pantomime).

The wrestling protagonists have a "physique as peremptory as those of the characters of the Commedia dell'Arte, who display in advance, in their costumes and attitudes, the future contents of their parts"(Barthes, op cit, p 17). Dario Fo's (1991) Pantaloons and Harlequins, therefore, allow an immediate reading of juxtaposed meaning. This spontaneous pantomime allows suffering, defeat, and justice to be exhibited in public and in the form of a secularised passion play.

Worf fights honourably the first eight cornbatants. Battered and bruised, he is only spared defeat (i.e., death) by a reciprocal act of honour from his Jem' Hadaar captor. Honour here functions as exchangeable gift, as African potlatch, oiling the wheel of human transactions in what is basically a capitalist world.

A relatively recent example could illustrate the point more cogently. The wrestling tournament between the USA and Iran, referred to euphemistically by journalists (Hirst, 1998) as 'wrestling diplomacy', re-enacts the stylised rituals of Worf's escapade. The competing media apparatus of both states used techniques such as 'rhetorical amplification' (Barthes), in order to build up the event, with each side vying for the role of the gallant Worf. There was a great deal of honour at stake and honour, although a feudal concept can still generate wealth in terms of cultural capital.

The contradictions inherent in oiling capitalist development with residual cultural concepts such as honour can be viewed from a slightly different angle. Levi-Strauss makes a useful distinction, which deserves attention here. Rituals, he argues, are the opposite of games. "Games -an activity characteristic of 'hot' societies- use structures (the rules of the game) to produce events (victories or defeats). They are fundamentally disjunctive, as their aim is to separate the winner from the loser. Rituals are conjunctive- their aim is to bring together".

'Hot' societies employ hierarchy and linear time. The Next Generation (TNG), for example, "constructs its utopian future by drawing on a nineteenth-century faith in progress, human perfectibility, and expanding frontiers" (Harrison, 1996:95). This is an example of 'celebratory' or 'whiggish' historification (Harris, 1997). Social conflict is supposedly superseded. Money, wage-slavery abolished, at least, implicitly. Alienation and racism a thing of the past, or so it seems at first glance. Comte's three types of progress are exemplified by various TNG crew members: Practical Progress whose agency is 'Activity' embodied in First Officer Riker or Chief O'Brien; Theoretical Progress whose agency is 'Intellect' personified by the android Data; and Moral Progress whose agency is 'Feeling' typified by the female 'care-taker' characters, Troi, Guinan and Crusher. Only the paternalistic Picard is allowed to synthesize the three traits.

'Cold' societies (non-hierarchical and with a cyclical conception of time and usually no writing), on the other hand, use rituals and classificatory systems to resist change. The disjunction between spectators and officiators, sacred and profane is overcome. This is precisely why 'cold' societies pose a threat to Star Treks ideological hegemony and why they are nearly always depicted in a caricatured manner. American viewers may be encouraged to pity and patronise the primitive 'cold' societies but the identification must fall short of sympathy and solidarity.

Myth and taste

For Pierre Bourdieu (1997: 49) each social class is characterised by a set of "social competencies, a set of intellectual skills and sensibilities acquired through social background and educational environment and expressed through taste". Taste is externalised through signs but significantly, the same sign may carry different meaning for opposing social classes.

Wine used to be associated with the bourgeoisie in Britain but now it is also popular with proletarians. Iranian peasants and proles indulged in wine copiously throughout their history, whereas today they sip the occasional glass in secret for fear of Islamic punishment. Alternatively the same class may represent and mediate its social encounters through different drinks. For instance, "for the (French] worker, wine enables him to do his task with demiurgic ease", as lager used to be an essential dietary requirement of the London river-worker, and tea an indispensable method of pacification/forced relaxation.

