Volume 2, Number 2
Baudrillard and Trek-nology (Or Everything I Know I Learned From
Watching Star Trek and Reading Jean Baudrillard)1
Alan N. Shapiro
We should be greatly mistaken were we to view science fiction
as an escape from everyday reality: on the contrary, it is an
extrapolation from the irrational tendencies of that reality through
the free exercise of narrative invention.2
It was my childhood in
New York in the late 1960s. As a good Jew, I was supposed to acquire
a Jewish education. But instead I loved Star Trek. Everything I know
I learned from watching Star Trek. Among other things, I learned to
love science. This made me a good American. So I went to the elite
technology university. But I didn't like the complicity of science
with the Vietnam War that existed there. So I dropped out. I was
radicalized. I then went to the elite humanities university. But the
American radical thinkers were all Marxists. Then I read Jean
Baudrillard's book The Mirror of Production. I grasped that
Marx was not radical enough.3
Everything I know I learned from reading Baudrillard. Later I tried
to practice a compromise between technology and the humanities known
as sociology. Then I read Baudrillard's book In the Shadow of the
Silent Majorities. There he says that sociologists, just like
marketing executives and politicians, want to socialize the masses.
But the masses resist by going silent and "playing dead."4
They disappear into over-consumption and fandom.
The disappearing act of
today is techno-culture, or more precisely, Star Trek. Star Trek is
the most prevalent "icon" of techno-culture. Physicists, engineers,
computer programmers, graphic artists, and media practitioners are
its adamant fans. But the Star Trek industry neutralizes Star Trek's
original creativity. It programs an automatic system of endless
simulated differences, to ensure that viewers will never be able to
see any true other. That is why I read Star Trek against Star Trek.
Through doubling and decentering, I parodistically map Baudrillard's
system of thought onto Star Trek.5
On two levels, there is an uncanny resemblance between Baudrillard
and Star Trek. First, there is an exact correspondence between
Baudrillard's keywords and the principles of "The Original Series"
Star Trek episodes: radical uncertainty, recognition of otherness,
accident and surprise of technology, symbolic exchange, the dual
relationship. Second, there are the pataphysical science fiction
technologies: the transporter, warp speed, time travel, the
Holodeck. These Trek-nologies are based on quantum physics
uncertainty and chaos theory complexity. By applying pressure at
both ends - Star Trek as literature, Star Trek as wily technologies
- there is a double-strategy of adding a little "critical theory"
real and speaking only in this "fatal theory" futuristic language.
Now please follow me to explore strange new worlds in
outer space. Let us consider a few Star Trek episodes and
technologies up close, starting with virtual reality.
The Holodeck is the most
famous virtual reality system, created in the 1990s for the series
Star Trek: The Next Generation. But this post-television technology
merely brings to fruition total visual information and leads to the
end of aesthetic illusion. By contrast, the invention of virtual
reality in the original Star Trek episodes of the 1960s artistically
embodies Baudrillard's principles of radical uncertainty, the vital
illusion, and the surprise of technology.
In the episode "Shore
Leave," Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy enter the virtual reality system
of the Amusement Park Planet by chance and without knowing what it
is. They encounter mysterious and enchanting physical appearances
from their daydreams which play on the tension between real and
imaginary. At the beginning of the episode, McCoy leads an away team
scouting a planet with no apparent life-forms. He is alone for just
a moment when a four-foot tall white rabbit appears, then disappears
again into a deep hole in the ground. Dumbfounded, the Doctor
motions towards the hole when Alice (from Alice’s Adventures in
Wonderland) appears and asks if he has seen a large white rabbit
come along. At the same time, Kirk sees an old schoolmate named
Finnegan whom he owes a day of reckoning. Kirk runs after Finnegan.
When he at last catches up with him, it occurs to Kirk that he has
no idea how Finnegan has gotten here. Captain's Log, Stardate
3025.8: "We are seeing things that cannot possibly exist, yet they
are undeniably real."
