July 1, 2011

The Unknown Knowns: The Corbomite Maneuver

This blog project was started with the notion that Star Trek, nearly fifty years on, remains vitally worth watching and continues to be relevant to contemporary philosophical issues. At first glance, “The Corbomite Maneuver” would seem to run counter to that inspiration. The episode doesn’t hold up as a fan favorite and it often looks cheesy and undercooked, or perhaps half-baked. And truth be told, I wasn’t looking forward to watching and writing about the episode. Until I did and until I reckoned with making the unknown known—the theme of this blog post. Let’s start with Donald Rumsfeld, who in a February 12, 2002 press briefing addressing the absence of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, had the following to say:

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.

As my blogging colleague would no doubt note at this juncture, and Wikipedia reminds me, Rumsfeld’s musings on the unknown provoked Slavoj Žižek to discourse on the unknown known, that which we don't know or intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know:

If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the "unknown unknowns," that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the "unknown knowns" - the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.

It’s this theme of unknown unknowns and unknown knowns that “The Corbomite Maneuver” begs us to explore. First a reminder of some key plot elements. The Enterprise is out in uncharted space conducting a mapping exercise. At the navigator’s helm is a young and unseasoned Lt. Dave Bailey. The crew is confronted first by a space buoy and then a massive ship representing the First Federation, which promptly informs the crew they are to be destroyed. After a tense standoff in which Kirk employs the “corbomite maneuver” and bluffs that any attempt to destroy the Enterprise will simultaneously result in the destruction of the alien ship, the two captains parlay and discover common interests. Kirk leaves Bailey with the alien captain, Balok, to instruct him in the ways of human beings.

As I mentioned, on the surface, this episode doesn’t sound all that promising. And yet, considering the episode’s context, it does raise some interesting thoughts. While the episode was the tenth to air, it was actually the third filmed, after the two pilots, and it still looks rather primitive—more in line with “Where No Man Has Gone Before” than “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” The show is still evolving and developing and as I’ll suggest shortly, the theme of development takes center stage in the episode itself. Also of interest is the show’s historical context. It aired in 1966 and one has to wonder whether viewers connected its themes of exploration and empires coming into conflict to the US’s growing involvement in Vietnam. It’s not difficult to read the show as a cautionary tale about youthful impetuousness involving us in wars that could be avoided by cooler heads—and a steady Asian hand. At several key moments in the episode’s actions, it’s Lt. Sulu who takes over for a debilitated Bailey and carries out the captain’s orders. The Asian trumps the European. But the episode has bigger fish to fry than simple historical allusions. Or so I’ll suggest.

The Enterprise is out in uncharted territory mapping space. It is literally transforming the unknown into the known, mapping the unknown, tedious and boring work but work that must be done. This theme of the unknown is also introduced via the alien Cube. It first makes its appearance by making no appearance. Sulu: “No visual contact yet.” Nor does it signal anything. Uhura: “I’m getting no signal from it.” The Cube literally represents the unknown:

SPOCK [on monitor]: Have a look at this, Captain.
KIRK: What's that?
SPOCK [OC]: Undetermined. Whatever it is, it's blocking our way. When we move, it moves as well.
KIRK: A vessel of some kind?
SPOCK [OC]: Negative. More some type of device.

And later:

KIRK: Scotty.
SCOTT: Motive power? Beats me what makes it go.
KIRK: I'll buy speculation.
SCOTT: I'd sell it if I had any. That's a solid cube. How something like that can sense us coming, block us, move when we move, well it beats me. That's my report.
KIRK: Life sciences.
MCCOY: Same report.

Later, when Balok’s ship the Fesarius shows up, Spock comments that the “reading goes off my scale.” We are dealing with the unknown and potentially the unknowable. The Enterprise is out to measure and map space and transform the unknown into the known by registering it in scientific and quantitative terms. This curiosity and the drive to confront the unknown and situate it in terms that are known is equally present in Spock’s desire to visualize the alien Balok. The Vulcan works mightily to get “something visual”: “Spock: I was curious to see how they appeared. Kirk: Yes, of course you were.”

And it’s precisely here that the episode confronts an interesting philosophical dilemma: what is an appropriate reaction to confronting the unknown? After Balok informs the crew of the Enterprise that they will be destroyed in ten minutes time, Kirk offers one take on confronting the unknown:

KIRK: Captain to crew. Those of you who have served for long on this vessel have encountered alien lifeforms. You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there's no such thing as the unknown, only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood. In most cases we have found that intelligence capable of a civilization is capable of understanding peaceful gestures. Surely a lifeform advanced enough for space travel is advanced enough to eventually understand our motives. All decks stand by. Captain out. Ship to ship.

Kirk places his bet on reason and intelligence and the belief that there is no such thing as the unknown. Everything can be mapped. Our motives can always be understood (tell that to the Vietcong). There is nothing to fear but fear itself. Things are only temporarily hidden and not understood. With the proper application of reason, the hidden and misunderstood are brought out into daylight (mapped) and can no longer be a source of fear. Kirk here represents the voice of reason and maturity and indeed we learn in this episode that he is “maturing”: he’s putting on weight, his health and diet need to be monitored, he’s no longer the brash young ship’s captain he once may have been (and this is only the third filmed episode of the show).