Picard's fondness for Earl Grey is by contrast a "social gesture" (Barthes), as wine-drinking helps the French intellectual "demonstrate his control and sociability". Here, wine is the foundation for collective morality. Klingons' predilection for blood-wine and blood-pie represents a crude form of biological determinism ("you are what you eat"). The fanatical Jem' Hadaar (Iranians) neither eat, drink or bother with procreation, but are kept permanently drugged, as the historical assassins were by the 'Old Man of the Mountain'. As for changelings/shape-shifters (in this context, sufi masters), by contrast, have no need for nutrients or physical contact, because they have evolved beyond mere "solids"(i.e., humans).

On ST "fashion is often used not necessarily to distinguish between classes but between species". To be fashionable in ST is to be able to "stand out and fit in simultaneously" (Harrison, 1996: 117). Troi, Dax or Seven of Nine who undergo various degrees of 'striptease' (Barthes) during the show, advertise sexual promiscuity better to impede and exorcise it. The public are "inoculated with a touch of evil, the better to plunge it afterwards into a permanently immune Moral Good". Kirk and Uhura's famous inter-racial kiss, Dax's bi-sexual tendencies, Worf and Dax's sadomasochistic relationship, Kes's lolita impression, and Seven of Nine's aggressive man-hunting technique, all reveal themselves as acts of recuperation.

Myth and Debord

If the five series of ST represent a Debordian spectacle, then the relation between its elements can best be analysed as different phases of the spectacle. Not only that the various series follow different models of warfare. We will try to combine these two facets below.

The Enterprise, the original ST and TNG represent colonial and post-colonial tendencies of Debord's concentrated spectacle (l 987:64) respectively, a backward form of bureaucratic capitalism associated with authoritarian societies like Fascist Germany or Leninist USSR, or the liberal humanism of turn of the century USA. These three series typify the expansionist wing of the US bourgeoisie, and belong to the Errol Flynn genre of naval imperialism and the switch from piracy to patriotism. The military engagement against the cold war foe (Klingons/Russians) or the post-cold War foes (Borg and Romulans/Russians and Chinese), are based on modern models of warfare, where civil society is temporarily suppressed in favour of a total political mobilisation (Clausewitz).

Deep Space 9, which re-enacts the western genre of the besieged army outpost surrounded by hostile Indians, typifies the diffuse spectacle and favours the isolationist wing of the US bourgeoisie. The model of warfare on DS9 is based on the Arab-Israeli conflict (or Eastern Europe), setting the "measured anti-terrorist operations of Captain Sisko against the terrorism of the slimy Cardassians (Nazis/Iraqis/Palestinians) and the jihad of the pious Jem' Hadaar warrior-assassins (Iranians), fulfilling the grand plan of their changeling gods (Ayatollahs). In Marxian terminology, the jihad is the expression of civil society (camouflaged by a false religious unify), in pursuit of political society.

Finally Voyager, which plays on the anxieties of the American public over losing their soldiers behind enemy lines, is an expression of Debord's integrated spectacle (in existence in France and Italy since the 1980s and Russia since the 1990s). In Baudrillard's (1994: 31) less rigorous vocabulary, this phase is characterised by the "retrospective transparency of all the signs of modernity, speeded up and second-hand ... of all the positive and negative signs combined: that is, not just human rights, but crimes, catastrophes and accidents". Captain Janeway, having defied the Prime Directive, is stranded in a distant quadrant of the galaxy, forced to fight/negotiate her way through a maze of complex tribal allegiances. Tribal war is a mode of regulation through exhibition, a forced movement towards preventing the separation of political society (state power) from a nascent civil society.

Myth and space

In The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat, Barthes (1993:65) observes a crucial point about Jules Verne's self-sufficient cosmogony: "Imagination about travel corresponds in Verne to an exploration of closure, and the compatibility between Verne and childhood stems from a common delight in the finite, to enclose oneself and to settle". He further notes, "the basic activity in Jules Verne is unquestionably that of appropriation. The image of the ship, so important in his mythology, in no way contradicts this ... the ship is an emblem of closure" (ibid. p 66). Barthes posits Rumbaud's Drunken Boat, the boat which says 'I' and proceeds towards a "genuine poetic exploration", against Verne's Nautilus.

