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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Underdetermined Death of Uhura

Posted by Aaron Bady on 06/03/09 at 03:36 PM

Having imbibed a bunch of commentary on the new Star Trek film (starting with Adam‘s post, which led me to Abigail’s overview, and finally on to Millicent‘s reading), I want to up the ante on the vitriol, and declare this movie to be genuinely odious.

For a start, while the commonplace that women exist in cinema to serve as growth charts for the male leads is commonly true, there’s something particularly attenuated about this phenomenon in this particular Star Trek. As has been pointed out elsewhere, women are important primarily as absences, even—to put it more strongly—legible only as traumatic representations of absence. While Spock and Nero, for example, have highly developed narratives which spool out their characters by reference to their loss of mother and wife, post-infant Kirk has no apparent mother at all, an absence from the narrative necessitated by her actual presence in his life. In this movie, only dead women are real and reality is a function of dead women.*

This is, I think, much more insidious than the movie’s more obvious—because thoughtless—expressions of its own white masculine ego ideal, things like the mini-skirts and Iowa Elks club feel of the federation as a whole. Uhura’s presence in the plot is stupid, too, but like the mini-skirts, there isn’t much more to say than to observe that what was at least a well-intentioned gesture towards gender and racial equity in the sixties (a black female bridge officer, albeit without pants) has become, precisely by its faithfully replication, a step backward; in a franchise which has already seem both a black captain and a female captain, Uhuru’s presence in the narrative (as the only non-white male character of any importance at all) just illustrates how unconcerned the creators of the movie are with the forward progress narrative of liberalism.

Need they be? Myself, I’m pretty down on the entire progressivist narrative as a framework for understanding the universe, but I think this would be how you would mount a defense of Star Trek as a franchise if you wanted to: it does believe that humanity is gradually becoming more humane, and every stage of the show’s development attempted to measure this progress by reference to greater and greater inclusion. The original series might have been content with having some helpful women and ethnics around, for example, but the Next Generation had the idea of incorporating non-white males in less subservient capacities (a female Chief Medical Officer, a Klingon Security Officer) as well as making the captain bald, old, and British to make him as specifically not the White Male ego-ideal represented by Kirk. You still had Riker to displace that Kirk figure onto, of course, and the important non-white-males were still somewhat circumscribed by their ethnic or gendered specialty: the Klingon (as scary black guy) can only be in charge of violence while the important women characters are limited to the nurturing roles of psychiatrist, doctor, and mother (and lets not forget Whoopi Goldberg to provide super duper magic). I’m not sure what to make of the fact that Tasha Yar, the original security officer, was female, though her swift elimination from the cast (like that of the original female Number One from the original series’ pilot) would seem to indicate less comfort with the idea than the daring move of putting her there in the first place would suggest.

In any case, while one can quibble with how well it was done, the fact that the franchise’s continuity was a grand narrative of steadily increasing progress-through-diversity has to be acknowledged, and while I never watched Deep Space Nine or Voyager, they did add to the larger narrative of the franchise a sense that even in Star Trek’s particular version of the future perfect, perfection was seen as continuing to be redefined in practice. So, points for that; if the idea of progress is a fiction, as I think it is, it is at least a fiction whose political power is, most of the time, a force for better than worse. If the current incarnation had chosen to take up this legacy, it could, for example, have created a homosexual character, and that would have been, if not all that daring, still completely in the spirit of Roddenberry’s articulation of the show’s ethos (as Adam puts it).

Which is why I want to flag this movie’s crimes not as the kind of thoughtless racism or sexism that the previous incarnations were often guilty of, but as a more active and reactionary intervention. While the old versions of the franchise could be blind to the beams in their eyes because they were so focused on their neighbor’s motes (or just self-satisfied), the new movie strikes me not only as harboring a basic nostalgia for the sins of the first series (which the later incarnations had “corrected”) but also as rewriting the narrative of the franchise as a conservative project of maintaining those characteristics by undoing their corrections.

