U.S. Intellectual History Blog

To Boldly Go: On Star Trek, Marcuse and Utopias

The following is a guest post by Clancy Smith, currently an adjunct professor of philosophy at three universities in Nashville, Tennessee. Among other things, Dr. Smith is the author of a variety of articles exploring different intersections between popular culture and philosophy.

In every iteration of the voyages of the starship Enterprise, the continuing mission has always been to explore new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations; in sum, to boldly go where no one has gone before. Though perhaps not immediately apparent, there is something idyllic in such a directive, something perhaps even Utopic. For what sort of civilization could allow the flourishing of discovery for its own sake? What sort of society has reached such a stage of flourishing that wonder at the universe’s infinite and vast mysteries can be a goal in itself, set and traversed, rather than the constant struggle for survival, conquest, and domination so ubiquitous in our culture’s millennia long history? It is to this issue that this paper turns: in what way can we claim that Star Trek offers, nascent in its narrative, a Utopic vision of humanity’s future?

The study of Utopian possibilities has long lingered in the annals of canonical philosophy: from Plato to Rawls, from More to Nozick, philosophy itself has ever sought to seek out new ways of living, new forms of civilization; to boldly imagine worlds unlike any that have been seen before. Yet of all the potential candidates to draw upon for this brief exposé on Utopian themes in Star Trek, it is perhaps the least likely figure that may provide us with the most erudite and complete explanation of the nature of that fictional Utopia: the critical theorist, Herbert Marcuse.

Though Marcuse flourished during the cultural reign of the original Star Trek series, it is unlikely he spent much time in front of the television, being one of the most vocal critics of popular culture the world over. What the man may have done in his quiet off-hours is less important, however, than the insights he bequeathed to subsequent generations in his robust library of publications spanning the better part of the 20th century. A student of both Husserl and Heidegger, Marcuse, like many of his brethren from the Frankfurt School of Social Research, took on the Marxist mantle with a two-fold mandate: to both explain the deplorable manifestations of socialism and communism that manifested in his lifetime and to analyze the ways in which Marx failed to predict the tenacious flourishing of capitalism long after it ought to have collapsed upon itself like a house of cards. But there was always something unique about the man’s philosophy, a doctrine all his own, despite what general themes he shared in common with those other first generation critical theorists. For unlike his colleagues, his relationship with socialism was never altogether clear, and a hesitation to adopt its values in toto haunted his mature work. Instead, and here to the point, Marcuse’s vision of a better tomorrow was uniquely his own, forged of an even more uneasy relationship explicit in his work between the doctrines of Marx (traditionally used as a philosophy of liberation) and the doctrines of Freud (traditionally used as a philosophy of repression). But here is the thing about Marcuse that has so long attracted scholars from a wide array of socio-political fields: his ability to find a kernel of revolution in the least likely of places. Fusing Freudian psychoanalysis with a Marxist critique of capitalism, Marcuse’s critical theory was unlike those of his peers, and from it emerged a Utopian vision as surprising as it is novel, and as frustrating as it is fascinating. For although his Utopic vision certainly caters to some nascent socialist themes, it is, not itself, a socialist society in any explicit way. But nor does Marcuse offer much in the way of a bridge between here (the present) and there (the Utopic future), a point taken up by Marcuse scholars for generations, the frustration at hearing where we might one day go, but without so much as a blueprint of how to get there. To come to Marcuse’s defense on this point, however, it could be the other way: in good Socratic fashion, Marcuse offered a genuine critical theory, a critique of all that ails a modern milieu, and the tools (and only the tools) needed to move forward. He would not supply answers (whether or not he had them) to the most pressing inquiries of “what must we do next?” precisely because he had no interest in dolling out ready-made philosophy, spoon-feeding the next generation his own concrete, positive doctrine, for he would become no less than the sort of authoritarian structure he fought so hard to undermine all his life. Yet, with these tools Marcuse bequeaths to us, it is possible to cobble together a shadowy imprint of what that Utopic vision might well be, not because we are drawing upon any positive, concrete vision of his own, but rather through the negation of the structures that stand in the way of any form of Utopic society through a process he, himself, called “negative thinking:” the negation of what is to open that creative space for the postulation of what might otherwise be. And as we shall see, Star Trek, through many of the details oft-overlooked in the overall narrative in its various incarnations, provide an eerie resonance which, when taken all together, form something so akin to the world Marcuse’s envisions as a potential Utopic future, as to be worthy of careful consideration.