We could map this onto the Star Trek terrain. The ideologically christened spaceship Enterprise is obviously an updated version of Vern's Nautilus- more a habitat than a means of transport. Bakhtin would have called it a chronotope, an "intrinsic connectedness" of space and time. "As a chronotope the Enterprise is simultaneously a spatial marker, a curvaceous curvature of matter, and a temporal indicator, guiding diegetic adventure and assimilating history in the process" (Bernardi, 1998: 75). The space station on DS9 is a version of 'Gunsmoke' and the ship Voyager resembles a mobile Camelot.

The emblematic ship of concentrated spectacle, TNG's Enterprise, encloses as it appropriates. Its positivistic philosophy requires a philosopher-king at the helm in the shape of Jean-Luc Picard. Its relative simplicity of plot and characterization evokes "an age of pure belief, or regression to childhood simplicity" (Stallabrass, 1993: 90). That is why there is minimal conflict amongst its crew. The DS9 station by contrast sits at the edge of 'civilisation' beyond which is the 'Pale'. It encloses its inhabitants and settles. Its more complex imperatives (diffuse spectacle) demand the arbitration of a prophet-warrior, Captain Benjamin Sisko. And finally, the ship Voyager encloses as it takes flight toward its holy grail (i.e., magical technology or worm-hole capable of sending it back home), and mixes the positivist and mystical facets of TNG and DS9 as the integrated spectacle combines the worst of concentrated and diffuse forms of the spectacle. Kathryn Janeway as embodiment of a matriarchal Amazonian Queen.

The spatial code (Levi-Strauss's term for the changing location of mythic heroes), and the social code (Levi-Strauss's term for relationship pertaining to parenthood, marriage, chiefship, friendship, etc.) outlined above, form a system - a 'matrix of meaning'. Levi-Strauss's (1970) basic hypothesis in The Raw and the Cooked is that "myths come into being through a process of transformation of one myth into another". It is the adaptability of sci-fi, which facilitates this transformation and makes it the perfect vehicle for the intermingling of spatial and social codes. Thus The Raven (an episode of Voyager) is an updated version of the Searchers, and the movie Outland (starring Sean Connery) is flexible enough to re-enact Gary Cooper's High Noon. In fact, the latter fulfils all the defining criterion of a (western) genre as proposed by Edward Buscombe (1970: 43), namely: iconography (e.g., sheriff's badge, shoot-out with real bullets, and the ever-present clock), structure and theme. Just like the chain of McDonald restaurants littering the globe, a successful mythic film "depends on a combination of novelty and familiarity".

Concluding remarks

One of the main themes running through sci-fi concerns the re-molding of labour-power, through re-coding the chromosomes, the neural system and time-compression techniques. A process of scientific engineering that ironically goes hand in hand with the revival of religious obfuscation. "That the holy trinity of God/Work/Family is always crucial in times of repression is a well-tested truth capital has never forgotten" (Caffentiz, ibid. p 58). Arnold (1998) concurs: "...the cinematic apparatus provides a partial means of integrating people who are violently subjected to the alienation effects of industrial capitalism into its social formation. This partial integration represents a dialectical process whereby the pleasure of its modernized subject is offered in exchange for new forms of subjugation". Similarly, Hugh Ruppersberg (1990) notes a close association between technological sophistication and religious exaltation in Close Encounters of The Third Kind: "Technology has redeemed the aliens from original sin, made them godlike..." .

Interestingly, whereas in Alien, there is a marked social hierarchy with the working class (Brett and Parker), "holding the least allegiance to the corporation" (Byers in Kuhn: 1990), Star Trek, seldom overtly discusses economic arrangements. Once class differences are denied, the only hierarchy left is a meritocratic one based on rank and experience. Star Trek is a bourgeois myth with the primary function of extending the spectacle into all facets of life. "A controlled reintegration of workers which unites the separate but unites them as separate" (Guy Debord). Lest we forget, Gene Roddenbury was a LAPD cop before turning to filmmaking. The liberal and populist aspects of Star Trek combine to suppress class struggle.