But Kirk’s response to the unknown is not the only possible response presented. Bailey (presumably a younger Kirk, as McCoy informs us; McCoy: “you spotted something you liked in him, something familiar, like yourself say about, oh, eleven years ago”) suggests an alternative response to the unknown:

BAILEY: We've only got eight minutes left.
SULU: Seven minutes and forty five seconds.
BAILEY: He's doing a countdown!
MCCOY: Practically end of watch.
BAILEY: What, are you all out of your minds? End of watch? It's the end of everything. What are you, robots? Wound-up toy soldiers? Don't you know when you're dying? Watch and regulations and orders. What do they mean?
KIRK: Bailey, you're relieved! Escort him to his quarters, Doctor.

Bailey charges his shipmates with being like robots, simply following regulations and orders, rather than taking action, blowing things up, arming phasers. Bailey represents the voice of youth and immaturity and impetuousness. And of course it’s this voice that is supposed to be silenced. Kirk has Bailey removed from the bridge. Bailey needs to be fathered, first by Kirk (really just an older Bailey—as Bailey is a younger Kirk) and then by Balok, who Spock tells us is reminiscent of his father. And Bailey is consigned (or volunteers) to be marooned with the lonely Balok, left aboard the Fesarius to help the newly encountered alien come to know our human-all-too-human ways. This is meant to be therapeutic for Bailey. He needs to mature, to develop and grow out of his youthfulness, coming to terms with the unknown through the proper tutelage that comes at the hands of his elders. In growing up and achieving maturity we come to transform the unknown into the known.

But as we have seen with previous episodes, things are never quite what they seem on the surface with Star Trek. While on the surface, this episode sides with Kirk and the voice of reason against the youthful emotional outpouring of Bailey, Kirk’s own methods and madness seem to legislate against such a tidy resolution. Kirk’s own commitment to the principle that there are no unknowns, only temporarily hidden things, is itself not entirely rational and more predicated on faith. As he states, “Surely a lifeform advanced enough for space travel is advanced enough to eventually understand our motives.” But what are the grounds of that “surely” other than faith, something not entirely understood. Consider two further wrinkles.

First, there is Kirk’s relationship to his body. While Kirk is remonstrating Bailey and trying to get him to grow up, he himself resists growing up—perhaps resists the recognition of his own maturity. We learn in this episode that his weight is going up and he has a diet of greens imposed on him by the Doctor, who regularly tries to monitor Kirk’s health. Kirk is getting old and his relationship to women, including the woman he most must care for, the Enterprise, is threatened by these younger, impetuous navigators who want to strike out in a direction of their own. Following his annual physical with McCoy, Kirk leaves sickbay only half dressed, parading his glistening, sweaty body around the halls of the Enterprise, as if to remind us and himself about his still vital masculinity. He refuses to face what he knows is his own senescence—perhaps the final unknown known. While making an argument for maturity and development, Kirk simultaneously fights what his body already knows—maturity and development ain’t all they’re cracked up to be.

And then there is the element of poker and bluffing that takes center stage in this episode. And poker is offered in place of chess when Spock informs the captain that he can find “no other logical alternative.” Chess is the game of rules and rationality and it is displaced by the game of chance, bluffs, and emotion. It’s as if Kirk sanctions deception, sanctions hiding, sanctions using the unknown knowns. This is what corbomite represents. Corbomite has remained unknown. But now Kirk must make it known.

KIRK: This is the Captain of the Enterprise. Our respect for other life-forms requires that we give you this warning. One critical item of information that has never been incorporated into the memory banks of any Earth ship. Since the early years of space exploration, Earth vessels have had incorporated into them a substance known as corbomite. It is a material and a device which prevents attack on us. If any destructive energy touches our vessel, a reverse reaction of equal strength is created, destroying
BALOK [OC]: You now have two minutes.
KIRK: Destroying the attacker! It may interest you to know that since the initial use of corbomite more than two of our centuries ago, no attacking vessel has survived the attempt. Death has little meaning to us. If it has none to you then attack us now. We grow annoyed at your foolishness.

So Kirk bluffs Balok but then Balok in turn bluffs Kirk back, playing dead in space so that he can assess the Enterprise’s true motives, again trying to make known what is initially unknown. But in both cases, what’s made known is a lie, a ruse, a bluff. Recall Kirk’s earlier commitment to the reasonableness of intelligence:

Kirk: In most cases we have found that intelligence capable of a civilization is capable of understanding peaceful gestures. Surely a lifeform advanced enough for space travel is advanced enough to eventually understand our motives.

Making the unknown known requires lies and bluffs and braggadocio and so at the heart of intelligent and advanced lifeforms is the will to deception, despite Kirk’s protestations otherwise. And this is the known that tries to remain unknown. Kirk ultimately should recognize that it’s foolish to think that there is no unknown, that all things hidden are only temporarily so. In running from his aging body, in confronting youth as he stares into the unknown country that is aging, in resorting to bluffs and lies and deception to wriggle out of tight situations, perhaps Kirk chooses to embrace the unknown and its ultimate existence. And in this regard, Star Trek once again suggests that it’s not so much about outer space as inner space. The mission of the Enterprise isn’t so much to know the unknown out in space but to know the self—to know thy self. The mission of the Enterprise is to explore the unknown, the go where no one has gone before. But as with a lot of science fiction, the unknown of external space is often simply a stand in for the internal unknowns that we must face—the inner self that must be cared for. On the surface Kirk represents the father figure to Bailey. And yet it is Kirk who hasn’t yet come to full terms with what he knows—the power of deception and the bluff and braggadocio. Kirk ends up employing methods more in line with Bailey than he first intimates in his speech to the crew. Maybe Bailey really is the navigator here—showing us the direction we ought to travel in.

