Monday, April 11, 2005

The Sci-Fi of Consciousness

"Much...that proves to be abysmally evil in its ultimate effects does not come from man's wickedness but from his stupidity and unconsciousness."
Jung, Psychology and Western Religion

Let me put it in these terms, which as far as I know I am making up as I go along, although it's so obvious that somebody must have thought of it this way before. There are currently two kinds of science fiction (and you can throw in two kinds of "space opera" as well, because I'm talking mostly about television and film.) There is the science fiction of consciousness. And there is the science fiction of unconsciousness.

The science fiction of unconsciousness is easier to describe. In our daily lives we proceed as if the future will be just like the present, only with new stuff. Our public lives proceed as if the future is going to be great, especially if we get another tax cut, because every new technology is great, the economy is always getting better, and our leaders are always looking out for us, they're telling us the truth and they really know what they are doing.

And our unconscious doesn't believe a word of it. Not that the emotions and anxieties we ignore, suppress and repress, are always any closer to being correct. But they are extreme, and they tend to be expressed in fantasies and stories, especially nightmarish ones, and in other ways that tend towards the extreme.

Mostly it is our repressed suspicions, our barely suppressed fears, our hatred reactions and violent responses, that get translated into stories of violent conflict. In the science fiction of unconsciousness, only technology changes, and gets more capable and complex. People don't change, or get more fully capable, or recognize their complexities; by some standards within civilized memory, they even revert.

The science fiction of consciousness also taps into the power and imagery of the unconscious, but it uses that material to produce stories that are partly, mostly or firstly about applying consciousness to situations. The story itself may demonstrate that application, or it may be something the characters themselves go through, or both.

A simple example might be: stories of space exploration are usually the science fiction of consciousness. Stories of space invaders are the science fiction of unconsciousness.

That's the idea, even if strictly speaking, it's not that simple.

But consciousness is the right word, because it's not just rationality, or the brain or the mind. It's also about emotion, but it deals with them consciously: what emotions do we value, what should we encourage? Who do we love, and why do we hate and fear? Is it unreasonable, destructive fear, or is it justified and useful fear? Is hate as a motivator ever justified? Do we value courage for its own sake over courage behind a behavior that serves a greater good even if it's not so popular, that ennobles us and shows us where we could go, what we could be?

Most of all it is about behavior, because, while we cannot always control our thoughts or emotions, we must be able to control our behavior. That's the definition of human freedom.

Right now we're falling deep into the science fiction as well as the fantasy (and the politics, the economics, the religion) of unconsciousness. Under the public cheerfulness and/or apathy, suppressed despair and repressed fears get expressed through the unconscious, telling us in coded entertainment that we are really afraid of where we're going, and what's happening around us.

Exploration stories---Star Trek stories---ask "what if" questions, they confront who we are through our reactions and our questions about what we find, and why we're going out there in the first place. So many Trek stories show humanity in the middle, with characters valuing our basic nature yet always refining our aspirations, refusing to say we cannot change for the better, individually and as a society.

Invasion movies---which almost always means we humans are being invaded--- are all visceral. You don't think about the humanity of the invader when you're trying to stay alive. That makes for a more exciting movie at a fight-or-flight level, and you must avoid dealing with those questions that slow the action down. You deal with pure push-button emotion, just like the commercials.

It's the very easiest thing to do in order to stimulate an audience, to keep their attention, because we're built to pay attention to what endangers us. So drama sets up an enemy who is all evil. This is not something we find in nature, it's all in the unconscious. Our enemies may be real. Evil may be real. But we seldom encounter enemies who are all evil...except in the fantasy of the unconscious.

Here's another example of what I mean. We've had movies (at least one famous one) and TV dramas (one particularly ridiculous recent one) that pit sharks against humans. The sharks are pure evil. They are pure unconsciousness, and they are met with pure unconsciousness. They don't behave much like real sharks, but that's not the point of these stories.

