October 22, 2009

The Enemy Within

Ethics With Anxiety

My blog on "The Enemy Within" will not focus on the obvious presentation of a "split personality," "alter ego," Id-Ego-Super-Ego, or a notion of a Manichean human subjectivity. The end of such a discussion would inevitably lead to event of "reintegration"--good needs evil and vice versa. . . fairly boring.

Instead, I would like to focus on the questions of ethics; that is, I would like to spend my time in this blog examining the ways in which the ethical appears or, better said, the ways in which a "metaphysics" of ethics is constituted.

After a transporter failure, which divides things into its opposing halves, an "evil" Kirk arrives on the Enterprise afraid, agitated, suspicious, curious, and unable to control his impulses. When these initial emotions leave him, he comes to "enjoy" or "find pleasure" in his inability to feel "anxiety" or hesitation--he pursues his "pleasure" without anxious reflection. This "evil," drunken Kirk lacks self-control and any sense of measure, which is why he seeks out poor Yeoman Rand after downing some Saurian brandy. In this scenario, "evil" is constitued as violent, sexual and with a lack of self-control or self-reflection, but with a twist. For his (the "evil" Kirk's) unchecked impulses, he maintains one quality--decisiveness. He "decides" to "confront" and assault Yeoman Rand and "actualize" his erotoc desire--"We've both been pretending too long."

The "good" Kirk, however, appears muted, weak, and indecisive. He equivocates and has trouble formulating his thoughts--he's chronically tired and looking to avoid his duties. Even when he learns of the transporter mishap and the existance of his "evil" double, he hesitates and stammers to a decision to form search parties. While this may appear as "weakness," I will argue it is an exercise in ethical thinking. The "pausing" judgment of "good" Kirk allows him to consider the consequences of force, a force leading to death of the evil double and possibily himself. So, fatigue, pause, indecision conflicts with energy (sexual/physical), action, and will. In the balance there is ethical judgment.

When "good" Kirk finally confronts "evil" Kirk in the engineering room, his halting, pausing self becomes acutely reflective. He tries to "reason" with the "evil" Kirk--"I'm part of you." He even refuses to draw his phaser while the "evil" Kirk keeps him at bay with his. "You can't kill me," he says. His conclusion is wrong and, if it were not for Spock's "neck pinch," the "evil" Kirk WOULD have killed the "good" Kirk.

In the following scene in sick bay, Spock observes that "good" Kirk has lost his ability to make a "decision." This suggests that "decision" belongs to the "side" of aggression, violence, action, and energy. The enervated "good" Kirk flounders and it is Spock who gives the lecture on human nature, a nature he knows all too well. Tenderness, compassion and violence, and lust--the Manichean divide. However, while "decision" may reside on the margin of evil. It is ethics that resides on the margin of good. The 'evil" Kirk lacks, according to Spock, the essential human attribute of "ethical reflection." When this is separated out, the "human" ceases to exist. "Evil" Kirk is an animal, "a thoughtless brutal animal," while "good" Kirk is the human par excellence--even if he can not make a decision.

After Dr. McCoy's follow-on lecture about human nature and the essential qualities of being human--reason, logic, intellect, courage--"good" Kirk makes his way to the transporter room where a potential fix is in the works. The decision is to send the "animal," in this case a divided dog like creature, back through the transporter. While Scotty and Spock subdued the crazed canine, "good" Kirk says "don't hurt him."

The significance of placing ethics on the side of "good" Kirk suggests that the resistance to "decision" opens a new space for ethical thinking. The example that I'm referring to here comes from Avital Ronell's segment from _The Examined Life_ in which she states a la Derrida and, to some extent Heidegger, the person who feels that he or she has "acquitted" himself well ethically is unethical. That is to say, the one who reaches a "decision, " without a sense of anxiety, is "evil" (my term not Ronell's). The lesson from this episode, if we are taking lessons, is that "decisions" or "decisiveness" should be bracketed and held in suspension; afterall, it is the "evil" within us that halts thinking and reflection, cutting it short by unreflective action.

July 31, 2009

Why Did Joe Have to Die? The Nose Knows.

Let’s start with a few mysteries. Why did Joe’s nose itch? Why did he remove his glove? And why did he have to die? And just why was Gary Mitchell so quick to succumb to the forces of the dark side (to risk mixed metaphors, or at least mixed sci-fi shows)? These are the issues I’d like to tweeze out of “The Naked Time,” exploring the limits of the rational and the emergence of the irrational at heart of the Federation.

“The Naked Time” opens with Spock and Joe Tormolen beeming down to a research station located on Psi 2000, a planet in the throes of disintegration which the crew of the Enterprise has been dispatched to observe and study. But rather than finding a group of scientists preparing their final reports on a dying planet, they find a frozen scene of bizarreness and madness: a strangled woman, a fully clothed man in the shower, the life support systems turned off, everything frigid. Spock and Tormolen are dressed in environmental suits (more like cheesy-looking shower curtains), but Tormolen’s nose itches and, removing his glove, he is exposed to a liquidy red substance which he unknowingly brings back aboard the Enterprise. Tormolen soon begins to exhibit his own irrational behavior and in a scuffle with Sulu he is injured and taken to Sick Bay where he quickly dies, having lost the will to live. Soon others onboard are infected with the same illness and as the Enterprise rapidly descends on the disintegrating planet, the crew is rapidly disintegrating and descending into madness.

A half-naked Sulu roams the ship like a drunken Musketeer. An Irish rogue sings an Irish brogue (repeatedly), taking over Engineering and endangering the ship. And a punch-drunk Nurse Chapel proclaims her undying love for Spock, himself caught in the throes of emotions he cannot control.

