‘Klingons are animals’

The title credits of Star Trek: Discovery unfold on a background of age-stained paper. Perfectly geometrical lines and calculations take solid colour and form as a ship over a planet, a human body being outfitted with a space suit, a gun, a communications device, Klingon weapons of war and, finally, two space-suited hands reaching out, never quite touching one another. Star Trek unfolds, we are reminded, within the horizon of modernity: of the transformation of the human body into a machine; the transposition of divine characteristics onto Man, creator and controller of the world due to previously unimagined technological advances; all driven and enabled by exploration, warfare and, crucially, the invention of race. After the weapons comes the reaching out of hands; after the transformation of cold geometry into the hard lines of metal comes the dissolution of all these images into smoke; all that is solid melts into air.24-credits.w1200.h630.png

Continue reading “‘Klingons are animals’”

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Donald Trump

Next term, I am planning to use selections from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire in Shimer’s senior capstone course, and yesterday I spent some time working through the text. Part of my motivation in using it is obviously its contemporary relevance in the Trumpocene — something that many others have picked up on, particularly given the uncanny coincidence that Election Day was (at least by some reckonings) the Eighteenth Brumaire. As the apparent coiner of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Sarah Palin, I felt I should weigh in on this important cultural reference.

Aside from the fact that Trump is as ridiculous and incompetent as Louis Napoleon, I think the core parallel between the two events is that each exposes the truth of the state in their respective eras. For Marx, Louis Napoleon exposes the fact that the bourgeoisie cannot coherently wield the power of the state, which stands as a power over against them. In our era, I would suggest that Trump exposes the limits to the neoliberal state, which tends to become a purely coercive apparatus whose sole goal is to guarantee capitalist profitability. The fact that Trump’s instinct for cruelty finds such easy outlets — above all in brutalizing immigrant populations — is evidence of this truth, and the fact that he can use the state as a platform for his petty resentments and crackpot schemes demonstrates that there really is no “there” there. The fantasy of the Deep State filled with principled public servants serving the public good is precisely that, a fantasy. To the extent that the American state apparatus ever had something like the public good in mind, that ethos has been systematically destroyed. Trump’s open profiteering is one logical endpoint of the development that has been underway since Reagan and even before.

Even “progressive” neoliberalism is caught in this bind. Obamacare is exemplary here, as its key innovation was to expand access to health care by coercing people into supporting the profitability of the hated private insurance companies. From one perspective, their profits were capped by the law; from another, they were encoded as an entitlement. The other two prongs of the attack were to coerce private employers into providing health insurance (unless they were not large enough to do this while maintaining profitability) and to strongarm the states into expanding Medicaid (which has increasingly become a disciplinary apparatus rather than a public support program). Seemingly the entire thing was engineered to prevent the direct provision of health insurance by the one level of government that was in a position to finance it. And when the Great Recession backed Obama into a corner, forcing him to use Keynesian stimulus techniques, he tried to render it as invisible as possible — providing “stealth” tax cuts that people wouldn’t notice (ostensibly so that they would spend it routinely rather than treat it as a windfall) and financing only “shovel-ready” projects that had already been planned. It’s as though the fact that government spending could be directly beneficial was an embarrassment that must be hidden from the people — presumably because awareness of the possibility of collective economic action independent of “the market” would undercut labor discipline and the profitability of capitalist firms.

My hope is that the lesson we can draw from the Trump era is that the left will give up the easy opposition between “the state” and “the market,” as though it is inherently progressive to favor the former over the latter. Trump shows that there is no inherently progressive impulse behind state power — perversely enough, we must now look to the corporate world for any institutional progressive gains in the coming years. A real transformation will not consist of favoring one side of the state/market, political/economic dyad over the other, but by refusing the distinction and rethinking from the bottom up the form and goals of the institutions we need to organize our collective life.

Superheroes, Science Fiction, and Social Transformation

Since we are in a science-fictional mood around here lately, I thought it might be an appropriate time to share an idea I have been pondering ever since I finished the most recent season of Mr. Robot. I have mixed feelings about Mr. Robot‘s entertainment value, but I am intrigued by the conceptual corner they wrote themselves into. The first season was basically an extended homage to Fight Club, complete with a big reveal that two apparently separate characters were split personalities and a massive terrorist attack that should change the world in unpredictable ways. When season 2 started, you began to realize why there isn’t a Fight Club 2: the burden of world-building required by the consequences of the hack were too much for the show to bear. By the end of season 3, they had more or less resolved the damage done by the hack and returned us to a halfway recognizable version of our own world, where our heroes can use their unique abilities to pursue personal vengeance against a small group of individuals who have personally wronged them.

