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Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance

Author: Alan N. Shapiro
Publisher: Berlin, Germany: Avinus Verlag, 2004
Review Published: October 2006

 REVIEW 1: Radim Hladik

Star Trek is a cult sci-fi saga that hardly needs introducing. Hundreds of episodes in several television series and ten feature films paint the future of humanity (and other species) epitomized in adventures of a spaceship crew exploring the Milky Way galaxy. Super-advanced technologies depicted in the show -- the most notorious being the transporter, which relocates bodies and objects by de- and rematerializing them -- have become an emblem of Star Trek and are undoubtedly one of the reasons behind its success.

When Alan N. Shapiro embarked on writing Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance, he was endowed with a threefold qualification as the author. Firstly, he has the competence of a humanities scholar; secondly, he is educated in natural and computer sciences (with years of experience as a software engineer); finally, he is a professed fan of Star Trek. Even though the book is a close examination of Star Trek's fictional future world and its technologies, Shapiro, through its medium and benefiting from his extensive expertise, comments on many profound issues pertaining to contemporary postmodern conditions, such as evanescence of reality into simulation, prevalence of economic exchange, or loss of genuine Other.

The exploration of Star Trek's technologies that Shapiro undertakes is less about their specifications or functionality (either vis-à-vis the fictional world of the series or the "existing body of scientific knowledge") than about the inscription and reading of those technologies as a text of popular culture. He gives the Star Trek technologies their due, not reducing them to a mere genre iconography or the stories' paraphernalia. "We need cognizance of simulation and hyper-reality, and recognition of the otherness of objects and technologies" (307), Shapiro claims. The study does not examine all the futuristic technologies portrayed in Star Trek; some, like weaponry, force fields, or replicator, are omitted. Instead, Shapiro draws our attention to the technologies of disappearance that he invests with three layers of meaning:
  • Literal meaning: "Beam me up, Scotty!"
  • Critical meaning: "Human subjectivity and perception disappear into the organ-substituting imagining apparatuses" (20).
  • Radical meaning of symbolic exchange: "I must first disappear from myself, sojourn with singularities and recognize the 'radical other,' to have some chance to ultimately reach an indirect 'liberatory' opening onto subjecthood" (21).
The examined technological phenomena comprises of virtual reality, super-computers, the emblematic transporter, the universal translator, time- and wormhole travels, cyborg, android and the Borg entities, and the warp drive. These topics are treated in ten chapters, always accompanied by discussion of at least one episode pertinent to the given technology. Eleven episodes are chosen from The Original Series, five from The Next Generation, five from Voyager and one from Deep Space Nine. In addition, Shapiro makes peripheral references of varying length to a number of other episodes throughout the book.

In commencing his work, Shapiro asks three questions:
    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? (10)
These questions guide him throughout the analysis.

The Star Trek culture industry is broadly understood and ultimately comprises not only the show's orientation on profit, its production on capitalist principles, and merchandise business, but also includes the techno-culture and techno-science animated by the series. Apart from money-making, "the Star Trek industry typically informs us about what we should think regarding 'its' characters, stories, and technologies" (261). Yet Shapiro remarks, "there is no point in interpreting when a ready-made answer is available, and meaning is not" (316). Hence, his is the reading of an "active consumer" who wrestles the production of meaning away from Star Trek's culture industry and seeks points of reversibility in the meanings of the "stories themselves." Shapiro assumes the viewer's standpoint in order to illuminate the ingenuity of Star Trek's narratives and the possibly subversive ideas communicated by them. The industry either seeks to recuperate such ideas or it sometimes even remains unaware of their presence in its products.