At Spock’s le cri du coeur over his failure to express his love for his mother, I can imagine my blog partner bringing in that psychoanalytic tag-team Lacan and Zizek. And justifiably so, as this episode plays with the hidden impulses and repressed wishes of the crew, the distinegrating plant Psi standing in for the disintegrating psyche. Leaving the ego-id-superego, or is it the Real-Symbolic-Imaginary?, to Victor, I’d like to follow up on some themes I raised in my comments on “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” particularly the question of what these intrepid explorers are doing out there in the vast cold realms of space. This is the question and the dread that fills Tormolen upon exposure to the pathogen. He wonders if man was meant to be out in space and when confronted by Sulu and Riley blasts the Enterprise’s mission: “sticking our noses where none of us has business. What are we doing out here anyway?…What are we doing out here in space? Good? What good? We’re polluting it. Destroying it…We don’t belong here.” And then he dies. Why? Having come face-to-face with Pascal’s eternal silence of those infinite spaces, Tormolen can no longer go on. He questions the purpose of his being out there in space and in doing so glimpses the madness behind human beings flinging themselves light years from home only to encounter…what? Madness. Strangled women and human popsicles. There’s no recovering from that and the only alternative is death, the loss of the will to live, which puzzles McCoy because it makes no sense from a medical, that is, scientific, standpoint. A lieutenant under the influence, Tormolen encounters the limits of reasonableness and decides it’s not for him.

At the heart of this exceedingly scientific, high-tech project to boldly go where no man has gone before, lies a little madness. It’s that irrational element at the core of the rational, scientific, Enlightenment project that doesn’t go away. Reading Jeffrey Kluger’s reflections on the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 in Time magazine (Moonstruck), we learn that one of the qualifications of becoming an Apollo astronaut was knowing what not to think about. “Think too deeply about what you’re doing and the enormity of the thing can stop you from getting it done. And when one crewman violated that unwritten code of sangfroid, others, often as not, would stop him cold.” When Apollo 10’s Gene Cernan is recorded asking “Where do you suppose a planet like this comes from?” Kluger reports that John Young answers with deliberate bluntness: “I ain’t no cosmologist. I don’t care nothing about that.” Tormolen was thinking too deeply and he put at risk the composure and equanimity of his fellow astronauts. So he had to die.

This theme of the irrational as an essential element of the technoscientific realm comes up in an interesting way with Gary Mitchell. As Spock studies Mitchell’s and Dehner’s personnel files, we discover that Star Fleet tests their cadets for their ESP rating. Mitchell’s esper rating is well above average going back six generations of the maternal blood line “to both males and females who dabbled in metaphysical studies and, in at least one case, a female ancestor who was interested in spiritual readings.” Dehner was posted to the Aldebran Colony because she was participating in tests and studies of other esper-oriented beings with the College of Medical Sciences of the Tri-Planetary Academy. So Star Fleet keeps track of its psychics and its spiritualists and meticulously documents its findings in its personnel files. It’s the irrational element appearing in the bureaucratic file.

Mitchell’s esper rating helps explain why he was affected so when crossing the galaxy’s boundary. But why was he so easily corrupted? You’d think that in addition to documenting their cadets’ esper rating, Star Fleet would be keen on only signing up the most grounded, stable young men and women. But it doesn’t take long for Mitchell to begin playing God, even after he’s read Spinoza. Here too we get a hint from Kluger’s reflections on the Apollo project. Religion was never very far removed from the space program, maybe from any space program, factual or fictional. Kluger reports that Charles Duke, Apollo 16, came home “to find a deep well of Christian spiritual within himself and fills his time with secular and religious speaking.” And Apollo 14’s Edgar Mitchell (a relative of Gary?) conducted experiments in extrasensory perception while on the moon, trying to send mental images to two friends from space. He later founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences to study the paranormal. Indeed, David Noble argues in The Religion of Technology that the other-worldly and the technological are deeply intertwined. “For modern technology and modern faith are neither complements nor opposites, nor do they represent succeeding stages of human development. They are merged, and always have been, the technological enterprise being, at the same time, an essentially religious endeavor” (4-5). In Chapter 9 of the book, “The Ascent of the Saints: Space Exploration,” Noble details just how pervasive religion was in the early history of space exploration and NASA. The desire to transcend, to be god-like, is never far from the technological spirit and maybe lies just beneath the surface of Mitchell (Gary, not Edgar), the same force driving him to embrace his higher destiny as a god that drove him to Star Fleet in the first place.

Technology promises us a world of control, a world where we belong because we have made it over in our own image. But living in our technological cocoon is no guarantee that we have control over it, for the realm of the technological, of control, and science is never far removed from the realm of the irrational, the out-of-control, the realm of regression (Sulu: “We have regressed in time, Captain!”) and disintegration, where the best you can hope for is a controlled implosion. The cocoon we’ve built around us can fail at any moment, and sometimes for the most trivial reasons. Complex systems sometimes fall apart. Water sometimes changes into a complex chain of molecules, as Bones discovers. Irishman sometimes get a hankering to play Captain. Stable young men have out-sized desires for deification. And noses sometimes just itch. Spock discovers this the hard way. Beaming down to Psi 2000 he tells Tormolen, “Be certain we expose ourselves to nothing.” But his warning is too late. Control has already been lost, and due to the most mundane of reasons, an itchy nose (a sense that things just don’t smell right). An inexplicable itch of the nose results in a series of events leading to the Enterprise hurling towards a disintegrating planet. And an itch of the nose leads to Spock’s tightly maintained façade of control being shattered, exposed by the love of a nurse who sees things hidden beneath that façade of reason and control.

Nurse Chapel: 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.

Spock: I am in control of my emotion.

Nurse Chapel: Mm. The others believe that. I don’t. No. I love you. I don’t know why, but I love you. I do love you. Just as you are. Oh, I love you.

Spock: I’m sorry. I am sorry.

Spock’s control over his emotions disintegrates in the face of Chapel’s declaration (and the influence of the pathogen). And for that he’s sorry. Or is he sorry that Nurse Chapel loves him? Or maybe he’s sorry that she loves him but doesn’t know why (love is irrational?). Anyhow, he’s sorry that he never expressed his love for his mother and that he’s embarrassed by his friendship for Kirk. And maybe he’s sorry about the limits of science and rationality. It’s Spock the Science Officer who loses control over his emotions, who explains to Kirk, “It’s like nothing we dealt with before,” who reminds McCoy “Instruments register only those things they’re designed to register. Space still contains infinite unknowns,” and who ultimately does the impossible and hurtles the Enterprise into the past, at least 71 hours in the past, making time travel a possibility and raising a host of other metaphysical paradoxes to be explored in future episodes.

