[printer friendly version ]

ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)

Baudrillard and Trek-nology (Or Everything I Know I Learned From Watching Star Trek and Reading Jean Baudrillard)1  

Alan N. Shapiro
(Frankfurt, Germany)

 

We should be greatly mistaken were we to view science fiction as an escape from everyday reality: on the contrary, it is an extrapolation from the irrational tendencies of that reality through the free exercise of narrative invention.2

 

I. Introduction

            It was my childhood in New York in the late 1960s. As a good Jew, I was supposed to acquire a Jewish education. But instead I loved Star Trek. Everything I know I learned from watching Star Trek. Among other things, I learned to love science. This made me a good American. So I went to the elite technology university. But I didn't like the complicity of science with the Vietnam War that existed there. So I dropped out. I was radicalized. I then went to the elite humanities university. But the American radical thinkers were all Marxists. Then I read Jean Baudrillard's book The Mirror of Production. I grasped that Marx was not radical enough.3 Everything I know I learned from reading Baudrillard. Later I tried to practice a compromise between technology and the humanities known as sociology. Then I read Baudrillard's book In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. There he says that sociologists, just like marketing executives and politicians, want to socialize the masses. But the masses resist by going silent and "playing dead."4 They disappear into over-consumption and fandom.

            The disappearing act of today is techno-culture, or more precisely, Star Trek. Star Trek is the most prevalent "icon" of techno-culture. Physicists, engineers, computer programmers, graphic artists, and media practitioners are its adamant fans. But the Star Trek industry neutralizes Star Trek's original creativity. It programs an automatic system of endless simulated differences, to ensure that viewers will never be able to see any true other. That is why I read Star Trek against Star Trek. Through doubling and decentering, I parodistically map Baudrillard's system of thought onto Star Trek.5 On two levels, there is an uncanny resemblance between Baudrillard and Star Trek. First, there is an exact correspondence between Baudrillard's keywords and the principles of "The Original Series" Star Trek episodes: radical uncertainty, recognition of otherness, accident and surprise of technology, symbolic exchange, the dual relationship. Second, there are the pataphysical science fiction technologies: the transporter, warp speed, time travel, the Holodeck. These Trek-nologies are based on quantum physics uncertainty and chaos theory complexity. By applying pressure at both ends - Star Trek as literature, Star Trek as wily technologies - there is a double-strategy of adding a little "critical theory" real and speaking only in this "fatal theory" futuristic language. Now please follow me to explore strange new worlds in outer space. Let us consider a few Star Trek episodes and technologies up close, starting with virtual reality.

II. Treknology

            The Holodeck is the most famous virtual reality system, created in the 1990s for the series Star Trek: The Next Generation. But this post-television technology merely brings to fruition total visual information and leads to the end of aesthetic illusion. By contrast, the invention of virtual reality in the original Star Trek episodes of the 1960s artistically embodies Baudrillard's principles of radical uncertainty, the vital illusion, and the surprise of technology.

            In the episode "Shore Leave," Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy enter the virtual reality system of the Amusement Park Planet by chance and without knowing what it is. They encounter mysterious and enchanting physical appearances from their daydreams which play on the tension between real and imaginary. At the beginning of the episode, McCoy leads an away team scouting a planet with no apparent life-forms. He is alone for just a moment when a four-foot tall white rabbit appears, then disappears again into a deep hole in the ground. Dumbfounded, the Doctor motions towards the hole when Alice (from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) appears and asks if he has seen a large white rabbit come along. At the same time, Kirk sees an old schoolmate named Finnegan whom he owes a day of reckoning. Kirk runs after Finnegan. When he at last catches up with him, it occurs to Kirk that he has no idea how Finnegan has gotten here. Captain's Log, Stardate 3025.8: "We are seeing things that cannot possibly exist, yet they are undeniably real."