But ultimately Star Trek tries to soft pedal this message. It engages in a little wish fulfillment by confronting us with a baby-faced alien such as Balok who simply wants to sit around drinking tranya and engaging in conversation. Were that all the unknown knowns are, facing them would be easy. And the resolution to our fears and inadequacies would be easy. But perhaps that’s too much to wish for.

Little Girls Misdirecting: What Are Little Girls Made Of?

“What Are Little Girls Made Of?”

Sugar and spice and everything nice. That’s what little girls are made of. But what exactly does this have to do with Roger Korby? Our title is the first indication that we need to approach this episode of Star Trek carefully. It’s the first hint of misdirection. The title suggests that this episode is going to be about little girls, or at least grown women who nurture a lost love from years ago, when they were just girls. We expect an episode about Christine Chapel. The episode’s title and her presence on the bridge for the teaser suggest that she is the focus. And yet, the episode is actually more interested in the men (frogs and snails and puppy-dog tails)—and isn’t this how it often is in the world of Star Trek. It’s Korby and Kirk and of course the monstrousness of Ruk that takes center stage in this episode, not Christine. This is just the first instance of a series of ambiguities and misdirections that structure this episode. Is this episode about little girls or little boys? Is it Korby or not? Is logic incompatible with emotion? Are androids merely the sum of their programming? On each of these questions, What Are Little Girls Made Of? speaks equivocally. But among these equivocations, there is presumably one certainty: the monstrousness of science and technology and how our love of technology can lead us astray. This message seemingly comes across unequivocally in the inhumanity of Korby and his plans for cosmic domination. Here too, though, there may be more than meets the eye, more misdirection and equivocation than is at first apparent.

First, a brief resume. Kirk and Nurse Chapel beam down to Exo 3 in search of Roger Korby, the brilliant Pasteur of archeological medicine who was lost more than five years ago. Chapel studied with Korby, became his fiancé, and when he was lost signed up with Starfleet with the ulterior motive of finding him. When our star-crossed lovers are reunited, we learn that Korby has discovered an ancient technology buried deep in the caverns of Exo 3 that allows him to create androids and download his own consciousness into a synthetic body. He holds Kirk captive, creating a duplicate of him, so that he can smuggle the technology off-world and infiltrate society, eventually reengineering a more perfect human being and human society. His plans go awry, though, as his creations begin to malfunction and he is himself eventually destroyed, his mechanical nature having been exposed to his lost love Christine.

On the surface (that is before we delve into the caverns of Exo 3), Little Girls would seem to be the tale of the undoing of Roger Korby and his faith in science, technology, and logic. But as I suggested, things are a little more complex than appear on the surface (aren’t they always). Let’s start with the matter of Christine, where we already get a glimpse of the significant misdirection this episode is engaged in. We’re lead to believe that this episode will be about little girl and yet Star Trek once again proves its willingness to toss aside the women-folk, for Christine is played for the dupe. We learn that she has pined for her lost love for the past five years, having thrown away her own promising career in bio-research to sign aboard a starship and search for Korby. Previously, though, in The Naked Time, we learn that she has the hots for Spock: “I am in love with you Mr. Spock. You. The human Mr. Spock. The Vulcan Mr. Spock. I see things. How honest you are. I know how you feel. You hide it but you do have feelings. Oh, how we must hurt you, torture you.” How fickle little girls are. As a student she was attracted to her professor. As a starship nurse, she is attracted to an officer. What won’t women do for love? The Naked Time toyed with the issue of why we human beings are out in space to begin with, and with Christine we get an answer—searching for our lost loves. Not only that, but she is routinely and regularly wrong. And why? Because she trusts her feminine intuitions. Christine “knows” that Korby when she hears and sees him:

SPOCK: You're certain you recognise his voice?
CHAPEL: Have you ever been engaged, Mister Spock? Yes, it's Roger.

Repeatedly, Christine claims to know things on the basis of her feelings, only to be proven wrong and failing to recognize that both Korby and Kirk are replaced by evil doppelgangers. So much for love and female intuition. Star Trek is once more toying with women, as Roger no doubt toyed with Andrea, his mechanical geisha. But of course we are being toyed with as well as we try to figure what, if not little girls and their misplaced crushes, this show is supposed to be about. We’re misled about the focus of this episode, the certainty of women’s intuitions, and the undying love which is not so undying. And these are not the only instances of misleading.

Consider how the show equivocates on the status of emotion. On the one hand it is supposed to be what is distinctly human and the thing that cannot be copied in the androids. Kirk suggests that it is the one thing that makes him superior to an android. And yet we see in Christine (as well as Andrea) how emotion leads us astray. The rational and the emotional are always changing places in this episode. Korby is supposed to be the voice of logic and reason but he clearly is unhinged. His over-reliance on logic is clearly problematic. We’re told that the androids are mere things, not human, because of their lack of emotion:

KORBY: Andrea's incapable of that. She simply obeys orders. She has no meaning for me. There's no emotional bond. Andrea, kiss Captain Kirk. Now strike him. You see? There's no emotion in it, no emotional involvement. She simply responds to orders. She's a totally logical computer. A thing is not a woman.

Again, though, our androids seemingly keep exceeding their programming. Andrea, for instance, kills the android Kirk in a fit of pique and then confesses her love for Korby.

Similar misdirection can be seen in the central question of whether Korby is really Korby. On the one hand, Christine is sure it’s Korby and Korby himself vouches for his authenticity:

KORBY: It's still me, Christine. Roger. I'm in here. You can't imagine how it was. I was frozen, dying. My legs were gone. I was, I had only my brain between life and death. This can be repaired easier than another man can set a broken finger. I'm still the same as I was before, Christine, perhaps even better.