While Star Trek is often faulted for its overly simplistic Enlightenment and humanistic vision of the future, several of these posts have already established that the show regularly explored the darker underside of that vision, which never goes away and always threatens to reappear. It’s true that by the end of this episode, a semblance of order has been restored and our crew has the past three days to relive. But as Spock observes at the end, some intriguing possibilities have been raised, and they won’t soon go away. Time travel beckons in the future, but so does Nurse Chapel’s unrequited love and Kirk’s inner demons, as we shall soon see. The madness at the heart of the technological enterprise remains.

July 26, 2009

From Inner Space to External Space

Victor does an admirable job in his post on “Where No Man Has Gone Before” moving from the external to the internal and translating the external conflict between Kirk and Mitchell into a Lacanian/Zizekian meditation on the conflict in inner space (and hasn’t science fiction always been preoccupied with conflict and inner space, from Fantastic Voyage, released around the same time as this ST episode to Innerspace, and many more) and the confrontation of the Real with the Symbolic and Imaginary. As a brief counterpart to his shift to the internal, let’s “keep it real” and situate this episode in terms of some broader trajectories.

It was hard not to watch this episode (and the next, The Naked Time, post coming shortly) without thinking about all the recent hoopla over the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 and discussions over whether we belong in space in or not (should we be going back to the moon? should we go to Mars?). “Where No Man” was produced in 1965, in the midst of the Apollo program (1963 – 1972) and of course gives us the final line that begins “Space…The Final Frontier…” The intrepid crew of the Enterprise is exploring at the limits of the galaxy, a limit that signifies, at least in part, disaster, the disaster of the S.S. Valiant, and potentially the Enterprise itself. Do we human beings belong out at the limits of the galaxy? Are we meant for space? Should this finite, terrestrial creature be pushing out into the void of space?

This question of limits arises in other ways as well. Blogging Star Trek is predicated on the continuing relevance of Star Trek, viewing each episode in light of the present. “Where No Man” raises some interesting questions about the limits of the human, questions currently dominating debate over the posthuman and its implications for our humanity. Can we maintain our humanity as we mutate into the posthuman? Mitchell and Dehner first spar with one another over the question of “improving the breed.” Dehner is cold toward Mitchell until she comes to see in him a better kind of human being: “Don’t you understand? A mutated superior man could also be a wonderful thing. The forerunner of a new and better kind of human being!” We learn that Mitchell’s power is advancing geometrically (shades of Vinge, Kurzweil and the coming Singularity here) and Dehner observes to Kirk, “Before long we'll be where it would've taken mankind millions of years of learning to reach.” But can human beings advance so and yet remain human. As Spock, the voice of logic, suggests, “Soon we’ll not only be useless to him, but actually an annoyance.…In a month, he’ll have as much in common with us as we’d have with a ship full of white mice.” It’s Kirk’s appeal to Dehner’s humanity, “You’re still human…” (and to her profession, as Victor observes) that saves the day.

This question of the limits of the human also comes up in an interesting way in regard to Spock’s status. Spock’s feelings become the center of debate in several key scenes of this episode and the role of the emotions in constituting our humanity is highlighted in an intriguing fashion by Mitchell’s own reading. When Kirk first visits Mitchell in Sick Bay he’s ripping through some of the “great books” he missed reading while at the Academy. On his screen? Spinoza’s Ethics, Part IV: Of Human Bondage or the strength of the emotions, wherein Spinoza writes:

“Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse.”

In my post on “Charlie X” I suggested that Charlie and Spock occupy a similar position and this episode (produced prior to “Charlie X”) reaffirms this by placing Spock in an analogous position to Charlie: loosing at chess and getting irritated by it. Charlie is the bad seed and Spock, Kirk says, has “bad blood.” They’re both outside the circle of humanity, though ambiguously so. And it’s not only Mitchell and Dehner who wrestle with their emotions. Spock too is presented throughout the episode as cold and unemotional, though by the conclusion he admits to having feelings for Mitchell too. Is Spock Spinoza’s ideal? Or maybe it’s Kirk.

Star Trek’s obsessions are both internal as well as external, as it meditates on the Real and the Symbolic, as well as our place in the cosmos and the meaning of our humanity. Questions about the limits of the human and the coming of the posthuman are tied up with questions about our bondage to the emotions. Questions that will continue to preoccupy our intrepid explorers of both internal and external space.

July 3, 2009

"Where No Man Has Gone Before" was the third episode to be broadcast in the first season even though it was filmed before "Man Trap" and "Charlie X." Remnants of the pilot are clearly and, to some extent, embarrassingly visible, with Mr. Spock's elevated angular eyebrows and "loud, crisis voice," velour mock turtle neck uniforms, and the noticeable absence of Dr. McCoy, Mr. Chekov, and Lt. Uhura--even the phasers, especially the phaser rifle that Mr. Spock first wields, look like an archetypal "death ray guns" from a Buck Roger's comic book. Nevertheless, the unique Star Trek "conflict" is fully available to the viewer and developed (multi dimensionally) in the story.
These are the issues as I see them:
1. The Lacanian/Źiźekian "thing from inner space."
2. The Lacanian Real, Symbolic, and Imaginary.
3. The obscene super-ego as god.
The episode begins showing two related disturbances--a chess game and the retrieval of a thing from the void of space. The first disturbance occurs when Kirk, again, beats Spock in a game of chess. His (Kirk's) illogical plays causes Spock to have an "internal" conflict of emotion--he discovers, like the crew members beaming aboard the object, that where there should be nothing, no emotion, for instance, there is something. The conflict with the thing from inner space is further developed when the "object" is brought onboard the Enterprise and determined to contain a partial message. The "object" or recorder-black-box materializes the same way Spocks perturbation appears, without warning from the seeming void of inner-galactic space. This problem of disturbance echoes, like the inter-ship PA system and Mitchell's "voice," throughout the episode as the "thing(s) from inner space," the something where nothing should be, recurs and intrudes in several contexts.
What is the the thing from inner space? It is the impossible central void around which everything is organized. In this sense, the "void" is not some repressed trauma, as it would be for Freud. It is, in fact, nothing. The abyss upon which existence is predicated . . . in a Lacanian sense. Think of how a horror movie functions. The terrifying monster doesn't rise from some expected condition; that is, in bad films, horrifying creatures emerge from black pits that spew smoke and fire or something equally threatening--The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The really scary films, however, show the monster from the unexpected condition, e.g., the alien bursting from an abdomen, a killer from behind a shower curtain, or birds from the sky or a bump on the leg while swimming in a serene ocean. The moment of horror comes when one realizes that there is something where nothing should be. "Where No Man Has Gone Before" introduces this thing from inner space insofar as the real conflict is not external but internal, as we will see.
When the rakish navigator Gary Mitchell, Kirk's "academy buddy," is zapped by some unknown force, he is imbued with super-human, godlike power. Everything associated with this is perfectly predicable--he develops tele-kinetic and super ESP abilities; he has enhanced knowledge and becomes generically powerful. He also becomes evil since absolute power, Kirk observes, corrupts absolutely, as the saying goes. The interesting part, however, is not where all this leads, but where it comes from and how it is, like in "Man Trap," put back in the "bottle."