Open class struggle breaks out only very occasionally on ST, as for example, when the Ferengi, Rom, organises a trade union (and an impromptu strike) against his employer/brother, Quark. The conflict is portrayed as a sanitised family squabble, and ends in the predictable Langian handshake between capital and labour. The whole episode is no more than a 40-minute Barthesian inoculation against the virus of class hostilities.

Lack of reflection regarding complex issues is encouraged in the sci-fi viewer, through the adroit use of special effects. As Ben Brewster (1987) has pointed out, it is not merely disbelief that is "suspended", but often also knowledge and judgment. The camp element of sci-fi special effects is designed to protect the spectator both from disappointment, should the effects fail to convince, and also from genuine trauma, should the effects succeed too well (Christian Metz). Telotte (1990) believes that the attraction of Star Trek's special effects "attest to our urge to gain access to the meeting ground between the specular (everything we see on the screen), and the blind (everything that moves outside/under the surface of things)".

Stern has noted, "The simultaneous movement of foregrounding special effects while backgrounding effects not recognised as special, corresponds to the structure and role of other forms of discourse in advance capitalist society. News, for example, is taken to be what is not routine" (see Kuhn, 1990: 69). In the process, technologies of domination, phasers, photons, force fields, etc., are naturalised. A legalistic language borrowed from a future U.N. is imposed on other species, through the handy technological gimmick that is known as the Universal Translator. And, Warp Speed acts as a rubicon differentiating civilised planets from "primitive" ones.

Many scholars have attempted to read radicalism into star Trek. Jenkins (1992) has made a great deal out of 'poaching', which is defined as a "sort of nomadism in which readers read intertextually, drawing on various texts and discourses in constructing and extending the original text" (Bernardi, 1998). But even he is careful to point out that these resistant readings of many Trekkies, "ultimately fits within the ideology of the overall series". Or as David Morley puts it: "The message is 'structured in dominance', by the preferred reading" (ibid. p 149). The famous 'nomadic poaching' of ST fans may turn out to be no more fruitful than the medieval pastime of counting the number of angels that could fit on a pin top.

And finally…

To the disinterested outsider, the whole Star Trek saga may seem a tad infantile. There is some truth in this. Dieter Lenzen (1989) warns us that the status of adulthood is disappearing, "a phenomenon brought about by an expansion of childlike aspects in all spheres of our culture". This expansion contains a mythological element as it involves the deification of childhood and a corresponding acceleration of the apocalyptic element in our culture. I would like to suggest here that this infantilization is a direct attack on the working class, an attempt to pacify and domesticated us. The truth of the matter is that series such as Star Trek have been extremely successful in this process of infantilization.

To the devoted insider (the uncritical Trekki), Star Trek is akin to a Levi-Straussian "machine for the suppression of time". It provides certainty and hope, warmth and security. It provides Anderson's imagined community. This aspect of Star Trek is also completely anti-working class as it involves de-memorization and se-politicisation.

To the critical Trekkician (who is simultaneously inside and outside the myth), Star Trek is bourgeois mystification, as fascinating as it is repulsive. It mythologizes by distorting the past, entrenches by reifying the present, and seduces by desiring the future. However, its continuing appeal also reflects certain real needs and shortcomings that capital denies the majority of people in society. Radical critique must therefore demystify the past Star Trek continuously distorts, de-reify contemporary bourgeois relationships Star Trek suppresses and imagine a future superior to the fluffy capitalism it offers.


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Anonymous said...

I didn't read this all because you were so intent on finding the statist propaganda that you ignored the fact that there is no monetary system and anyone can do what they want with their life. The captains always listen to the crew and are like hired bosses, not ceo's. Of course it was saturated with statist propaganda to be allowed on TV and subvert it continuously.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the working class are the most apathetic statist consumerist hopped up on toxic masculinity with a fetish for pollution and racism. Why on earth do you idealize them? They want the ruling class to destroy the earth and eat them alive like the cow at the restaurant at the end of the universe in hhgttg.