After all, as much as I admire the cleverness of the time-travel plot—since it does allow a much more satisfying “reboot” of the series than any other return-to-origins narrative would—there’s something about it that’s a little too close to being the 1984 fantasy of going back in history and retelling the history of the present as it should have been written. As in totalitarian “official” narratives, the basic story doesn’t really change since the present is always whatever it is (rewriting history doesn’t actually change the present, so all the characters have to end up where they’re supposed to be) but creating a different back story for that present is not totally unlike the desire to write a new history of the Soviet Union with Trotsky airbrushed out, or whatever.  In this sense, we have the past we want: Captain Pike makes it from the pilot—even given a central role to play—but his Number One is completely absent (with Majel Barrett herself only being represented by an offhand reference to Nurse Chapel). And most damningly, while Uhura occasionally aspired to being more than a token in the old series, she isn’t even that here, as being a “token” would imply a desire for increasing diversity that it strikingly absent from the movie (I would even suggest that her “green” roommate is a way of making her fail to signify as black in anything but the most empirical sense). And there aren’t even any other tokens.

In this sense, I have two slightly different j’accuse’s. The first is simply a kind of lazy bad faith we are all pretty familiar with, the kind of desire that a show like Mad Men seems to represent: reveling in nostalgia for the sins of the past because we desire them but cannot openly admit it. Yet this, too, can simply be a product of self-satisfaction, the way the sense that we are now post-racial can be a fiction enabling a kind of complacent embrace of our worst angels. My second thesis nailed on Abrams’ church door, however, is deeper: rather than simply being the conservative tendency to imagine that racism or sexism just isn’t that big a deal (but at least admitting that it was or would be a bad thing), this is a movie which is actively hostile to everything the old franchise attempted to stand for, and which actively sets out to erase it, the way there really is a substantial wing of the conservative movement that stands, openly, for white supremacy. This is an important distinction, I think, because while the original Star Trek at least thought it had solved inequality—with a well meaning naivete that makes me want to pat it on its head and send it on its way—this movie is actively hostile to the very idea of multiculturalism, the existence of women, and the narrative of progressive inclusion which the franchise has, up until now, articulated.

Not all prequels have to be retrogressive exercises in nostalgia, of course; in fact, I maintain that the James Bond reboot, which I posted about here, is a impressively thoughtful effort to grapple with the series’ entrenched misogyny. The reason the old Terminator movies were so much more interesting than Terminator Salvation, too, is that they functionally were prequels, starting from an already told future and then using the prequel form to un-think (or at least inadvertently trouble) conservative givens about how gender and reproduction work. In the new Star Trek, on the other hand, it is the very specific way the movie intervenes into that continuity, as a prequel, that makes it such a conservative film.

For example, not only does the plot begin and end with a giant Vagina Dentata time-warp—though it does do that—it also completely fails to exist as a movie without it. If we want to get all Lacanian, in other words, we could note that the specter of a carnivorous maternal phallus isn’t just the defining feature of the plot, it’s also the condition for the movie’s own existence: the narrative conceit that allows it to be a prequel is 100% a function of a visual metaphor for misogynistic fear of women. And not only visually: the alternate time narrative that gives the movie an identity, after all, begins with Nero’s loss of his wife, an event produced by Spock’s use of the red matter, which he got (presumably) from Old Spock in the past after it had been used to destroy his mother. This movie is a pearl whose irritant is fear of the vulnerability that women represent to it.

Now, you can easily quibble with my recreation of these chains of causation—I see you coming a mile away, Seafan -- but you shouldn’t: they don’t make sense and that’s the point. Rationality is the enemy! While many time travel narratives (like Back to the Future, for example) often pretend that everything adds up and makes sense (Fritz Leiber delightfully parodied this tendency in “Try To Change the Past,” for example), it is exactly because it’s not one of those movies that makes it so reactionary, in every sense. As in the first two Terminator movies—where John Connor gets born only because the Terminator tried to prevent him from being born— teasing out chains of determination only illustrates their fundamentally underdetermined nature. But while the Terminator franchise did this as a way of calling into question everything you might think you know about what is natural, the recursions of this movie have become an anti-rational object of desire in its own right, a spectacular fear of women which produces the spectacle of women as fear which produces spectacular fear of women, etc. And as a Pavlovian pleasure-through-stimulation device, it teaches us to take pleasure in the manner in which it signifies; after all, if our enjoyment is a function of seeing action, isn’t it significant that all action is reducible to either causing or being caused by the death of women?**

* Anyone want to take bets on whether Uhura survives the next Star Trek movie?

** Seriously, any takers on whether they kill off Uhura in the sequel? Anyone? If it’s by the same writers, I’ll give you odds.


Brilliant stuff.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Uhura goes, no: although if they do kill her off it’ll leave a Hot Chick vacuum that they’ll need to fill.  Perhaps by promoting the green skinned dame to the bridge crew.  Or maybe having Seven-of-Nine fall through a convenient timewarp hole.

