Volume 2, Number 2
Book Review: Blurring the Real.
Alan Shapiro. Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance. Berlin: Avinus, 2004.
Reviewed by Kristina C. Marcellus
(Doctoral Candidate, Department of Sociology, Queen’s University at Kingston, Ontario, Canada).
“When the technologies cannot go any faster, then they become technologies of disappearance.”1
Alan Shapiro’s Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance begins by explaining how it is different than other books about Star Trek. There are, notes Shapiro, two main approaches to writing about the franchise: the first treats it as a great modern mythology while the second deals with the topic through what Shapiro calls an “inherited methodological prototype: The ‘–‘ of Star Trek,” where for the ‘–‘ whatever field is to be examined is inserted.2 Shapiro’s book is different because rather than approaching Star Trek from one of these two angles exclusively, his study sees them as mutually informative – one approach helps in explaining the other.
Something else marks Shapiro’s book as somewhat different than other studies that take on the Star Trek multiverse: the goal here is to explain Star Trek and its technologies in their own right, not as compared to current scientific knowledge and/or theory. Shapiro writes that “as a singularity, Star Trek can only be grasped through an exploration that is carried out in Star Trek’s own terms. But we ironically do not know at the outset what these ‘own terms’ are.”3 By dealing with Star Trek as a part of its own multiverse rather than as explicitly tied to what we imagine our own to be, Shapiro is able to discuss the franchise in a way that frees it from the bounds of our reality, or, at most, notes where it departs from the confines of the understandings that arise from our reality/realities.
There are three meanings of the phrase “technologies of disappearance” in Shapiro’s study. First:
…the major Star Trek technologies, as they are habitually envisioned, are technologies of disappearance in a literal and striking way […] Techno-cultural developments of the twenty-first century and beyond increasingly entail the ‘leaving behind’ of corporeal existence to enter an alternative reality, such as an android body or online VR environment.4
The transporter, holodeck, warp speed, and time travel all involve disappearance in a commonsense way. Shapiro writes of the second meaning of ‘technologies of disappearance’ that it is “a negative, ‘critical theory’ sense. To write about ‘technologies of disappearance’ is also to engage in a critique of the mainstream ways in which hypermodern technologies are conceived and designed.”5 Very much in line with the Baudrillardean essence of the book, Shapiro continues on to note that “human subjectivity and perception disappear into the organ-substituting imaging apparatuses of television, cinema, virtual reality, and real-time telecommunications,”6 in this reading of “technologies of disappearance”. The Telematic Man, from “Xerox and Infinity,”7 comes to mind here, as elsewhere in Shapiro’s book, as the kind of being that exists in a Star Trek world.
The third and final reading of the title phrase is, according to Shapiro, “more hopeful and affirmative”. He writes:
These technologies bring us into the proximity of new opportunities for ‘symbolic exchange’ and ‘duality within uncertainty’ that contest the prevailing order of endless signification and one-way economic accumulation. This mode of seduction is not to be found in reclaiming the modernist depths of ‘truth,’ but rather on the superficial level of artifice, illusion, disappearance and reappearance.8
Shapiro’s specific object in Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance are those technologies like the transporter, warp speed, and the holodeck that contribute to shifting perceptions of reality through their ability to blur and displace fixed ideas of what is real. In addition to these technologies, humanoids are included in this study. Characters from three generations of Star Trek series come under examination: Spock from The Original Series, Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager. There are all hybrid entities, and Shapiro’s argument is, I feel, at its best and clearest in the chapters that deal with the relationship between the human and the machinic.
The book is truly a project influenced by Baudrillardean social theory (Shapiro acknowledges his debt to Baudrillard, and some others, at the end of the introduction). This is evident not only in the “Star Trek Basic Principles” that Shapiro outlines in the first chapter and carries through the rest of the book – some have titles drawn directly from Baudrillard’s work, including ‘The Vital Illusion,’ ‘Symbolic Exchange,’ and ‘Android Seduction’ – but also in the analyses of the various figures of human-machine hybrids (Spock, Data, Seven of Nine). By examining individual episodes of various Star Trek series, Shapiro argues convincingly that these hybrids reveal as much about the production teams’ vision of the human as about their view on the “post-human.” Telematic Man lurks just behind each of the analyses but never fully steps from the shadows. Similarly, the implosive moment is present throughout the book, always implicit in the disappearance/reappearance binary. In many of these technologies of disappearance, implosion is a necessary spectre that allows the technology to function. Indeed, without it, the tension of the binary would not be effective.
The format of Shapiro’s book is unusual. For different segments of the text, different fonts are employed. At first, this is somewhat distracting (different fonts for descriptions of episodes, arguments about theory, the science itself, etc.). Once the reader becomes accustomed to the font changes and sidebar notes, these are quite useful in keeping track of where one is in the text.
Overall, Shapiro’s treatment of the technologies of disappearance in Star Trek is engaging and informative. To make sense of many of the nuances of the arguments, however, the reader does require a solid background in Baudrillard’s thought. Without it, much of the book would lack grounding. This is not a shortcoming of the book, nor is it a particular strength – it is more a caveat for those interested in Star Trek and not so much in Baudrillard.
1 Alan Shapiro. Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance. Berlin: Avinus, 2004:356.
7 Jean Baudrillard. “Xerox and Infinity”. London: Agitac Press, 1988.
8 Alan Shapiro. Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance. Berlin: Avinus, 2004:21.
©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)