The Theology of Star Trek

I.

“What is realised in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, or even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”

 II.

A classic element of Marxist historiography is the responsibility taken on by the historian to the liberative possibilities that have gone unrealized. Just as the Marxist revolutionary takes on a certain responsibility to discern the contingent possibilities for revolutionary action and class intervention—possibilities which will not realize themselves according to any historical necessity—the Marxist historian commits herself to discovering the latent potentiality according to which history might have been otherwise. In a sense, there is a sort of apocalypticism to Marxist history; from the horizon of the hoped-for revolution, these latent possibilities are transformed from inevitable false-starts to the real birth pangs of a new world to come. In the work of Walter Benjamin, this responsibility appears in the notion of redemption through repetition: the task of remembering history is not to describe the bare facts of the past, tracing in them the source of the present situation, but to unearth hidden possibilities and failed hopes which continue to demand realization.

This retroactive movement is theologically fecund. Slavoj Zizek frequently claims that the natural tense of apocalyptic historicity is the future anterior, taking the form ‘it will have been.’ The Hegelian move, he argues, is to “reintroduce the openness of the future into the past, to grasp what was in the process of becoming, to see the contingent process that generated [the] existing necessity.” These possibilities are specters that ‘haunt’ history—possibilities in search of actuality—from the point of view of the collective. This stance is what G.K. Chesterton called “thinking backward,” as an attempt to “render palpable this open moment of decision.” The collective—the gathered body—is to recognize the possibility and contingency that underlies the present order, its lack of necessity strictly correlative to the lack of a big Other to underwrite that necessity, by virtue of the spectral, failed hopes of the past.

The relation between authentic and ideological apocalypticism is visible in the gap that separates Lenin and Stalin. Lenin, for Zizek, represents the recognition of absolute contingency, and the concomitant need to act decisively, to take responsibility for the future that will arise if he does not act. Stalin, on the other hand, represents an order founded on its own historical necessity. The revolutionary, who lives fully within the death of the big Other, takes responsibility not only for the present, but for the failed hopes of the past.

III.

It is precisely in the mode of the sort of history-as-necessity that apocalyptic historiography refuses that most readings of the Star Trek franchise proceed, whether optimistically or pessimistically. Traditional leftist praise for Star Trek revolves around the commitment to the notion that any truly utopian future society involves a future without money, without a labor force divested from the surplus they generate, etc. The multiracial cast of the original is often cited with positive regard, as well as the anti-militarist bent, and the structuring of stories according to the demands of a group of people solving problems they encounter in the unknown, rather than the logic of a hero’s journey, or some other vaguely conservative story structure. The criticisms, of course, operate on largely the same level; Star Trek is rarely anti-capitalist enough, or anti-militarist enough or whatever; something happens in any given Star Trek episode or film, something that can, in the end, either be regarded as liberative or conservative; entertaining or boring.

I should confess at this point that I’m a huge sucker for almost-masterpieces. Something in me is constantly intrigued by films, books, and music that approach something truly intriguing, but don’t quite become adequate to it, that break down before they can arrive at the destination they promise. That I’m such a sucker for “almosts” probably explains my deep love for the film Blade Runner. And it is in this spirit of “almost” that, as a lifelong Star Trek fan, I have to confess that my favorite film has never been The Wrath of Khan, but the almost universally derided Star Trek: The Motion Picture. What’s more, with one notable exception, most of my favorite things about the film are precisely those things that are often cited against it. [1] For instance: it’s the only Star Trek film that’s actually about going out to meet some unknown horror together with open arms. The other films rely either on villainy or a sort of sci-fi MacGuffin whose nature is immaterial to the film to drive either an action film or an action-comedy. And I think the fact that the film plays so much of the time like a long, subdued waltz almost works with that; that it is a (for the time) high-budget visual effects movie with absolutely no explosions or bombast is really interesting to me. The film is driven into some really intriguing corners by the fact that it revolves around the Enterprise’s attempts to know an unknown entity that is simultaneously attempting to know the ship and her crew; Vger literally has to kill something to really understand it as a scientific object, and thus interprets the Enterprise’s scans as an attack. As poorly cast and executed as the character of Commander Decker is, I really like the idea that, at base, he’s right; there’s no reason Kirk should be in command except to satisfy his own ego; there’s no moment when Kirk gets to triumphantly demonstrate that he, by virtue of being a fiction character, is the “chosen one” who should always have his rightful place. There are all sorts of things like these that are almost happening in this film, but it’s important to note that for the most part they never do; the film circles around its own potential on all sides, illuminating a possible—but unrealized—moment, theme, film, etc. In The Motion Picture, Star Trek gets as close as it ever has to actualizing a certain happening that has lurked within it before and since. The specter of Star Trek hangs uniquely over this film.

