Essay: althusser fetish ideology landru shatner spock Star Trek
I want you to imagine Captain Kirk beaming into your living room and attacking your flat screen digital TV, to imagine he’s doing it in an effort to set you free from the constraints of early 21st century barbarism. He’s killing your television by asking it to solve some unsolvable logic problem. Kirk is whispering the liar paradox to the DVR.
It’s always the same with Kirk. He beams down and outfoxes a computer God, or kills a robot girl with a kiss, and this time it’s your television he’s after.
Imagine your set is sputtering, about to explode, and then it switches on. For a brief instant, just the time needed for a flicker of light to appear before the set goes dark forever, a television program appears onscreen. What’s on the TV? What would does your television turn to in its last effort to figure out a solution for Kirk’s riddle? The answer is Star Trek, obviously, because Star Trek itself is a kind of Technicolor logic bomb. Your TV set is probably showing the episode with Captain Pike and the Orion Slave girl because that’s the one I’d choose.
Kirk understood the show and used his understanding to kill computers. In the second season of the original series, in an episode entitled I Mudd. Kirk explains his own show in order to kill an android named Norman.
KIRK: What is a man but that lofty spirit, that sense of enterprise, that devotion to something that cannot be sensed, cannot be realized but only dreamed! The highest reality.
NORMAN THE ANDROID: That is irrational. Illogical. Dreams are not real. […]
(Smoke comes out of Norman’s head.)
Back in 1986 William Shatner appeared in a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live and told Trekkies everywhere to get a life. In the sketch he asked Jon Lovitz if he’d ever kissed a girl and told the crowd of SNL cast members playing the part of Trekkies at a Star Trek convention to leave their parents’ basements and experience the real world.
“I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show! I mean, look at you, look at the way you’re dressed! You’ve turned an enjoyable little job that I did as a lark for a few years into a COLOSSAL WASTE OF TIME!” Shatner shouted.
Shatner could never kill a computer. He doesn’t understand how people use BLAs like Star Trek to live their lives, how some of us even use Star Trek to kiss girls. It sounds impossible, but you really can take your enjoyment of Star Trek quite a long way. In fact, the first time I realized just how far was, coincidentally, my first time.
I was in my girlfriend’s parent’s old house, a house that they couldn’t sell after they’d moved out, but she still had keys and we were in the empty space that had been an upstairs rec room. There wasn’t any music playing, nor electricity, and we didn’t have anything to drink that might lubricate our coupling. What we had was the Star Trek Edition of a Golden Trivia game. I was in my girlfriend’s parent’s old house, a house that they couldn’t sell after they’d moved out, but she still had keys and we were in the empty space that had been an upstairs rec room. There wasn’t any music playing, nor electricity, and we didn’t have anything to drink that might lubricate our coupling. What we had was the Star Trek Edition of a Golden Trivia game.
Before we got around to intercourse on the wall to wall orange carpet, doing it on the spot where the entertainment center had left a indentation, we asked each other questions about M class planets and the Federation. Rather than grope and undress, rather than struggle with the clasp of a lace bra or the buttons on the fly of a pair of blue jeans, we played strip Star Trek Trivia. We were geeks and this seemed natural to us. We found a way to use our mutual affliction in order to get off.
“Why did Kirk display such inordinate love and affection for Dr. Helen Noel?” she asked me.
“Who? Which episode was that?”
“Do you know the answer?” she asked. I didn’t, or pretended that I didn’t. I ended up giving her my left sock, but, for the record, the answer, per the back of the card, is this: “Kirk was under the influence of a powerful suggestion implanted by use of a devilish machine.” The episode was the Dagger of the Mind and the machine was called a neural neutralizer.
Okay, he didn’t really. He died before Star Trek was ever on the air. But if you google the words fetish and repetition you’ll find a link to a book called Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. More specifically you’ll find a link to this passage:
“Neither the popular stereotype of the crazed Trekkie nor academic notions of commodity fetishism or repetition compulsion are adequate to explain the complexity of fan culture.”
