Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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Baudrillard and Trek-nology (Or Everything I Know I Learned From Watching Star Trek and Reading Jean Baudrillard), by Alan N. Shapiro

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Baudrillard and Trek-nology (Or Everything I Know I Learned From Watching Star Trek and Reading Jean Baudrillard)1

Alan N. Shapiro
(Frankfurt am Main, Germany)

We should be greatly mistaken were we to view science fiction as an escape from everyday reality: on the contrary, it is an extrapolation from the irrational tendencies of that reality through the free exercise of narrative invention.2

I. Introduction

It was my childhood in New York in the late 1960s. As a good Jew, I was supposed to acquire a Jewish education. But instead I loved Star Trek. Everything I know I learned from watching Star Trek. Among other things, I learned to love science. This made me a good American. So I went to the elite technology university. But I didn’t like the complicity of science with the Vietnam War that existed there. So I dropped out. I was radicalized. I then went to the elite humanities university. But the American radical thinkers were all Marxists. Then I read Jean Baudrillard’s book The Mirror of Production. I grasped that Marx was not radical enough.3 Everything I know I learned from reading Baudrillard. Later I tried to practice a compromise between technology and the humanities known as sociology. Then I read Baudrillard’s book In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. There he says that sociologists, just like marketing executives and politicians, want to socialize the masses. But the masses resist by going silent and “playing dead.”4 They disappear into over-consumption and fandom.

The disappearing act of today is techno-culture, or more precisely, Star Trek. Star Trek is the most prevalent “icon” of techno-culture. Physicists, engineers, computer programmers, graphic artists, and media practitioners are its adamant fans. But the Star Trek industry neutralizes Star Trek‘s original creativity. It programs an automatic system of endless simulated differences, to ensure that viewers will never be able to see any true other. That is why I read Star Trek against Star Trek. Through doubling and decentering, I parodistically map Baudrillard’s system of thought onto Star Trek.5 On two levels, there is an uncanny resemblance between Baudrillard and Star Trek. First, there is an exact correspondence between Baudrillard’s keywords and the principles of “The Original Series” Star Trek episodes: radical uncertainty, recognition of otherness, accident and surprise of technology, symbolic exchange, the dual relationship. Second, there are the pataphysical science fiction technologies: the transporter, warp speed, time travel, the Holodeck. These Trek-nologies are based on quantum physics uncertainty and chaos theory complexity. By applying pressure at both ends – Star Trek as literature, Star Trek as wily technologies – there is a double-strategy of adding a little “critical theory” real and speaking only in this “fatal theory” futuristic language. Now please follow me to explore strange new worlds in outer space. Let us consider a few Star Trek episodes and technologies up close, starting with virtual reality.

II. Treknology

The Holodeck is the most famous virtual reality system, created in the 1990s for the series Star Trek: The Next Generation. But this post-television technology merely brings to fruition total visual information and leads to the end of aesthetic illusion. By contrast, the invention of virtual reality in the original Star Trek episodes of the 1960s artistically embodies Baudrillard’s principles of radical uncertainty, the vital illusion, and the surprise of technology.

In the episode “Shore Leave,” Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy enter the virtual reality system of the Amusement Park Planet by chance and without knowing what it is. They encounter mysterious and enchanting physical appearances from their daydreams which play on the tension between real and imaginary. At the beginning of the episode, McCoy leads an away team scouting a planet with no apparent life-forms. He is alone for just a moment when a four-foot tall white rabbit appears, then disappears again into a deep hole in the ground. Dumbfounded, the Doctor motions towards the hole when Alice (from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) appears and asks if he has seen a large white rabbit come along. At the same time, Kirk sees an old schoolmate named Finnegan whom he owes a day of reckoning. Kirk runs after Finnegan. When he at last catches up with him, it occurs to Kirk that he has no idea how Finnegan has gotten here. Captain’s Log, Stardate 3025.8: “We are seeing things that cannot possibly exist, yet they are undeniably real.”

The episode “A Taste of Armageddon” is a perfect parallel to Baudrillard’s thesis in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place that “we are no longer in an Aristotelean logic of passage from the virtual to the actual, but in a hyperreal logic of deterrence of the real by the virtual.”6 The explanation of Anan-Seven of the Planetary Division of Control to Captain Kirk is interrupted by an air raid siren. “Vendikar is attacking.” A Council chamber wall slides open to reveal a War Room, filled with mainframe computers and illuminated graphs. Anan tells Kirk that a vicious onslaught has just been carried out by the ruthless adversary. A half-million people were killed. In spite of all the talk of annihilation, scans by Yeoman Tamura’s tricorder indicate no bomb blasts or radiation disturbances anywhere on the planet. The War of the Worlds is waged entirely by computer simulation. After a cyberwar program determines which inhabitants have been terminated in a given virtual explosion, “deaths are registered.” The designated victims have twenty-four hours to report to a disintegration machine. As in America’s wars, those who actually die are the Data Trash ejected by the war video game.7 These shadow-people furnish the necessary dose of reality-effect. The hyperreal simulation of war is above all a method of domination of Western citizens by their states and institutional elites, embedded in the power system of the virtual spaces of the media. America is a simulacral power engaged in the simulacrum of war, using the Other as a convenient alibi for its perfect crime.

