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.