A Review of Katrina Boyd’s “Cyborgs in Utopia: The Problem of Radical Difference in Star Trek: The Next Generation”

 

In this piece, Boyd argues that Star Trek: The Next Generation, in its efforts to portray a multicultural equality-based society, in fact undermines the notions of equality and otherness because of its inherent 19th century humanistic philosophy.  Boyd writes that because ST:TNG is enamored of the 19th century, it also unconsciously literalizes some of the negative aspects of that culture – “conquest, colonialism, class distinction, racial discrimination, and exploitation” (99) – in its efforts to create a harmonized utopia.  The largest threat to such a reality is the Borg since they are the antithesis of a humanistic vision.  Boyd criticizes ST:TNG for redefining the problem of the Borg rather than addressing the radical difference that the Borg represent.

Boyd bases her claim of ST:TNG’s 19th century ideological construct heavily on one episode – “Time’s Arrow” – and a handful of examples of 19th c. references throughout the series.  She also demonstrates the relativity between the 19th century’s concept of perfection and utopia and ST:TNG’s concept of them, writing that “[t]he possibility of free will and agency is stressed above and beyond social, economic, political, and psychological forces” (101) and “it is because TNG holds up the law of progress as an observable natural phenomenon that movement toward the ideal of a harmonious utopia is possible” (103).  Boyd cites Comte’s three-part model of 19th century ideas of progress as valid in the Star Trek universe as well, using this as the basis of her claim that ST:TNG promotes humans as the only beings who strive for all three types of  progress, and this is why “TNG never truly considers radical difference” (105).  

Of Comte’s three types of progress – Practical, Theoretical, and Moral – Moral is identified as the most important.  Feeling is the essential part of moral progress.  All of the races that the Enterprise encounters are judged, according to Boyd, by their balance of the types of progress.  She gives examples of the Klingons being too emotional, the Vulcans being too rational, and Q having no moral base for his actions (105).  This brings to mind the critical issue of cultural relativism.  Judith Barad, in The Ethics of Star Trek, discusses this issue at length.  While ST:TNG supports a cultural relativist point of view in many cases, it also purports a universal code of conduct (i.e. Federation ideology) by which other cultures are judged.  Just as the writers of Star Trek cannot get outside their own historical/ideological moment, neither can the Federation get outside of its own.  

One of the other topics emphasized by Boyd is the question of what a utopia is and how that definition shapes ST:TNG’s journey towards it.  The 19th century view of utopia as “the belief in the human capacity for improvement and perfection” is that which Boyd attributes to ST:TNG (100).  This 19th century idea is based on learning and a type of coffeehouse culture that isn’t contingent on technology as it would be in a 20th century model of utopia/dystopia.  Costanza cites four models of utopian/dystopian futures, all of which are dependent on a “faith in technological progress” (Chaires and Chilton, 247).  What Boyd fails to recognize is that ST:TNG fits into both 19th and 20th c. models of ‘harmonious utopias.’  The crucial piece in 20th c. utopias/dystopias is the discussion about the cost of such a society that isn’t present in 19th c. ideas.  In the TNG episode “Justice,” we see that their perfect society comes at the cost of having to live under a system of absolute law; the people of the Federation are not willing to pay this price.  A similar discussion of utopia arises in the episode “The Masterpiece Society,” in which everyone is genetically engineered to be perfect.  Again, the Federation is not willing to sacrifice their own diversity – which reflects their individuality – for the sake of utopia.  Utopia in both of these instances is seen as a stagnation, a permanent status, whereas Boyd argues (quoting Matthew Arnold) that, “[n]ot a having and a resting, but a growing and becoming is the character of perfection as culture conceives it” (100).  This statement reflects ST:TNG’s belief in a social evolutionism that would see the evolution of man’s physical form as well as his ethical form.