Let's return to the thing from "inner space." The recorder-object from the Valiant appears in the void of space. Partially present are the "tapes" from the ship's log describing in bits and pieces the demise of the ship. Mr. Spock assembles the fragments and determines that the captain was concerned about ESP (extra sensory perception) and that he issued a "self destruct" order. Luckily, Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, a psychaitrist with ESP abilities and a specialty in crisis behavior, is onboard. She is welcomed by Gary Mitchell with a dismissive reference to a "freezer unit," a.k.a. a dispassionate, sexless, "over-compensating" professional women; certainly not like the mini-skirted "Jones" or "Smith" (doesn't matter, really) that Mitchell holds hands with as the Enterprise is caught in the strange force field barrier separating inner-galactic from outer-galactic space.
Something where nothing should be--this is the point. When the Enterprise enters the barrier the ship's sensors and deflectors are confused--something is both there and not there. After Mitchell is "struck" by the force, the doctor determines that he is in perfect health, absolute perfect health, which means that at one level nothing is there, but that there is something, too--something to explain why there is nothing wrong with him. This harkens back to ESP. Humans can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell (use Axe). In addition, there is purportedly another sense, an extra-sensory sense, e.g. something where nothing should be. Take for instance, an ESP test. I have a card. You cannot see it. No one tells you what it is. You have no way of knowing, by means of the senses, what it is. You call it as a Nine of Clubs. A lucky guess? You call it correctly ten times in a row. How could this be explained? ESP, of course.

Something where nothing should be is "uncanny." Kirk beats Spock in chess. How can this be? It is as if he plays from some unknown source. This first scene echoes throughout the episode as Mitchell gains his powers. Even the "cold" and "sexually dormant" Dr. Dehner becomes sexually aroused by Mitchell and his "superior man" status--his ESP and speed-reading and memorization skills turn her on, as it were.

The thing from inner space brings us closer to the Real. For the most part, we live in (that is, we experience) the Symbolic and the Imaginary. The Real, whatever it is, is there but not fully or even partially available. Kirk's chess playing, the recorder-object, and Mitchell's powers break down the "barrier" (as we first saw in the opening scene) between the Real and the Imaginary and Symbolic. Mitchell's power is not just that he can move cups, create vegetaiton (apples . . . like in the Garden of Eden), or strangle someone from afar. His power is in the fact that he can transcend the Symbolic and the Imaginary or, worse, make the Imaginary the Real--true psychopathology. Before he gets to this point, Kirk, pressured by Spock, must kill him.

When is Mitchell killed? For a number of practical reasons, Kirk doesn't kill him right away. The episode needs to develop a Shatneresque angst and moral conflict. Because of this, Kirk waits too long. And, even as he comes to the decision to kill Mitchell, he can't--he is too powerful. Interestly, however, it is the PSYCHAITRIST, Dr. Dehner, with her latent powers realized, who kills Mitchell by weakening him enough so that Kirk can finally end it. Kirk, of course, prompts her, but it is only after she reflects on her psychiatric training that she decides, calmly and cooly, that he must die. In a sense, just as Charlie X was pure id, Mitchell becomes pure super-ego; that is, the id and the ego become totally consumed by the obscenity of the super-ego--its self-righteous, tyrannical character. Dr. Dehner, almost at full power, since she too was zapped by the force, attacks and manages to exhaust Mitchell. But why? Kirk warns her about "jealous" gods and saving "humanity," but it is after his plea that she think about psychiatry, the "ugly" things that all humans dare not expose, that she seems willing to kill him (Mitchell). Yes, she saves Kirk, but that is almost an after thought. "Morals are for men, not gods" and his demand that Kirk "pray to him" invites a "zap" from Dr. Dehner, which also marks that the Real, under no circumstances, can be made transparently available to the Symbolic/Imaginary. But then, again, there is a twist. In the beginning Dr. Dehner was a human, like Mitchell, with special ESP powers. In the the end, she is a goddess with a fragment of human fraility (selfishness)--it is that "human thing from inner space" (her desire to be goddess alone) that finally causes her to act. In both instances there is a Hegelian return to the human and the necessary condition that the Real be unrepresented.

Mitchell is killed when he is crushed beneath a boulder that fills the grave (abyss) he created for Kirk. The Real as a void is capped and the balanced between the Symbolic and Imaginary is restored once the thing from inner space is covered. Even Dr. Dehner tries to capture the final moral observation when she says, "I'm sorry . . . can't know what it is like to be almost . . . a god." Exactly, can't know what it is like to almost know the Real; which is to say, as a human being you can't (shouldn't) know or that as a human being, caught up in the Symbolic and Imaginary, you just can't (not able) to almost know the Real.

In the end, there are partial things from inner space that we can deal with, such as Spock's "feeling" for Mitchell, and THE thing from inner space we should leave veiled because it is too horrible to face. The most horrible of all is the Real!

June 6, 2009

The Wild Child of Thasus

Victor, Kaspar, Kamala and Amala…Charlie X? There’s long been a fascination with legends of feral children raised by animals and Charlie Evans would seem to be a space-faring, 23rd century take on myths of wolf-children, with this one suckled by computer tapes and Thasians. Stories of children raised by animals go back as early as Zeus, suckled by the she-goat Amalthea and Romulus and Remus, nursed by a wolf.

