Plumb Lines

May 27, 2009

Star Trek Individualism

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 2:05 pm

Writing in the comments of my previous Star Trek post, Tracy Altman has made an observation that may pain some fans of Trek:

Six or eight months ago, I started toying around with the idea that Star Trek was both paradigmatic and symptomatic of an individualistic society in which commitment to any kind of traidtion is eschewed. Think about it: where does Trek find its ideal society? Not on any particular planet–the planets are invariably the locations of primitive, corrupt, and/or dysfunctional societies, and often of repressive regimes–but rather on a free-floating starship, with (literally) no ties to any of the planets it encounters. It’s a literal utopia, located in the literal no-place of space. It has little if any history to which it has to answer, and little if any posterity for which it has to plan. The starship is just the modern “self,” and the society on board is the contemporary ideal of a society in which everybody is merely free to “be him/herself,” wherever and whenever.

The one major check on this, of course, is the Prime Directive, which is a purely negative command: DON’T impose our society on other societies; DON’T interfere. It epitomizes what has become the cardinal virtue of contemporary ethics: not the positive virtue of love (caritas), but the purely negative one of harmlessness.

The only thing I would add is that in almost every episode the crew of the Enterprise ends up breaking the Prime Directive. Captain Kirk is the great interplanetary rule-breaker, someone who represents our society in his unwillingness to make sacrifices or to recognize the existence of no-win situations such as the “Kobiyashi Maru.” This is why he’s such a classically American character. He’s a product of a society that wants low taxes and a broad social safety net, traditional community and huge box stores.

Trek’s individualist tendencies are tempered a bit in The Next Generation. In that installment of the series, the starship is a floating colony accommodating whole families, not just a ship of hyper-individualists in tights and mini skirts.

Update: Tracy has some more great observations in the comments on this post.

Matthew Schmitz

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3 Comments »

  1. I’m a little floored that I got quoted . . .

    You’re absolutely right in your qualifications to my comments. But I think that, in addition to what you say about Kirk being a classically American character, he illustrates a deeper principle: that rootless utopian individualism can only ever be, at most, an incomplete tendency. It lacks the internal coherence needed to ripen into a fully realized vision, even of a fictional world; still less can it work, on its own terms, in the non-fictional world. So you have to have a rule-breaking Captain Kirk constantly undermining that vision’s directives, just to make the plot realistic—or, for that matter, even interesting.

    Families are featured on STTNG, but I notice there’s really no equivalent to Captain Kirk; everyone’s much more blandly Euro. I’m not quite sure what to make of that yet. Maybe it just illustrates the difficulties we have imagining a society in which fully-realized, pronounced individuals (e.g. Kirk) can live peacefully within a stable culture rooted in a shared history and growing toward a known posterity. I tend to say that secularism simply lacks a paradigm for that kind of vision; maybe classic Trek and Next-Generation Trek simply display two general ways in which secularism must fail. But I’m thinking off-the-cuff here.

    Comment by Tracy S. Altman — May 27, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

  2. “where does Trek find its ideal society? Not on any particular planet–the planets are invariably the locations of primitive, corrupt, and/or dysfunctional societies, and often of repressive regimes–but rather on a free-floating starship, with (literally) no ties to any of the planets it encounters. It’s a literal utopia, located in the literal no-place of space.”

    This is a really great point. Maybe Americans love Star Trek for the same reason they love their cars — they reject the strinctures of particular places. The logical terminus of the SUV with dvd players, surround-sound, etc., is the Enterprise.

    Comment by David Schaengold — May 28, 2009 @ 9:25 am

  3. Running with David’s thought, that would confirm the names of so many SUV’s: Explorer, Expedition, Navigator, Yukon. The Enterprise’s mission was to explore, to seek out–and then, most often (as the Prime Directive would have it) to leave. In the popular imagination, to explore is to be a mere spectator in another place; one of the most delicious things about it is the freedom to leave at any time, without consequence. The Enterprise is not only the logical terminus of the SUV—it’s the imaginative terminus as well.

    Comment by Tracy S. Altman — May 28, 2009 @ 1:03 pm


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