            The episode "A Taste of Armageddon" is a perfect parallel to Baudrillard's thesis in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place that "we are no longer in an Aristotelean logic of passage from the virtual to the actual, but in a hyperreal logic of deterrence of the real by the virtual."6 The explanation of Anan-Seven of the Planetary Division of Control to Captain Kirk is interrupted by an air raid siren. "Vendikar is attacking." A Council chamber wall slides open to reveal a War Room, filled with mainframe computers and illuminated graphs. Anan tells Kirk that a vicious onslaught has just been carried out by the ruthless adversary. A half-million people were killed. In spite of all the talk of annihilation, scans by Yeoman Tamura's tricorder indicate no bomb blasts or radiation disturbances anywhere on the planet. The War of the Worlds is waged entirely by computer simulation. After a cyberwar program determines which inhabitants have been terminated in a given virtual explosion, "deaths are registered." The designated victims have twenty-four hours to report to a disintegration machine. As in America's wars, those who actually die are the Data Trash ejected by the war video game.7 These shadow-people furnish the necessary dose of reality-effect. The hyperreal simulation of war is above all a method of domination of Western citizens by their states and institutional elites, embedded in the power system of the virtual spaces of the media. America is a simulacral power engaged in the simulacrum of war, using the Other as a convenient alibi for its perfect crime.

            To practice a radical "after sociology" "after Baudrillard," we must bring together critical theory and fatal theory. As Rex Butler says in his indispensable book Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real, we must devise a way of writing about a system that follows its internal logic to the end, adds nothing to it, yet inverts it entirely. This écriture is totally specific to each system examined.8 In the case of Star Trek, we must unify Star Trek as literature and Star Trek as wily technologies. Later, in the context of the most famous Trek-nology – the transporter, I demonstrate how these two analyses come together. Before getting into the implications of "beam me up Scotty," I want to briefly discuss two other Trek-nologies: time travel and warp speed. The latter is the Star Trek synonym for faster-than-light speed.


III. Real (Pata)physics

            A surprising amount of theoretical physics research is directed towards establishing the scientific prerequisites for time travel. As defined by Alfred Jarry, whom Baudrillard often cites with good humor, pataphysics is the painstaking elaboration of imaginary scientific solutions, expressed in persuasive language.9 "Exotic theories" about the workability of time travel are today furiously debated in serious physics journals. About fifteen new scholarly papers a year are published on the subject.10

            In the 1980s, interest in standard nonrotating black holes and in the rotating variant skyrocketed. Mathematician Roy Kerr postulated that a black hole singularity does not have to implode to a point with strong gravity and infinite density. If its origin were a spinning star, it might break down into a circulating ring of neutrons. This state would permit a space traveler to enter the ring or wormhole in a technology-assisted manner. The traveler could exit in a faraway location in space, a different millennium in time, or a parallel universe. Speculation about time travel became widespread, much to the initial annoyance of most serious theoretical physicists. Kip Thorne of Cal Tech, a leading expert on the general theory of relativity, began his black hole research with the goal of disproving all the nonsensical suppositions about time travel. Today Thorne is one of the leading proponents of time travel pataphysics.11  In 1994, physicist Miguel Alcubierre Moya published a paper on general relativity and warp speed that explains the principles of the Alcubierre Warp Drive. This contribution inaugurated a new branch of physics called warp drive theory.

            Alcubierre's design for interstellar travel calls for the manipulation of spacetime in front of and behind the starship. The paper has been hailed as a landmark in the transition from warp drive as a fictional concept to a real scientific topic. Alcubierre's scheme violates no known physical laws. It provides a mathematical description of the curvature of space that would permit travel between two locations separated by light-years in an arbitrarily short time.12 In 1996, NASA established the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project to investigate the practicability of warp drive. According to its web site, researchers would pursue the scientific breakthrough of "propulsion that requires no propellant mass."13

            In the episode "The Enemy Within," Captain Kirk, Lieutenant Sulu, Technician Fisher, and other Enterprise crew members are approaching the end of a geological survey mission on planet Alpha 177. Near the landing party's makeshift camp, Fisher falls onto a bed of magnetic ore and cuts his hand. We see yellow stains all over his clothing. Kirk instructs Fisher to beam back up to the ship. Lieutenant Commander Scott and Transporter Technician Wilson are at the operator's console of the Enterprise Transporter Room when a red warning light starts to blink. Fisher has trouble rematerializing. Scotty tells Wilson to compensate for an extra Doppler wave frequency shift.

            Kirk is now ready to beam up, but Scotty is not convinced that the transporter machinery is safe. The Chief Engineer begins the transport process anyway. Kirk reappears standing on one of the circular plates of the open chamber. The Captain looks weakened. He holds his left hand to his brow and stumbles from the elevated landing. Scotty helps the palpably shaken Kirk out to the corridor, leaving the Transporter Room unattended.