Perhaps the most famous feral child was the so-called Wild Child of Aveyron, Victor, who first emerged from the woods around Saint-Sernin in 1797, and later was captured in 1800 and became a European sensation. In the hands of the medical doctor Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, Victor became an experimental object in the nature of socialization and the number one subject of Enlightenment debates over nature versus nurture. As Sherry Turkle observed in The Second Self, “The life of the Wild Child became the occasion for what has been called ‘the forbidden experiment,’ the experiment that would reveal what human beings really are beneath the overlay of society and culture. Are people ‘blank slates,’ malleable, infinitely perfectible, or is there a human nature that constrains human possibility? And if there is a human nature, what is it? Are we gentle creatures ill-equipped for the strains of life in society? Or are we brutish and aggressive animals barely tamed by the demands of social life?” (17 – 18, 20th anniversary edition).

Turkle argues that Victor and other wild children are evocative objects, objects good to think with (as is the computer, Turkle argues in both The Second Self and Life on the Screen) and surely this partly accounts for our continuing fascination with feral children. These days they have their own web site (http://www.feralchildren.com), television specials (TLC: “Wild Child: The Story of Feral Children”) and, of course, Oprah segments (“The Little Girl Found Living Like an Animal,” http://www.oprah.com/dated/oprahshow/oprahshow-20081016-feral-child). There’s even a video “In Search of…Wild Children”, narrated by none other than Spock, Leonard Nimoy. As Turkle notes, our fascination with feral children is driven by the fact that these evocative objects touch on some of our most basic questions about what it means to be human. They exist as liminal objects, betwixt and between animal and human, provoking thoughts about where we stand in nature and what distinguishes us from animals. These figures are somewhat monstrous, challenging and upsetting our traditional categories. Such is the case of Charlie X.

The 17 year old Charlie Evans is the sole survivor of a transport ship that crashed on the planet Thasus. For fourteen years he grew up there alone, learning to talk, he suggests, from the ship’s memory banks. After picking him up from the cargo ship Antares, the Enterprise is transporting him to Alpha V where the child has family. Almost immediately Charlie takes a liking to Yeoman Janice Rand (the first girl he has ever seen) and McCoy and Kirk debate who is going to serve as the boy’s father figure. Charlie is awkward around other human beings and clearly doesn’t understand how to act, especially towards women. His desire to be liked and his discomfort with others manifests itself in troubling behavior and Charlie is implicated in the destruction of the Antares, the mysterious appearance of turkeys in the cook’s kitchen, and some melting chess pieces. As Charlie’s advances on Rand are spurned, his actions turn more deadly. Crew members are made to “go away,” and he eventually takes over the ship, challenging Kirk’s command and wreaking havoc on the crew. Eventually, Charlie’s adolescent rampage is halted by the appearance of the mysterious Thasians. It’s the Thasians who gave Charlie his power and who now take him away, restoring order on the Enterprise.

Almost immediately as Charlie Evans makes his appearance on the Enterprise, we learn that he is special, he’s both a feral child and not a feral child, though he raises the same kinds of questions that all feral children raise. The first words out of Charlie Evan’s mouth are “How many humans like me on this ship?” A very ambiguous question coming from a child who should not be speaking. A central concern with almost all the feral children encountered in the literature is their capacity to speak, or lack thereof. Dr. Itard spent a lifetime, well Victor’s lifetime any way, trying to teach Victor to speak and teaching language to the mute feral children was thought to be vitally important in trying to capture some sense of their interior life as animal children. But Charlie shows up speaking! We learn, at least initially, that unlike most feral children supposedly suckled and nurtured by wolves, Charlie is raised by ship’s computers. He spent practically his whole life alone with only a few microtapes to learn from. So Charlie can speak and he wants to know how many humans like him are on the ship. Well it turns out exactly none.

While Charlie can speak, his status as feral is suggested in other ways. He doesn’t understand the ritual of the hand shake. He’s unfamiliar with the automatic doors of the Enterprise. And he’s never seen a girl before. As Yeoman Rand appears in the Transporter Room, Charlie asks, “Are you a girl? Is that a girl?” Kirk is almost immediately placed in the role of the father figure to Charlie, first admonishing him for interrupting and later counseling him in regard to girls and teaching him the rituals of manly aggression (in pink spandex!). But poor Charlie just doesn’t fit in, as he himself recognizes. “Everything I do or say is wrong. I’m in the way. I don’t know the rules. And when I learn something and try to do it, suddenly I’m wrong. I don’t know what I am or what I’m supposed to be, or even who. I don’t know why I hurt so much inside all the time.” While Kirk suggests that “there’s nothing wrong with you that hasn’t gone wrong with every other human male since the model first came out,” it’s clear that Charlie isn’t simply “every other human male.”

Charlie’s unusual status as betwixt-and-between the human is underscored by his link to Spock, recognized if perhaps only implicitly by Uhura. She’s still seemingly cast in her role from the first episode as Spock’s temptress and while he plays away on the Vulcan Lyre, she freestyles a little ditty:

On the starship Enterprise,

there’s someone who’s in Satan’s guise,

whose devil ears and devil eyes

could rip your heart from you.

At first his look could hypnotize,

and then his touch would barbarize.

His alien love could victimize

and rip your heart from you.

And that’s why female astronauts,

oh very female astronauts

wait terrified and overwrought to find what he will do.

(As she points to Spock, the rest of the crew laughing)

Oh girls in space be wary,

be wary, be wary.

Girls in space be wary.

We know not what he’ll do.

Girls in space need be wary not only of Charlie (he turns poor drab Tina into a lizard) but of the satanic Spock. Uhura draws the necessary link between the two as she turns her attention to Charlie, singing:

Now from a planet out in space

there comes a lad not commonplace

a-seeking out his first embrace.

He is saving it for you,

(as Uhura and the camera looks at Rand in a soft focus).

Oh Charlie’s our new darling, our darling, our darling…

We know not what he’ll do.

