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.

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