Shapiro's personal love for Star Trek is truly crucial for his endeavor, for it enables him not only to produce an exhaustive and meticulous analysis, but it also prepares him for full immersion into the hyper-reality of Star Trek. As a fan, Shapiro takes the episodes extremely seriously; therefore, the stimulating tension between the "stories themselves" and the "culture industry" is illuminated. As the author explains, "Star Trek is a movement of the real that has actively changed the world and knowledge ... To grasp this shaking of the ground beneath our feet, we must commit ourselves to internal readings of stories, characters, and technologies. We must search for their inner logic and ask how they operate in their own original context" (286). This object-oriented approach is the foundation of the study's formidable strength.

The phenomenological method Shapiro chooses for his own course of study is to recount the plot of an episode, "like a reverse-engineering scriptwriter" (15), and then to interpret it hermeneutically. Regarding the samples Shapiro works with, he focuses on the episodes that thematize technology. As an object of fascination for Shapiro, technologies of Star Trek, he argues, manifest the movement of both simulation and seduction, both the disappearance of reality and the play of disappearance and reappearance. Since the technologies are thus elevated, "the style of 'literary analysis' is the same for stories and technologies, evolving into the study of a new kind of 'technoscience story' object" (20).

The eleventh and last chapter, "The Founding of Futurity," makes use of the Star Trek feature film First Contact in order to expose how Paramount Pictures' project ossified the hyper-reality of Star Trek by making it inevitable, yet simultaneously deferred, by postponing the advent of our own futurity to April 5, 2063, the day humans allegedly breach a light-speed barrier and make contact with extraterrestrials. At this point, Shapiro briefly revisits all the ideas he discussed previously and reminds us "there is a second kind of light speed that is of great importance already today. It is the speed of light of electromagnetic waves in the interactive multimedia networks; in cybernetic relays of telecommunications, television, the Internet, and digital computers; in the probe-sensor feedback loops of neural-direct and neural-extending biotechnologies" (356). Contrary to the culture industry's assertions, the future has already taken place.

It is through the movement of such juxtapositions and identifications that Shapiro teases out the richness of meaning of the individual stories and technologies. For example, when discussing the universal translator (Chapter 4), he makes a linguistic excursion to Klingon language and draws a parallel between Klingon/English and contemporary English/local languages relationships. Elsewhere, the presentation of The Original Series episode A "Taste of Armageddon" (Chapter 2), in which inhabitants of two rival planets willingly undergo “vaporization” in order to comply with the requirements of a computer-simulated war, conveys resemblance to spectacular wars of our own era. A large portion of the book devoted to cyborgs and artificial life forms (Chapters 7, 8, 9) makes the point that "we are already computerized (or deeply enmeshed with digital technology) in all the ways that count" (94). It is this far-reaching engagement of Star Trek with our own postmodernity and science that makes Shapiro's audience much larger than circles of fans and scholars of science fiction.

Star Trek both reflects and veils the anxieties and aspirations of the second half of the 20th and early 21st centuries. It at once raises important issues and removes them from our immediate vision. As Shapiro notes, "Star Trek or technoscience is constantly working on new technologies that radically change everything. Yet it is always insisting -- in the domain of ideas and discourse -- that liberal humanism remains fundamentally intact" (229). This, Shapiro argues, is a "strategy of deterrence" that prevents us from (or saves us from the task of) confronting the "new real."

Shapiro attempts to "explore the reservoirs of symbolic exchange within American culture, including radical technological creativity, that contest the dominant consumerism and militarism" (358). Star Trek, according to the author, is an example of such a reservoir. The challenging ideas distilled from Star Trek are summed up into 20 Star Trek Basic Principles that he includes in the introductory section of the book. In activating the creative potential of Star Trek, Shapiro draws on Jean Baudrillard's concepts, such as hyper-reality, simulation, or seduction. Although not every reader may be a partisan of all implications of Baudrillardian thought, one has to admit that the ingenuity with which Shapiro employs this conceptual apparatus and applies it to the object of his inquiry makes a strong case in its favor. Baudrillard's works are prominent in the bibliography. Other notable influences include Paul Virilio, especially on the notion of built-in accidents of technology, and N. Katherine Hayles on posthuman, cyborg bodies. To be sure, the entire bibliography is extensive, ranging from 19th century classics, through some of the sci-fi genre's finest novels, to up-to-date academic readings from humanities and theoretical physics fields.