With both feral children and monstrous mixes of humans and Vulcans, “we know not what they’ll do.” Spock and Charlie share a kind of monstrous nature, being neither human nor clearly inhuman. They both raise the question of what it means to be human and, for the moment, our starship leaders are ill-equipped to decide the manner, as evidenced by their own ponderings:

Kirk: What chance is there that Charlie isn’t an Earth being, that he’s a Thasian?

McCoy: No I don’t think so. Not unless they’re exactly like earthlings. The development of his fingers and toes exactly matches the present development of man’s on Earth.

McCoy’s understanding of what it means to be an “Earth being” is a bit thin. Fingers and toes aren’t going to cut it (Spock, after all, doesn’t have cloven hooves). In fact, Kirk and McCoy spend a lot of the episode precisely trying not to talk about what makes us human and what keeps Charlie on the outside. They bicker like two beleaguered parents over who is going to take charge of Charlie’s socialization. Kirk eventually becomes the Dr. Itard to Charlie’s Victor, but is continuously tongue-tied and stuttering when it comes to talking to Charlie about sexuality, romance, and the treatment of women. It’s as if the lack of speech characteristic of the feral child is transferred to the good doctor, urgh Captain, when it comes to the topic of sex.

While much is made in this episode of Charlie’s adolescent sexuality, it’s another trait that I think is ultimately important to defining our humanity and that the show points to in its climactic scene of encounter with the truly alien Thasians (who resemble something of the Wizard from the Wizard of Oz).

Kirk: The boy belongs with his own kind.

Thasian: That would be impossible.

Kirk: With training we can teach him to live in our society. If he can be taught not to use his power.

Thasian: We gave him the power so he could live. He will use it…always. And he would destroy you and your kind. Or you would be forced to destroy him to save yourselves. We offer him life. And we will take care of him. Come Charles.

Charlie: Don’t let them take me. I can’t even touch them. Janice. They can’t feel. Not like you. They don’t love. I want to stay stay stay stay…

It’s not sex that Charlie has missed out on, it’s touch, feel, love. Kirk and the Thasian disagree on what kind Charlie belongs to. Kirk suggests he belongs to his own (presumably human) kind, while the Thasian suggests Charlie would “destroy you and your own kind,” suggesting implicitly that Charlie is not of Kirk’s kind. He’s not human. He’s mastered speech (unlike most wild children) but in the absence of human touch, he hasn’t mastered human feelings and love. Ultimately, Charlie’s inhumanity is borne from a lack of care and touch. The stern old Thasian (intent on formality with Charles, not Charlie) can’t provide human warmth. In this regard, there’s another similarity between our wild child and the half human, half Vulcan Spock. Both lack feelings (the only way to get poetry out of Spock is to force it out of him, alas for poor Uhura). As such, their humanity is up for question.

May 20, 2009

The Man Trap Redux

Victor’s post get’s this blog off to a terrific start, demonstrating the validity of returning to Star Trek, underscoring its continuing relevance to cultural philosophy, and establishing how in the space of 50 minutes conventional television (and Star Trek is perhaps nothing other than conventional television, which is hardly a slur) can raise complex metaphysical, epistemological, and psychoanalytic questions. He nicely ties together several key scenes from “The Man Trap,” including the status of Nancy/the(a) Woman/Monster, Uhura’s failed seduction of Spock, Yeoman Rand’s fantasy status, and yes, even buffalo (more about that later). He ends, though, with the thought that “The Man Trap” ends with order restored: “With ‘Nancy’s’ annihilation, order is restored…”. Here I want to quibble. What can it mean to restore order when you’re exploring the final frontier, searching out the new? There’s more ambivalence here than the death of a monster can put to rest. Ambivalence that resides in the botany lab in the form of an alien female cock. Let’s set the scene.

Yeoman Janice Rand is being pursued by Ensign Green, who “in reality” is the salt monster. Green’s lusting after Rand’s table salt provokes a rebuke from her: “Who do you think you are?” This is an interesting question to ask of the salt monster, who seemingly becomes what others desire, who responds to others' strong feelings, and plays both sides of the fence, male and female. The monster’s indeterminate nature is sharply contrasted at precisely this moment by Rand’s very clearly determined nature. Coming out of an elevator, Rand encounters two leering crewmen:

Crewmen 1: Janice is that for me? (is he referring to the tray of food or to her sex?)

Rand: Don’t you wish it was? (is she referring to the tray of food or to her sex?)

Crewmen 1 to Crewmen 2: How’d you like to have her for your own personal yeoman?

Rand just is the feminine sex object. No ambiguity here. Rand walks into the botany lab where Sulu is working and addresses one of his plants:

Rand: Hello Beauregard. How are you today?

Sulu: Her name’s Gertrude.

Rand: No it’s a he plant. A girl can tell

Sulu: Why do people have to call inanimate objects she, like she’s a fast ship?

Rand: He is not an inanimate object. He’s so animate, he makes me nervous. In fact, I keep expecting one of these plants of yours to grab me.

Green enters the botany lab and, approaching the plant, it’s driven crazy by his presence. The plant shrinks down inside its protective layers and as Sulu murmurs to it (“Take it easy. Calm down.”) and strokes it, it stiffens up and pushes out of its protective sleeve. While Sulu insists the plant is female, it emerges like some monstrous alien cock (Janice, is that for me?), responding to his soft caresses. Is it Beauregard or Gertrude? Or neither? The plant resists the conventional order of male/female, even perhaps animate/inanimate. An order that Yeoman Rand all too nicely fits, placed their by her ogling shipmates.

The plant occupies a position tantalizingly analogous to the other members of the alien ménage of trois of “The Man Trap,” the monster, neither male nor female, and Spock, who fails to respond to Uhura’s script of seduction (“Vulcan has no moon.”). What’s alien is what challenges sexuality, what challenges our given categories of male and female, doesn’t play by the rules, frustrates our sexual scripts. Nancy is the active one, pursuing McCoy, desiring him, laying him down and having her way with him. His sexuality is questioned—even Kirk claims he shouldn’t be thinking with his glands but “be more like Spock,” whose glands remain tightly in the control of his brain, much to Uhura’s chagrin. Indeed, everything alien in the episode resists our traditional gender expectations. But then by this measure, even the human beings in Star Trek are somewhat alien, for even red-blooded male desire is frustrated and punished. Darnell, we learn, spent some time on Ripley’s Pleasure Planet (just what goes on there—a whole planet devoted to pleasure?) and for his indiscretion has to die at the hands of the blonde he was pursuing there.

