Friday, June 29, 2012

Imagining Social Justice Through Sci-Fi TV: From "Trek" to "Torchwood" (Part Four: The Star Trek Universe 2)

Previous installments:
Part One: Introduction
Part Two: Reviewing the Literature
Part Three: The Star Trek Universe (part one)


Section Two: A Palestinian Allegory

"Stories teach in memorable ways. In that sense, they are much more valuable than rote learning and memorization" (Gaskin 10)

While the previous discussion is one of a general transition from The Original Series to The Next Generation wherein we may observe how the imaginings of their time of creation influence and contain the raced and gendered future created by their writers and producers, I want to move now to a more specific example of the working-out-of contemporary concerns on screen.  While there are many themes to choose from, I have decided to choose an allegory that proved to be a long standing influence on the franchise.  I choose this particular allegory not only for its widespread use across three Star Trek series (Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager) but because it remains a current topic of contention in USian society, and most of all because it is an excellent example of the way stories allow conversations on topics that, when engaging with their real world counterparts, are typically silenced.
This allegory is that of the Israeli occupation of Palestine as told through the experiences of two alien species and their planets: Cardassia and Bajor, as seen from a USian perspective through the Federation.  While executive producer Rick Berman has said that these stories came from an amalgamation of various occupied/colonized peoples, particularly "the Kurds, the Palestinians, the Jews in the 1940s, [and] the boat people from Haiti” (Nemecek 178), it is my contention that given the time these episodes aired, and the way the storyline progressed, the most relevant allusion is indeed to Palestine/Israel.  In fact, the official editorial for the VHS version of the episode “Ensign Ro” on reads, in part: TNG’s “take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…introducing the dispute between Cardassians and the displaced Bajoran people” (Spletzer). This interpretation of the Bajoran/Cardassian conflict remains a contentious one in the Star Trek fandom, as evidenced by its wide discussion online (DevilEyes) and the diversity of opinion within those discussions (quinnox, Bernardi, Anonymous)
The Palestinian allegory is rejected outright by those who maintain the Bajorans are only the generalized amalgamation Berman professes to have intended, as well as those who see potential antisemitism in the equating of Bajor with Palestine (and thus Israel with the evil Cardassians) (TVTropes), or those who subscribe to the Zionist ideology of Palestine as a land abandoned and then (rightfully) returned to by a non-Arab Jewish population.  For this last group of fans in particular there is nothing reminiscent of Zionist Israelis in the colonialist Cardassians, because the Cardassians are not attempting to “reclaim their ancestral homeworld” (sic) (Anonymous).  However, I reject these arguments, and particularly reject the Zionist foundations of the last.[1]  Instead, after careful consideration of these spirited debates, the words of the producers, and my own critical viewership of the episodes in question, I continue to believe and will argue below that the most accurate allegory remains that of an alternately radical/liberal anti-colonial critique of Palestine under occupation, and the imagining of Palestine and Israel as at “peace”[2] as two separate nation-states. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Imagining Social Justice Through Sci-Fi TV: From "Trek" to "Torchwood" (Part Three: The Star Trek Universe 1)

Previous installments:
Part One: Introduction
Part Two: Reviewing the Literature


“We are never simply consumers of popular cultural texts, but in and through our very ‘reading’ of them we actively (re)create them” (Sullivan 189).