IV.

According to most reviewers, however, the “best” Star Trek film is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And certainly, from the point of view of what actually occurs in the film, I’d probably agree. Where The Motion Picture is paced sluggishly, Khan wastes not a single moment of its runtime on redundant moments and lines. Where The Motion Picture reduces its characters to stoic, analytic problem-solvers who can barely be said to relate to one another, Khan both restores and surpasses the familial dynamic of the TV series, placing its narrative weight on the various sorts of families in which Kirk finds himself. There really is a lot to love about The Wrath of Khan, and it would be a mistake to say that the spectral possibility of Star Trek isn’t haunting this film; even as it leans on hero/villain conflict and reverses a lot of the prior film’s refusal to beatify Kirk as a creature of destiny, this is something different than, say, a Star Wars film; something else is at work, something whose play of appearance and disappearance gestures towards a different ghost.[2]

This ghost, though, is one that can only be missed, even in the most piously leftist analysis of The Wrath of Khan, as long as the primary attention is given to what appears, or what happens. It’s no accident that many of the worst moments of the franchise after Khan’s release consist of attempts to emulate or repeat Khan. Star Trek: Nemesis, in particular, is an attempt to repeat the tonal and structural content of that film, to universal and just dismay. The problem, here, is the same basic problem that haunts classical historicism: by enacting the point of narration and repetition from the horizon of what actually happens, what necessarily leads to the present, the ghost is disavowed, refused.

V.

I’ve begun to repeat a specific anecdote when asked about my feelings on the new, J.J. Abrams-helmed Star Trek films. Growing up watching zombie horror, the moment I could never comprehend was the moment when a character can’t bring themselves to shoot their undead loved one. “It’s not him! It’s not her!,” I want to shout. And yet, on opening night, I found myself at a showing of Star Trek Into Darkness. It is only in light of this particular spectrality of Star Trek that one can make sense of the unique betrayal that Star Trek Into Darkness represents. On the level of content—of what actually happens—STID appears to be at least as faithful an entry in the franchise as, say, Star Trek: First Contact. The timeline divergence enacted in the first film covers over almost all continuity quibbles, and those that remain (how phasers work in this new timeline, the ability of starships to submerge in water, etc) can only appear to be relatively minor. And yet, something is horribly amiss.

trek_nokia

Whatever could be wrong?

It’s probably not worthwhile to spend too long recounting the structural and thematic changes—a lot of this is pretty on-the-nose stuff. We find characters sipping labeled Budweiser beers, using Nokia phones, and engaged in heroic personal journeys to greatness in which they defeat ever-stronger foes. Star Trek has fucked up before; why is it these particular films in which we find not a distance or absence of Star Trek’s spectral promise, but films given over to another ghost entirely?

It’s hard to say, exactly. I know that the setup of this post probably promises an answer of some kind, but I’m not sure I have one. There’s simply very little in this iteration of the Star Trek franchise that doesn’t seem to be given over to exactly the sort of ghost that the ghost of Star Trek disrupts. That ghost seems to have very little to say in a film like Star Trek Into Darkness except “no.” It’s no coincidence, I think, that so much of this film is cribbed from The Wrath of Khan; in this case, what appears is an entire film given so wholly to what actually happened in Star Trek films of the past (in addition to the obvious TWOK nods, the film apes plot points from Deep Space NineStar Trek: Insurrection, and Star Trek: Nemesis, to name only a few) that the ghost is given up entirely.

