Archive for February, 2018

To Boringly Go

February 20th, 2018  |  Published in anti-Star Trek

Now that I’ve finally finished off the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, I can finally read the takes! See here for Gerry Canavan’s round-up of some of them, including his own.

And since I owe my book, and much of my public reputation, to a blog post about Star Trek, I obviously need a take of my own.

I started out skeptical, if only because the most recent entries in the Trek franchise are the weak if underrated Enterprise TV show and the recent slew of movies, which are little more than generic action set pieces reskinned with Starfleet uniforms. And after the first few episodes, my misgivings about Discovery were straightforward to articulate. I worried that in the era of Peak Television, J.J. Abrams, and Battlestar Galactica, we were doomed to yet another Gritty Reboot, leaving behind the quirky liberal communist utopia that Gene Roddenberry had initially set forward.

At season’s end, I find myself…uncertain. The finale was certainly a rather sloppy rush job, and the season itself was wildly uneven. But the characters are great. Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Michelle Yeoh and the rest comprise a more competent dramatic core than the franchise has ever seen. And at least things have been left in a state where something interesting can be done in future episodes, something that makes the existence of “Star Trek” something worthwhile in the first place, as anything more than an empty nostalgia engine and marketing opportunity.

It’s by now a commonplace of Trek criticism that the first season is always bad. Those of us who apotheosize The Next Generation as the true expression of Trek, for instance, can only do so by assuming away the entire first season. (And ascribing “Code of Honor” to some kind of malicious imposition by a time-traveling Borg cube.) And here we find the real problem with the tedious fanboy argument over whether something like Discovery is “really Star Trek.”

This argument is as unavoidable as it is intolerable, once one has accepted one’s diagnosis as an incorrigible Trek nerd. We are then forced to grapple with a cultural icon spanning many decades and series. And when we do, we find that actually, the problem isn’t with the new show. Actually, Star Trek is rarely really Star Trek. Our platonic ideal of Trek is a collage of fondly remembered–or misremembered–episodes, characters, themes. We edit out the parts that don’t fit. Since we all make the collage differently, we’ll never all see the same Trek.

Where does Discovery fit? Perhaps the problem doesn’t lie primarily in its haphazard commitment to the political ideal of the earlier shows. Although that is a problem, as it leads the scripts to swing herky-jerky from grimdark blood spatter to cringe-inducing monologues about the high-minded mission of the Federation.

Maybe what’s missing is the loose, almost ambient quality of life as a Starfleet officer, especially in the shows of the Next Generation era. It’s about the hum of the idle engine, not the scream of a photon torpedo. In the early part of Discovery, I would happily exclaim, practically pump my fist, on the rare occasions I could say: “Yes! People standing around and talking! Now that’s Star Trek!” (But not people talking in Klingon. Please, ease up on the subtitled Klingon.)

Out of some combination of lower budgets, longer seasons, and less investment in long bombastic story arcs and endless plot twists, the TNG-era shows revel in the banality of life on board. Couples bickering, people doing aerobics on the holodeck, mundane diplomatic missions or sensor sweeps. Of course, something always arises, episode by episode, to heighten the stakes and hold the viewer’s attention. But we aren’t immediately forced, as Discovery was in one short season, into an all-encompassing conflict that threatens not just the ship but the galaxy, not just the galaxy but the universe, not just the universe but every universe ever. Sometimes it’s enough just to help a troubled Betazoid and a lonely space creature find meaning and happiness together.

Perhaps that’s why I keep returning to “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”, the moment where the show finally began to win me over. And still probably my favorite of the first season’s episodes.

The layers of fan service certainly didn’t hurt–not only does this episode bring back Original Series rogue Harry Mudd, it directly rips off its central time-loop plot device from a TNG episode I’ve always loved. In the process, the episode demonstrates that Discovery is capable of relatively autonomous stand-alone episodes, freeing itself from the relentless drumbeat of serialized grand narratives that characterizes so much modern television.

Discovery chose the perfect TNG episode to knock off, because the plot of “Cause and Effect” directly encodes that ambience, that banality, that Discovery badly needed to get in touch with. Both the TNG original and this remake episode revolve around people going about their daily lives, only gradually realizing that something has gone horribly wrong. Of course, Discovery does still feel compelled to kick it up a notch: its focal point is a party suffused with social awkwardness, whereas in the first version it was a chummy poker game.

But still, the episode is built around two underappreciated ideas that make for great Trek: life is mostly boring, and not everything has to serve the main plot of the season.