To practice a radical “after sociology” “after Baudrillard,” we must bring together critical theory and fatal theory. As Rex Butler says in his indispensable book Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real, we must devise a way of writing about a system that follows its internal logic to the end, adds nothing to it, yet inverts it entirely. This écriture is totally specific to each system examined.8 In the case of Star Trek, we must unify Star Trek as literature and Star Trek as wily technologies. Later, in the context of the most famous Trek-nology – the transporter, I demonstrate how these two analyses come together. Before getting into the implications of “beam me up Scotty,” I want to briefly discuss two other Trek-nologies: time travel and warp speed. The latter is the Star Trek synonym for faster-than-light speed.

III. Real (Pata)physics

A surprising amount of theoretical physics research is directed towards establishing the scientific prerequisites for time travel. As defined by Alfred Jarry, whom Baudrillard often cites with good humor, pataphysics is the painstaking elaboration of imaginary scientific solutions, expressed in persuasive language.9 “Exotic theories” about the workability of time travel are today furiously debated in serious physics journals. About fifteen new scholarly papers a year are published on the subject.10

IV. Evil Protects Us

The necessary accident of the duplicate Kirk turns a questioning spotlight on the “essence” or punctum of the transporter, which is the absolutist phantasmagoria of total knowledge of a person captured in a digital pattern image or quantum physics snapshot of their subatomic particles. It is the dream of a human being understandable entirely through her information, identical to herself, and leading a completely knowable existence. As Baudrillard writes:

Evil protects us from the worst-case scenario… We are traditionally sensitive to the threat which the ‘forces of Evil’ pose for the Good, whereas it is the threat posed by the forces of Good which is the fateful threat to the world of the future. …We are on course for the perfect crime, perpetrated by Good and in the name of Good, for the implacable perfection of the technical, artificial universe which will see the accomplishment of all our desires, of a world unified by the elimination of all anti-bodies. This is our negentropic phantasm of total information. That all matter should become energy and all energy information. …That all genes should be operational…11

V. Conclusion

Baudrillard admonished the Simulationist and Appropriationist artists of the 1980s (Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine and Peter Halley), who sought legitimacy for their works by making reference to his writings on simulation, simulacra, and the end of the real.12 But the referent has “long ago” been substituted by the sign. “If you take Baudrillard seriously,” he told them, then “you must forget Baudrillard.”13 Academic attempts at “applying deconstruction” have also seemed notoriously contrived. By identifying Star Trek as a “media precognition” of Baudrillard (as Stefan Höltgen commented earlier at this symposium); and by writing about “what I love”; via a mutual anagrammatizing that finally renders Baudrillard and Star Trek indistinguishable; and through performing the illusion, joy, poetics, irony, disappearance and Trojan horse strategies outlined in Baudrillard’s essay “Radical Thought,” I have engaged in an experiment to cross over from French theory to American hyper-reality.14 I hope I have avoided the missteps of the Simulationist artists in my effort to contribute to an understanding of the emergence of the “Baudrillard turn.”

Notes

1 – This paper was presented at the Baudrillard and the Arts: A Tribute to His 75th Birthday. A Symposium at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, on July 16-18, 2004. It has been translated from the German by the author. See:

2 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c1968). New York: Verso, 1996:119.

3 – Jean Baudrillard. The Mirror of Production. St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975. Translated by Mark Poster.

4 – Jean Baudrillard. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities …Or The End of the Social. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983. Translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and John Johnston. See also “Forget Baudrillard: An Interview with Sylvère Lotringer” in Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault, Forget Baudrillard. Semiotext(e), New York 1987:104.

5 – Alan N. Shapiro. Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance. Berlin: AVINUS Verlag, 2004.

6 – Jean Baudrillard. La Guerre du Golfe n’a pas eu lieu. Paris: Editions Galilée, 1991:15. my translation.

7 – Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein. Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

8 – Rex Butler. Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real. London: SAGE, 1999:120. See also Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:150. Translated by Chris Turner.

9 – Alfred Jarry. Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien, suivi de L’Amour Absolu. Paris: Gallimard, 1980.

10 – See, for example: Steven Hawking  “Space and Time Warps“.

11 – Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:92, 99.

12 – Rachel Greene. Internet Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004:26-7.

13 – Comment made by Jean Baudrillard during the main panel discussion at this symposium (see Note 1).

14 – Stefan Höltgen. in Nach dem Film, September, 2004.  Jean Baudrillard, “Radical Thought,” in The Perfect Crime. London: Verso, 1996:94-105. Translated by Chris Turner.

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