VI.

There’s a connection to be drawn here between the sort of living in a tradition this post enacts with regard to Star Trek and the sort that the Christian or the Muslim or the theologian might engage, but this post is already too long, so draw it yourself.

_________________

[1] That exception is, of course, the fact that the characters don’t really start interacting as characters until just about the last scene.

[2] “Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny. Anything else would be a waste of material.” Spock, to Kirk, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

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Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism – Chapter 2, Religion

In the second chapter of their book Religion, Politics and the Earth: The New Materialism, Clayton Crockett and Jeffery Robbins tackle the history of the relationship between religion and its materialist critique and the differences between the critique of the classic materialists (Feuerbach, et. al.) and the new materialist critique of Slavoj Žižek before offering what they see as the constructive implications of the latter for Christianity specifically. What I want to do here is talk a bit about Crockett and Robbins’ approach to the materialist critique of religion and add to the practical implications that they outline with an eye to Evangelical Christianity specifically. This chapter is conceptually difficult without any background in Žižek or Lacan, so I’m going to do a lot of summarizing and explaining before getting to the extension of the practical implications. My hope is that this can serve as a primer for those who are interested in the book but are intimidated by the approach Crockett and Robbins employ while highlighting some additional things to think about.

In essence, the difference between classical and new materialism resides in the consequences of the critique. Feuerbach and Freud saw religion as a debilitating crutch, something that had to be overcome so that the ultimate truth that science and empirical evidence provide could shine through and humans would no longer be dependent on anything but their own reason: the epitome of secular humanism. Religion, in other words, is a false consciousness–a way of thinking that helps us escape the reality of our situation. Žižek and other [Lacanian] materialists point out, however, that all consciousness is false consciousness. Following Lacan, Žižek argues that our symbolic and imaginary orders (how we imagine ourselves to be and the social-judicial order that governs that) are our reality; they keep us from experiencing the terrifying Real (what we really are, which shatters our imaginary selves.) So even if religion were to be erased, it would immediately be replaced by some other false consciousness, and there’s no telling if that would have better or worse results.

Žižek is willing to bet we’d be worse off since he thinks that religion, at its core, really has a lot to offer. What is metaphysically or ontologically real is of no consequence for Žižek since no “system,” whether that be a purely empiricist epistemology or any other way of being in the world, is the Real itself. The choice between a world in which there is religion and one where there is not is a false dichotomy because one cannot not choose false consciousness. Religion has the potential to be politically mobilizing, to be the driving force in moving humanity toward a better political reality. In this way, New Materialism moves beyond critique to a reconceptualization and radicalization of religion.

This way of thinking about religion–or reality itself for that matter–may strike some as extremely problematic. But instead of attempting to make a counter-case for why this isn’t how things really are (i.e. false consciousness, etc.), I would encourage readers to understand this Žižekian-Lacanian move as the implementation of a theoretical method. That is, one need not accept Lacanian psychoanalytic categorization of reality as really true in order to understand that, as theory, it can help us think about something familiar in a radically new way. Crockett and Robbins are reading religion. This is how literary theory (which “popularized” Lacan among humanities disciplines outside of philosophy) typically works. What is important in this method is that it helps highlight the implications of a non-reductive materialist approach to religion which validates religion as a way of seeing the world that is compatible with science and can also provide the resources for more robust political action. That is where we now turn.