The first point is one that motivated the approach to my book’s chapter on “communism”, which was directly inspired by Star Trek’s post-scarcity and post-capitalist utopia. What I came to understand was that I was dealing with a problem similar to that faced by the TNG writers, as recounted in William Shatner’s highly entertaining documentary about the show, Chaos on the Bridge.

Some of the early TNG writers describe their frustration with Gene Roddenberry’s edicts about the nature of life in the 24th Century. This was supposed to be a society without hierarchies, without conflicts–so how the hell do you write a compelling drama about that? As it turned out, this dramatic constraint was a productive one, giving rise to the mix of soap-opera minutia and high-minded sci-fi weirdness that characterizes so much of the show. And it was a similar constraint that drove me to talk about communism, not just as a flat pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die idyll, but through things like Cory Doctorow’s semi-dystopian reputational economies.

Directly following from the notion that life is often boring and annoying, comes the consequence that our characters cannot always be wrapped up in galactic struggles to save existence. Sometimes it just has to be a day at the office, and we keep watching simply because a Federation starship is a more interesting and inspiring office than ours. That thought motivated me to portray the communist future not as a magical resolution of the human condition but, to follow Freud by way of Corey Robin, the conversion of hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness.

The Next Generation shows appeared at a time when television was experimenting with long-form storytelling and long narratives, rather than self-contained episodes of the week. This was eventually facilitated, of course, by the Internet and the binge-watching culture it gave rise to. But before that, you had interesting blends of the episodic and the serial–the most fully realized was probably The X-Files, which interwove an ongoing conspiracy thriller with one-off “monster of the week” plots.

In the case of Star Trek, though, this historically determinate evolution of the form interacted in a very productive way with the underlying themes of the show’s worldbuilding. So my hope for the next season of Star Trek: Discovery is that it can remain in touch with this way of making television, albeit in a way that suits our present historical circumstance.

Police State of Exception

February 16th, 2018  |  Published in Politics

Last night I once again had the pleasure of attending the James Connolly forum in Troy, NY, this time to hear Alex Vitale talk about his recent book, The End of Policing. I’ll have more to say about the political implications of this. But first, this was a sort of tangential thing that Alex’s talk brought to mind.

His work is an extended argument that, in a world of manifest policing-related atrocities, we should not regard policing as something to be reformed or perfected. Rather, we should acknowledge that “the problem is policing itself”–and, more than that, the problem is with a social system that treats the symptoms of deprivation and inequality as things to be policed, rather than addressed by other means.

One of the things Vitale is very good at is critiquing common-sense ideas about reforming the police. He roots this in his diagnosis of a kind of ideological substrate, unspoken but implicit in liberal ideas about the police. This is the idea that cops are the emanations of a stable and legitimate liberal order, based on consent, equality, and reasoned debate. Police, in this view, are the dispassionate conflict-resolvers who keep our passions in check and make liberal society possible. And to the extent that policing leads to violence and repression, this is a pathological dysfunction, a betrayal of policing’s true meaning.

To this, Vitale (like many others) counters that policing is not and never has been this liberal ideal, but rather functions to control and regulate property relations and inequality. He cleverly illustrates this by noting that the London Metropolitan Police, so often held up as the original model for modern, “professional” policing, were modeled on the forces used to maintain the British colonial occupation of Ireland.

Much more can be said about all of this. But one question that arose from the audience, after Vitale spoke, went specifically to the ideological aspect of policing. If we believe the above diagnosis, both of policing’s current practice and its ideological underpinnings, how are we to counter a state of affairs in which so many people believe that the purpose of the cops is something so utterly different from what they have really always been for?

In the course of answering this, Vitale somewhat unexpectedly brought up the role of popular culture, and its function as, to paraphrase him, a relentless machine for producing and reproducing the legitimacy of policing in the public mind. In this connection he brought up two of his childhood favorites in the cop-television genre, Adam-12 and The Mod Squad. The first was a dry and “realistic” drama about sober and professional cops. The second was a fantasy of a kind of policing much cooler and more diverse than anything in its late-1960s environment. But as Vitale points out, they both ultimately express the same idea about policing: that it is benevolent, socially beneficial, and necessary.

Now, I’m a bit younger than Alex Vitale, so my mind immediately went not to The Mod Squad, but to Law & Order, and its innumerable variations and imitators. I confess to being a bit of a sucker for these shows, bingeing on them despite (or because of) their formulaic repetition, and even while knowing that they convey a distorted ideological picture of police and prosecutors.