In Eros and Civilization, one of his most famous works (second, really, only to One-Dimensional Man), Marcuse explores Freudian psychoanalysis through the lens of Marxist critical theory, a truly unique spin on a well-tread topic, and one which did not sit well with many of his devoutly socialist colleagues. Freudian doctrine is readily viewed (especially by those sensitive to such matters) as a doctrine espousing the necessity of repression: for civilization to exist in any meaningful sense, we all, individually, must repress our instinctual drives or sublimate them into socially acceptable and productive avenues. The genesis of such a command for repression (to oversimplify wildly, of course, for brevity’s sake) is found in Ananke: “scarcity,” the limited resources that provide for humanity’s basic needs for food, shelter, water, and so on. Without enough of these basic needs to go around in a world without any form of restraint, we’re all quite bollocksed, to the say the least. Thus, a proportional relationship is constructed between the scarcity of things to supply our needs and the demand for repression of our instinctual drives: the more scarcity, the more the need for repression. Yet even in Marcuse’s day, he noted the progress technology had made in alleviating scarcity: medicine, science, pushed to the limits and beyond by human imagination and innovation had found ways to cure disease, delimit suffering, and allow a heightened flourishing of the human condition heretofore unknown. What he also noted, however, was a consistent demand for the same, stagnant degree of repression: no longer as necessary as it was before, whereas it ought to have been the case that the more technology alleviated scarcity, the less repression would be demanded from us. Conversely, however, as scarcity continued to decline, the levels of socially-demanded repression remained static (or, in some cases, actually continued to rise). In what Marcuse called “surplus repression,” humanity’s drives and passions continued to stagnate in a monotonous existence of labor and toil while, daily it seemed, there was less and less of a need for repression. This would later tie into his grander theories of capitalism’s ability to manifest “false needs” and stave off radical social change by keeping a populace in a “drugged stupor” of repression and mild, menial indulgences, and so on, but it’s clear to see here, in this all-too-cursory examination, that the technological means to alleviate scarcity is the necessary precursor to any sort of radically liberated society: a society liberated from the demands of toil and sublimation, a civilization liberated from the stultifying effects of capital and commodity. For unlike many other philosophically forged Utopian visions, Marcuse was adamant that technology must be present in any future Utopic vision: a radical technology, one that does not master us, but is under our direct control and aimed, exclusively, at the alleviation of suffering, the alleviation of disease, and the alleviation of unnecessary labor and toil. We would be free, radically free, not merely from the constant ebb-and-flow of commodity fetishism, but our very instincts would be freed to pursue heretofore inaccessible goals: we could pursue, for example, discovery for discovery’s sake, to wonder at the great mysteries of the cosmos for the sheer love of knowledge acquisition, that is, a true philo-sophia.

Given the centrality of the need to alleviate scarcity, and the call for more advanced forms of technology to that end, it is hard not to think about Star Trek’s “replicators;” devices capable of recycling ambient base matter into anything from tools to haute cuisine. It’s easy to overlook just the ridiculously vast significance of these devices, so ubiquitous are they, especially in TNG and DS9. Distracted as we are by the screaming servicemen and women dashing about attempting to contain yet another warp-core collapse we may fail to notice the tools being created in the background of the shot, nigh-on ex nihilo mind you, from a little glowing platform stuck in a wall no more prominent than a contemporary water fountain. We watch with pensive brows furled as Picard uses one to create some Earl Grey tea as he nestles into his office chair, cracking open Moby Dick for a light read before his (inevitable) next encounter with Borg, never really stopping to wonder (with the awe it deserves) at the little glowing box in the wall that literally just created a beverage from damn near nothing. But from a Marcusean standpoint, of that little device in the wall, so extraneous so often, can there be any greater miracle than that? Foolish as that may sound, consider again, from a Marcusean-cum-Freudian standpoint, the entire history of the human race is predicated upon repression and toil precisely because we can’t just rearrange matter to fulfill the base needs of every man, woman, and child on the planet.