The episode "A Taste of
Armageddon" is a perfect parallel to Baudrillard's thesis in The
Gulf War Did Not Take Place that "we are no longer in an
Aristotelean logic of passage from the virtual to the actual, but in
a hyperreal logic of deterrence of the real by the virtual."6 The explanation of
Anan-Seven of the Planetary Division of Control to Captain Kirk is
interrupted by an air raid siren. "Vendikar is attacking." A Council
chamber wall slides open to reveal a War Room, filled with mainframe
computers and illuminated graphs. Anan tells Kirk that a vicious
onslaught has just been carried out by the ruthless adversary. A
half-million people were killed. In spite of all the talk of
annihilation, scans by Yeoman Tamura's tricorder indicate no bomb
blasts or radiation disturbances anywhere on the planet. The War of
the Worlds is waged entirely by computer simulation. After a
cyberwar program determines which inhabitants have been terminated
in a given virtual explosion, "deaths are registered." The
designated victims have twenty-four hours to report to a
disintegration machine. As in America's wars, those who
actually die are the Data Trash ejected by the war video game.7
These shadow-people furnish the necessary dose of reality-effect.
The hyperreal simulation of war is above all a method of domination
of Western citizens by their states and institutional elites,
embedded in the power system of the virtual spaces of the media.
America is a simulacral power engaged in the simulacrum of war,
using the Other as a convenient alibi for its perfect crime.
To practice a radical
"after sociology" "after Baudrillard," we must bring together
critical theory and fatal theory. As Rex Butler says in his
indispensable book Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real,
we must devise a way of writing about a system that follows its
internal logic to the end, adds nothing to it, yet inverts it
entirely. This écriture is totally specific to each system examined.8
In the case of Star Trek, we must unify Star Trek as literature and
Star Trek as wily technologies. Later, in the context of the most
famous Trek-nology – the transporter, I demonstrate how these two
analyses come together. Before getting into the implications of
"beam me up Scotty," I want to briefly discuss two other
Trek-nologies: time travel and warp speed. The latter is the Star
Trek synonym for faster-than-light speed.
III. Real (Pata)physics
A surprising amount of
theoretical physics research is directed towards establishing the
scientific prerequisites for time travel. As defined by
Alfred Jarry, whom Baudrillard often cites with good humor,
pataphysics is the painstaking elaboration of imaginary scientific
solutions, expressed in persuasive language.9
"Exotic theories" about the workability of time travel are today
furiously debated in serious physics journals. About fifteen new
scholarly papers a year are published on the subject.10
In the 1980s, interest in
standard nonrotating black holes and in the rotating variant
skyrocketed. Mathematician Roy Kerr postulated that a black hole
singularity does not have to implode to a point with strong gravity
and infinite density. If its origin were a spinning star, it might
break down into a circulating ring of neutrons. This state would
permit a space traveler to enter the ring or wormhole in a
technology-assisted manner. The traveler could exit in a faraway
location in space, a different millennium in time, or a parallel
universe. Speculation about time travel became widespread, much to
the initial annoyance of most serious theoretical physicists. Kip
Thorne of Cal Tech, a leading expert on the general theory of
relativity, began his black hole research with the goal of
disproving all the nonsensical suppositions about time travel. Today
Thorne is one of the leading proponents of time travel pataphysics.11
In 1994, physicist Miguel Alcubierre
Moya published a paper on general relativity and warp speed that
explains the principles of the Alcubierre Warp Drive. This
contribution inaugurated a new branch of physics called warp drive
Alcubierre's design for interstellar travel calls for
the manipulation of spacetime in front of and behind the starship.
The paper has been hailed as a landmark in the transition from warp
drive as a fictional concept to a real scientific topic.
Alcubierre's scheme violates no known physical laws. It provides a
mathematical description of the curvature of space that would permit
travel between two locations separated by light-years in an
arbitrarily short time.12
In 1996, NASA established the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics
Project to investigate the practicability of warp drive. According
to its web site, researchers would pursue the scientific
breakthrough of "propulsion that requires no propellant mass."13
In the episode "The Enemy
Within," Captain Kirk, Lieutenant Sulu, Technician Fisher, and other
Enterprise crew members are approaching the end of a geological
survey mission on planet Alpha 177. Near the landing party's
makeshift camp, Fisher falls onto a bed of magnetic ore and cuts his
hand. We see yellow stains all over his clothing. Kirk instructs
Fisher to beam back up to the ship. Lieutenant Commander Scott and
Transporter Technician Wilson are at the operator's console of the
Enterprise Transporter Room when a red warning light starts to
blink. Fisher has trouble rematerializing. Scotty tells Wilson to
compensate for an extra Doppler wave frequency shift.
