(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 13 April 2016.)
Star Trek is an American science fiction entertainment franchise that has reflected the social and cultural ideas of two generations in Western society, and in turn influenced these generations in the West and across the world.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Star Trek debuted on television in 1966 and followed the interstellar adventures of Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the starship Enterprise. It ran for three seasons, in what is now referred to as The Original Series.
The second generation of the series started with Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94), which at first glance was simply an updated version of the earlier series. However, its storylines also recognized that the world was in the midst of a subtle paradigm shift: modernity was giving birth to postmodernity.
The original Star Trek series stood for the values of modernity. The postwar baby boom generation (the parents of today’s youths) 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.
They thought the goal of the human intellectual quest was to unlock the secrets of the universe in order to master nature for human benefit and create a better world.
In addition, the crew of the Enterprise included persons of various nationalities working together for the common benefit of humankind. The message was obvious: we are all human, and we must overcome our differences and join forces to complete our quest for certain, objective knowledge of the entire universe, of which space is “the final frontier.”
Postmodernism rejects the assumptions upon which modernity was built. This 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 and includes 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. 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.”
Spock of the Original Series was the ideal Enlightenment man, completely rational and without emotion, who repeatedly came up with solutions to save the crew. In The New Generation, Spock is replaced by the android Data, who yearns to be able to feel, and whose perfect intellect now contributes only part of the solution to problems.
The new voyages of the Enterprise lead its variegated crew into a postmodern universe where time is no longer simply linear, appearance is not necessarily reality, and the rational is not always to be trusted.
Star Trek is a useful comparison for today, when our society is in the throes of a transition from modernity to postmodernity. The emerging generation has been nurtured in a context shaped less by a commitment to the Enlightenment values of 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 and all knowledge is perspectives, metaphors in disguise, and fictions we author.
The intellectual roots of postmodernism can be traced to 19th century German Romanticism, in particular Friedrich Nietzsche. Its economic and social origins lay in the arrival of the information era during the second half of the 20th century.
Information can now be gathered from almost anywhere on the globe almost instantaneously. We now inhabit a global villages. But this has produced seemingly self-contradictory effects because it fosters both a global consciousness and the erosion of national consciousness.
Our society is increasingly becoming a conglomerate of societies. These smaller social units have little in common apart from geographic proximity.
This can be deeply troubling as seen when Yugoslavia collapsed, but at its best, it demands and encourages us to adopt a new pluralist mindset that goes beyond the simple tolerance of other practices and viewpoints, to the affirmation and celebration of diversity. This is still troubling and will be stressful.
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 offer only 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 Star Trek series will be unveiled next year. It will be interesting to see if the growing political divisiveness in Western society finds its way into its narrative.