But by this point Christine doubts her previous conviction. Nonetheless, Korby seemingly proves himself by taking his own life, in a final act that suggests his persistence. We witness another reversal, though, in Kirk’s final statement on the matter: “Dr. Korby was never here.” These same issues of course plague the more recent discussion of cyberspace and the Singularitarians’ hopes for downloading consciousness and attaining an everlasting afterlife, another clear instance of Star Trek raising issues that will dominate technoscientific culture forty years later.

So the duplicate both is and is not a duplicate. Emotion both is and is not central to our humanity. Programming and logic both are and are not central to mechanism. On these issues the episode speaks with no certainty. There does, though, seem to be a clear message when it comes to our single-minded pursuit of technology. Such a pursuit, the episode suggests, is monstrous.

As we learn about the history of the prior inhabitants of Exo 3 we discover that their dimming sun led them deep into the planet’s caverns where they developed their unique technology. As Brown, Korby’s assistant, explains:

BROWN: Doctor Korby has discovered that as their sun dimmed, the inhabitants of this planet moved underground from an open environment to this dark world. When you were a student of his, Christine, you must have often heard Doctor Korby remark how freedom of movement and choice produced the human spirit. The culture of Exo 3 proved his theory. When they moved from light to darkness, they replaced freedom with a mechanistic culture.

It’s that technology that gave birth to Lurch, I mean Ruk, the personification of the monstrousness of technology. We later learn what happened to the old ones, and it’s worth quoting at length as it pulls together several of our themes.

KIRK: What happened to the old ones, Ruk?
RUK: So long ago.
KIRK: Is it possible they built their machines too well, gave them pride and a desire to survive? Machines that wanted logic and order and found that frustrated by the illogical emotional creatures that built them?
RUK: Yes, the old ones. The ones who made us. They grew fearful of us. They began to turn us off.
KIRK: And isn't it Korby who's creating the same danger to you all over again? Unlike you, we humans are full of unpredictable emotions that logic cannot solve.
RUK: Yes. Yes, it had been so long ago, I had forgotten. The old ones here. The ones who made us, yes. Yes, it is still in my memory banks. It became necessary to destroy them. You are inconsistent. You cannot be programmed. You are inferior.
KIRK: And Korby?
RUK: You came from the outside. You bring disorder here.
KIRK: The danger to you is Korby.
RUK: I was programmed by Korby. I cannot harm him.
KIRK: The old ones programmed you, too, but it became possible to destroy them.
RUK: That was the equation! (seizes Kirk) Existence! Survival must cancel out programming.
KIRK: That's it, Ruk! Logic! You can't protect someone who's trying to destroy you!
KORBY: Ruk, I would like
RUK: You brought him among us. You brought the inferior ones. We had cleansed ourselves of them. Now you bring the evil back!
KORBY: Ruk, stop! Your programming. (fires phaser, Ruk vanishes) I had no choice.

Recall that Korby is the Pasteur of archaeological medicine and had previously revolutionized immunization techniques and now he wants to “infiltrate” society with his android duplicates. Here Ruk too speaks the language of infection and immunization: “We had cleansed ourselves of them.” But of course it’s Ruk, and by extension Korby’s technology, that represents the infection that we must be immunized against. The technology must be contained and that is precisely what happens as the androids are eliminated one by one, ending with Korby and Andrea’s mutual obliteration. While Star Trek is so equivocal on other matters that arise in this episode, on this one it is clear. Korby was never here.

But on this one matter on which the episode speaks with certainty, we have to question its final judgment, for ultimately Ruk/Lurch is of course human (played by Ted Cassidy). Human beings occasionally give birth to monsters, but monsters that are still very much human. And what does that say about the monstrous technology that we give birth too, even when it emerges from that dark, cavernous world? Might we not have to own up to those dark, cavernous aspects of our humanity that give rise to these monstrous visions but are nonetheless human? The Old Ones grew fearful of their technology and ultimately tried to eliminate it. But those things that well up from the dark, cavernous world may be frightful, but they are still human. Rather than trying to eliminate them we need to understand their place in our humanity—this is what Korby ultimately fails to understand. It is his plan to eliminate the failings and imperfections in our humanity. This doesn’t represent the perfecting of humanity, but the turning away from humanity—a failure to recognize that it’s all part and parcel of the whole package. So ultimately Ruk too is a bit of misdirection. He is supposed to represent the inhuman, the monstrousness of a technology born of the dark, cavernous world. But Ruk too is ultimately human and we have to own up to this dimension of our humanity. We are led to believe that the danger must be eliminated: Brown, Andrea, the fake Kirk, Ruk, and finally Korby all have to be eliminated. But this was Ruk’s solution to the dilemma too: eliminate the contagion, the danger, the irrational. But technology and the various dark and cavernous impulses that sometimes give rise to dark and irrational forces in techno-science cannot be so easily eliminated. This is the show’s ultimate misdirection.

May 19, 2010

Desire and Violence

Violence of Desire

"Miri" offers a wide range on possibilities for analysis. The most obvious theme or issue to discuss is bio-technology.

