Thursday, September 08, 2016

Star Trek as both propaganda and art, a proposal for the fiftieth anniversary of the original series premiere

I wanted to call this Star Trek Serves Imperialism as a parody of Cornelius Cardew's Stockhausen Serves Imperialism.  But then it seemed like there's no point in using the title if I didn't maintain something like Cardew's sense of endless moralizing Marxist/Maoist outrage. 

Fifty years ago a show premiered that was a science fiction program that dared to imagine a better, nobler future than the nuclear annihilation.  Some people were optimistic enough, hopeful enough and brave enough to propose that not just the United States but the human race as a whole had a future better than the one suggested as possible by Doctor Strangelove.

Star Trek imagined better things were possible.  Even if the risk of nuclear war and the dread of eugenics as a variable in combat were around liberal style American democracy would prevail against the hordes of unreason, superstition and fear. 

So here we are, half a century later and there have been multiple shows and a bit more than a dozen movies.  When Terry Teachout made a case for why there basically can't be such a thing as classic television he wrote:

It thus occurs to me that I really ought to say something in this space regarding the only piece reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader about which I’ve had second thoughts–of a sort. In 2001 I published an essay in the Sunday New York Times called “The Myth of Classic TV” (they called it something else, but I restored my original title when I put it in the Teachout Reader). In it I wrote:
As it happens, only thirteen episodes of The Sopranos are aired each season, and the series is expected to have a fairly limited run. More typical is St. Elsewhere, which ran for 137 consecutive episodes, each of which grew organically out of its predecessors. Such long-running series can only be experienced serially, which for all practical purposes means during their original runs; once they cease to air each week in regular time slots, they cease to be readily available as total artistic experiences, and thus can no longer acquire new viewers, or be re-experienced by old ones. This is why there is no such thing as a “classic” TV series: we never see any series enough times to know whether its overall quality justifies the multiple viewings which are the hallmark of classic status. (Needless to say, I’m not talking about those fanatical cultists who have seen each episode of Star Trek a hundred times and can recite the dialogue from memory. To them, my heartfelt advice is: get a life.)

Considering the degree to which Star Trek came to dominate television as an art form it could be proposed that the measure of classic television (which by now we have to concede probably does exist) is its cult-formation status, not just within the generation of "everybody is talking about this, which really means "all the journalists I know about who I bother to read and who also want to talk about television are talking about this", but for generations.

Let's just throw this idea out there that Star Trek was designed to play the role of sociological integration propaganda for the kind of chauvinistic, optimistic smug blue state Great Society era Americanism that may have been a necessary tonic to Cold War paranoia in the late 1960s in the wake of reactions to Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove, but that it might not hurt us to step back and consider that Star Trek is a series that is a blunt secularist parable for the superiority of the American way of the sort that is not necessarily any more sophisticated than the moralism you might expect from a VeggieTales episode.

Lately Richard Brody has remarked upon how television seems to be the talked about thing among the internet and he made a defense of film that could be read, perhaps too easily, as a defense of "art" against "politics".  Brody's been concerned that films have taken a cue from thinkpiece-agitating television programs and worried that liberal cinema has been declining into lazy propaganda.

But let's just declare that anxiety misplaced because Brody fails to concede that cinematic narrative, whether on the large or small screen, has always been able to play the role of propaganda.  Ellul enumerated film as one of the forms of sociological propaganda that did not so much advocate a formal, explicit political agenda as celebrate a way of life.  Brody would be right to propose that television is unsubtle and insists on starting "conversation" about political issues and to that extent it just means that here we are, half a century after Star Trek insisted on making political and social statements as entertaining propaganda of integration, and people still write television shows with the goal of integration propaganda in mind.  Ellul's description:

Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 1965 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
ISBN 0-394-71874-7

page 75
Integration propaganda aims at stabilizing the social body, at unifying it and reinforcing it. [emphasis added] It is thus the preferred instrument of government, though properly speaking it is not exclusively political propaganda.  ... this type of propaganda can also be made by a group of organizations other than those of government, going in the same direction, more or less spontaneously ...