The first section of this chapter will discuss broad themes of the Star Trek universe spanning the original series and The Next Generation.  This survey is not meant to be an exhaustive one, that would be impossible for a project of this size, but I do want to touch on several themes and conventions I have noticed in my own watching and re-watching of the series’ in question.  The second section of the chapter is dedicated to an analysis of a specific storyline that begins on The Next Generation and is developed more fully on Deep Space Nine.  Instead of overarching themes, in this section I have chosen to zoom in on two specific episodes to examine closely: TNG’s “Ensign Ro” and DS9’s “Duet.”  It is my hope that this combination of the broad and the specific will give even the fan-scholar a unique perspective on the potential, and on the successes and failures, of the Star Trek universe as a social justice project.
I feel it is also important to reiterate here what I mean by “social justice.”  As I use it here, “social justice” means “a project in pursuit of positive social/cultural change.”  This is similar to Cymene Howe’s “televisionary activism,” defined as: “a mediated form of social justice messaging that utilizes the pervasive, popular platform of television to create new ‘visions’ of social transformation to shape and change, in the words of advocates, ‘culture’”  (Howe 54).  This is a very broad definition and includes within it work from many, sometimes contradictory, political philosophies.  For example, Star Trek, which is an assimilationist and US-centric project.  Social justice can be framed in a radical or liberal way, though it’s rootedness in change precludes it from being traditionally conservative.  This definition does not mean, however, that the franchise in question never reinforces what I view as harmful social structures in its pursuit of what it sees/projects as “change.”  They do.
I want to be very clear here.  I love Star TrekNext Generation, Voyager and more recently Deep Space Nine have been incredibly important shows to me on a personal, intellectual and political level.  But these shows are not perfect.  Even the elements I label as “positive” are often a mixture of elements I consider both “good” and “bad” in pursuit of the social change I would like to see.  There is no purity in this analysis.  That is because, as Avery Gordon reminds us: “life is complicated” (Gordon 3).  I take that axiom just as seriously as she; it is not just “a banal expression of the obvious, but…a profound theoretical statement” (3).  I refuse to shun complication in pursuit of a more “tidy” theory-making, or in the face of the possibility of confusion.  Confusion and complication can be useful tools, they can frustrate, but they can also bring a deeper understanding once trudged through.  I also reject purposeful obfuscation, and do not aim to purposefully frustrate my readers; I ask only that you keep in mind that there are always multiple layers to the topics I discuss below.
First, I look at the transition from the rudimentary 1960s identity politics representational practice on original Star Trek to the neoliberal “multicultural” politics and casting decisions of Star Trek: The Next Generation.   While it is easy to simply say both practices are flawed, I want to look more deeply at what each approach (both of them rooted in liberal-humanism) challenges and reifies.  Second, I analyze the use of Cardassians and Bajorans on Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as an allegory for the colonial conflict occurring in Palestine/Israel.  This analysis serves two main purposes: first, to exemplify how stories can be utilized to call attention to gaps in hegemonic knowledge, and second, to point to the way stories can provide a forum for discussions that are shut down in the real world.  Finally, the over-arching argument I am building is that these works matter because before something can be done, it must first be imagined.  And the spaces of our imaginings show us (the viewers and imaginers) the futures that we are collectively working to build (and social justice activists where we might, or must, intervene).  My work here is an effort to critically analyze the imaginings of my chosen texts, to deconstruct some of their messages and to ask how fan-scholar-activists might use those messages towards ever-better social justice work.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Imagining Social Justice Through Sci-Fi TV: From "Trek" to "Torchwood" (Part Two: Reviewing the Literature)

See part one of this series: HERE


“We need to imagine living elsewhere 
before we can live there” (Gordon 4).

Science fiction (across its various articulations in literature, film, television, etc.) has long been about imagining potential futures or alternate presents, and as such sci-fi offers a framework of imagination within which ideas of social justice are potentially able to flourish.  For example, many writers have envisioned their own utopias, or warned their home societies against foreseeable dystopias.  In doing so, these writers do the work of imagining how people of their current age might build better (or more terrible) worlds.  Fandom then takes these stories and reworks/repurposes them, engaging with and stretching the ideas contained within into something that applies to and/or interrogates our lived realities.  I have been a part of this process in some way for most of my life, and the personal and intellectual work I have done within those arenas has been both rewarding and trying.  I extend that work now into the academic realm, hoping to make a worthwhile contribution to studies of television, science fiction, social justice, gender, race and sexuality.
There are three principal fields of inquiry with which this project is engaged: Television Studies, Science Fiction Studies and a nexus of Women/Gender Studies, Ethnic Studies and Queer/LGBT Studies (where my analysis falls into the liminal spaces/overlap between these last three academic disciplines).  My academic background primarily consists of the literature of Women and Gender Studies with an emphasis on the work of Women of Color (particularly Chicana) feminists, a foundation I do not see shared by the literature on science fiction TV I have read.  Disciplines such as history, literature, critical race studies, queer theory and feminist theory have all contributed something to my research, theoretical framework and/or argument.  Popular engagement with the television shows also comprise elements of this critical archive, as I am not solely interested in the interpretation of these shows by academic scholars but by activists and fans outside of the academy as well.  Further, at times I also draw from other popular culture sources that engage with ideas similar to my own. 
The intervention I most hope to make through this project is one that allows fan-scholars like myself to take these stories into academic spaces as a popular source of social justice, and/or to take the knowledge produced in women’s studies and ethnic studies into normative geek discourse.  It is within the give and take of both communities that I live, and that I hope others might learn from.  My positionality makes this project rather unique, but it also means mapping the placement of my work within the massive network that is the scholarship on television and science fiction is, frankly, daunting.  However, I attempt it here to the best of my ability.  The two over-arching frameworks of my project deal with the imagination as a social/political practice and the ambivalence of television (both in the narrative and in the watching of it).  For ease of reading these will also be the dividing categories of this chapter.  In truth, there are sources that could overlap the borders between sections, and the sources discussed are not the only ones to influence my thinking or writing.  However, they are, as I look over the work I have done, the most important or influential, and/or contain or explicate the ideas and themes which I return to again and again, or help place my work within a larger context.  

