(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 13 April 2016.)
The camera focuses on a futuristic spacecraft against the background of distant galaxies. The narrator’s voice proudly recites the guiding dictum: “Space – the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission – to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” With these words began each episode of the popular television series Star Trek.
Star Trek is an American science fiction entertainment franchise created by Gene Roddenberry. It reflected the social and cultural ideas of two generations in Western society, and in turn influenced the young men and women of these two generations, not only in Western society, but also across the world either directly or indirectly, through other forms of cultural and entertainment mediums it inspired.
For those who are less familiar with science fiction, Star Trek is not to be confused with Star Wars. Star Trek has been a cult phenomenon for decades. Two generations of Star Trek television series and movies make up the main canon. The first generation, now referred to as The Original Series, debuted in 1966 and ran for three seasons until 1969. It followed the interstellar adventures of Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the starship Enterprise, an exploration vessel of the 23rd-century interstellar “United Federation of Planets”.
The second generation began with Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) and was followed by other series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-99), Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), and Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-05), and a new untitled series is expected to debut in 2017.
In many ways The Next Generation was simply an updated version of the earlier Star Trek series, placed in a future era, after the resolution of some of the galactic political difficulties that plagued the universe of the previous space voyagers. Yet, sometime after Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s new breed of explorers took over the command of the redesigned Enterprise from Captain Kirk’s crew, the creators of the series discovered that the world of their audience was in the midst of a subtle paradigm shift: modernity was giving birth to postmodernity.
As a result, The Next Generation became a reflection – perhaps even a molder – of the worldview of the emerging young generation. The shifts evident in the transition from Star Trek to Star Trek: The Next Generation reflect a deeper transition occurring in not only Western society, but also the world of the late 20th century. This is the subject of my essay.
Modernity and Star Trek
The original Star Trek series stood for the values of modernity. The postwar baby boom generation (the parents of today’s young generation) grew up embracing the 17th and 18th century ideas of the Age of Enlightenment. They had faith that knowledge would bring political freedom and economic progress. Liberal democracy and market capitalism were the rational response for ordering human society.
This is the generation for whom the goal of the human intellectual quest is to unlock the secrets of the universe in order to master nature for human benefit and create a better world. This quest characterized modernity in the 20th century, which sought to bring rational management to life in order to improve human existence through technology. It opened the way for the explosion of knowledge and an unshakeable belief in inevitable progress under the banner of what Jürgen Habermas called the “Enlightenment project.”
In creating the first Star Trek, Roddenberry had a goal: “[By creating] a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles. Indeed, we did make them on Star Trek: we were sending messages and fortunately they all got by the network.”
Roddenberry intended the show to have a progressive political agenda reflective of the emerging youth counter-culture movement. He wanted Star Trek to show humanity what it might develop into if it would learn from the lessons of the past, most specifically by ending violence. An extreme example was the alien Vulcans species, who had a violent past but had learned to control their emotions.
Roddenberry also gave Star Trek an anti-war message and depicted the United Federation of Planets as an ideal, optimistic version of the United Nations.
The network was initially concerned about the show’s marketability and resisted Roddenberry’s plan to cast the Enterprise with a racially diverse crew, but his plan eventually prevailed.
The crew included persons of various nationalities working together for the common benefit of humankind. They were the epitome of the modern universalist anthropology. The message was obvious: we are all human, and we must overcome our differences and join forces in order to complete our mandate, the quest for certain, objective knowledge of the entire universe, of which space looms as “the final frontier.”
One hero of the old Star Trek was Spock. Although he was the only crewmember who came from another planet (he was half-human, half-Vulcan), in his nonhumanness he actually served as a transcendent human ideal. Spock was the ideal Enlightenment man, completely rational and without emotion (or at least able to hold his emotions in check). His dispassionate rationality repeatedly provided the key to solving problems encountered by the crew of the Enterprise.
The writers of Star Trek: The Original Series were arguing that in the end our problems could be solved by the application of rational expertise.
Postmodernism and The Next Generation
Postmodernism represents a rejection of the Enlightenment project and the assumptions upon which modernity was built. The postmodern perspective is reflected in the second series – Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The crew of the later Enterprise is more diverse than that of the original, including species from other parts of the universe. This change represents the broader universality of postmodernity: humankind is no longer the only advanced intelligence, for evolution has been operative throughout the cosmos.
More importantly, the understanding of the quest for knowledge has changed. Humankind is not capable of completing the mandate alone; nor does the burden of the quest fall to humans alone. The crew of the Enterprise symbolizes the “new ecology” of humankind in partnership with the universe. Their mission is no longer to boldly go “where no man has gone before” but “where no one has gone before.”
In The Next Generation, Spock is replaced by Data, an android. In a sense, Data is a more fully realized version of the rational thinker than Spock, capable of superhuman intellectual feats. Nevertheless, despite his seemingly perfect intellect, he is not the transcendent human ideal that Spock embodies, because he is a machine. Although he often provides valuable assistance in dealing with problems, he is only one of several who contribute to finding solutions. The limit of rationality is the new message of and for the young generation.
Data also desires to understand what it means to be human, and in fact to become human. He is therefore unlike Spock and believes he is somehow incomplete because he lacks such things as a sense of humor, emotion, and the ability to dream; and, indeed, he feels that he has become more complete when he later discovers that his maker programmed a capacity to dream into his circuitry.