A civilization, trying to capture the secret of eternal youth, destroys itself with its own knowledge--the science that is supposed to save them kills them. Again, this would be consistent with a side of Star Trek that for all its glorification of gadgets is suspicious of technology--how many episodes are there in which Kirk and crew must battle some "runaway" computer or hi-tech apparatus? With "Miri," the old lesson could be the following: "technology that allows us to exceed our human nature and limit is dangerous." But, all technology, in a sense, exceeds our nature and limit. What is the difference, metaphysically, between getting a haircut and a nose job or stem cells? Both alter or manipulate the body and the difference is in degree, not kind. The warning against runaway technology only works if we assume a stable human nature. What if, however, our nature is "by nature" to change and adapt--this would be a Deleuzian human nature of flows and expressivities. "Miri" rejects this adaptive/expressive understanding of human nature and posits a rigid concept of personhood or so it would seem. This is most obvious with the children in the episode. Even though they are hundreds of years old, they don't change--they are frozen in childhood until they slowly reach puberty. At this point they become violent creatures physically, but retain a child's innocent mind. . . aging from sixteen to ninety in a matter of days.
The use and abuse of bio-technology is a major issue for this episode, especially its allegorical relationship to 1960s style emerging anti-aging culture, "health food," vitamins, spas, etc. While all of this is certainly worthy of discussion, I see a more fundamental conflict, the conflict of desire. Why the more or less now dead civilization decided to pursue anti-aging or, perhaps, immortality is never raised. What gave rise to or what gives rise to the desire to live forever? This could be framed in terms of Freud's "death drive" or Zizek's understanding of Freud's "death drive." In this sense, the goal is not to live but to be "undead," to retreat into some non-living living space--childhood in this sense is being undead. Perhaps a space of demand, free of desire? What is desire, then? For Lacan, desire is the third and final stage of a developmental series--need, demand, desire. All three are formulated as responses to a "lack," which the latter specifically belongs to an Oedipal lack.
So, what I am proposing is that the bio-tech content simply masks another content, the formulation of desire/violence. In other words, "Miri" is a study of desire/violence.
In the beginning of the episode, Kirk and the away party survey a desolate 1960s style city on a twin Earth. Among the scattered remnants of the city is a child's broken tricycle--cast on a heap of dirt and junk. As McCoy carefully rests the tricycle on the pile, spinning the wheel in a meditative moment, a creature attacks him screaming "mine, mine." Of course, in dramatic fashion, Kirk comes to McCoy's aid and punches "the shit" out of the creature, which seems almost impervious to the blows. Consumed with desire for the tricycle the creature is oblivious to his surroundings, repeating "mine, mine" and an incoherent "never, never" until he finally dies grasping the trike with his disfigured hand. The first stupid question is to ask, "What does the tricycle represent?" Nothing and everything. The trike is the "objet a"--some "thing" desire seizes upon at a moment. So, the point is not to positively account for the tricycle as a lost object (e.g. childhood, the past, et al) , but to look to the tricycle as an opportunity to see the work of desire. In this instance, an object temporarily holds desire--as something that is "mine," although broken and incomplete, literally. This foreshadows, I believe, a second instance of desire . . . Miri's desire for Kirk.
When Miri, a sixteen or seventeen year-old(?) girl, is discovered hiding in a closet of an abandoned house, it is Kirk who coaxes her to give up information. He soothes her fears and, in effect, seduces her:
(Soft violin music)
Kirk: "What's your name?"
Miri: "Miri."
Kirk: "Miri. Pretty name for a pretty young woman."
Miri: "Pretty?"
Kirk: "Very pretty."It is at this point that Miri "sees" herself as a object of Kirk's gaze. In Lacanian fashion and like the Cheap Trick song "she wants him to want her." So, her desire is not for an object per se; it is for place in the symbolic order--the place that which Kirk desires. All of this, of course, is cast as "natural." Why wouldn't a sixteen or seventeen year old "young woman" fall for Kirk . . . everyone else does? Why wouldn't Kirk notice the prettiness of a young woman? While this seems perfectly natural, there is a violence underlying it.
First, Kirk's flirtation is sexually innocent; however, he "uses" Miri. She is a means to an end--the end is information. Playing with affection is not new to Star Trek--even Spock seduces an over-the-hill Romulan commander in a later episode. Second, Miri's "love" for Kirk has a high degree of violence keeping it afloat. Her love is entirely narcissistic, as we'll see when she sets him and Yeoman Rand up to be killed. Before we get to this, however, let's see how "Miri" stages desire.

In the very beginning of the episode there is a distress signal . . . some need for help. The signal originates from a twin Earth, as if the distress signal comes from within as an internal lack. Once on the planet, as I've noted, the away team encounters the creature and the tricycle and, later, Miri. As the team learns more details, it is McCoy who surmises that the adults died from a plague . . . something external. However, they shortly learn that death came not from an external cause but by an internal cause. The desire to live forever became a bio-medical fix that, from the inside, destroyed them and will, if not stopped, kill Kirk and company. Spock, however, is immune, which is attributed to his Vulcan physiology, but, of course, it is Spock who is the one lacking lack; that is lacking desire.

When lesions begin appearing on Kirk, McCoy, and Rand, they realize that they've been "infected" and proceed to continue the research of the dead scientists. In a sense, the dead civilization's desire has infected the away team (minus Spock). They have been "interpellated" into a (symbolic) system of desire and then are forced to extricate themselves from it. Science, of course, fixes science or that is the hope. Gradually Kirk, McCoy, and Rand become "Grups"--"grown ups." They become excitable, irrational, angry, and violent. It is as if the "infection" has unleashed "pure desire." Even Yeoman Rand admits that she used to try to get Kirk to "look" at her legs back on the ship. What is crucial here in the presentation of desire is that it becomes "explicitly" sexual. Up until this point the flirtation between Kirk and Miri has been "innocent," but when Miri sees Kirk with Rand, in an embrace, she "enters" into the sexual symbolic order--like the child seeing the parents in the sexual act. Miri sees Kirk "seeing" Rand's legs and it is Rand who is object of Kirk's sexual desire--Miri is merely an object or tool to gather information. So, feeling rejected, used, and betrayed (not a good cocktail), she plots with the "Onlys" (the children) to kill Rand and "Captain Lovey-Dovey." Her previous innocent infatuation, once triggered by the Kirk/Rand embrace, becomes violent desire. If she could just kill Rand, she thinks, then she would be able to be the object of Kirk's desire. "Jim," as she affectionately calls him, becomes a depersonalized "Captain Lovey-Dovey."