            A humanoid figure, bent slightly with its back towards us, assumes perceptible form on the same platform disc where Kirk became visible just instants before. The man turns around and we observe a second, more savage-looking Kirk, with sinister eyes darting from side to side, resembling a rabid animal just released from its cage.  The duplicate Kirk walks to the Transporter control console and lustfully communes with the technology that has accidentally given him life. He leers at the mechanism with which his existence is intimately entwined. He gazes at the phase transition coils status display with wide eyes full of desire. He runs his fingers sensually over the imaging scanner and manual sequence controls, a lewd expression etched into his face.

            According to television legend, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry devised the transporter as a way of saving money. The costs of landing the Enterprise on a planet, and having it take off again, would have been prohibitive. But in "The Enemy Within," what is expressed about the transporter is deeply felt anxiety regarding the inherent accident of technology. Evil Kirk is the intrinsic accident that belongs by necessity to futuristic technoscience.

            But how does the transporter "really work"? Over the decades, the explanations of how Star Trek's beaming technology might work have undergone paradigm shifts. The original notion was the dematerialization-rematerialization, matter-to-energy conversion and back physical transporter. This was followed by the information-based digital transporter. Finally came the "entangled photon pairs" quantum teleporter, already built experimentally by physicists for light particles and, as reported recently in the news media, for atoms.

            In the 1990s, theoretical physicists such as Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss issued the negative verdict that the physical transporter is unworkable due to the laws of physics and to considerations of practicality. How could the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, wondered Krauss in "The Physics of Star Trek," possibly be overcome? The physical transporter would have to deal with the impossibility of precise measurements of the subatomic constituents of any object. Inspired by the information society Zeitgeist, Krauss proposed a "being digital" transporter. This apparatus constructs the new incarnation of the arriving subject by combining the digitized map of her informational bits with an accessible supply of malleable sludge matter to make "as many copies as you want of an individual."14 This concept exemplifies the widespread assumption in techno-culture that the definition of a living being is to be found in the coded recipe of its biogenetic sequencing.

            Roddenberry's modernist conception of a physical transporter did not suggest any threat to prevalent ideas about subjectivity. The mental picturing of the transmission of a person's matter stream within a confinement beam still evoked traditional associations of point-to-point transportation of an intact bodily self. The postmodernist digital transporter and hypermodernist quantum teleporter gesture towards a paradigm shift in the definition of what it means to be human. It is conceded that a copy of myself, either created from the same model informational pattern or emanating from a quantum mechanical coupled entanglement, is identical to me. The techno-cultural craze of the scientific realization of beaming indicates that something fundamental about human existence is changing in the present. In terms of the implied new relationship to mortality, it will be a question of accepting the death of the original subject just one single time when the startup clone of myself is manufactured. This death will be rationalized as a small price to be paid for the acquisition of a useful and generalized cybernetic prosthesis. Who will not agree to the minor inconvenience of his own death or not be willing to ignore the minor philosophical technicality of "who is really me?" in economic exchange for being able to travel instantly from Paris to New York?  But this is not the view of "The Enemy Within." In the stories themselves, Star Trek is complexly ambivalent towards the presuppositions and values of techno-culture.

            Quantum physics experimenters at IBM and the University of Innsbruck have brought to realization the technology of quantum entanglement. Two subatomic particles become inextricably linked in a way that a change to one of them is instantly reflected in its counterpart, no matter how physically separated they are. One of the twinned particles of light is sent out at light speed to a distant remote location, while its counterpart remains locally behind.15

            The Uncertainty Principle precludes taking any useful direct readings of the properties of an isolated photon. An ingenious workaround technique jointly measures a third photon in conjunction with the local member of the entangled pair. The remote entangled particle, sitting inside an arrival chamber at the far end of the solar system, immediately takes on the properties of the third photon. Quantum entanglement is more than mere remote control of duplicating a micro particle's quantum properties. It is genuine teleportation because, as physicist Anton Zeilinger says, "particles of the same type in the same quantum state are indistinguishable even in principle."16 A photon is nothing else but its quantum state. Its state is its identity. Nothing more can be said to be objectively real about it. After quantum physics, do we accept that "what one can know, one must know" and get on with the business of realizing technologies, whose "nihilistic" selection criteria are science fiction culture's desire to actualize them? Or do we choose humility before the world's ungraspable illusion, acknowledging the surpassing of the "real world" by singular quantum effects which appear and disappear?