The analysis of the evolution of ethical forms becomes problematic when we take into consideration Boyd’s observation about ST:TNG’s absorption of the negative aspects of 19th century humanism.  The crew on the Enterprise is acting in accordance with a set of ethics and are thus moral beings, but this can be said of other beings that they encounter.  We gather from Boyd’s thesis that the Federation seems to think that it has the monopoly on wanting to improve the standard of life for all beings.  This is also what the Borg want; Locutus tells the Enterprise crew, “we wish to improve the quality of life for all beings” (“The Best of Both Worlds, Part II,” 1991).  The question that Boyd fails to raise here is “are the Borg moral beings?”  They follow their own system of beliefs, and this system is consistent with the same 19th c. concept of a utopia that Boyd outlines.  Even though the Borg are antithetical to everything that the Federation stands for, they are following the same line of reasoning through different means.  The Federation certainly would not want this pointed out, but their rhetoric about the Borg and the threat of the Borg is much like the rhetoric that countless nations and persons in power have used against each other, ethnic minorities, or religious minorities that threatened their own view of the world.

Boyd’s article raises many astute observations about ST:TNG and some of its 19th century tendencies.  However, she has not completely explored the influence of other times and traditions on ST:TNG.  While ST:TNG does embody many 19th century ideas, it is to the 20th century what the novel was to the 18th century; it is a product of an emerging electronic/visual culture just as the novel was the product of the emerging print culture.  She also makes some general conclusions about the 24th century that are never fully evidenced.  For example, she claims that Starfleet Academy “requir[es] the study of Latin and ancient philosophies” (97).  It is never actually stated in the series that these are requirements; in a conversation between Picard and Wesley Crusher in the episode “Samaritan Snare,” there is a clear indication that Latin and ancient philosophies are, in fact, not requirements:

P: There is no greater challenge than the study of philosophy.

W: But William James won’t be on my Starfleet exams.

P: The important things never will be.

(“Samaritan Snare,” 1989)

There is certainly the 19th century attitude about the importance of the classics and the humanities, but this is up to individual choice.

One of the most interesting moments in Boyd’s analysis comes when she states:

Though each crew member possesses “unique” attributes, these only help in creating a “whole” crew that always works in harmony to attain continuous technological and moral progress.  The ease of “consensus” appears to be the product of the logic of the situation, rather than the process of hegemony (105).

This description of the crew sounds eerily like the Borg; they also strive for the consensus of the collective mind.  This is an interesting parallel that Boyd does not explore.  She mentions previously how the Federation doesn’t force other cultures to join it, but uses subtle forms of coercion to make other cultures perceive that its point of view is the most correct.  In effect, they assimilate other cultures into their own.  This is, indeed, what the Borg are doing, but they use a more aggressive, emotionless, individual-less approach.  As Thomas Richards discusses at length in his book, The Meaning of Star Trek, the Borg are the most threatening enemy of the Federation because they represent an assault on the sense of self and individuality so prized in ST:TNG.  I would further that analysis by saying that the Borg are so feared because they are a dark reflection of what the Federation already is, and what it could be in danger of becoming if it were to lose sight of its ‘humanity.’  The fact that the Borg Queen tells Picard, “We were once like you – flawed, organic,” (First Contact, 1996) emphasizes the validity of the dark parallel.  This is one of the ways that ST:TNG projects beyond the narrow confines of 19th century humanistic ideals.  

Another point that is virtually ignored by Boyd is that, while the Federation is crusading about essentially trying to homogenize the universe, ST:TNG also illuminates the dangers of becoming too single-minded in such a purpose.  There are countless examples of ‘utopian,’ homogenized cultures that Starfleet cringes at, most notably in episodes such as “Justice” and “The Masterpiece Society.”  Yes, these cultures give Starfleet the opportunity to demonstrate why its way is the best (in the cultural imperialism that Boyd emphasizes), but they also make Starfleet question itself and maintain perspective on its own practices.

References

 

Boyd,  Katrina G. “Cyborgs in Utopia: The Problem of Racial Difference in Star Trek: The Next Generation.” In Enterprise Zones: Critical Positions on Star Trek. Eds. Taylor Harrison, Sarah Projansky, Kent A. Ono, and Elyce Rae Helford. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996.

 

 

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