At many places Shapiro takes a dismissive attitude toward the many hitherto available studies of Star Trek. "All the books published in The Science of Star Trek gold rush employ the same methodology of asking how does the 'universe of Star Trek' measure up to the external criteria of preestablished science" (286). Such an approach often seeks to capitalize on the popularity of the Star Trek technologies, which it seems to celebrate, while in fact it holds them and their feasibility in contempt. (To be fair, the book's back cover is also somewhat ambiguous in this regard.) In effect, readings by left-wing critics employ a similar strategy of external measurement, and they too become a target of Shapiro's remonstrations: "For these and countless other radical leftist and feminist theorists, Star Trek is nothing more than the battle of mainstream patriarchal and conservative American ideology against its real and imagined enemies ... Star Trek is too much of a mass phenomenon (too much 'where people really are') for leftist intellectuals to seriously engage with" (299-300). As a result, we learn less about Star Trek than about authors' agendas and respective academic fields, Shapiro says.

Shapiro is perhaps too quick to discard the relevance of the more traditional, critical readings of Star Trek. However, he must be given credit for letting the object, the stories, and technologies themselves speak their own mind. The acceptance of simulation (at least for the sake of the analysis) and taking technologies into account as a site of the inscription of meaning are Shapiro's major and inspiring contributions. Of course, polemic could always be introduced. For example, one could argue that by focusing on the accident of technologies, Shapiro makes the task of proving a point easier for himself. Not solely the accident, but the everyday life of technology, so to speak, can be also an important arena of signification. We must, however, admit that, in order to carry out an analysis in this direction, textualization of technologies à la Shapiro would be a necessary precondition [1].

One more feature of the book deserves to be mentioned. It uses several typefaces along with many types of marginal notes and almost 30 illustrations. The innovative use of paratextual instruments could be said to simulate a hypertextual reading experience. It reinforces the already ramified structure of the text, in which Shapiro makes frequent detours in order to elaborate his point. For example, apart from a Star Trek story, he gives ample consideration to the movie Blade Runner and to the concept of entanglement in quantum mechanics (the subtlety of which I failed to appreciate due to lack of my own erudition). Nonetheless, the two main textual threads remain the stories' synopses and the commentary on them. Inspired again by Baudrillard, Shapiro expresses hope that such dual/duel writing can bring about rewarding seduction (35). Though at first the reading can be demanding, it eventually arrives at coherence and the varying font types can serve as orientation points rather than as distraction. Nonetheless, an index would have been a useful part of the book.

Baudrillard wrote that at the event of the disappearance of reality, "everybody is the actor by the very fact of being in front of his screen: he lost sight of the real in the same time as he himself got lost from sight" [2]. Star Trek, then, would pose a dilemma: to save the real by switching off the screen, or, as I did, brush up Star Trek knowledge by renting a couple of DVDs. On the issue of praxis, Shapiro's book does not offer clear-cut advice.

[1] Concerning the method, Fredric Jameson1s (1982) critique of immanent modes of interpretation could be one of the choices for a polemical argument.

[2] see Baudrillard, 1997, p. 128.

Baudrillard, Jean, "Perdus de vue et vraiment disparus." In Écran Total. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1997.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Radim Hladik:
Radim Hladik is a graduate student at Charles University (Prague, Czech Republic), where he will receive his MA in Media Studies in June 2006 after defending his thesis on the historicity of communism as it is represented in post-communist cinema. His academic interests include Marxism, cultural studies, narratology, popular culture, and the situationist concept of the spectacle. To supplement his education at Charles University, Radim has studied in the United States at Bard College (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY) and Georgetown University (Washington, DC).  <radim.hladik@gmail.com>

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