            Quantum teleportation has consequences for the paradigm shift in what is meant by identity, difference, and alter-ation in existence. In the hypermodernist "beaming" device, the teleporting photon at the sending station is destroyed. This happens in the course of performing the transfer of quantum properties. The teleporting photon loses all state. Its information disappears.17 Only the teleported photon at the receiving station stays in existence, identical in both properties and "essence" to the original. In an earlier philosophical-cultural episteme, it might have been asserted that there is difference between the remote particle and the particle of origin. But for twenty-first century techno science, there is a redressed identity or reduction to zero difference between original and copy (with the remaining différance of the cloning accident). The technology of instantaneous transport has been achieved, soon to be upgraded and refined for molecules, suitcases, lab rats, and post humans.
 

IV. Evil Protects Us

            Scotty has been hard at work assessing the operational condition of the transporter. The probable catalyst of the malfunction was the soft yellow ore containing "unknown magnetic elements" that had coated Fisher's jumpsuit.  As suggested by chaos theory, a system like the transporter works fine so long as  circumstances shield its too limited conception as a controllable sealed off system from the disruptions of wider environmental factors. An "unaccounted for" outside variable enters into play as the provocator of an intrinsic accident. It reshuffles the complex system's initial conditions and incites a reversibility of effects.

            The two Kirks come face to face for the first time. Evil Kirk holds a phaser to Weak Kirk "You can't hurt me," the first Kirk says. "I'm part of you. You need me."  Kirk-Two is Kirk's internal radical other. He is a reminder of the biographical vicissitudes that make us human. "The Enemy Within" is a classic tale of useful alienation. It depicts the indispensability of the shadow and the evil twin of radical otherness to the salutary habitat of being. The symbolic double and the awareness of death protect human existence within a survival zone where it resists being reduced to its predetermined future itinerary or redundant identity with a series of clones. Technology's mainstream trajectory precipitates the demise of the artistic sphere as learning territory where we encounter instructive doubles.  Technology has a secondary dimension which is seductively teased out in "The Enemy Within." We glimpse this possibility of wily stratagem when Kirk-Two steps down from the transporter platform and erotically embraces the control console in covert conjugation.

            Evil Kirk is more than an accident as contingency. He is technology. He is the revenge of artifice against the project of the world's simplification. Technology is the domain of the radical illusion of the world, where the device evades its masters and turns its cunning against the facile convictions of its inventors who wish to rule a compliant world through technique.

            From the standpoint of the good Kirk, the malfunction is the transporter's spewing out of negativity in favor of the positive. The transporter tries to exorcize evil. The total and purified information that must become available to the clean room system in order to instantiate a new "me" has to be uncontaminated by strange attractors.

            Spock at first believes that Weak Kirk is the real Kirk and Evil Kirk is an imposter, an "extra double" discharged as "fraudulent illusion." But the Science Officer soon grasps that Evil Kirk is something more consequential than a fake, and that Weak Kirk is not the "real Kirk" either. With the realization growing that Weak Kirk is lacking in the modernist capability of carefully considered action enlightened by context-based knowledge, McCoy tries to get Kirk-One to see that Kirk-Two is indeed that "evil" within himself that he cannot do without. "We all have our darker side. We need it. It's not really ugly, it's human." McCoy states his disagreement with the principle of good, which is really the principle of the separation of good and evil, as opposed to their mutual dependence.

            The necessary accident of the duplicate Kirk turns a questioning spotlight on the "essence" or punctum of the transporter, which is the absolutist phantasmagoria of total knowledge of a person captured in a digital pattern image or quantum physics snapshot of their subatomic particles. It is the dream of a human being understandable entirely through her information, identical to herself, and leading a completely knowable existence. As Baudrillard writes:

Evil protects us from the worst-case scenario... We are traditionally sensitive to the threat which the ‘forces of Evil’ pose for the Good, whereas it is the threat posed by the forces of Good which is the fateful threat to the world of the future. ...We are on course for the perfect crime, perpetrated by Good and in the name of Good, for the implacable perfection of the technical, artificial universe which will see the accomplishment of all our desires, of a world unified by the elimination of all anti-bodies. This is our negentropic phantasm of total information. That all matter should become energy and all energy information. ...That all genes should be operational...18


V. Conclusion

            Scotty has expedited repairs to the transporter, using bypass circuits wired to the impulse engines. Weak Kirk holds his listless double upright in his arms, seemingly with love, as they get ready to energize. Spock pushes down a control console slider. A long silence. He moves the slider back up. One Kirk reappears on the platform. We see McCoy's tense expression, then an equally strained look on Spock's face. "Jim?" asks McCoy hesitantly.