Kirk too, in this regard, occupies an ambivalent position. As Captain Kirk first materializes in American homes, materializing on planet M-113 in this first aired episode, he’s playful with McCoy, they’re trading secrets about pursuing girl friends, and Kirk, reminding McCoy that he should bring flowers, presents him with a bunch of desiccated stems, romancing the good Doctor. Give the girl a bunch of dried up flowers. Later, though, Kirk is downright gruff with McCoy, upbraiding him for thinking with his glands. Is he in a jealous pique? The ambivalence of Kirk’s desire is underscored by what I take to be a central mystery of the episode: why does the monster appear to Kirk as McCoy’s lost love? Is Kirk himself empty of desire? Can the monster not get a read on his desire? It’s a mystery.(Kirk: " It's a mystery, and I don't like mysteries. They give me a bellyache, and I've got a beauty right now.")

So while one form of alien desire is rooted out and annihilated, others remain, potentially to provide more bellyaches for Captain Kirk. The problem doesn’t quite disappear. Something like those mysterious buffalo, extinct and yet still an object of thought. “I was thinking of the buffalo Mr. Spock," says Kirk pensively, in the final scene from the episode.

Up Next: "Charlie X."

May 12, 2009

The Man Trap

To boldly write where no entity has written before . . . or so we hope.

Why would anyone want to blog about Star Trek? Hasn't everything been said already? Well, "no" to the second question, which then answers the first. We believe that there is more to be said about the original series, especially when we view the episode in the context of the present. In other words, we are attempting to see these episodes in a "new light" with the benefit of cultural philosophy.

The idea for this blog came about when Dennis and I were talking about various notions of human nature. I mentioned to him that some recent studies suggest that certain genes are actually activated by social conditions; that is, as human beings, we have all these "dormant" genes that, given the right social circumstances, could emerge and become active. The example I gave was from Star Trek when Spock and McCoy travel back in time and Spock begins to like the taste of "animal flesh" and finds Mariette Hartley, in the discourse of the 60s, not that bad of a "dish" either. So, we thought, what are the "genes" in Star Trek that become "activated" in our context--ideas, themes, conflicts that were dormant in the 60s that are active now?

I also need to provide a disclaimer here. This is a blog, so I'm not going to write in a scholarly format. Most of my readings of Star Trek will be "theoretical," a lot of Lacan and Zizek--only a few extended arguments and many observations. I'll point to the fuller works, but I'm not going to explicate the texts or work through the concepts in great detail. Basically, I'm going to "apply" certain Lacanian or Zizekian formulae to the episodes and wait to see what happens, if anything.


The Man Trap.

The Man Trap is a Lacanian's dream or nightmare, if one is different from the other. What do we have? We have a perfect example of Lacan's "There is no woman" (which means that there is no "the" woman). Woman for Lacan is a symptom of man and The Man Trap provides a very interesting narrative in which this "symptom of man" is revealed, with destructive consequences.

Visiting planet M113, the site of a long dead civilization, the Enterprise team is scheduled to conduct "routine" medical exams of archaelogist Robert Crater and his wife Nancy. Capt. Kirk's opening narration, however, mentions one important detail that makes the routine check-up anything but "routine"--Nancy Crater, Robert Crater's wife, is for Dr. McCoy that "one woman in Dr. McCoy's past." What is a "one woman"? A "one woman" is that woman for man that holds the place of the ideal--that subject through which all other woman-subjects are read (Mother?). The "one woman" is also the "missing woman" or the "woman that does not exist" as anything other than a man's symptom. In short, "the man trap" is set when the man confuses his "one woman" with "a woman," which is what happens to McCoy. In many ways, this episode can be seen as potentially misogynist, with the two men, McCoy and Crater, fighting over their perceived property. It is as if the archeaological context for the episode is creating a "genetic response" in both man over whose property rights are more "original." McCoy loved her "first," but Crater loved her "better" or so it would seem.

McCoy's first encounter with Nancy points to his internalized sense of idealization. When he sees her, she appears not to have "aged a day," which is true since she is, in fact, a "reflection" of McCoy's memory. Kirk, however, sees her not as a youngish twenty something "desired object," but as an aged woman, wrinkles, graying hair, and a weather worn complexion. And, Crewman Darnell sees her an "attractive" young blonde (his lost object: a prostitute he had met on another planet, presumedly). How is this different from the typical stereotyped example of "one man's treasure is another man's trash" and vice versa? What McCoy doesn't know is that "his" Nancy is dead and that the "Nancy" that appears before him is a hideous, shape-shifting salt-sucking murderer, but we'll address this later.

Let's briefly, set this up in Lacanian terms via Zizek.

In "Woman is One of the Names-of-the-Father," Zizek describes Lacan's understanding of the formula of sexuation. As an example he cites, in typical Zizekian fashion, a beer ad. In the ad "a girl walks along a stream, sees a frog, takes it gently into her lap, kisses it, and of course the ugly frog miraculously turns into a beautiful young man. However, the story isn't over yet: the young man casts a covetous glance at the girl, draws her towards him, kisses her and she turns into a bottle of beer." In this sense, all women become, through the male gaze, "bottles of beer." However, in The Man Trap, there is twist. The problem is not that the male gaze converts women into objects of desire, no; it is that woman, herself, is a creature that instigates the man's perception: Nancy, in a sense, never existed. She was and is (as a creature) an empty subject who/that is ready to assume the desired-image of any man. She, like all women supposedly, are "man traps." This is confirmed when Lt. Uhura engages Mr. Spock in a flirtatious conversation, asking him to seduce her with tales of Vulcan's moon. When Spock, as logical as always, tells her that Vulcan has no moon, Uhura breaks off her conversation and thus abandoning the setting of the "man trap."