But this assertion simply underestimates the complexities involved in both fetishism and repetition compulsion. Fetishism and repetition compulsion can produce Baroque results, and can certainly explain most of the more faithful fan tributes to the series.
For example, last summer I took the family to Cathedral Park for something called Star Trek in the Park, and watching the reenactment of “Journey to Babel,” seeing Portland actors, hipsters dressed in perfectly authentic uniforms complete with wavy stripes on their shirt cuffs and with perfectly reasonable facsimiles of a Tellarite pig nose or Andorian antenna when necessary, was a queasily religious or fetishistic experience.
The Atomic Arts Ensemble delivered the lines from the original episode and typed into invisible computer panels, their fingers wiggling methodically in thin air. They stared at a view screen that wasn’t there, stared through empty air out at me, and I experienced something like Déjà vu. The repetition of “The Journey to Babel”, the uncanniness of the Atomic Arts reproduction, unsettled me.
Adam Rosko played Kirk for Trek in the Park, and he was perfect. He did an especially good job when he fought the Andorian. He perfectly replicated Shatner’s fighting techniques, and watching him I stopped thinking or comparing. I didn’t have to think.
Rosko grabbed his blue opponent by the shoulders, fell back, and used his right leg to flip the alien onto his back. Then Rosko rolled onto his stomach and dove for the alien’s right arm, for his right hand which held an Andorian dagger, but the alien rolled over onto his belly and stood up. The Andorian tried to wrench his arm out of Rosko’s grip and then used his left hand to deliver a Karate chop which sent Rosko reeling. The Andorian turned on him and lunged with the knife. Rosko as Kirk dodged to the right and, when the alien swiped at his head, Rosko both ducked and brought up his knee, delivering a blow to the Andorian’s belly. The alien bent over in pain and Rosko delivered Kirk’s signature double fisted blow to the alien’s right side. He then jumped at the alien, using both feet and delivering a double kick, but ending up on his back. Rosko rolled over and started to slowly crawl away on all fours (too slowly, what is Kirk waiting for?) and the Andorian grabbed him by the neck and stabbed him in the right side. Was this the end?
Of course not. Rosko reached back and flipped the Andorian over his left shoulder. And when the Andorian got back to his feet and reached for the knife that had flown out of his hand, Rosko was on him fast. Rosko kicked the Andorian in his face and knocked him out cold. Then Rosko flopped against a pole and used the Intercom prop to call the bridge.
Freud says that the sensation of the uncanny arises when what is familiar is made to appear unfamiliar, and what I experienced when Rosko fought like Kirk was precisely that unfamiliarity of the familiar. It was the perfection of the repetition that unsettled me and made Star Trek seem strange again.
Here’s an experiment: Try repeating the same word over and over again like a mantra. Take any word. Better yet, try the word Spock.
Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock…
After awhile the word, the sound of it (or the look of it on the page or screen), will separate from it’s meaning, and all that you’ll be left with is an empty shell. If you say the word Spock often enough all you’ll be left with is the detritus of the name. Spock himself will disappear. Through repetition Spock can cease to be Spock. Through repetition Spock can become something mysterious and unknown. Spock can become uncanny.
To really understand what a fetish is and how the fetish relies on a repetition watch episode seven of the original Star Trek series. It was entitled What Are Little Girls Made Of and on the show the Enterprise sets off to rescue a man named Doctor Korby. Korby was lost during an off world expedition to the ruins on the planet Exo 3, and when the Enterprise arrives Kirk discovers that Korby is living underground with a bunch of life like replicants. Korby learned the secret of the underground ruins and used the ancient technology there to fashion himself friends and servants. After Kirk arrives Korby tries to convince him that these android doubles represent a step toward immortality. These doubles are a triumph, another victory for human reason, another step forward toward enlightenment and away from bodily corruption, but as events unfold Korby reveals himself to be a villain. He has one of his androids, a giant named Ruk left over from the days of the Old Ones, murder several red shirts. Worse he duplicates Kirk and attempts to take over the Enterprise.
Typical, isn’t it?
