Friday, October 21, 2011

Star Trek: A Future Abandon to Clowns & Rubes

Trekky; Trotsky

When I was in my early 20s all my friends were returning from trips to Europe telling stories about what rubes American tourist were and how universally Europeans hated them. The strategy everyone I knew seemed to have adopted, and I was instructed to use if and when I ever 'crossed the pond', was to pretend to be Canadian. I remember thinking that if all the cool, well-mannered Americans posed as Canadians, and only rubes and clowns admitted to being Americans, then who could blame Europeans for thinking Canadians were awesome and Americans crass? "Up to a decade or two ago," wrote Slavoj Žižek in his 1994 book, Mapping Ideology, "everybody was busy imagining different forms of the social organization of production and commerce (Fascism or Communism as alternatives to liberal capitalism); today" he then-continued, "as Fredrick Jameson perspicaciously remarked, nobody seriously considers possible alternatives to capitalism any longer." If only rubes and clowns admit to wanting a better world, dystopias will be the only futures serious people will know how to think about.

Monday, October 17, 2011

2001:Play Time

I am home from a symposium on visual communication called Look Better where Jordan Tate (who has a great blog) invited me to present a "silent lecture". I joked with friends that it was inevitable that I would one day be paid to not-speak. It turned out however, to be harder, and take much more consideration to say nothing that I ever imagined. I have uploaded a short segment of the project I presented called, 2001:Play Time - it is not embedded here because of copyright. (Which I edited with the generous help of Erik Spooner and Spencer Holstein.) Instead of illustrating an idea (what I originally set out to do), it tests a theory: I suspect there is a relationship that exists between Jacque Tati's film, Play Time, and George Lucas' original Star Wars film. No one has told me this, and I can't find a single mention of Tati by Lucas, but Play Time bridges a gap between Star Wars and a film that Lucas does site as an influence: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Star Trek: Utopians at War

HG Wells, JT Kirk

"This is now a war for peace" wrote the Radium Age scifi master, H.G. Wells, in 1914, "This is the greatest of all wars, not just another war - it is the last war!" In 1932, as if answering Wells directly, but also predicting the rest of the 20th century, the Nazi jurist Carle Schmitt wrote "Such a war is necessarily unusually intense and inhuman because, by transcending the limits of political framework, it simultaneously degrades the enemy into moral and other categories and is forced to make of him a monster that must not only be defeated but utterly destroyed."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Star Trek and Satiability

Binge Drinking: Evil Kirk and anti-Occupy Wall Street

Critics of consumerism, on both the Right and Left, usually count it as one of capitalism's sins. But according to Richard Wilkinson, modern consumerist societies require some level of relative income equality for good health. The laissez faire capitalism of the 19th Century (the brand championed by Rupert Murdoch's media outlets and the Koch brother's lobbying industry), made no concessions to address income disparity (I will leave it to Slavoj Žižek to explain the inadequacy of charity.) The socialism that rose up to challenge that era's unrestrained capitalism's misery was a demand for complete economic equality. Star Trek is often described as a socialist utopia, but that hides its greater aspect. David Simon, who grew up in consumer culture and is now as the creator of The Wire, is one of its most successful creator-class, argues beautifully in a recent talk, "If you believe in group insurance you are a socialist." But that leaves the question of what you believe in if you are a consumerist. There is a simple ethical test that delivers a very peculiar answer: What would Kirk do?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Star Trek: A Diamond Age Social Contract

Debating the future: Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (1969); Occupy Wall Street (2011)

In his new book, The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama writes that, "In tribal societies justice between individuals is a bit like contemporary international relations, based on the self-help of rival groups in a world where there is no third party enforce or rules." This is the bread and butter of libertarian thinkers in the mold of Friedrich Hayek, who believe that the formation of the rule of law was an organic and incremental process. But "Hayek was simply wrong about certain of his historical facts" Fukuyama observes that; and that "although law did precede legislation in many societies, political authorities frequently stepped in to alter it, even in early societies." He also points out that Hayek makes "not a single reference to, yet religion is clearly a critical source of legal rules in Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim societies." Fukuyama's point is not only that religious text form the bedrock of legal systems, but that the kinds of things people believe, the stories they tell to one another as a society, for better or worse, shape the directions societies take. Star Trek is exactly that sort of story (for better); Hayek's libertarianism another (for worse).

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Star Trek and Gluttony

Deseases of excess; Captain Kirk, Ayn Rand

My friend Guan asked where "rugged individualism" fits into my understanding of the American Dream and pointed me to a post by J. Bradford DeLong. "What has survived throughout is the American myth of rugged individualism," DeLong writes. "The power of this myth has meant that the United States is not, and never will be, a European-style social democracy. People may come together for barn raisings, but America is still the land of upward mobility and opportunity, where the most common questions are, I've done it, so why haven't you?" But the truth is almost no Americans have "done it". Jeb Bush, who is the grandson of a US Senator, son of one US President and brother of another, once claimed to be a "self-made man". Most of those who claim to have "done it" usually mean: "Fuck you, I got mine." Any Rand, "famously a believer in rugged individualism," but after a lifetime of heavy smoking and venomous opposition to government social welfare programs, Rand became ill with lung cancer and accepted Social Security and Medicare payments.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Star Trek and Postscarcity Consumerism

James Doohan and Simon Pegg as Scotty

Even if many Americans have lost track of the full promise of the American Dream - the dream that a nation's wealth is measured not simply by how great it is, but how greatly it is shared - our cousins in Scotland have not. I have no idea what they're putting in scotch eggs these days, but between Charles StrossKen MacLeodGrant Morrison and Mark Millar, the Scots have a lock on myth creation at the moment. The Godfather of this second Scottish Enlightenment is Iain M. Banks, who describes his Culture novels as his own "secular heaven". But while Banks says that he "could [n]ever write in someone else's universe like Star Wars or Star Trek, as it would be too restrictive" his Culture series clearly picks up where Roddenberry left off - projecting into a distant future where the United Federation of Planets has grown into a galaxy-spanning civilization of multiple humanoid species and massively powerful artificial intelligences.