So, too, is technology now under our control, a sore point for Marcuse who saw (and foresaw) technology taking on a life of its own, a motif seemingly ripped from the pages of Mary Shelley, wherein technology is no longer a tool deployed for the alleviation of suffering, famine, and toil, in a word, the release from repression, but rather coming to dominate the very human souls who created it, vis-à-vis media, advertising, commodity mass production, and the binding of the human condition to technology less the very individual fall into obsolesce. Telling, perhaps, that perhaps the greatest threat ever faced by the various crewmembers of Starfleet is that of the Borg; a race of half-organic, half-technological abominations with no will save for the will of the collective, with volition entirely dissolved. Such a theme would resonate with Marcuse’s most dire fears expressed in One-Dimensional Man wherein autonomy is dissolved into the heteronomy born of fads, needs, and desires to be, act, consume, purchase, and live, as others are, act, consume, and live.

But again, Marcuse does not spell out, in any concrete sense, the Utopia awaiting us (should we ever get our human, all too human, acts together). Through negation, however, through the dissolution of the problems we face today, those that hinder free expression, autonomy, and the flourishing of the human condition, and a postulation (a speculative guess, only) as to what a world devoid of such obstacles would conjure, we can begin to tie these otherwise disparate pieces together into a shadowy, vague picture of what Utopic future might await. To take stock: if repression exists as a result of scarcity, we must eliminate scarcity. To do so entails both (a), the re-attainment of control over our technology to bring it back into use as a tool, devoid of any momentum of its own, deployed to the exclusive ends of the alleviation of suffering, famine, disease, and unnecessary toil; and (b), the dissolution of the hive-mind of capitalism, specifically, the commodity fetishism that dissolves the autonomous human soul into the heteronomous collective and “drugging rhythm” of a one-dimensional society, a society without radical alternatives, a society incapable of even imagining other than what is. With technology thus deployed, and scarcity dissolved, capitalism, at least in any form we, here, have ever seen, would necessarily change into a new, radically distinct, socio-economic system. Along with scarcity’s dissolution and the freedom from the mores of commodity consumption, so too would we see the end of “surplus repression,” and the unleashing of our more passionate drives, a new, as Marcuse calls it, “aesthetic dimension” to supplant the stifling one-dimensionality of the 20th and 21st centuries.

What, then, would humanity do with its time? Freed from the mad scramble for base survival, freed from any unnecessary labor and toil, freed from the need to repress our desires, with a wildly advanced technology ready-to-hand, is it not possible we might find ourselves on the cusp of exploring new worlds, not for the sake of conquest (for what would we need that we could not already produce?) but for the sake of discovery? To pursue a life of learning, wonder, and experiment for the sheer joy of exploration in and for itself? Of course, for now, it’s hard to imagine such a world, still ensconced as we are with the rabid fascination with commodity and the mad scramble to dedicate our lives to the accumulation of wealth, goods, and services; a world where Amazon harvests your browser history and posts the latest things you “need” on your Facebook account; a world where Michael Bay is “hard at work” on the fifth installment of the Transformers franchise; a world where Pokemon-Go is driving people to walk off cliffs like lemmings, we may have quite a bit of work still cut out for us. Nevertheless, we can, like Marcuse, be ever-vigilant of these repressive systems and imagine ourselves, one day, boldly going where on one has gone before. Yet one has to wonder: with potentially habitable worlds newly discovered each and every week, it seems, worlds closer and closer to our own; with new technologies heretofore “impossible” to even conceive (like the EmDrive) that may take us to those distant stars at speeds beyond anything we could previously imagine; with 3-D printers (a poor substitute for the miraculous replicators of Trek lore, but we have to start somewhere) becoming more widely available and being utilized for ever more useful tasks both great and small, is it really beyond the pale to wonder if a kind of Marcusean Utopia, one not altogether alien to Star Trek’s own mythos, might be awaiting somewhere down the long road ahead, the desire and ability, that is, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

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  1. I wonder, having yet read either ‘Eros’ or ‘One-D Man’, does Marcuse reference any specific passages from Marx while expanding his own thoughts on these potential post-scarcity technological Utopias?

    Seems like he was using Marx’s “fragments of machines” idea from the ‘Grundrisse’ and “Capital v1′ as a launching pad.

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