But one thing I’ve become fascinated by is a particular, absurdly common trope in these shows, one that I think they played a unique role in perfecting. This is what I’ve come to think of as “ACAB-EU”: All Cops Are Bastards, Except Us.

The trope works by consistently portraying its central characters as liberal fantasies of the good cop–whether it’s the pseudo-scientists of CSI, the workaday victim-protectors of SVU, or the magical profiler-geniuses of Criminal Minds. At the same time, it makes a seeming concession to concerns about police misconduct, by constantly putting its protagonists in conflict with “bad cops” and their enablers, whether it be a rapist Corrections Officer or a corrupt small town department whose cover-up leads all the way to the Governor.

And in the end, of course, the good guys win. The bad cops become a perfect example of the ways ideological systems can coopt criticism. Once it becomes impossible to maintain the uniform “officer friendly” image in the face of obviously awful police behavior, the bad cops must appear on the stage. But only so that we can be reassured that the main characters, the ones we are emotionally invested in, are still the good guys who only want what’s best for us.

So just as shows like the West Wing do for politics, the ACAB-EU trope in cop shows indulges the liberal fantasy that policing is ultimately a noble and admirable public service, and that its evil effects are malfunctions rather than, as critics like Vitale suggest, the system properly working just as intended. By making this move, this storytelling device impedes the viewer from acknowledging that, as much as we love Jerry Orbach and Ice-T, Lennie Briscoe and Fin Tutuola are bastards too–and in the system they work under, couldn’t be any other way.

Put the Money in the Bag and 86 the Tricks

February 13th, 2018  |  Published in Everyday life, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

Mixed in with the usual litany of concessions to billionaires and businesses, the Trump administration delights in a petty and banal sadism that at times seems to serve no significant purpose, if we take the purpose of right wing politics to be the accumulation of capital by the rich. Although nobody should be under any illusion about Trumpism, any idea that it is anything other than, as Corey Robin will happily tell us, a familiar iteration of conservatism, just a bit more crass and unmasked.

The latest and best in this cabinet of miniature horrors: a revision of the food stamp program that seeks to replace food vouchers with “a box of food that the government describes as nutritious and 100 percent grown and produced in the U.S.”, on the model of Blue Apron and other purveyors of pre-fabricated (and ecologically terrible) meal kits.

This would, of course, be bad. And it hits the right venal notes of your workaday reactionary politician: if we must have a welfare state, how can we turn it into pork for my petit-bourgeois constituents?

But the food stamp program was already bad, and this merely intensifies its patronizing and paternalizing logic. Those of us who advocate things like the Universal Basic Income from a left perspective do so, in part, because we view the unconditional redistribution of money as something superior to–and more radical than–programs which require recipients to meet requirements and satisfy bureaucrats.

Food stamps are already like that. There are complex restrictions on what food you’re allowed to acquire with your vouchers. Hot or toasted food, for example, is considered an unacceptable luxury. And don’t even dream that poor people might deserve access to things like diapers or tampons. Hence the argument that instead of intensifying this logic with something like the Trump meal-kit proposal, we should go the opposite way, and just hand out cash.

For certain kinds of social-democratic traditionalists, such arguments are dangerous heresy. For people like Daniel Zamora, they are worse than useless–they are, in fact, concessions to neoliberalism, as packaged by such dangerous figures as Michel Foucault.

But without Foucault, or someone like him, how are we to understand something like this latest Trump atrocity? Yes, on one level it’s simply a patronage handout to business. But we’re also dealing here with “governmentality”, and perhaps too “biopower”, those terms concerning the way that states regulate and control the biological functions of their subjects. For it turns out that our political line can’t simply turn on a distinction between reliance on “states” versus “markets”, even though the right might like to pose the question that way. Capitalism is a state-dependent project all the way down, and the crucial question is what the state does, and to whom.

So here we come to a leftist perspective on the welfare state, which cannot just be a one-sided defense of welfare capitalism but also must be a dialectical critique of its authoritarian functions. That’s where the Foucault comes in. As I’ve said elsewhere, we seek to build the welfare state only so that we can break it. And the capitalist class, for all its showy gestures about tearing down the state, builds it too–but it builds it to break us.

And there we find our task, when confronted with conservative welfare governmentality in its absurd Trumpist iteration. We fight for social rights not simply to win benefits, but to get free–free of what Marx called the “double freedom”, where we are free to sell our labor, but also free from the means to do anything else.

Decommodify, decommodify! That is Moses and the prophets!

Or to put it another way, we are Taking these, if you don’t please.