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.

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