Posted by: captainfalcon | December 3, 2011

Reimagining Star Trek

You hear people complain that TNG is anti-capitalist from time to time.  It’s an easy mistake to make.  TNG paints an unflattering portrait of those who are moved by avarice, and it is predicated on the feasibility of eliminating material want through a careful distribution of nodes of material abundance.  Both aspects of the show could rankle anybody who thinks that without the profit-motive, and a system (markets) for exploiting it to satisfy market-expressible preferences, material goods cannot be either plentiful or well-distributed.

But these people should get over their own idées fixe, because Star Trek isn’t trying to score political points.  The moral of the story concerns not how we should structure society, but how human beings should live within the society where we find ourselves.  That is: it’s aim is to show how it’s typical viewer — a person for whom basic material needs have largely been eliminated — should conduct himself: the habits of mind he should cultivate, and the moral and prudential norms he should internalize.

The Enterprise and the Borg Cube both have in common that they represent single minds.  Mr. Enterprise is a person with the following folk-psychological traits: empathy (the particular content of which is exemplified by Troi), analytical rigor (Data), aggression (Warf), instinct (Riker), and a mediating superego (Picard). [Interesting question where Jordi fits in.]

The show follows Mr. Enterprise as he navigates a world that, for all its superficial differences, is much like the world of a TNG viewer: reasonably safe and reasonably well provided for.  Mr. Enterprise has to deal with the occasional illness, the occasional setback, the occasional moral quandary, intellectual puzzles, and a variety of different kinds of people you might encounter (a shallow, avaricious person like a Ferengi vessel; a haughty, contemptuous person like a Romulan vessel; a posturing, aggressive person like a Klingon vessel; someone who tries to steal your child like Haven . . . and, yes, the analogy is imperfect).  The value of the show is in watching Mr. Enterprise’s deliberations — seeing how he thinks — and its moral is that we should think like Mr. Enterprise does.

Certainly, the moral of TNG is open to criticism.  It is arguable that Mr. Enterprise is unduly repressed and overly-deliberative.  It’s even arguable that he’s too much an embodiment of (something in the area of) the Protestant work-ethic (“much needed recreation,” in Picard’s turn of phrase, invariably gets delayed by some fascinating problem at work (i.e. in space)).  But the debate here is about how each of us ought to live, not about how our society should be structured.  The replicator and elimination of poverty is not meant as a social beacon to the attainment of which we should all strive.  Rather, it is a useful metaphor for situating Mr. Enterprise in a world much like the world of its viewers (well-educated, comfortable Americans).  Its point, in other words, is not to move us to anti-capitalist revolution, but to help us navigate and find value in the (capitalist) world where we live.


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