What is Star Trek About? Federation, Fan-Service, or Freedom

[The following is the paper I delivered earlier today at the American Comparative Literature Association’s annual meeting in Chicago, as part of the seminar “Franchise Cultures,” organized by Benjamin Robertson. It was made up primarily of authors planning to contribute to the University of Minnesota Press “Mass Markets” book series, co-edited by Robertson and Gerry Canavan. As I indicate at the end of the talk, I am set to write a book on what I call “late Star Trek” — i.e., the material that has appeared in the 21st century, after the end of the Next Generation era.]

The Star Trek universe is one of the most robust commercial storyworlds in existence. Aside from the DC, Marvel, and Archie comic book universes, it is arguably the oldest to be in more or less continuous operation. New Star Trek stories have come out essentially every year since the early 1970s, even when the show and its spin-offs were off the air. And though this observation opens up serious ontological questions, it is the oldest fictional universe that purports to take place—outside of the brief interregnum of the JJ Abrams reboot films—in “the same” universe and timeline since the original series began broadcasting. Despite fans’ love of theories involving forked timelines, the clear intention of the writers and producers is that there has been no Crisis on Infinite Earths, no reset, nothing overwritten, nothing lost. Unless it is very explicitly flagged otherwise, everything we see on TV really happened within what is known as the Prime Timeline.

The Prime Timeline represents an exceptionally long span of time. Continue reading “What is Star Trek About? Federation, Fan-Service, or Freedom”

The Moral Cost of Capitalism

[The following is a talk I gave this afternoon as part of a faculty colloquium on “Radical Futures” at North Central College, part of the Intellectual Community series co-sponsored by the Faculty Development and Recognition Committee (of which I am chair) and the Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence and organized by my colleague Sean Kim Butorac.]

Since I teach in the Shimer Great Books program, I will begin with an experience teaching one of the all-time greats, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In my ethics class this semester, we were discussing Book 1 and came to a passage where Aristotle had isolated three possible human goods that seemed to be good candidates for happiness—by which he means the human good that we pursue for its own sake, with no need for further justification or explanation. The first is pleasure, which is presumably self-explanatory. The second is honor, which we could paraphrase as respect or esteem. The third is contemplation, which we could see as a form of knowledge or understanding. In all three cases, Aristotle believes, it wouldn’t make sense to ask why we are pursuing these goals. Why do you want pleasure? Why do you want people to like and respect you? Why do you want to figure things out? The question doesn’t make sense.

The list feels pretty exhaustive, but Aristotle goes on to introduce a fourth possible candidate: money. Initially it seems to fit the bill—all things being equal, no one will turn down more money. But Aristotle points out that money is not truly an end in itself, but rather a pure means. We only want money because of the things we can do with it. And this, I point out, is an area where Aristotle is out of date. He can’t imagine living a life for the sake of stockpiling as much money as possible, much less orienting an entire society around it. We can.

Continue reading “The Moral Cost of Capitalism”

Rebuilding the Closet

Gender and sexuality are a spectrum. In common discourse, we lose sight of what that means. Very Online approaches to gender and sexuality seem to say that gender and sexuality are a spectrum, but everyone is at a very specific and static spot on that spectrum. That fits with the more everyday discourse that was able to absorb the normalization of homosexuality on the condition that every individual clearly fits into one specific box. But that’s not how it is, and everyone probably understands that. Even among people who are exclusively heterosexual, there is a spectrum of how attracted they are to the opposite sex — how many partners they seek, how much monogamy is a struggle for them, how sexually motivated they are at all, etc. Enough people seem to be able to rest more or less content with monogamy that the whole thing basically “works,” but if we’re being honest, there are some people for whom it was never going to happen and who therefore never should have been expected to get married or have exclusive relationships.

Everything relating to sex and gender is like that. Continue reading “Rebuilding the Closet”

Identity Politics vs. Identity Office Politics

In real life, identity is a structuring principle of human experience, which is by definition neither good or bad. For individuals, it can be constraining or life-enriching — or more likely, some mixture of both. For groups, identity can be the starting point for a broader engagement with the world, an alibi to turn inward, or even a spur to active hostility. Whether its effects appear to be positive or negative in any particular case, though, it is not something we can do without — especially on the political level, which by definition requires the creation or mobilization of an identity group toward some end. Every politics is in that sense an identity politics, even on the Marxist model, which requires the members of the working class to identify with their world-historical role as the proletariat.