The implications for this in Christianity should be pretty obvious: Take the Incarnation seriously, tracing out its implications as far as they go. For Žižek and Radical Theology, that means the death of God. That is the inevitable conclusion of a truly materialist Christianity. Some might call this “Christian atheism,” but there’s a very important difference between not knowing if there is a God and claiming that there definitely is no God. The latter is what “atheism” implies, and that doesn’t seem to be what is going on in this move. This conclusion allows us to believe the efficacy of belief itself. That is, when we claim the fundamental truth of God, we are not believing, but claiming direct knowledge instead. The classical materialist critique works the same way: what is repudiated is not a leap of faith, but a fundementalist empirical claim to know God directly. Belief has no efficacy in either case. By continuing on as if we believe, it is not that we come to a more authentic faith; rather, we  come to see our belief as externalized (it is not I who believes, but my prayer believes for me) and can finally see and understand the structure of our [false] religious consciousness. No more transcendental guarantees. No assurances. Just a dangerous leap of faith. This is how Christianity truly reclaims the fundamental risk with which it was established in the first place. Christianity is re-radicalized.

The importance of this move is to reconfigure Christianity in such a way that it can be a viable mobilized political force. If we are aware of the structure of our false consciousness, then we will be able to finally unmask and root out the commodities that appear to us as “a magical object endowed with special powers” (C&R quoting Marx) within that structure. Put differently, we can come to see much more clearly that religion in America is ultimately about money. The solution is not to sever the connection between religion and money but to read the Gospel through the lens of this problematic. We suddenly see that stories like Jesus feeding the 5,000 really are about the redistribution of wealth and not primarily about a supernatural miracle. When Jesus says, in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” it’s a mistake to read sin into debt. This is an economic claim. (C&R follow John Dominic Crossan on both of those examples.) We are then poised to organize political action against systemic oppressive structures.

Now that we have a good sense of what Crockett and Robbins are gesturing toward, we can ask: Why would this be difficult for a Christian to grasp, but particularly an Evangelical? The Bible says it right there, doesn’t it? There are many passages and verses that instruct us to always plead the case of the widow and the orphan, to make sure that our religious practice always results in mercy and justice. Why does that not lead to organized political action against systemic oppression? One obvious answer is that using words like systemic and political sounds a little too socialist for some Evangelicals. That may be reductive, but I think we can generally agree that most Evangelicals are part of the religious Right, which sadly means they hear the gospel and discourse about contemporary social justice on a systemic level in two different registers. But there is another, more complex issue that I think is actually more problematic than right wing political rhetoric.

Evangelical Christianity is too spiritualized.

Evangelicalism has a long history of personal spirituality going back to Lutheran Pietists in the 18th century (and probably earlier than that.) What follows should be so familiar to Evangelicals, that it might hardly sound like a problem at all–it will just sound like what Christianity is. Becoming a Christian means having faith in Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. It is a personal intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. Once one is a Christian, there’s a lot of talk about one’s relationship with God and Jesus, God’s personal love for us and plan for our individual lives, “being Christlike” in our actions (which usually means abstaining from “bad stuff”). We also want to feel something from our faith. We can do that if we “go deeper.” How one goes deeper in one’s faith usually involves adding more prayer, memorizing more scripture, thinking more about the sermons we hear, “being obedient to God’s will,” emulating Christ’s humility, worshipping harder, being in the light of Christ…

Am I being vague enough?

What the hell do any of these things actually mean?

Many Evangelicals complain about feeling like they’re “in a rut” spiritually. They remember feeling God strongly at some previous time, but now everything seems so mundane. That’s because most of what Evangelical Christianity requires of believers are abstract, personal, intellectual activities (meaning in one’s mind, nothing academic necessarily). We have to read the Bible. We have to pray more. We have to contemplate… stuff. Engaging in service activities is one way of achieving a closer relationship with God. But the purpose is always our own spiritual health and development. Serving becomes an intellectual exercise–a way for us to feel closer to God. Our orientation is always toward our own personal spirituality.

And it’s important to note that “service” among Evangelicals rarely if ever requires any sort of political action let alone in the radical way Crockett and Robbins suggest.

We just have to “love on people.”

I cannot tell you how much I hate that phrase. Jesus didn’t just love people; he actively sought their liberation from an oppressive hierarchical social system. He actively sought their liberation from an oppressive hierarchical social system. And for that, he was crucified. If all we are doing is trying to be friends with some homeless people, with some inmates, with some refugees, we are not part of the solution. We’re part of the problem. We’re not doing anything to help them.