Miri's path toward bloody revenge is oddy changed when Kirk reveals to her that she will suffer the same fate as he if the stolen communicators are not returned. Self-preservation, the desire that started the whole process, returns in the end. Miri, realizing her impending death, sides with Kirk and brings him to the school house (ideological state apparatus) where Janice (Yeoman Rand) is being held.

Finally, the surface conflict (the race to find a cure) is resolved after Kirk's impassioned speech about saving the children. Oddly, all of this is pointless because McCoy, in an act of selfless desperation or selfish desperation, injects himself with the vaccine. Lucky for him "the beaker of death," as Spock called it, is a beaker of life and McCoy lives. The cure works! But, what is cured? I'll argue that desire is cured or supposedly cured. Desire, by the end of the episode, is put back in its proper place with its proper objects. Miri pairs with John and "parents" (teachers, advisers, et al) are sent to the planet to help the children. The only desire left to be reassigned is Kirk's desire for Miri. Yeoman Rand says to Kirk, "Miri, she really loved you, you know." Kirk pauses, says "yes" and then jokes "I never get involved with older women." Yeoman Rand, amused, looks at McCoy and each moves off to his or her station. How are we to read Kirk's joke? Upon what does his desire fix itself? Miri is ironically or paradoxically too young and too old. So, is Kirk's desire paradoxical, too? It remains ambiguous, but that is the nature of desire. . . desire finds objects and moves on. At its center is a void. With Kirk's joke, desire spins like the wheel of the tricycle in the beginning of the episode. It turns perpetually and any object-order is merely a fiction waiting for irruption.

February 3, 2010

The Real is the Thing

The link between the Venus Pill (crystal) and the (Di)Lithium crystals is a brilliant insight on Dennis' part. The Enterprise, and by extension the Federation, like Mudd's women, are addicted to a substance. It is easy to see that both substances yield power, material and ideological. The Venus Pill transforms the human body into a thing of beauty and that "beauty" works on/in the world or galaxy. The (Di) Lithium crystals do the same thing--they empower and make beautiful the Enterprise, which, in turn, carries the ideological message of the Federation. (The opening scene suggests this as the Enterprise is "interdicting" a wayward craft.) The initial analogy "the Venus Pill is to Mudd's women as (Di)Lithium cystals are to the Enterprise" begins to breakdown around the question of authenticity. That is, the analogy turns into a dialectical comparison, with Venus Pill + Mudd's women = Fraud; while (Di)Lithium crystals + Enterprise = Authentic or Ideal Values. It is later, of course, when the Venus Pills are shown to be a placebo, that the ontologically Real is revealed.

Before we get to this point, as few historical and sociological questions emerge. Is the Venus Pill allegorically connected to the birth control pill? In 1968, it is difficult to imagine any "Pill" that women take in a television episode wouldn't somehow reference "The Pill." Is Roddenberry making a conservative, reactionary argument? The "Venus Pill" gives you "fake" women--not wives and mothers, but "cheats and frauds," e.g. women who do not reproduce or cook as Eve suggests. The "Pill" works to cheat "Edenic" domesticity and Eve says as much; "Is this what you want?" she asks after having transformed into her sultry ideal. While Star Trek is often "progressive," this episode seems starkly conservative if the analogy or dialectical comparison holds. The end of the episode seems to bear this out when Eve, believing in herself, and the miner decide to spend a wholesome day together "talking"--presumably before the sub-space wedding ceremony.

Like so many Star Trek episodes, we have multiple layers of text. "Mudd's Women" shows the imperial, economical brutal foundation of the Federation--miners die to supply the crystals. We have the sociological--"fake, pilled" women threaten the moral fabric of civilization. We also have an issue of the "real" as it ties together these layers. It is the final scene on the wind-swept planet that caught my attention.

When Mudd gives Eve the "fake" pill, she transforms into her "beautiful" self--faking, the fake yields the truth it seems. This negation of the negation works well with the recent Deleuzean/Badiouian/Zizekian discussion of the "real." Here is the very abrreviated sketch: If we live in equivocity, then the ideal rests "behind" the sensible. The Venus Pill shows that behind the outward appearance there is a really, real ideal form. This, in the episode, becomes a conflict between the "authentic" and the "fraudulent." The Venus Pill gives us the Platonic ideal, but the sensible real persists. The problem with Mudd's Women, however, is that it is the opposite--the ideal is the fake, and the sensible material is the real. This is a reverse equivocal or dualist Platonism, a.k.a Aristotlianism. The issue doesn't end there. The "fake" real ideal undergoes a negation in which the "fake" real, the beautiful Eve, becomes the authentic real--a double negation. The negation of the negation within equivocity, then, yields a univocity, which gets expressed in Kirk and Mudd's "there is only one woman or man." The final comment appears in the context of Eve believing in herself and thus manifesting her true self; however, what is really being said at the metaphysical level is that there is no equivocity--the appearance is the real because, in Zizekian terms, the appearance is the expression of the absence of the ideal/sensible divide. In other words, "there is only one woman or man" means that there is one "parallax" real and that real exists because of the absence of the ideal, Platonic real (e.g. the Venus Pill-Eve) and the sensible ugly Eve. So there is only one woman and one man is, " there is no dualism in which one finds a perfect-ideal and an imperfect sensible--there is only one, univocal material real that is the negation of the negation of either pole. This allows Zizek to say that the appearance is the real, which is exactly what Kirk and Mudd say.