Kirk is now ready to beam
up, but Scotty is not convinced that the transporter machinery is
safe. The Chief Engineer begins the transport process anyway. Kirk
reappears standing on one of the circular plates of the open
chamber. The Captain looks weakened. He holds his left hand to his
brow and stumbles from the elevated landing. Scotty helps the
palpably shaken Kirk out to the corridor, leaving the Transporter
A humanoid figure, bent
slightly with its back towards us, assumes perceptible form on the
same platform disc where Kirk became visible just instants before.
The man turns around and we observe a second, more savage-looking
Kirk, with sinister eyes darting from side to side, resembling a
rabid animal just released from its cage. The duplicate Kirk walks to the
Transporter control console and lustfully communes with the
technology that has accidentally given him life. He leers at the
mechanism with which his existence is intimately entwined. He gazes
at the phase transition coils status display with wide eyes full of
desire. He runs his fingers sensually over the imaging scanner and
manual sequence controls, a lewd expression etched into his face.
According to television
legend, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry devised the transporter
as a way of saving money. The costs of landing the Enterprise
on a planet, and having it take off again, would have been
prohibitive. But in "The Enemy Within," what is expressed about the
transporter is deeply felt anxiety regarding the inherent accident
of technology. Evil Kirk is the intrinsic accident that belongs by
necessity to futuristic technoscience.
But how does the
transporter "really work"? Over the decades, the explanations of how
Star Trek's beaming technology might work have undergone paradigm
shifts. The original notion was the
dematerialization-rematerialization, matter-to-energy conversion and
back physical transporter. This was followed by the
information-based digital transporter. Finally came the "entangled
photon pairs" quantum teleporter, already built experimentally by
physicists for light particles and, as reported recently in the news
media, for atoms.
In the 1990s, theoretical
physicists such as Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss issued the
negative verdict that the physical transporter is unworkable due to
the laws of physics and to considerations of practicality. How could
the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, wondered Krauss in "The
Physics of Star Trek," possibly be overcome? The physical
transporter would have to deal with the impossibility of precise
measurements of the subatomic constituents of any object. Inspired
by the information society Zeitgeist, Krauss proposed a "being
digital" transporter. This apparatus constructs the new
incarnation of the arriving subject by combining the digitized map
of her informational bits with an accessible supply of malleable
sludge matter to make "as many copies as you want of an individual."14
This concept exemplifies the widespread assumption in techno-culture
that the definition of a living being is to be found in the coded
recipe of its biogenetic sequencing.
conception of a physical transporter did not suggest any threat to
prevalent ideas about subjectivity. The mental picturing of the
transmission of a person's matter stream within a confinement beam
still evoked traditional associations of point-to-point
transportation of an intact bodily self. The postmodernist digital
transporter and hypermodernist quantum teleporter gesture towards a
paradigm shift in the definition of what it means to be
human. It is conceded that a copy of myself, either created from the
same model informational pattern or emanating from a quantum
mechanical coupled entanglement, is identical to me. The
techno-cultural craze of the scientific realization of beaming
indicates that something fundamental about human existence is
changing in the present. In terms of the implied new relationship to
mortality, it will be a question of accepting the death of the
original subject just one single time when the startup clone of
myself is manufactured. This death will be rationalized as a small
price to be paid for the acquisition of a useful and generalized
cybernetic prosthesis. Who will not agree to the minor inconvenience
of his own death or not be willing to ignore the minor philosophical
technicality of "who is really me?" in economic exchange for being
able to travel instantly from Paris to New York? But this is not
the view of "The Enemy Within." In the stories themselves, Star Trek
is complexly ambivalent towards the presuppositions and values of
experimenters at IBM and the University of Innsbruck have brought to
realization the technology of quantum entanglement. Two subatomic
particles become inextricably linked in a way that a change to one
of them is instantly reflected in its counterpart, no matter how
physically separated they are. One of the twinned particles of light
is sent out at light speed to a distant remote location, while its
counterpart remains locally behind.15
The Uncertainty Principle
precludes taking any useful direct readings of the properties of an
isolated photon. An ingenious workaround technique jointly measures
a third photon in conjunction with the local member of the entangled
pair. The remote entangled particle, sitting inside an arrival
chamber at the far end of the solar system, immediately takes on the
properties of the third photon. Quantum entanglement is more than
mere remote control of duplicating a micro particle's quantum
properties. It is genuine teleportation because, as physicist Anton
Zeilinger says, "particles of the same type in the same quantum
state are indistinguishable even in principle."16
A photon is nothing else but its quantum state. Its state is its
identity. Nothing more can be said to be objectively real about it.