In addition to the “master of rationality,” the Enterprise crew includes persons skilled in the affective and intuitive dimensions of human life. Especially prominent is Deanna Troi, half-human and half-Betazoid, a woman gifted with the ability to perceive the hidden feelings of others. Thus the role of the sub-conscious is given a more prominent place through the roles performed by Data and Troi.
The new voyages of the Enterprise lead its variegated crew into a postmodern universe. In this new world, time is no longer simply linear, appearance is not necessarily reality, and the rational is not always to be trusted.
In contrast to The Original Series, which in typical modern fashion generally ignores questions of God and religious belief, the postmodern world of The Next Generation shows interest in the supernatural, embodied in the strange character “Q.”
Q is initially presented as a cosmic force judging humanity, but his role morphs into one of a teacher to Captain Picard and the human race generally – albeit often in seemingly destructive ways and subject to his own amusement.
Although possessing the classical divine attributes of omniscience and omnipotence, the godlike being “Q” is morally ambiguous, displaying both benevolence and a bent toward cynicism and self-gratification. Q and his fellow Q (yes, there are other individuals in the Q realm) are continually evasive regarding their motivations. The new transcendental figure (or figures) of The Next Generation Series that replaces the old half-human Spock is a non-rational or irrational supernatural being.
Our society is in the throes of a transition, moving from modernity to postmodernity. The emerging generation has been nurtured in a context shaped less by a commitment to the Enlightenment values embodied in The Original Series than by the postmodern vision of The Next Generation.
Lying at the foundation of the postmodern attack on modernism is the rejection of the Enlightenment conception of truth. To the postmodernist, the world is deeply fragmented into parts that are totally different from one another. So each have their own truths and it is not possible to have a single truth without doing violence to each. Deep pluralism denies any possibility for the human mind to discover a nonexistent absolute or transcendental truth. Rational discourse becomes futile as a means to truth discovery. All knowledge is perspectives, metaphors in disguise, and fictions we author.
The postmodern mind-set emerged as a cultural phenomenon between 1960 and 1990. But why did it happen? How can we account for the meteoric rise of this ethos in our society?
The intellectual roots of postmodernism can be traced to 19th century German Romanticism with its emphasis on mysticism, spirituality, aesthetics, the non-rational and the sub-conscience. But the total assault against the Enlightenment structure itself belonged to Friedrich Nietzsche. Although he spoke with many different voices, Nietzsche consistently showed himself to be a foe of modernity and rationality. For this he deserves the accolade “patron saint of postmodern philosophy.”
The economic and social sources of the rise of postmodernism can be linked to the arrival of the information era during the second half of the 20th century. The rapid spread of postmodernism parallels and has been dependent on the transition to an information society.
The manufacturing or service worker has given way to the information creator and handler. And for business, the emergence of the postmodern society has meant a shift from the modern technique of centralized control to the new model of networking. A more decentralized, participatory form of decision-making replaces hierarchical structures.
The information society functions on the basis of an organized communication network that spans the globe. The efficiency of this integrated system is astounding. Information can now be gathered from almost anywhere on the globe almost instantaneously. We now inhabit a global village.
The Uncentered Realm of Postmodernism
The advent of the global village has produced seemingly self-contradictory effects. The mass culture and global economy is uniting the world on one level, but it is also falling apart on another. The advent of postmodernity has fostered simultaneously both a global consciousness and the erosion of national consciousness.
Nationalism has diminished in the wake of a movement toward “retribalization,” toward increased loyalty to a more local context. This impulse is found in such unlikely places as Canada, which is repeatedly plagued by threats of secession by the largely French-speaking province of Quebec and by feelings of alienation among its Western provinces.
The advent of the postindustrial information society as the successor to the modern industrial society provides the foundation for the postmodern ethos. Life within the global village imbues its citizens with a vivid awareness of the cultural diversity of our planet.
These characteristics indicate that the post-modern ethos is “centerlessness.” No clearly-shared focus unites the diverse and divergent elements of postmodern society into a single whole. There are no longer any common standards to which people can appeal in their efforts to measure, judge, or value ideas, opinions, or lifestyle choices. Fading as well are old allegiances to a common source of authority and a commonly regarded and respected wielder of legitimate power.
As the center dissolves, our society is increasingly becoming a conglomerate of societies. These smaller social units have little in common apart from geographic proximity. At times, this can be deeply troubling as has appeared when Yugoslavia collapsed.
At its best, it demands and encourages us to adopt a new pluralist mindset that embraces more than just tolerance for other practices and viewpoints: it must affirm and celebrate diversity. This is still troubling and will be stressful. The celebration of cultural diversity, in turn, demands the adoption of eclecticism.
The Enlightenment belief in inevitable progress provided the motivation to discover the ideal modern human society. Postmoderns can no longer dream of utopia. In its place they can offer only the incommensurable diversity of the postmodern heterotopia, the “multiverse” to replace the universe of the modern quest. This is creating pains for Enlightenment’s old dame – the liberal democratic state.
A new series of Star Trek will debut in 2017. It will be interesting to see if the growing political divisiveness in Western society finds its way into the new series. In the first decade of the 21st century, Western society may have entered a post-postmodern situation, where postmodernist influence appears to be in decline. Will this too be written into the new series?