Everybody who thinks seriously about identity and politics knows that this is the case. The Combahee River Collective knew that it’s the case, and presumably even Slavoj Žižek knows it’s the case. Why, then, do people so frequently denounce identity politics as a blind alley, a distraction, a cynical ploy, etc., etc.? I would suggest that it’s because there are actually two things that go by the name of “identity politics.” The first, which I have described, we could call “real-world identity politics.” The second, which people mostly hate, would best be designated as “identity office politics” — i.e., how identity functions in neoliberal institutional settings, most notably universities and corporations.

Continue reading “Identity Politics vs. Identity Office Politics”

Be the navel you want to gaze at in the world

It’s time for that oldest of blogging customs: explaining why you haven’t been blogging. This moment is especially fraught since I didn’t declare that I was taking “a hiatus.” My readers are feeling tense, abandoned. Didn’t Adam say he was back? Wasn’t he taking a whole big sabbatical from writing, all so he could blog again? What happened?

A lot has happened. Interesting things have happened in class. I’ve read good books. I’ve had illuminating conversations with friends that sparked my thinking. I’ve watched TV shows and movies and gone to concerts. I even noted with interest that a prominent figure in my field wrote a widely-shared article that divided readers! But not even my appetite for ill-advised controversy could rouse me from my blogological slumber.

It’s not a lack of material that caused this unannounced hiatus. Rather, it is the fact that having a full-time job turns out to be a full-time job. Continue reading “Be the navel you want to gaze at in the world”

The Impossible Profession

The first week of this semester was strange. On the one hand, my classes went awesome, at least from my perspective. My two Shimer seminars have had engaging discussions where everybody talked at least once, every class (which is harder than you’d think, even in a relatively small group of 10-14), and in my Ethics class, I’ve hit a pretty good balance between lecture and discussion in a larger class of 30. More than that, in all my classes I have thought new thoughts and made new connections because of our discussions. I leave the classroom energized and happy. On the other hand, everything outside of class felt like an absolute disaster. I’ve had to adjust my sleep schedule for an early start — the same schedule I had during the year of intense overwork that low-key ruined my life and let to my self-proclaimed sabbatical — and my classes are back-to-back-to-back with only 15-minute breaks between them. My service role also produced more stress and demands on my time than I anticipated this early in the semester. The result was that I felt like I had no time to breathe, much less think — at least outside the classroom.

I’ve never thought of myself primarily as a teacher. When I’m asked to provide a short bio, I often say I’m a writer, teacher, and translator — and I intend it in that order. Like most academics, I viewed writing and research as The Real Thing, with teaching as the way we paid the bills. And like most academics, once I actually set foot in the classroom, I found it exciting and engaging and even addictive. Continue reading “The Impossible Profession”

The Culture of Therapy: Or, Men will literally write a whole long blog post instead of going to therapy

I have only been to therapy one time. But I know a lot about therapy, because we all know a lot about therapy. Our culture is absolutely saturated with the tropes and techniques of therapy — in fact, there’s a case to be made that “therapy” is the only narrative structure with broad legibility in American culture. Whether in the extreme form of recovering from trauma or the more workaday experience of becoming a slightly better person, seemingly every story traces the arc of therapy.

And I hate it. Continue reading “The Culture of Therapy: Or, Men will literally write a whole long blog post instead of going to therapy”

The truth in literature

A turning point in my life came when I enrolled in AP Lit in my senior year of high school. My teacher, Mr. Ricketts, was hands-off to the point of being neglectful. He basically handed us a list of classic works of literature and encouraged us to write sample papers to practice for the AP test — as few or as many as we liked. Every week we did an exercise where people brought in exemplary sentences to try to unravel how they “worked.” Only a couple texts were explicitly assigned as a whole-class read, mainly Greek tragedies. I was in heaven, finally given explicit permission to do what I had been doing throughout junior high and high school in any case — reading and thinking about whatever I wanted.

Continue reading “The truth in literature”

What is the news for?

I’ve always loved newspapers. Growing up, my grandparents had a subscription to the Flint Journal. Though my initial attraction was the Sunday comics, I browsed all the sections and was following favorite columnists — like Flint-area fixture Andrew Heller — from a weirdly young age. When Flint got a Borders, I eagerly dove into the out-of-town newspapers and “serious” magazines like the New Yorker or Harper’s. I’ve been a print magazine subscriber basically continuously since high school, and My Esteemed Partner and I take the Sunday New York Times as our Hegelian weekend liturgy. More recently, I’ve begun to get the daily Financial Times as a way of lessening my reliance on social media.

Since I had an extisting NYT subscription, I also considered simply adding daily delivery. But the first Sunday I read the A-section with that in mind, I realized that having their political coverage as my primary diet would drive me insane. Continue reading “What is the news for?”