The 1960s meets the 2010s: Interrogating Star Trek

Joseph Lough

Yes. I liked the new Star Trek. I liked the eye candy (almost all male). I liked the explosions. (Did I say that it was almost all male?) I liked the weak, fallible, flawed leads. (I must have said that it was almost all male.) Visually, Into Darkness was spectacular. But, don’t waste your time on the 2D version. I even liked the acting. Chris Pine is the scrappy, prime-directive averse imp I always imagined Kirk to be; Quinto Zachary is Leonard Nemoy, only younger. Don’t ask me how they did that. Zoe Saldana stands up well to Spock’s moodiness. Even Alice Eve puts on a good show as the scientist with whom Kirk does not sleep. And I have not even mentioned Scotty (Simon Pegg), Bones (Karl Urban), or Chekov (Anton Yelchin), all of whom are quite simply younger versions of the men who made me come back day after day after school for each new episode.

I fell in love with Benedict Cumberbatch during his stage performance of Frankenstein. I became addicted during his Sherlock Holmes. His performance in Star Trek is superb.

Campy? Yes. Tongue-in-cheek playful. Wink wink. Nudge nudge. But there is more here than meets the eye.

Why are we attracted to the skinny jeans and short, mussy mops of the 1960s? Why does the sexual energy of the 1960s – so different, nearly opposite, the energy of the 1980s or 90s – pull us in?

And if you are inclined to think that we long the 1960s because of the clarity of the moral issues – race, war, sex, poverty, empire – then it is clear that you weren’t there. Much as the 2010s is stretching us – an African American President who is in many respects indistinguishable from his predecessor, the realization that while gender is politics, it might not be our politics – so too did the 1960s. This is a movie of greys. It pulls us in directions we may not want to be pulled.

Which is why, I would suggest, if you liked the original Star Trek, you will like JJ Abrams’ Star Trek. If you didn’t like the original – too sexist, too campy, too morally ambiguous – you probably won’t like the prequel. Yet, there is something else here. Do we want a redo?

Do we wish, like the voice of Radiohead, that it were the 60s again? Yes. But we want a 60s where men and women shared equally in planning and leading and taking credit for free speech and weather underground and SDS and anti-war. Where the sexual revolution was not exploitative. We want the 60s, but without the bad trips. We want the 60s, where McCarthy beats out Johnson and McGovern beats Nixon. We want the 60s where students not only carry, but actually read Marcuse.

There is something disturbingly, naively, unabashedly retro about Into the Dark. But there is also something refreshing. Into the Dark does not promise to resolve any of our 60s pathologies. It does not bring resolution at all. Instead it reminds us of how ambiguous that era actually was. Which makes it not unlike our own.

Pentecost and Imperium

Today is Pentecost, the Sunday within the Church’s calendar when Christians remember and celebrate the arrival of the Spirit and therefore the founding of the Church. Historically, of course, Pentecost is a highly ambiguous Feast Day. And Pentecost continues to raise many troubling questions for Christians. For example, should contemporary Christians continue to view the Church as the successor to the Jewish Temple? Moreover, if Pentecost entails the appearance of a single institution, the Church, speaking the same message, the Gospel, in several languages, then in what why does this institution simply reproduce the same logic that led to the destruction of the Temple and in what way does it challenge that logic?


English: Roman Triumphal arch panel copy from ...
English: Roman Triumphal arch panel copy from Beth Hatefutsoth, showing spoils of Jerusalem temple. עברית: העתק של שער הניצחון של טיטוס (מוצב במוזיאון התפוצות) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Luke-Acts, from which we draw our Old Testament reading – itself a potentially explosive assertion of imperium – was written sometime after Rome‘s destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and Rome’s attempt to cleanse Jerusalem of its Jewish population, probably in the late 70s. It was also written well after the martyrdoms of both Peter and Paul. This in itself is significant since Luke-Acts tells the story of a reconciliation between Paul’s and Peter’s respective communities that neither Paul nor Peter personally experienced. If we want to experience Luke-Acts through the ears of its original audience, we must therefore consider how difficult it must have been for Peter’s community, composed primarily of Jerusalem Jews to be deprived of the Temple, which had been the center of their ritual life, and to be banished to communities scattered along the northern Mediterranean whose ritual life was largely Pharisaic. But we must also imagine how difficult it must have been for Paul’s largely Pharisaic community, composed of Jews and converts who long ago had adjusted to life in the absence of the Temple, to now be called upon to welcome Jewish exiles, survivors of the Temple’s destruction, who had questioned the authenticity and legitimacy of their synagogue- and Torah-centered variety of Judaism.