Friday, June 08, 2012

Imagining Social Justice Through Sci-Fi TV: From "Trek" to "Torchwood" (Part One: Introduction)

I've often shared the work I have been doing in the academy on this blog, and with my latest project I figured the tradition should continue, thus TJH's newest series is born: Imagining Social Justice Through Sci-Fi TV.  You've already seen pieces of this in rougher forms, but hopefully it will be more interesting when you see how they all came together.  And it must be said, this is still a work in progress, or at least, is part of a larger work in progress.  But that will probably become apparent as you proceed through it.  So without further ado...


"A dream that became a reality and spread throughout the stars"
– Captain Kirk in "Whom Gods Destroy" (Erwin)

There are reasons both personal and political behind my choice to examine the worlds of Star Trek and Doctor Who.  At its heart, this project is an examination of myself.  It is also more than that, but whether it is apparent or not, what you have before you in the following pages is Me.  I’ve spent many years delving into and considering the ways of thinking I have taken on in childhood and young adulthood, those things that I believe and/or have “always” believed, about the world, about myself.  What I could not help noticing is how much popular culture influenced those beliefs and continues to be a central point of reference for my own imaginary and culture.  These stories, in all their complexity and nuance and beauty and fault, exist inside me, for better or for worse.  I am a geek.  More than that, I am a feminist geek.  And how feminism has worked its way into my geekdom is only now, years after it began, starting to become clear to me.  Because of all this, when conceptualizing a project I wanted to spend two years thinking about and researching and writing, there was no real choice in the matter: it had to be Star Trek: The Next Generation
Growing up watching TNG in my house was a family event.  My Mom didn't care for the show, but my Dad and I loved it, and we (and eventually my brother) sat down often over the seven seasons it aired to watch it together.  One vivid memory is of my little brother and I flinging ourselves to the sides of the television set as the Enterprise-D zoomed diagonally across the screen over and over during the now iconic opening credits (given my brother’s age, this was most likely after the show had gone to syndication).  I remember us laughing as we pretended the Enterprise might come out of the screen and run us over if we didn't get out of the way.  Looking back on it, this moment illustrates well just how real these characters and stories were to me, even as I knew they were fiction.  No wonder then, that on re-watching the series I would discover such moments as Captain Picard expressing a perspective on knowledge and education that I have long held as my own:
“Anyone can be trained in the mechanics of piloting a starship. It takes more. Opening your mind to the past…art, history, philosophy. All this may mean something” (McCullough)
What Picard is telling Wesley Crusher here is that often the things that are really “important” are not on the tests we are given, but require us to immerse ourselves in a wide range of thought, to wrestle with complicated ideas, ways of seeing, and an understanding of the legacy that produces you as an individual.  “All this may mean something” and only by exploring these spaces of differing knowledges can we find those that are meaningful to us and our lives.  It is this viewpoint that led me to the Humanities and the resulting educational journey that now culminates in this project.