By Adam Roberts on 06/03/09 at 04:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

ON the LGBT absence you note, I’ve been trying to embed a link to a particular Panopticon article on that subject, but for some annoying reason the Valve software keeps blocking me (because the post in question has the word ‘gay’ in the title? Because the Panopticon blog is somehow blacklisted?  I don’t know.) I’ve tried posting the url in the usual way, and posting it unpacked from its ahref shell; but either way I am forbidden.  The best I can do is recommend you google Panopticon + “do gay martians have the right to marry?” and get to the post that way.

By Adam Roberts on 06/03/09 at 05:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In other words, to do this.

What’s up with the Valve that I can’t link directly to that article, I wonder?

By Adam Roberts on 06/03/09 at 05:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Beats me, Adam. I tried a link and got a message explicitly saying Panopticon was blacklisted. Maybe our editors know about this black list.

By Bill Benzon on 06/03/09 at 05:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

[Tasha Yar’s] swift elimination from the cast [...] would seem to indicate less comfort with the idea than the daring move of putting her there in the first place would suggest.

FWIW, Wikipedia says:

“Initially one of the top-billed characters and featured prominently in episodes such as “The Naked Now” and “Code of Honor”, the role of Tasha gradually moved into the background as other members of the ensemble cast became a greater focus of the series. It has been reported that [actress Denise] Crosby grew disillusioned with her role because of the “Uhura-like” status of her role: Tasha was always present, yet her character was never expanded upon.

Ultimately, Crosby decided to leave the show. Her character was unceremoniously killed by the alien creature Armus during the episode “Skin of Evil”. She had starred in 22 episodes of the program at the point of departure.”

Wow, that’s some bad writing (and you’d think the “it has been reported” part would occasion a “citation needed").  But it does suggest that Ms. Crosby agreed with you.

By Dave Maier on 06/03/09 at 05:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, I have to say it:

if *that* reminds people of a vagina (and not, say, a crab or creepy sea creature or a mouth), I’ve clearly been with the wrong women.

I say that not as a juvenile joke, but rather to point out that putting the word “vagina” next to something doesn’t make it so.  It would be like calling a giant hungry mouth a vagina with teeth.  Which I heard a scholar do in a paper on Nella Larsen.  Apparently, every mouth is a hoo-hah.

What I find most interesting about this new *Star Trek* is the number of girls at my school who went to see it and enjoyed it.  That never happened with the old *Star Trek* films when I was in school.  So either girls like movies with hot guys in them, or girls are getting more into sci-fi, or both, or girls like movies that don’t pander to them.  (As one student said to me about the summer reading for next year, “Do we have to read another book about coming of age and menstruation?")

By on 06/03/09 at 08:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, obviously it doesn’t resemble a vagina; the vagina dentata is not a real thing, but a dream/nightmare image of sex/birthing as castration (though there apparently was a movie a couple years back based on the premise of such a thing actually existing, called “Teeth"). But it’s simply a fantasy image; if you don’t find my reading of the image of the romulan ship coming out of the wormhole persuasive, well then, it is not persuasive. But saying it isn’t so doesn’t make it not so either. So there!

As for your students, you do have to give Abrams and company credit for making a more interesting movie than the last few go rounds of the franchise, which more or less presumed a geekish affiliation to the club as the price of admission (and were, while less irritating to me personally, also pretty bland and forgettable).

By on 06/04/09 at 12:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, thanks for sharing that link, however reluctantly you were allowed to do so. It’s funny because it’s true, as Homer Simpson says. There’s something interesting, actually, about how intensely hetero-social (to say the least) the movie can be while *actual* homosexuality remains actually taboo, almost illegible to the franchise’s narrative economy, in a way that, for example, interracial kissing wasn’t when they first did it.

By on 06/04/09 at 12:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

”...Uhuru’s presence in the narrative (as the only non-white male character of any importance at all) just illustrates how unconcerned the creators of the movie are with the forward progress narrative of liberalism.”

I’m just wondering how many centuries will have to pass before the Afro comes back in style…

By Steven Augustine on 06/21/09 at 09:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I read it as like a slightly liberal cop-show in space. The Enterprise squad car, with some vaguely Shakespearean Ala Heinlein hype.

By ramph on 07/01/09 at 08:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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