Eventually we come to know that Korby himself is an android. The real Korby duplicated himself right before he died, and when the duplicate Korby is revealed as an android the effect is uncanny. Korby is a machine, and when this is revealed he becomes pathetic. Nurse Chapel, Korby’s former lover, recoils.
KIRK: You were a man with respect for all things alive. How can I explain the change in you? If I was to tell Earth I was in your hands, to tell them what has become of you (Kirk jumps Korby and traps his arm in a door. The skin tears to reveal electronics.)
KORBY: It’s still me, Christine. Roger. I’m in here. You can’t imagine how it was. I was frozen, dying. My legs were gone. I was, I had only my brain between life and death. This can be repaired easier than another man can set a broken finger. I’m still the same as I was before, Christine, perhaps even better.
CHAPEL: Are you, Roger?
It’s a creepy scene. It’s not just that we come to see this new Korby as a robot, but that we can’t stop ourselves from seeing him as also human. The revelation of Korby’s double fundamentally undermines the integrity of the original.
If a fetish is going to keep working it’s creepiness and inauthenticity has to be denied, if not unknown.
We have to pretend to be authentic in order to keep pretending, and to do that we have to find someone who is innocent, somebody who is authentic, who will believe in our fetish for us. That’s what Barthes was looking for in his essay on the Death of the Author, while in the Star Trek episode the dirty job fell to Kirk:
KIRK: In here, Spock.
SPOCK: Captain, are you all right? Nurse? Where’s Doctor Korby?
KIRK: Doctor Korby was never here.
But, Korby was there. It’s just that he’d turned himself into a robot. That’s a pretty messed up thing to do, of course, but it is also perfectly normal. It turns out that beaming a robot is the only way to become human.
Another French Marxist, a nut job named Louis Althusser, explained how this works in his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. He wrote:
Notice that he’s doubling up on fantasy in that line. Althusser wrote that an ideology is not just some imaginary myth a person believes, but rather it’s the myth people believe explains why they believe in myths. An ideology is not some false picture of the world but our false picture about our false picture.
Take the notion of God. An ideology isn’t the belief in God but the explanation of this belief. The obvious one about God is that we believe in him because he’s up there in heaven, and while he’s pretty much inscrutable he’s giving us some basic ideas and helping us to believe in him. However, another ideology about God wouldn’t take God to be really up there at all. An atheist ideology would explain God to us by suggesting that we’ve been manipulated by a caste of ancient priests, kings, or authors. It’s these rulers who foisted a believe in God on us, and they did it in order to control us. Why? Because they’re bastards.
Or, taking a different point of view, an ideology might explain our belief in God by blaming the world itself. Life on Earth is filled to the brim with toothaches, irritable bowels, plagues, killer bees, and people like Justin Bieber. Living in world like this one requires people imagine a God in heaven. Who wouldn’t fantasize about God when faced with the plague? There are no atheists in foxholes. And no one remains Godless after they’ve been made to watch reality television programs like The Biggest Loser or Jersey Shore. The reality of living in and off this kind of filth and debris pushes us into a God delusion.
But Althusser wanted to get past all of these explanations. He wrote that ideologies are simply necessary. Ideologies are fantasies that support our relationships with each other and these false pictures give us our very identities.
Think of it like this:
An ideology is a picture we take of the world and then pretend is real. We do this by ignoring the camera we took the picture with and all of the other mechanisms and relationships that had to exist in order for that camera to land in our hands.
A 1972 a documentary advertisement or promotional film for Eastman Kodak and polaroid spelled it out.
“Since 1947 Edward Lamb and Polaroid have pursued a central concept, one single thread, the removal of the barrier between the photographer and his subject.”
This idea that a photograph could be taken without “any barriers between the photographer and his subject” is the idea behind every BLA, every robot, there is. It is also the goal of James Kirk in episode after episode. He lands on a planet, discovers that there is a barrier between the people on the surface and the society they’re living in, and sets off to kill or remove the barrier.
SPOCK: This is a soulless society, Captain. It has no spirit, no spark. All is indeed peace and tranquillity. The peace of the factory, the tranquillity of the machine. All parts working in unison.
KIRK: And when something unexplained happens, their routine is disrupted.