page 75-76
The most important example of the use of such propaganda is the United States. Obviously, integration propaganda is much more subtle and complex than agitation propaganda. It seeks not a temporary excitement but a total molding of the person in depth. Here all psychological and opinion analyses must be utilized, as well as the mass media of communication. It is primarily this integration propaganda that we shall discuss in our stud, for it is the most important of our time despite the success and the spectacular character of subversive propaganda. [emphasis added]

Let us note right away a final aspect of integration propaganda: the more comfortable, cultivated, and informed the milieu to which it is addressed, the better it works. Intellectuals are more sensitive than peasants to integration propaganda. In fact they share the stereotypes of a society even when they are political opponents of the society.  Take a recent example: French intellectuals opposed to war in Algeria seemed hostile to integration propaganda. Nevertheless, they shared all the stereotypes and myths of French society--Technology, Nation, Progress; all their actions were based on those myths. They were thoroughly ripe for an integration propaganda, for they were already adapted to its demands. [emphases added] Their temporary opposition was not of the slightest importance; just changing the color of the flag was enough to find them again among the most conformist of groups.

So, sure, television like Star Trek easily fits the bill of integration propaganda.  What made it unique for its time was that its creators pretty much spelled out that was their aim.  Roddenberry and company wanted an optimistic secular humanist program out there to promote good liberal secularist American values.  Does that keep it from being classic television?  Not in the least. 

One of the great misconceptions that developed in properly-thinking liberal sets in the West is an idea that the aims of propaganda and art are somehow inimical to each other.  The music composers of the Baroque era wrote helped to celebrate the wealth and splendor of regional merchants and autocrats.  Does that make Handel's music less beautiful?  Not really? Thanks to an us vs. them mentality that accrued for generations throughout the Cold War some Americans have gotten this idea that if art is explicitly political it stops being art and bears the taint of propaganda.  Well, sometimes propaganda rises to the level of art and sometimes what is passed off as great art can be seen to have a propagandistic element.  It may well be that we need to grow past the idea of thinking the vocational artist can do anything other than serve a ruling class within the context of an empire.  All your art can be is, in some sense, propaganda. 

If the Richard Brodys of the United States want to cordon off politics and beauty this could be a reminder of something Richard Taruskin's been proposing for decades, that American liberal highbrows have had an incentive to embrace this kind of ideology about the arts as a way to avoid confronting the distasteful reality that many of the most pioneering and innovative artists from the first half of the twentieth century were willing to embrace fascism and other forms of totalitarianism of the sort that American liberals spent a better part of the Cold War opposed to.

And perhaps someone like Brody would not concede that Star Trek is art or that it rises above the sort of self-congratulatory liberal propaganda he's worried American cinema is falling into (and he's a self-described Bill Clinton fan, at that).  But if Star Trek isn't art, or isn't very good art, we still have this fifty year anniversary to consider.  If we consider something as art on the basis of asking 1) "what did the artist set out to accomplish?" and 2) "did the artist accomplish that?" then surely Star Trek was a success and a show that only ran for three seasons has managed to permeate an entire culture over half a century whether people wanted this to happen or not.

After fifty years we can consider whether the seed planted in space has grown into a healthy plant. 

Something that critics of the Abrams Trek franchise have complained about is that the new crew doesn't get the Federation.  That may be true, but it may be that the Federation is not that clearly defined and that its meaning has changed.  Consider that in "Space Seed", when Kirk holds a tribunal to deal with Khan and the mutiny abetted by McGivers, Kirk says that it would be a waste to send Khan to a reorientation center.  Kirk offers Khan to settle a wild, untamed planet and offers McGivers the chance to join Khan rather than face courtmartial.  The offer is accepted.  McCoy is, as usual, unhappy with this approach.  Spock muses that it would be interesting to see what grows from the seed Kirk has planted.  At the time Captain Kirk's decision seemed to provide the best possible option.  Khan wasn't sent to some Federation brainwashing camp to be taught how to be a good conformist Federation citizen, after all.

Or do we want to linger all that long on the implications of the option Kirk had to send Khan to a reorientation facility?  If Parker and Stone had addressed this option in one of their episodes of South Park they'd perhaps joke that Kirk would have had the option to send Khan to tolerance camp.