We have a mental block. Evangelicals don’t really know what Christianity is all about. Saying it’s about Jesus, it’s about forgiveness of sins, it’s about freedom for ourselves, seems to me (and to Crockett, Robbins, Žižek, Crossan, etc.) completely wrong. Christianity must become the political force that it has the potential to be, one motivated by justice from systemic oppression; the problem is that, at least for Evangelicals, we are going to have a really hard time laying down our own feel-good personal spirituality in order to do so.

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Sacrament as Excess

I’ve been going back over some of the work I began last summer on a paper attempting to think sexuality and marriage theologically. This is to be a reworking of my undergraduate thesis, which will probably bear little resemblance to that paper in any way except a reuse of one or two sources and a concern with thinking “good news” for queer folk that actually is good news (as per my previous post). I really think that the way Paul locates marriage among those natural orders that Christians are free w/r/t is crucial to thinking sexuality as something that is “queered” as it mingles with the body of Christ by baptism/crucifixion/resurrection. The struggle for me, then, is how to think that alongside the sacramental status of marriage in the post-Pauline church (which, in practice, is hard not to read as a straight endorsement of marriage as such).

As I was thinking through the deadlocks I reached before the semester started, I started wondering about the sacramental status of marriage alongside Zizek’s notion of overconformity; the way to break up an ideological order, for Zizek, is not to simply resist explicitly (resistance is what the order counts on) but to identify fully with one of the operative rules of law at work in that order, refusing the implicit exceptions by which the law functions. For Zizek, this act of taking the law more seriously than it is built to be taken subverts the law’s own ideological function and breaks it apart as a functionary of the given order. While Zizek works out this notion of overconformity from a reading of Paul’s reflections on the law in Romans, he distances himself from the notion that this is a straightforward reading of what Paul is doing; it seems to him to be an operative logic that Paul gropes at but never quite identifies explicitly.

I’m starting to wonder, though, if something like this excessive character really is at work in the way Paul addresses issues other than the law (gender and marriage, for instance). Furthermore, I’m wondering if this logic of excess is endemic to the notion of sacrament itself.

One helpful thing for me about this way of thinking, at least while I’m “trying it on,” is that it fits rather nicely with Paul’s proclamations of freedom AND his non-libertinism. It also deals well with the manifestly “excessive” character of pre/Augustinian treatments of marriage/celibacy. Thus, the other side of the coin (of getting so damn married that polite, married society can only say “whoah, slow down, buddy”) is getting so damn not-married that tempered, discerning, independent folks can only say “whoah, slow down, buddy.” The trick, from there, is that it’s easy to inscribe even that into a sort of “right” and “churchy” way of doing sexuality. I think it’s pretty obvious that that’s the world we now live in. Even if there’s something to this schema of sacramental excess, it’s difficult to know what to do with it in a world where even excessive marriage and celibacy have been successfully assimilated into the power complex of marriage itself.

Maybe, remembering how marriage is to be sacramental doesn’t help one “know what to do,” so much as it reminds us that the position we’re in is always that of eunuchs who are to receive other eunuchs as means’ of grace? Which is not to say that the sacrament is not to be practiced, but that it is to be practiced only sacramentally; that is, only as a way of learning to be opened/given for the life of the world. A good friend and prominent influence of mine recently asked the (rhetorical) question “what if all sacraments were nothing more than the irruption of the crucifixion/resurrection of Jesus into the institutions of normal well-adjusted life?” I think this gets close to where I want to be going, but the problem I can’t shake is that the sacraments manifestly aren’t that. It seems exceedingly easy for this sort of sacramental talk to get re-inscribed in a mindset where the most revolutionary thing one can do is prop up actually existing church practices. It may be my pessimism, or it may be my heavy Quaker influences, but it seems to me that even and especially our rituals and patterns of being churchy have to die before they can be something else.