SPOCK: Until new orders are received. The question is, who gives those orders?
SPOCK: There is no Landru, Captain, not in the human sense.
KIRK: You’re thinking the same thing I am. Mister Spock, the plug must be pulled.
KIRK: Landru must die.
SPOCK: Captain, our Prime Directive of non-interference.
KIRK: That refers to a living, growing culture. Do you think this one is?
In the episode Return of the Archons Kirk and his crew discover that the citizens of planet Beta are mindless automatons. They are perfectly pleasant, if a bit placid, most of the time, but occasionally, on the instruction of an invisible voice, they erupt into a riot. Kirk arrives a few minutes before one of these cathartic festivals and witnesses the smiling denizens of Beta transform into shrieking hysterics who beat and fuck each other in the streets.
The trouble is that the people of planet Beta are under the control of a figure named Landru, and Landru is a computer. Kirk is nearly assimilated into this “body” but manages to kill the computer instead. Kirk demonstrates to Landru that the computer itelf is a contradiction. The computer is working against its own programming simply by following the program. Landru’s effort to create a sustainable and harmoniously balanced society has created a stagnant society instead, and Kirk puts it to Landru that Landru should destroy itself because the computer’s efforts toward harmony creates disharmony. Landru follows the logic and self-destructs.
However, once Landru is destroyed a new order, a new mechanism, has to be established if life on Beta can continue. Kirk calls in the Federation to establish a new world order for the colonists. He destroys one barrier and then quickly erects a new one, and all the while he assures the colonists that they will love this new barrier because they’ll find it isn’t a barrier at all.
Paradoxically, Kirk both understands the paradox and doesn’t. There is no real and natural life. The people of Beta will always need a Polaroid Camera, a computer like Landru, or a show like Star Trek, if they want to be able to leave their parents basement and manage to kiss a girl.
Essay: adorno anti-capitalism Orion Star Trek television
Theodore Adorno, for example, didn’t like Capitalism even a little and he also disliked Jazz music, television, magazines, suburban bungalows, and women’s bare breasts. In fact, Adorno was so shocked when three German hippies bared their breasts and scattered flower petals over his head in protest of his boring lecture on Dialectics he went and died of a heart attack that same summer. But, you can bet that one thing these topless protesters and Adorno could’ve agreed on was Star Trek, and it’s certain neither of them had bothered to watch “Turnabout Intruder” that summer. Neither Adorno nor his sexy detractors ever found out how Kirk handled having his mind transplanted into the body of his ex-girlfriend.
Of course, they were in Frankfurt, Germany and couldn’t have watched the show if they’d wanted to, but I think they would have avoided it even if it had been broadcast on the ARD. The common view was that television was, just like religion, a kind of opiate for the unwashed masses. These technicolor spectacles depicting scantily clad green skinned women in go-go boots and tinfoil, these futuristic wonders with rubber faced lizard men wearing orange and red metallic kilts, only aimed to make the viewer want to buy things. Or, as Adorno put it:
“[The viewer] should be shown all his needs as capable of-fulfilment, but those needs should be so predetermined that he feels himself to be the eternal consumer.”
It’s undeniable that the real reason Star Trek existed was to sell Camel Cigarettes, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dodge Chargers, and Cheer laundry detergent, but it’s also true that Star Trek presented Roddenberry’s vision of an egalitarian future to an America where members of McCarthy’s House of UnAmerican Activities committee were still subpoenaing guys like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.
Adorno should have taken the time to watch and enjoy Star Trek precisely because the show embodied the kind of dialectical contradictions that he was always talking about. The contradiction between the utopian future on the show and the advertisements for Cheer detergent or Coca-Cola that came along with it is the same kind of contradiction that Marx was getting at when he pointed out how alienating it is to work in a world where the aim of life isn’t to do or make anything useful but rather is just to make heaps of cash.
