Star Trek: A Movie Review
By John LobellÂ
The new Star Trek movie is so highly satisfying because it introduces a richness of back-story into a franchise we know so well, and because it adds a mythological depth. This depth does not approach that of Star Wars, but it is there. And since we now have time travel (the young Spock meets the old Spock, played by Leonard Nemoy), we may even get to see the development of a mythological relationship between James Kirk and his father.
Reconciliation with the father was the underlying theme of the six Star Wars movies. Of course this mythological depth, as I have said, does not approach that of Star Wars, for not only does Lucas understand the issue of the father, but he also understands the cycles of history. While the Star Trek movies have featured a series of encounters with angry nut cases (with the exception of the very prescient Borg), Star Wars unfolds against a cosmological backdrop that tracks the courses of empires and federations, rebels and defenders. Lucas not only knows his Campbell and his Spengler, but also Lo Kuan-Chungâ€™s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which begins: â€œThe world under heaven, after a long period of division, tends to unite; after a long period of union, tends to divide. This has been so since antiquity.â€
But there is something else going on in Star Trek, indeed in most American movies, that while surely noticed, is rarely discussed. If we date the emergence of modern humans at around 150,000 years ago, and settled agricultural communities around 12,000 years ago, then in rough terms we have spent 92% of our modern human existence as nomadic hunter-gathers, and 8% as settled agriculturalists. That is, we have been agriculturalists for twelve thousand years at most, while many humans have remained hunter-gatherers for much longer, and a few have survived even to this day. Agriculture, it is true, brought great benefits: reliable food supplies, comfortable residences, defensible communities. But this came at a great sacrifice: enslavement to the cycles of planting and harvest, and to watching over the land. No more moving over the landscape. Crops must be planted and harvested on schedule and watched in between. A cow must be milked every morning.
The courage of the Paleolithic hunter, able to track and kill large and dangerous animals alone or in tightly knit bands, was devalued in favor of the patience of the farmer. The shaman, who individually engaged in the shamanic journey to battle spirit enemies was replaced by the priest who did not act out of his own inner vision, but as an agent of an institution. So with agriculture, we have such vertically rooted orientations as organization, hierarchy, obedience, enslavement to the land and the seasons as well as to institutions. Industrial culture continued this model, substituting the factory floor for the field, and the office adopted it, too, as we read in The Organization Man.
But then in 1964, with his Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan announced the electronic age, and with it the reemergence of the hunter-gatherer with the remark that we are now hunters and gatherers of information. So the question now is how to build a culture that allows for the reemergence of individuality. For a while we did this in Silicon Valley.
But for the most part, we are now going in the opposite direction. Without arguing issues of social justice and the welfare state, letâ€™s look for a moment at the control over the individual we are building: you must be born in a hospital, are encouraged to attend preschool, must attend school with a curriculum more and more federally mandated, are encouraged to attend a college that must be accredited under federal rules, graduate in debt that precludes a year of bumming around Europe before deciding what you want to do, pay taxes, report every stock trade you make to the government, drive a car that is mostly designed by government rules, have medical care which will soon give to the government records of every pill you take and everything you tell your shrink, and if you want to momentarily escape any of this, ingest only those mind altering substances approved by the government. And the extent of these controls is rapidly increasing. In other words, we are shifting from Foucault’s disciplinary society, which is disintegrating all around us, to one based upon the control of the individual through electronic tracking.
But while we may claim to be in communitarian agreement on this issue of growing control over our lives, who are our movie heroes? Almost without exception, those who rebel against such controls, those who live precisely as Paleolithic hunters, not as Neolithic farmers. There is no need to list these characters since they constitute just about every male (and now often female) lead in every action movie of the past half century.
So it is no surprise that when we meet the boy Kirk in the new Star Trek movie on the open plains of Iowa, we see him speeding in a vintage Corvette in defiance of a robot traffic cop. And we also take note that he is a rebel at the Star Fleet Academy.
What is so surprising is that our movies continue to present us with this model of the individual locked into fierce defiance of the institutions which govern and control our present civilization, which is, of course, tantamount to a celebration of the shamanic values over the priestly, an American faith in the inner voice so celebrated in books like Huckleberry Finn. This is going on at the same time that we are meanwhile plunging into greater and greater regulation of every aspect of every individual life in headlong pursuit of the total domestication of the once free, and now increasingly domesticated, surveyed and panoptically controlled individual, while such a dichotomy goes unnoticed and undiscussed.