All of this, to me, makes perfect sense insofar as it is Harcourt Fenton Mudd who IS the central figure in the episode. Eve, the Pill, the Dilithium crystals are all a vast surface upon which "Mudd" the con-man is examined. Confidence games are metaphysical games--they depend on a dualism involving authenticity and fraudulence. What this episode shows is that the equivocity one associates with dualism is false. Mudd is not a con man because there is some abstract true, even the computer/lie detector is tricked by Mudd, or some absolute falsehood--he is a con man because, in a sense, both are negated and it is the irony or Zizekian dialectic of the two that makes him, in the end an honest man because he looks like a scoundrel.

January 27, 2010

Mudd's Women

True confessions. I must admit to thinking I got the short the end of the stick when Victor and I divvied up Star Trek episodes. He got “The Man Trap” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” I got “Charlie X.” He took on Kirk’s psychic wrangling in “The Enemy Within.” I got…”Mudd’s Women”? I recalled Harry Mudd, or Harcourt Fenton Mudd, from long ago repeated viewings of ST-TOS and the only thing these recollections could call to mind was Mudd’s buffoonery. Harry Mudd and “Mudd’s Women” was a trifle, a divergence from the more serious philosophical themes explored in more substantive Star Trek episodes. I wasn’t looking forward to traveling down memory lane with Mudd or his soft-focus women.

But part of the inspiration for this blog is drawn from the sense that Star Trek warrants a re-viewing, a re-engagement if you will. While the myth of Star Trek has grown steadily in the decades since the original series aired, the substance of those original shows has been somewhat lost and is worth recovering as we reexamine these shows from our own 21st century perspective. And in this case, “Mudd’s Women” turns out to be vintage Star Trek. It actually holds up much better than I had recalled and is a rich source of interesting, if not provocative themes.

The storyline, penned by Gene Roddenberry, is no doubt familiar to our erstwhile readers (we do have some readers don’t we?). The Enterprise is chasing an unidentified ship through an asteroid belt. It’s forced to extend its shields around the ship and overtaxes the ship’s engines, burning out their crucial lithium crystals. They beam the ship’s crew to the Enterprise and are surprised to turn up Harry and his crew (or cargo) of three beguiling and bewitching women: Eve McHuron, Magda Kovacs, and Ruth Bonaventure. The women immediately begin working their wiles on the crew as Harry plots to get out from under the thumb of Kirk. He sees hope in the lonely lithium crystal miners of Rigel XII and proffers a trade of sorts, his freedom for the women, or Kirk doesn’t get the much needed crystals. But men being men (a persistent theme of the episode as we shall see), disputes arise and Kirk is forced to save the day once again, revealing that the women’s beauty is artificial, merely simulated , a product of the Venus pill. Eventually, Eve, the proverbial blond hooker with a heart of gold, chooses life on the frontier with the gruff but educable Ben Childress and Kirk gets his lithium, calms down considerably, and powers up the Enterprise for another day and another adventure.

As I suggested, on the surface “Mudd’s Women” seems to be a bit of a bauble—humorous, light-hearted, a respite from Star Trek’s heavier philosophical moments. And yet the show raises some intriguing themes and sometimes even manages to play against some of the easier stereotypes foisted upon it. Most obviously we must consider the theme of those women of Mudd. Star Trek is often portrayed as sexist at best and at worst rather misogynistic. And yet “Mudd’s Women” is a bit more complicated than that. First, we must recognize that men come off no better in this episode than women. As Harry remarks upon boarding the Enterprise, “Men will always be men, no matter where they are. You’ll never take that out of them.” And indeed we see over and over again how men will be men, or better, boys. (Except, of course, Spock, who remains immune from the women’s wiles. As Mudd notes, “You can save it girls. This type can turn himself off from any emotion.”) The men of the Enterprise are easily duped by these beauties and a buffoon such as Harry Mudd is able to best Kirk, at least for a while. So too are the miners of Rigel XII a bunch of minors, kids who haven’t seen a women in years. Judd Apatow would have been very much at home in the fraternity culture of Rigel XII. At the same time, Eve at least comes across as a smart, resourceful, and ethical individual. She’s troubled by the act of deception she has been forced into. She’s escaping from a home planet where there is no life for her. She hates the whole situation she finds herself in. She resists the Venus Pill, though ultimately gives in to Harry’s exhortations. She chides the miners: “Why don’t you just run a raffle and the loser gets me.” And she repeats Harry’s earlier sentiment about men being men. When Childress chides her for cleaning up his cave, she replies: “The sound of the male ego. You travel halfway across the galaxy and it’s still the same song.” And it’s Eve who has to explain to Childress how he can keep his pans clean, sand blasting them in the winds of Rigel XII. It’s Eve who recognizes that Kirk is married to his ship and she faces a better prospect on Rigel XII (”You’ve got someone up there called the Enterprise.”). And it’s Eve who proposes to Childress that she be a partner of his, not simply his trophy wife hopped up on the Venus Pill: “Is this the kind of wife you want Ben. Not a wife to help you but this kind—selfish, vain, useless. Is this what you really want?” Eve, the first woman, turns out to be something of a wise and knowledgeable feminist—wise enough to prefer a jug-headed miner on a desolate frontier planet to the playboy star ship captain married to his ship (more about this in a moment). This in a television episode first aired in 1966. The caricatures and stereotypes of Star Trek are not entirely borne out by the gender politics of this episode.