After quantum physics, do we accept that "what one can know, one
must know" and get on with the business of realizing technologies,
whose "nihilistic" selection criteria are science fiction culture's
desire to actualize them? Or do we choose humility before the
world's ungraspable illusion, acknowledging the surpassing of the
"real world" by singular quantum effects which appear and disappear?
Quantum teleportation has consequences for the paradigm shift in
what is meant by identity, difference, and alter-ation in existence.
In the hypermodernist "beaming" device, the teleporting photon at
the sending station is destroyed. This happens in the course of
performing the transfer of quantum properties. The teleporting
photon loses all state. Its information disappears.17
Only the teleported photon at the receiving station stays in
existence, identical in both properties and "essence" to the
original. In an earlier philosophical-cultural episteme, it might
been asserted that there is difference between the remote particle
and the particle of origin. But for twenty-first century techno
science, there is a redressed identity or reduction to zero
difference between original and copy (with the remaining différance
of the cloning accident). The technology of instantaneous transport
has been achieved, soon to be upgraded and refined for molecules,
suitcases, lab rats, and post humans.
IV. Evil Protects Us
Scotty has been hard at
work assessing the operational condition of the transporter. The
probable catalyst of the malfunction was the soft yellow ore
containing "unknown magnetic elements" that had coated Fisher's
jumpsuit. As suggested by chaos theory, a
system like the transporter works fine so long as circumstances
shield its too limited conception as a controllable sealed off
system from the disruptions of wider environmental factors. An
"unaccounted for" outside variable enters into play as the
provocator of an intrinsic accident. It reshuffles the complex
system's initial conditions and incites a reversibility of effects.
The two Kirks come face
to face for the first time. Evil Kirk holds a phaser to Weak Kirk
"You can't hurt me," the first Kirk says. "I'm part of you. You need
me." Kirk-Two is Kirk's internal radical
other. He is a reminder of the biographical vicissitudes that make
us human. "The Enemy Within" is a classic tale of useful alienation.
It depicts the indispensability of the shadow and the evil twin of
radical otherness to the salutary habitat of being. The symbolic
double and the awareness of death protect human existence
within a survival zone where it resists being reduced to its
predetermined future itinerary or redundant identity with a series
of clones. Technology's mainstream trajectory precipitates the
demise of the artistic sphere as learning territory where we
encounter instructive doubles. Technology has a secondary dimension
which is seductively teased out in "The Enemy Within." We glimpse
this possibility of wily stratagem when Kirk-Two steps down from the
transporter platform and erotically embraces the control console in
Evil Kirk is more than an
accident as contingency. He is technology. He is the revenge
of artifice against the project of the world's simplification.
Technology is the domain of the radical illusion of the world, where
the device evades its masters and turns its cunning against the
facile convictions of its inventors who wish to rule a compliant
world through technique.
From the standpoint of
the good Kirk, the malfunction is the transporter's spewing out of
negativity in favor of the positive. The transporter tries to
exorcize evil. The total and purified information that must become
available to the clean room system in order to instantiate a new
"me" has to be uncontaminated by strange attractors.
Spock at first believes
that Weak Kirk is the real Kirk and Evil Kirk is an imposter, an
"extra double" discharged as "fraudulent illusion." But the Science
Officer soon grasps that Evil Kirk is something more consequential
than a fake, and that Weak Kirk is not the "real Kirk" either. With
the realization growing that Weak Kirk is lacking in the modernist
capability of carefully considered action enlightened by
context-based knowledge, McCoy tries to get Kirk-One to see that
Kirk-Two is indeed that "evil" within himself that he cannot do
without. "We all have our darker side. We need it. It's not really
ugly, it's human." McCoy states his disagreement with the principle
of good, which is really the principle of the separation of good and
evil, as opposed to their mutual dependence.
The necessary accident of
the duplicate Kirk turns a questioning spotlight on the "essence" or
punctum of the transporter, which is the absolutist phantasmagoria
of total knowledge of a person captured in a digital pattern image
or quantum physics snapshot of their subatomic particles. It is the
dream of a human being understandable entirely through her
information, identical to herself, and leading a completely knowable
existence. As Baudrillard writes:
Evil protects us from the worst-case scenario... We are
traditionally sensitive to the threat which the ‘forces of Evil’
pose for the Good, whereas it is the threat posed by the forces of
Good which is the fateful threat to the world of the future. ...We
are on course for the perfect crime, perpetrated by Good and in the
name of Good, for the implacable perfection of the technical,
artificial universe which will see the accomplishment of all our
desires, of a world unified by the elimination of all anti-bodies.