The failed seduction of Spock leads to an interesting scene in "sick bay" where McCoy and Kirk try to figure out what killed crewman Darnell. "Nancy" said that he ate a poisonous planet, but McCoy, back on the ship, cannot find evidence of poisoning. What we see here is a attempt to decode a symptom; first, the molding (suction marks) on Darnell's face and then, by implication, the gap between "appearance" and "reality"; in other words, the death of Darnell and the attempt to solve the mystery mirrors the "man trap"--there is an appearance, but there is a reality and the two must be distinguished, as Spock did with Uhura.

Throughout the episode, we are reminded of this division between the Real and the Appearance (Lacan would frame it as Real/Imaginary/Symbolic). McCoy seems most susceptible to this difficulty in differentiating the two--even to the point where Kirk tells him to "stop thinking with your glands." It is as if the entire metaphysical space becomes reduced to the moment when "Nancy" can be seen as the creature, when the "there is no woman" becomes real. This occurs in the final segment of the episode when "Nancy," appearing as a crewman Green, boards the Enterprise. She/he stalks yeoman Janice and other male members of the crew ogle her she delivers a tray to Sulu in the botony section. The subtext of all the conversation is sex and fantasy--wouldn't you like to have her as your "personal yeoman?"; "I keep expecting one of these plants of yours to grab me (in sexual assault)." Even Uhura gets what she wants when "Nancy" appears as a handsome crewman--someone she was thinking about.

The "lost object" of desire that we see in the beginning of the episode becomes a more generalized lost object--the lost object of reality. When "Nancy" can become any woman, any man and then any "thing," the entire "symbolic order" is riped away, leaving the crew of the Enterprise "trapped" in radical epistemological/metaphysical uncertainty--how do we know that what we see is real? This seems to re-present Plato's bipartitioned world, but there is a catch. The appearance is the reality; that is in Lacanian/Zizekian discourse the real is not that which lies behind the appearance; the real is the appearance of the appearance itself, a Hegelian totality of emptiness.

The final scene in which "Nancy" tries to kill Kirk (the symbolic order) shows the "real" issue of the trap. McCoy is trapped in his imaginary world, unable to shoot "his Nancy" even if it means saving Kirk's life. Spock violently attacks her, striking her with two clenched hands to no avail. Finally, McCoy, confused, fires on "Nancy." She drops and tranforms in to the idealization image that first appeared to him. McCoy's says "Lord forgive me" and fires one last time. After he kills "Nancy," the creature appears . . . dead on the floor. The Real is preserved insofar as the problem of appearance disappears--the lost object returns to being lost and Kirk reinstates the symbolic order by saying "I'm sorry." Sorry for what? Breaking the "beer bottle" that was "Nancy"?

What begins as a problem of sexuation ends as a problem of metaphysics and epistemology. With "Nancy's" annihilation, order is restored and "man" can go back to projecting "the woman" onto "a woman" or the Real onto a real. "Nancy" dies and the symptom lives on. In the end, "Nancy" was just a "buffalo" and the problem of the lost object disappears.

March 29, 2009

Blogging Star Trek

“Like you’ve never seen or experienced it before”

Is it time for a return to origins? To see perhaps like we’ve never seen before? What could it mean to see like we’ve never seen before? If television taught us to see, can it as well teach us to see like we’ve never seen before?

The next few months brings both the forty year anniversary of Star Trek’s demise (Now denominated “The Original Series.” There are no longer any simple returns. “Star Trek” no longer exists. Now it’s “The Original Series.”) and the re-introduction of Star Trek (J. J. Abrams’ “reboot” of the franchise). Or should we say the re-re-introduction of Star Trek, following the short-lived Enterprise.

Along the way, CBS has released the “re-mastered” series, holding out the promise that we’ll see the series like we’ve never seen it before, at least if you’re lucky enough (or perhaps misfortunate enough) to have invested in a HD DVD player, Toshiba’s now abandoned high definition format. Surely there’s something ironic in the promise of seeing like we’ve never seen before via a technology that no longer exists. The promise remains just a promise.

Events conspire to force a return and rethinking of Star Trek: The Original Series, questioning what it means to see Star Trek, to experience it, as it’s not yet been seen or experienced. In the forty years since it went off the air it begat a cultural phenomenon: multiple series, movies, books, and critical appraisals. The same years saw a blossoming in critical perspectives and theories, from postmodernism to postcolonialism, Foucault to Baudrillard to Zizek,
media studies to science and technology studies. Science fiction itself has undergone its own rethinking over the years, emerging since Star Trek’s original broadcast dates as a more dominant cultural force in the popular media and a more respectable, maybe even serious, genre in academia. Witness both the popular and critical success enjoyed by Ronald Moore’s reimagining of Battlestar Gallactica, which only goes to show that even the lamest sci-fi TV show can be re-thought. And of course, there’s more than one way to return to and re-think or re-imagine a TV show, and not all of them involve special effects budgets and a network, even a second-rate cable network.

Returning then to the original series, how do we see and experience it beneath these multiple layers of cultural sedimentation? Does the originary text become something new forty years out? Is it time to rethink Star Trek, to exercise a return to origins? Blogging Star Trek seeks to pose these questions through enacting a return to the original series, watching all 79 episodes in order of their original broadcast date, and trying perhaps to see them like they’ve never been seen before.

We’re fans but not simply fans. Too much written about Star Trek is written from the fan’s perspective. And too often Star Trek is treated simply as entertainment, grist for a hyper media-dominated society obsessed with celebrity, opening box offices, and market share. When Star Trek is approached critically, this or that acclaimed episode or this or that egregious case of ___ (here you can name if not flog your dead horse: sexism, liberal humanism, colonialism, racism, technophilia-ism) is selected and the rest of the series is relegated to the dustbins of some fan-boy’s basement archive. Or an episode is cited to illustrate some philosophical notion or other. Seldom is the effort made to come to grips with the full run of the series.

So we propose a return to the original, a return to Star Trek, blogging our way through Star Trek by subjecting ourselves to each of its 79 episodes, taking the full measure of the series, and inquiring about the meaning of Star Trek today. Whether you're new to Star Trek or a long time fan, we hope you will find these posts illuminating and stimulating and that they will perhaps provoke your own efforts at seeing Star Trek like it's never been seen before, perhaps going where no one (let's be gender neutral) has gone before. We invite you to share with us your critical perspectives as we blog our way through Star Trek.

Coming Next: "The Man Trap"