There are all kinds of strange loops and contradictions in the show itself, too. There is the one about God, for instance. The appearance of all these super-intelligent energy beings, or Blinking Light Aliens, pop up in order to cover up the strange contradiction between the super scientific rationality on the show and the empty nihilism that always threatened a crew that consisted of red shirts who didn’t even have the idea of a personal god to console them. There is the one about progress and exploration. Kirk and his crew came from a world where machines made every meal, where nobody starved and nobody was poor, but they kept landing on planets where people still lived like savages. It’s as though they couldn’t escape the contradiction that existed between the classes that existed in the 20th century just by fantasizing about some big space ship, and so these problems kept coming back as plot lines involving Orion Slave girls or dilithium miners.
[more to come]
Diet Soap Update: Abstractions Brendan Cooney Hegel Law of Value Marxism Robots Star Trek Value Theory
The guest this week is Brendan Cooney and we discuss his Law of Value youtube video series (I play the soundtrack for his second video), and discuss real abstractions as explained in Marx’s bestselling book Capital. We start off discussing whether Data from the television show Star Trek the Next Generation would generate value if he time traveled to this current Capitalist economy.
I am still planning on canceling the Podomatic feed for Diet Soap and moving the podcast to douglaslain.com. If you subscribe to podcast through podomatic you’ll need to change over to the new feed by the end of the month, that means that the next podcast will be the last podcast on the podomatic website. In that episode I’ll try to explain just how to find the Diet Soap RSS feed from Blubrry. When I make the switch I’m also going to restart the Diet Soap philosophy workshop and that workshop will continue weekly, or at least it will be a part of every episode. That means that while I’ll continue on discussing Hegel once a month, I’ve decided to expand the workshop to a weekly format. After each Diet Soap episode subscribers to the podcast will get a chance to participate in a conversation about that episode. So, yes, there will be regular Hegel episodes, but subscribers will also get a chance to discuss all the different subjects that we cover or bring up their own ideas. Finally, I am also going to start a monthly podcast with C. Derick Varn called Pop the Left. We’ll take a critical look at the politics of the Left from a Leftist perspective and, at first, that’ll be hosted through the same RSS feed as Diet Soap, but if a few more people donate or subscribe I’ll start a second feed for Pop the Left on its own. So, you can help me start a new podcast by donating today.
Diet Soap Update: Brendan Cooney Capitalism Cherry 2000 Data Karl Marx philosophy Robots Star Trek Value
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There are two guests this week: the University Student Zanda Knight and my son Benjamin Lain. We talk about Karl Marx’s Capital and try to answer the question “Why can’t a robot make value?” We discuss Data, Cherry 2000, and Marx’s notion of abstract labor time and exchange value. After this conversation you’ll hear the soundtrack for Brendan Cooney’s latest video from his Law of Value series. Brendan Cooney will be the guest next week.
Couple of announcements. First, I’m going to cancel the Podomatic feed for Diet Soap. Instead I’ll be hosting Diet Soap at douglaslain.com and using Blubrry. If you subscribe to podcast through Podomatic you’ll need to change over to the new feed by the end of the month and I’ll be posting instructions and talking about how to do that in the weeks to come.
Second, I’m going to restart the Diet Soap Philosophy Workshop and add a new twist. While we’ll continue on discussing Hegel once a month, I’ve decided to open expand the workshop to a weekly format. That is, after each Diet Soap episode subscribers to the podcast will get a chance to participate in a conversation about it. So, yes, once a month there will be a Hegel episode, but subscribers will also get a chance to discuss all the different subjects that we cover or bring up their own ideas. The people at the Partially Examined Life are doing something similar for each of their podcasts and I thought it would be a good idea for Diet Soap. Finally, this month is when I’ll be starting a second podcast with C. Derick Varn called Pop the Left. That’ll be a monthly podcast that takes a critical look at the politics of the Left from a Leftist perspective.
You’ve probably noticed that Diet Soap has slipped into a biweekly schedule. I will be rectifying that and returning to a regular weekly schedule this month. Diet Soap should come out on Thursday, every Thursday.
I should also mention that I’ve started blogging for the Partially Examined Life, and that I’m continuing to blog for the Right Where You’re Sitting Now site and for Tor.com. I hope to include collaged readings of those blog entries in future episodes.