Perhaps it's not brainwashing if "we" do it?

And we all know the story, decades later the decision that seemed wise to Kirk at the time brings disaster.  Unbeknownst to the Enterprise crew Khan's planet is waylaid by the death of an adjacent world and he loses Marla McGivers and his mind.  Khan seizes the most improbable series of coincidences to begin exacting revenge on Kirk and we get that cult classic Wrath of Khan.  This isn't a pulp classic because Kirk learns anything.  He "learns" nothing at all.  What's fun about the film is that it stands alone.  You don't even need to have seen "Space Seed" to get the basics of the characters.  But the poignancy of the story is that as these men face down the inevitability of age and the irreversibility of the disasters caused by decisions they made decades ago that seemed like the best options at the time, we get to see these characters grapple with their own fallibility and mortality.  We learn that Kirk is the sort who's willing to cheat a little if it gets him out of a no-win scenario, because he doesn't believe in no-win scenarios.

Wrath of Khan became classic pop culture by giving us a story where, at least within the film itself and before the sequel undid all of those costs,  Spock's decision gave us a rebuke to the self-congratulatory cheating of James Kirk and the monomaniacal vengeance-seeking of Khan--even if you don't believe in a "no-win" scenario there's never a no-sacrifice solution.  As Kirk ruefully admits at the end of Star Trek 2, he'd cheated death and evaded death and laughed in self-congratulation for his wit and luck but he'd never really faced death, if by death we mean losing someone he actually cares about in contrast to a parade of interchangeable redshirts at least.  He faced death plenty of times in the series, even if losing his brother and sister-in-law in Operation: Annihilate was punctuated by a lot of over-the-top bad acting at the end of Star Trek, season 1.   Still, you know, for the sake of Star Trek 2 being released on a non-Star Trek world ... this wasn't a misrepresentation for the film-going America of the time.

So, let's play a little.  If Kirk had sent Khan to a reorientation center (i.e. brainwashing camp) would Wrath of Khan not have happened?  If the answer is "no", if the answer is that Khan would at some point come back to exact vengeance on Kirk then Kirk was in that situation he refused to believe in, a no-win scenario.  If Khan could have been effectively brainwashed into being a compliant participant of Federation life ... wait ... Kirk considered it "a waste" to send a man as ambitious and talented as Khan to such a facility.  But that such a center existed and that Federation protocols for judicial action would have prescribed Khan being sent to a reorientation center is in some sense presupposed by the fact that Kirk surprises McCoy and Spock by refusing to exercise that judicial option.  As Kirk explained to Spock earlier in "Space Seed" there will always be an element of barbarity in the human race.  We may be able to sublimate it and keep it at bay but it will always be there.

And perhaps that's what elevated the constantly corny and overly earnest original Star Trek series into being some kind of art in a way that subsequent iterations of the franchise arguably are not. The original Star Trek could imagine us (as in the United States first and the rest of humanity thereafter) transcending our barbaric tendencies by recognizing how inescapable they are.  Perhaps this could potentially explain why Christians who don't hold to the sort of liberal secularism Star Trek has espoused for half a century can find things to appreciate about it.  What Kirk called the always present if sometimes latent streak of barbarity in humanity Christians would call the capacity for sin. 

So, sure, maybe Star Trek has always been propaganda for an explicitly American secular liberal view but its longevity and cult status might give us an opportunity to interrogate some of the bromides that emerged within a Cold War context about the impossibility of art and propaganda coinciding.  I know there are folks who admire highbrow art who want to cordon off art as some sacred space distinct from entertainment but if you don't attain that lower level along the way does anyone stick around long enough to get the higher level?  Star Trek is cheesy, corny, self-serious and camp, and yet here we are half a century later.  There's no art that is beyond some capacity for criticism.  Berlioz thought Bach was dreadfully tedious, for instance.  Mike Nelson of MST3K said in the last millennium that Star Trek was fun space opera but not art, not Art with a capital A.  Are the Three Stooges art, then? 

But that's enough rambling about the franchise for a day.

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