Finally, since Luke-Acts is told from the vantage-point of Paul’s community – not Peter’s – it also is told from a perspective that, unlike Peter’s, is less openly apocalyptic. This is because for Peter’s community in Jerusalem it was widely held that God was coming soon to expel the Roman’s from Jerusalem and there establish the Divine Community, the Kingdom, on earth. Indeed, although written well after the destruction of the Temple, this is still the conceit that runs through the Revelation of Saint John.


Icon of the Pentecost
Icon of the Pentecost (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not so Paul’s predominantly diaspora and therefore predominantly Pharisaic community, which well before their conversion to Christianity had made their peace with Rome, To be sure, Paul’s communities shared the Petrine belief that God would judge the Roman’s and that God was about the mission of creating a New Heaven and New Earth (First Corinthians 1-3). Yet, consistent with their Pharisaism and therefore their more flexible reading of Torah, Paul’s communities were inclined to view the appearance of God’s Kingdom less in apocalyptic-militaristic terms than in the terms Paul sets out, for example, in his letters to the Roman or Corinthian communities; that is to say, Paul’s communities are inclined to believe that they themselves, through the radical obedience to the Gospel – their clothing the naked, their feeding the hungry, their caring for the widom and the orphan – are the beachhead of God’s radical emancipatory intentions.

Read in this light, Pentecosts many tongues can be seen not as an imperialist occupation of the languages of the Mediterranean basin, but rather as an invitation to hear the Gospel in these other languages too. In this sense, it invites the formerly insular Petrine community to venture out from its self-imposed doctrinal and ritualistic prison and embrace the freedom that had always been there in the diaspora-synaguge communities of the northern Mediterranean.

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why we would be mistaken to view the coming of the Spirit and the creation of the Church as a successor to the Synagogue. In fact, the Synagogue had already pointed the way beyond the narrow Jerusalem Temple-based cult.

But it is also an invitation to Paul’s synagogue-based diaspora communities to welcome the exiles from Jerusalem’s destruction. Here we are invited to hear the Gospel each our own language, not however so that we can reproduce the imperial logic that led to the Temple’s destruction in the first place, but so that we can spread the emancipatory message also beyond the synagogue-based diaspora community.

Indeed, if we listen to Saint Augustine three centuries later speaking to the spread of this emancipatory message, it would be difficult for us to avoid the conclusion that it was Rome’s imperial practices, its militarism and its social and cultural insularity that led to its decay and collapse, from within. But it is also difficult to avoid the attendant conclusion that the Gospel survives because its Spirit welcomes, embraces, invites, and listens to the voices of all the oppressed.

If this is the Spirit of the Church, the Spirit of Pentecost, then clearly the texts we read today come with an invitation to us as well, to the current diaspora community, which we indeed are; an invitation to continue to listen to the Gospel in those languages that are not yet our own but which, like the Gospel in our own language, anticipates the defeat of those empires that oppress and the advent of those communities that nurture us all.

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Intermediate Meditations


Soviet expansion, change of Central-eastern Eu...
Soviet expansion, change of Central-eastern European borders and creation of the Eastern bloc after World War II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shortly following the outbreak of World War I, Max Weber began to write down and publish what he called his Zwischen Betrachtung. The title, with its obvious invocation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s untimely meditations – Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen ­– may for Weber also have signalled his intention to proceed without fully working out his meditations. In a similar vein, I am giving myself permission to reflect and write without fully working out my meditations.

At the same time, I am aware – as Weber too must have been aware – that there is no such thing as unmediated experience or unshaped reflection. And, since I am eager for followers of my web log to grasp what I am writing, I am aware that I will have to be as explicit as I can about the mediations – that is to say the structured dispositions – that are shaping these reflections.

Like all places shaped by human action, Bosnia too is not a natural place. It is an unnatural place, as are the places by which Bosnia is surrounded, as is the place from which I am writing. Bosnia, happily, has been spared much of the nationalist fatalism by which so many in the Balkans (and not only in the Balkans) have been seized. Tuzla, where we will be stationed, elected a non-nationalist slate during the last electoral cycle.