And yet, in another way, Eve fails as a model of the smart and resourceful woman. “Mudd’s Women” is fascinating as well for taking up the theme of women’s beauty and the artificial means women will employ to maintain their beauty. “Mudd’s Women” raises interesting questions about the nature of beauty and the aesthetic. Can beauty be measured? Is it objective or merely in the eye of the beholder? Consider McCoy’s interesting comment to Kirk: “Are they actually more lovely, pound for pound, measurement for measurement than every other women you’ve known or is it that they just, well, act beautiful?” More interestingly, though, Star Trek poses a question in 1966 that continues to reverberate today, perhaps even more so: what’s the value of simulated beauty? Eve, our first woman and proto-feminist, voices outrage at the measures women will take to maintain their beauty and allure for men. And yet her outrage falls on deaf ears. Her fellow cargo, Mudd’s women, tire of her objections. Of course the enhancement culture that Star Trek was already exploring (and deploring) in 1966 has grown in leaps and bounds since that time and women, and men, now have available to them a huge variety of modern-day Venus pills to nip and tuck their fat and wrinkles back into place. Star Trek’s past portrays a future we are only now catching up to, a future in which we reject Kirk’s sentiment: “There’s only one kind of woman or man for that matter. You either believe in yourself or you don’t.” It turns out we don’t, believe in ourselves that is. Rather, we or believe in Botox, and Restyland, and liposuction, and the whole assortment of products and procedures. And all those kids who stayed up late to watch Star Trek forty years ago are now staying up late to catch the next infomercial on the next generation of Venus pills. Eve was smart enough to make a go of it on Rigel XII but not smart enough to persuade subsequent generations of women, liberated or not, to stay away from the surgeon’s knives. Star Trek reminds us just how impotent feminist arguments against the beauty industry really have been and Kirk’s observation that the drugs don’t make the person does little to appease the ravages of time. The future is supposed to look all sparkly and clean and if it takes the Venus pill to make it shimmer and shine, well then sign me and 75 million other baby boomers up.

So this bauble that is “Mudd’s Women” turns out to be more than simply fool’s gold. More fascinating still is an intriguing suggestion that lies at the heart of the show and raises even more interesting questions. Consider the relationship between Mudd’s women and the Enterprise. We already know that Eve and the Enterprise are competitors for Kirk’s heart. We suspect as well that the Enterprise is a woman. When Kirk puts Mudd on trial it’s the ship’s computer that reveals his lies and deceptions. And it speaks in a female voice. As well, the ship doesn’t (or doesn’t want to) reveal the women’s deceptions. While Mudd is an easy book to read and the ship sees through his lies, it/she remains silent on the nature of the women. McCoy’s sensors and medical scanners refuse to divulge their secret. Perhaps because they share a secret. The women’s power over men is made possible by their reliance on the Venus pill. And the Enterprise’s power, the source of its attraction—especially to Kirk and Scotty—is lithium crystals. (Interestingly there are four lithium crystal circuits and three are burned out, suggesting a numeric parallel to Mudd and his cargo.) Magda and Ruth seem addicted to the Venus pill and Kirk and Scotty both have a hard-on for those crystals:

Scotty: "Agh, if we only had those crystals..."
Kirk: "But we don't! I didn't get them! I should have found a way! Satisfied, Mr. Scott?!?"

The parallel between the Venus pill and the lithium crystals is further suggested in two key scenes where visually we see the transition from Eve’s hand holding the Venus pill to Spock’s hand holding the lithium crystals.

As Eve holds the Venus pill in her hand, Mudd intones: “Go on Eve. Take it. It’s not a cheat. It’s a miracle for some man who can appreciate it and who needs it.”

Then we immediately cut away and see Spock holding the lithium crystal as he comments, “Even burned and cracked they’re beautiful. Destroying them was a shame.” While Spock remains immune to the beauty of women, those crystals sure do attract his attention and this seems a rare example of the Vulcan’s aesthetic sense, employed in the service of the Enterprise’s, and by extension, Star Fleet’s, power. Eve worries that the Venus pill is a lie and a cheat, and the Enterprise is powered by lithium, represented by the symbol Li. (In subsequent episodes, the lithium crystals are rechristened as dilithium crystals.) Harry can’t find the Venus Pills, which he has hidden away from the captain, and Kirk can’t find the lithium crystals, which Childress has hidden away from him. In the presence of women on the Venus Pill, our crew is empowered, engorged, hard and excited. And with the lithium crystals they are equally empowered, thrusting out into space boldly going where no man has gone before. Take away the Venus Pill and the lithium crystals, and our men go limp. They lose power and their orbit can’t be maintained. Superheating, whether you’re a man or a machine, isn’t good.

What are we to make of these intriguing parallels between the Venus Pill and the lithium crystals? We never see men taking the Venus Pill, but Kirk explains that it gives you more of whatever you have. “With men it makes you more muscular…more aggressive,” he tells Childress. And Harry has already reminded us that “men will always be men.” Do the lithium (or dilithium) crystals play a role in the muscular foreign policy of Star Fleet? Are the ideals of the Federation a cheat or a miracle? For men who can appreciate it and who need it, lithium makes possible the conquering of space and empowers the playboy adventures of our star ship captain. “Mudd’s Women,” a candidate for the second pilot, following “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” seems to suggest that at the heart of one of the origin myths of Star Trek and the Federation is some ambivalence regarding its mission.