            Baudrillard admonished the Simulationist and Appropriationist artists of the 1980s (Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine and Peter Halley), who sought legitimacy for their works by making reference to his writings on simulation, simulacra, and the end of the real.19 But the referent has "long ago" been substituted by the sign. "If you take Baudrillard seriously," he told them, then "you must forget Baudrillard.”20 Academic attempts at "applying deconstruction" have also seemed notoriously contrived. By identifying Star Trek as a "media precognition" of Baudrillard (as Stefan Höltgen commented earlier at this symposium); and by writing about "what I love"; via a mutual anagrammatizing that finally renders Baudrillard and Star Trek indistinguishable; and through performing the illusion, joy, poetics, irony, disappearance and Trojan horse strategies outlined in Baudrillard's essay "Radical Thought," I have engaged in an experiment to cross over from French theory to American hyper-reality.21 I hope I have avoided the missteps of the Simulationist artists in my effort to contribute to an understanding of the emergence of the "Baudrillard turn."


Alan N. Shapiro is an American expatriot who now works as a software developer. He formerly taught sociology at New York University.  He is the author of Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance.  Berlin: AVINUS Verlag, 2004. He is also author of two articles in Ctheory.net: “Captain Kirk Was Never The Original“ http://www.ctheory.net/text_file.asp?pick=91 and “The Star Trekking of Physics“ http://www.ctheory.net/text_file.asp?pick=95. He has recently become an editor of IJBS.
 


Endnotes

1 This paper was presented at the Baudrillard and the Arts: A Tribute to His 75th Birthday. A Symposium at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, in July 16-18, 2004. It has been translated from the German by the author. See: http://www.zkm.de/baudrillard-treffen.

2 Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c1968). New York: Verso, 1996:119.

3 Jean Baudrillard. The Mirror of Production. St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975. Translated by Mark Poster.

4 Jean Baudrillard. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities ...Or The End of the Social. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983. Translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and John Johnston. See also "Forget Baudrillard: An Interview with Sylvère Lotringer" in Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault, Forget Baudrillard. Semiotext(e), New York 1987:104.

5 Alan N. Shapiro. Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance. Berlin: AVINUS Verlag, 2004.

6 Jean Baudrillard. La Guerre du Golfe n'a pas eu lieu. Paris: Editions Galilée, 1991:15. my translation.

7 Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein. Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

8 Rex Butler. Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real. London: SAGE, 1999:120. See also Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:150. Translated by Chris Turner.

9 Alfred Jarry. Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien, suivi de L'Amour Absolu. Paris: Gallimard, 1980.

10 See, for example: Steven Hawking  “Space and Time Warps“ http://www.hawking.org.uk/text/public/warps.html

11 Kip S. Thorne. Black Holes & Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy (Foreword by Stephen Hawking). New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1994.

12 Miguel Alcubierre. "The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity" in Journal of Classical and Quantum Gravity 11, 1994.

14 Lawrence M. Krauss. The Physics of Star Trek (Foreword by Stephen Hawking). New York: Basic Books, 1995:68.

15 Amir D. Aczel. Entanglement: The Greatest Mystery in Physics. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002.

16 Anton Zeilinger. "Quantum Teleportation" in Scientific American. April 2000:39.

17 Amir Aczel. Entanglement: The Greatest Mystery in Physics. New York: Avalon Press, 2002:242.

18 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:92, 99.

19 Rachel Greene. Internet Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004:26-7.

20 Comment made by Jean Baudrillard during the main panel discussion at this symposium (see endnote 1).

21 Stefan Höltgen. "Terror, Kunst und Theorie: Jean Baudrillard Wird 75," in Nach dem Film, September, 2004: http://www.nachdemfilm.de/report/baudrillard.html.  Jean Baudrillard, "Radical Thought," in The Perfect Crime. London: Verso, 1996:94-105. Translated by Chris Turner.

 


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)

[Main Page]   [Contents]   [Editorial Board]   [Submissions]