While Mr. Robot is not literally either a superhero or a science fiction show, I think this narrative dilemma is an interesting way of thinking about the difference between the two. Continue reading “Superheroes, Science Fiction, and Social Transformation”

Star Trek Discovery: Magic to Make the Sanest Rewatch Go Mad

Star Trek Discovery #7 Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad screencap Lorca Mudd.jpg

Episode 1.7 of Star Trek: Discovery, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” has had a singular reception among the episodes of the first season. Widely acclaimed as the best episode of the first season, it is also the most traditionally “Trekky,” a standalone adventure largely independent of the main series arc (despite its nominal status as a sequel to episode 1.5, “Choose Your Pain”). Harry Mudd returns on a mission of vengeance after having been abandoned in a Klingon prison cell by Lorca and Tyler; armed with a time-travel device that allows him to relive the last half-hour over and over again until he is happy with the results, the time-loop narrative is complicated by Stamets’s new, spore-infused status outside the normal flow of space and time. Stamets, Burnham, Tilly, and Tyler are able to use Stamets’s knowledge of the loops to contrive a situation that convinces Mudd he has achieved all his goals, only to pull the rug out from under him at the end of the episode after he has shut off the device and ended the time loop.

The episode’s ecstatic early reception was produced in its moment by a number of factors, perhaps most especially its status as the first “fun” episode after a series introduction dominated by dark and depressing plotlines (including among other things mutiny, war, the total destruction of the Shenzhou, and the brutal torture of sentient and nonsentient lifeforms alike). Rainn Wilson’s Mudd does indeed inject an infectious spirit of chaos into the proceedings, and the crew not only gets a longed-for “clean win” but achieves it by working together as a cohesive whole in a way that had not yet been seen on the series (a mood of TNG-style camaraderie that would return in even grander form as the moment of triumph at the end of the Mirror Universe arc in 1.13, “What’s Past Is Prologue”). The episode is also a familiar take on a well-worn Trek concept, the Groundhog’s-Day time loop, certainly updated for contemporary sensibilities and cinematic style but still coloring within the well-established lines of the Trek franchise (to an extent not found, arguably, in most of the rest of Discovery).

And it is, to be sure, a perfectly delectable episode.

But despite this popular acclaim rewatching “Magic” in light of what comes after does present some evaluative difficulties. Continue reading “Star Trek Discovery: Magic to Make the Sanest Rewatch Go Mad”

Lecture on Trump and neoliberalism

Last week, I gave a brief talk at North Central College about the relationship between Trump and neoliberalism, which was part of a series of TED Talk-style events hosted by the Political Science Department. Video is now available, and a full archive of all previous talks in the series can be found here.

The talk was pitched at an undergrad audience, and I was pretty happy with the solution I devised to the problem of how to define neoliberalism in an economical way. The basic thrust of my argument anticipates my conclusions from Neoliberalism’s Demons, albeit in a very compressed way.

Star Trek: Discovery as the End of Next Generation Triumphalism

I am a Star Trek fan, and I’m here today to talk to you about canon. But I will warn all the hardcore fans who are relieved to be on safe territory: my fandom has taken a strange form. When I was a kid, I was a loyal Next Generation viewer, and I even read a couple of the novels. But I only seriously dug into Star Trek as an adult, when The Girlfriend suggested we try a Next Generation rewatch—which inevitably turned into an epic journey through all the Trek series and movies. By that time, of course, I had been thoroughly trained in cultural analysis and critical theory, and I tended to read Star Trek “as literature.”

So when I talk about canon, I am talking about the strange claim that all of these different stories, written across the last fifty years by dozens of different people, are somehow all “the same” story, that they all fit together as a portrait of a consistent “universe” with its own history. I have already compared the Star Trek canon to scriptural canons in a scholarly article (paywalled journal issue link), and here I would like to pick up on a point that I briefly address there: namely, the tendency for sprawling scriptural canons to develop a “canon within the canon” that guides the interpretation of the rest. In Judaism, for example, the “canon within the canon” is the Torah, while Christians privilege the New Testament as the standard by which their hybrid canon is to be unified. And in Star Trek, of course, the “canon within the canon” for the vast majority of fans is Next Generation. Continue reading Star Trek: Discovery as the End of Next Generation Triumphalism”