This is our negentropic phantasm of total information. That all
matter should become energy and all energy information. ...That all
genes should be operational...18
Scotty has expedited repairs to the transporter, using bypass
circuits wired to the impulse engines. Weak Kirk holds his listless
double upright in his arms, seemingly with love, as they get ready
to energize. Spock pushes down a control console slider. A long
silence. He moves the slider back up. One Kirk reappears on the
platform. We see McCoy's tense expression, then an equally strained
look on Spock's face. "Jim?" asks McCoy hesitantly.
Baudrillard admonished the Simulationist and Appropriationist
artists of the 1980s (Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine and Peter
Halley), who sought legitimacy for their works by making reference
to his writings on simulation, simulacra, and the end of the real.19
But the referent has "long ago" been substituted by the sign. "If
you take Baudrillard seriously," he told them, then "you must forget
Academic attempts at "applying deconstruction" have also seemed
notoriously contrived. By identifying Star Trek as a "media
precognition" of Baudrillard (as Stefan Höltgen commented earlier at
this symposium); and by writing about "what I love"; via a mutual
anagrammatizing that finally renders Baudrillard and Star Trek
indistinguishable; and through performing the illusion, joy,
poetics, irony, disappearance and Trojan horse strategies outlined
in Baudrillard's essay "Radical Thought," I have engaged in an
experiment to cross over from French theory to American
I hope I have avoided the missteps of the Simulationist artists in
my effort to contribute to an understanding of the emergence of the
is an American expatriot who now works as a software developer. He
formerly taught sociology at New York University. He is the author
of Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance. Berlin: AVINUS
Verlag, 2004. He is also author of two articles in Ctheory.net:
“Captain Kirk Was Never The Original“
http://www.ctheory.net/text_file.asp?pick=91 and “The Star
Trekking of Physics“
http://www.ctheory.net/text_file.asp?pick=95. He has recently
become an editor of IJBS.
This paper was presented at the Baudrillard and the Arts: A
Tribute to His 75th Birthday. A Symposium at the Center for
Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, in July 16-18, 2004. It has
been translated from the German by the author. See:
Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c1968). New
York: Verso, 1996:119.
Jean Baudrillard. The Mirror of Production. St. Louis:
Telos Press, 1975. Translated by Mark Poster.
Jean Baudrillard. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities
...Or The End of the Social. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.
Translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and John Johnston. See also
"Forget Baudrillard: An Interview with Sylvère Lotringer" in
Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault, Forget Baudrillard.
Semiotext(e), New York 1987:104.
Alan N. Shapiro. Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance.
Berlin: AVINUS Verlag, 2004.
Jean Baudrillard. La Guerre du Golfe n'a pas eu lieu.
Paris: Editions Galilée, 1991:15. my translation.
Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein. Data Trash: The
Theory of the Virtual Class. New York: St. Martin's Press,
Rex Butler. Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real.
London: SAGE, 1999:120. See also Jean Baudrillard. Impossible
Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:150. Translated by Chris
Alfred Jarry. Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll,
pataphysicien, suivi de L'Amour Absolu. Paris: Gallimard,
Kip S. Thorne. Black Holes & Time Warps: Einstein's
Outrageous Legacy (Foreword by Stephen Hawking). New York:
W.W. Norton and Co., 1994.
Miguel Alcubierre. "The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within
General Relativity" in Journal of Classical and Quantum
Gravity 11, 1994.
Lawrence M. Krauss. The Physics of Star Trek (Foreword by
Stephen Hawking). New York: Basic Books, 1995:68.
Amir D. Aczel. Entanglement: The Greatest Mystery in Physics.
New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002.
Anton Zeilinger. "Quantum Teleportation" in Scientific
American. April 2000:39.
Amir Aczel. Entanglement:
The Greatest Mystery in Physics.
New York: Avalon Press, 2002:242.
Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso,
Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004:26-7.
Comment made by Jean
Baudrillard during the main panel discussion at this symposium
(see endnote 1).
Stefan Höltgen. "Terror,
Kunst und Theorie: Jean Baudrillard Wird 75," in Nach dem
Film, September, 2004:
Baudrillard, "Radical Thought," in The Perfect Crime.
London: Verso, 1996:94-105. Translated by Chris Turner.