I can't think of a Star Trek story that involves sharks, but I can think of several that involve whales. A whale is among the most famous literary symbols, some would say of a relentless evil, in Melville's Moby Dick. In fact all but one of the Star Trek episodes and movies I'm thinking of don't deal with actual whales: they deal with the symbolism of Melville's singular giant white whale, and the man who hunted it. Usually an Ahab figure relentlessly pursues some being or force that caused that Ahab great harm. Khan is an Ahab figure in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." Kirk, and the white Enterprise, is his Moby Dick. Khan even had some of his lines written by Melville (although he lost screen credit in Guild arbitration.)

The symbolism of Moby Dick has been interpreted differently by different people at various times. Some have felt that Ahab's mission was divine, and the whale was the Beast (which it seemed to have been to some extent, to Ahab's deluded mind.) It is yet another version of man's dominion over the animal, even in himself. But even other characters in the novel don't believe that. They see the whale as natural. Simply by being an ambiguous "character," by being a symbol, this whale is an instrument of consciousness. You ask why.

The interpretation that Ahab is obsessively pursuing revenge is central to "Star Trek: First Contact," when Lily confronts Jean Luc Picard about his obsession with vengeance against the Borg. Picard denies it at first. (A more direct way of saying he is "in denial.") But because The Next Generation series established that Picard, while hardly perfect, does take literature very seriously, and because the series established that TNG Enterprise characters, while hardly perfect, are able to step back and evaluate their own motivations and actions (often with the help of Counselor Troi), Lily's Moby Dick references strikes a chord of memory, which strikes a nerve.

While quoting lines describing Ahab's unconscious hate poured on the wounded beast ("if his heart had been a cannon he would have shot his chest upon it"), Picard realizes what has been motivating him and telling him lies about why he is doing what he is doing (which is what the unconscious does best). And he becomes conscious. And changes his behavior.

It is possibly the clearest illustration of the science fiction of consciousness that is a constant in much of Trek, and very much in the Roddenberry vision.

Finally, we come to the Star Trek that has a real whale in it: in fact, two.

"Star Trek IV:The Voyage Home" (perhaps along with "First Contact") is the most popular of all Star Trek movies. Here the consciousness of the 23rd century and its fictional Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, merges with the consciousness of several 20th century people, including Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner, both of whom believe passionately in the need to maintain a healthy natural environment, and respect the other creatures of the earth, recognizing that this is not without cost. That's what values are: priorities that guide choices.

Like the best of Star Trek, this movie grants other beings our conscious recognition of their consciousness, however different from ours it may be. And so the metaphorical whales which carry humans to consciousness and meaning on the voyage of exploration that is life, are joined by real whales, behaving as real whales do (except perhaps for communicating with extraterrestrial beings. But then again...) For instance, they don't eat people. It is the unconsciousness of people that threatens the whales, not just with needless death, but total extinction.

So this whales' tale is about how human unconsciousness threatens its future, and how consciousness can redeem it.

Star Trek is the richest, most accessible, and most conspicuous focus of the science fiction of consciousness we have. Let's not throw it away because it's hard to do.

As for its popularity, let's face it: except for a few times in its history, Star Trek has always a minority preoccupation. Roddenberry's Star Trek was just as out of synch with the prevailing mood of the 60s as Star Trek may be now. The difference is perhaps that a counterculture was growing more obviously then to challenge the establishment culture, which in many ways resembles today's dominant culture, except today's is more vulgar and more overtly violent, especially ideologically. But that's evidence, I believe, of the dire straits we're in. It may be evidence of how skewed the media is, in telling us about ourselves. It is certainly evidence of how much we need the science fiction of consciousness. Of how much we need the soul of Star Trek.


Anonymous said...

Nicely done, William. Well said.

Captain Future said...

Thanks. And thanks to Michelle and Christian at Trek Today and to Julia Houston at Hailing Frequencies for sending people over here. As well as mentions and links in other blogs along the blogway.