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

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Star Trek: How the New Comes into the World

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Most scientists, academics, and journalists who write about Star Trek claim to be fans and lovers of the various Starfleet Captains and their crews. But their customary methodologies function to deny to Star Trek its true originality as the creator of a reality-shaping “science fiction” that formatively influences culture, ideas, technologies, and even “hard sciences” like physics. Some book authors repeat the well-worn truism that Star Trek is a great modern mythology. Others follow the paradigm of The Science of Star Trek, substituting their own particular field of expertise for the word “Science” in that formula. This is exactly the opposite of clearing a path to the perception that Star Trek actively affects technoscience and techno-culture. It holds Star Trek in the weaker position of being “tested” against an established body of knowledge to see if it “measures up” on a scale of feasibility or correctness. The possibility that Star Trek is the lively initiator of a “new real” is thereby eliminated in advance.

What is the “essence” of Star Trek as a vigorously imprinting science fiction is for us a question still to be answered. To gain knowledge about something that we instinctively sense to be “inaugural” or “instituting,” we must be willing to lose something that we already know with systematic certainty, to voluntarily dispose of erudition that we acquired with the instruments of fixed scholarly categories. We must stay keenly aware of the elusiveness of the object under study and the sought after apprehension. We must strive to see the object of the investigation as non-comparable with what we already know, and non-exchangeable in the currency of existing wisdom. Our goal is to learn Star Trek‘s internal and underlying logic. As a singularity, Star Trek can only be grasped through an exploration that is carried out in Star Trek‘s own terms. But we ironically do not know at the outset what these “own terms” are. Acknowledging this paradox leaves us with a seemingly daunting task, but it remains possible to take a few intuitions or “direct perceptions” as our starting point. We can begin from recognition of the core questions that are asked by others who write about Star Trek.

There are two burning intellectual questions about Star Trek that pervade the existing literature and also engage us here. Why is Star Trek so popular? What are we to make of Star Trek‘s futuristic technologies? Each of these two questions is addressed by a corresponding series of books “about Star Trek” which either offers a recurrent answer (“Star Trek is a superb mythology”) or employs an inherited methodological prototype (“The Science of Star Trek“) that we find to be unsatisfactory. For the present study, not only is each of the two questions independently interesting, but we also search for an adequate answer to the first question in order to fruitfully answer the second one. We love Star Trek and we are technologists. We inhabit a technological “lifeworld.” If we are able to understand why we love Star Trek – to name certain basic principles, artistic and ethical values, or a single intricate thread within its “universe” that captures our adherence as “true fans” – then it will become clear what our attitude towards Star Trek‘s “imaginary” technologies should be. This is simply a matter of being consciously consistent. It is also critically important for our near future in late capitalist societies. Star Trek‘s futuristic technologies are our own twenty-first century technologies in development. When we have comprehended exactly why we “believe in” Star Trek – what the moral, aesthetic, philosophical, and techno-scientific grounding of our partisanship really is – then we will know exactly which tenets to reapply to our work as technologists, media practitioners, electronic artists, or thinkers about technology.

Why Is Star Trek So Popular?

What accounts for Star Trek‘s mass appeal and extraordinary success? What explains its paramount standing in our culture? How can we interpret its “strange attraction”? This question is often asked, but it has never satisfactorily been answered, not by science or television journalists, and least of all by academic specialists in the humanities, popular culture, or technology studies. The answer most often given is that Star Trek is a fully accomplished modern mythology or great saga. It is an entirely cohesive “multiverse” of absorbing characters and manifold alien species; streamlined outer space travel and the harmonious United Federation of Planets; or admirable creed of liberal humanism and multiculturalism that is optimistic about the future.

For Jeff Greenwald in his book Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth (1998), the unprecedented “phenomenon” of Star Trek is attributed to its being the “first great mythology” for a worldwide audience, a “global myth” for an era of globalization. For Thomas Richards in The Meaning of Star Trek (1997), myth is a principal constituent of the completely “coherent universe” that is Star Trek. It is a “modern epic” that Richards compares to Homer’s Iliad. For Jon Wagner and Jan Lundeen in the well-written Deep Space and Sacred Time (1998), the amazing “scope and longevity” of Star Trek is explained by its being a “secular American mythology” or “mythic reference point” for American society. In Star Trek: Parallel Narratives (1999), Chris Gregory calls Star Trek an interconnected “mythological system.”

The prevalent answer in terms of “fully coherent universe,” “finished mythology,” or “consummate myth” is at the same time accurate and insufficiently illuminating. It does not pay attention to three significant aspects of the “meaning of Star Trek” riddle that a more comprehensive inquiry must come to grips with. What is the role of the Star Trek “culture industry” in elaborating the “fully coherent universe”? What is the nature of the original creativity of seminal Star Trek stories that the “finished mythology” is built on? What is the fan’s subjective experience as a viewer then “reteller” of a specific Star Trek story or episode that especially touches and moves her, and which is such a vital piece of the making of a “consummate myth” or forceful fiction? Surely these three elements are indispensable to any attempt to seize the internal and basic logic of Star Trek.

The Star Trek “Culture Industry”

The books that provide the accustomed account in terms of “mythology” or highly revered “completeness” all suffer from blindness to the “recombinant” industrial reproduction of contemporary consumer culture. These interpretations ignore the process of Borg-like “assimilation” or “neutralization” of the science fictional creativity of charismatically original Star Trek stories into a “mythology” that we prefer to call a “hyper-reality.” The much praised “fully accomplished world” or “perfect future” is largely the result of the intensive work of promotion and unlimited “signification” – or the production of value and meaning – undertaken by the “Star Trek industry.” Television and associated media technologies manufacture and encourage the “more real than real.” In Star Trek‘s case, this hyper-reality or “parallel universe” is a never-ending expansion of “really existing” extraterrestrial species, beloved characters, endlessly marketed paraphernalia, and endlessly refined referential details furnished by Paramount Pictures and global fandom. The Star Trek culture industry is a profit-oriented economic and signifying system of cyber-commodities and quasi-automatic generation of products from a computer program-like code. Among these “automated” products are the many less than stellar stories constructed as new permutations of already well-known sequences and narrative ingredients. In addition, many fans possess a fetishized abundance of information about their favorite Star Trek personalities or alien civilizations extant “outside the stories,” in some undefinable hyperspace or “alternative world.” This vast accumulation of supporting material contributes to the invention of a closed myth that insists on the strong foundation of its own “reality.” It is partly the technology of television’s convergence with the Internet that catalyzes this move away from the openness of fiction’s usual awareness of its own status as “not entirely real.”

See Alexandre Koyré, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1957.

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