In her Human Condition, Hannah Arendt writes of the assymetric contrast between natality and fatality, the first speaking of birth, the second of death. Nationalists frequently invoke the former – the place of one’s birth – when in fact they mean the latter. For, while it is true that birth is a necessarily limiting passage, giving place and time to a soul, it is, unlike death, also full of potential; and to tie birth, bind, limit, or constrain it to that place and time – to prohibit birth from occupying other places and times as well – is necessarily to subject birth to its opposite, to fatality; whereas the aim of life itself is to subject death to logic of birth, to the logic of natality and so to possibility.

When the Dayton Accords separated the peoples of the former Yugoslavia according to their birth, they therefore in fact imposed a further death sentence upon those whom they separated out. Our host, whose father was Serbian and whose mother is Bosnian, is proof of this sentence since separating him out would necessarily kill him. The nationalists will of course demand that he choose or that he die, further evidence that the logic behind the Accords was death and not life.

But the distinctions drawn by Professor Arendt are almost too broad to be useful. They invite us to take in all of humanity in one single gaze, whereas we well know that life is lived out in particular places and times, not all at once.

As we enter Tuzla therefore I will be interested in cultivating an awareness of the historical and social specificities that gave rise to and still give form to this place, this time, and these people. How was this place and how have these people been transformed over time?

My theory is that in the 1970s all of us – east and west, Serb, American, Croat, Bosnian – lived during the final days of what Antonio Gramsci has called “Fordism,” a system of social, cultural, legal, political, and intellectual regulation that aimed at suppressing or pressing local, regional, individual particularity into the service of demand-side, large-scale production. This regulatory regime was favored from the 1920s forward by social agents interested in capital accumulation because it was better able to take advantage of the unprecedented increase in productivity and industrial expansion generated by British Imperialism, US internal, continental, and regional colonization, and the tremendous boost in productivity and wealth generated by World War I. Exchanging higher wages, stable jobs, life-long benefits, and consumption for the monotony of the assembly line; or exchanging civil rights and liberties for the peace and security of the regulatory state seemed a small price to pay for the massive increases in productivity and consumption enjoyed first by Americans, then by Germans and Americans, then by Soviets, and finally by all merely compliant social actors in the aftermath of World War II.

Consistent, however, with Aristotle’s political theory, whereby increasing leisure, wealth, and education generate political awareness and action, the very success of Fordism generated a critical backlash throughout the developed world, both in central and eastern Europe, in western Europe, and in North America. And while it was possible for this backlash to give rise to a more democratic and more sustainable future, it was also possible that social actors interested in capital accumulation might view this backlash as a cultural and social opportunity to maximize returns on their investment. This was because the 1960s and early 1970s were not only a time – east and west – for social and political protest, but were also a time of decreasing rates of profit-taking by investors.

Economically, investors were eager to shed the Fordist social programs that justified the monotony of mass production and the limitations on personal freedoms and liberties. Culturally, investors were anxious about the rise of a generation of wealthy, leisured, and educated young people who were growing increasingly politically active – again, both east and west.

Post-Fordism emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a regulatory alternative to Fordism, a more flexible, stream-lined means than Fordism for producing cultural and political compliance and economic profits. Culturally and socially, post-Fordism aimed to bring social and economic actors to embrace a regime of dramatically reduced wages, benefits, and job security in exchange for the cultural value of greater “freedom” or “opportunity.” Economically, post-Fordism would replace the Keynesian Welfare State Regime with a post-Fordist quasi-militarist, privatized, security-state regime. This made sense because, with declining rates of profit, investors had to construct a regulatory regime that funneled resources from working individuals and families through the state apparatus to private capital investors and profit-takers. This massive shift in the regulatory apparatus made sense economically because the state could now deploy its resources more efficiently extracting wealth from working individuals and families than regulating private corporations, which, happily, had in any case always occpied the leading positions in the state apparatus.

Culturally, this massive shift in the regulatory apparatus entailed the provocation and expansion of a cultural war that could shift public attention away from wealth, leisure, education, and consumption as civil rights toward wealth and consumption alone. This, in turn, entailed shedding those functions of the state formerly deployed for creating greater leisure and providing more comprehensive education and health for working individuals and families, and diverting social wealth to the production of private wealth and the exploitation of resource and wealth streams around the globe.

Tragically, this is precisely where the former Yugoslavia comes into play. For whereas the US could more or less elegantly extract itself from Fordism and shift its resources to post-Fordist regulation, those nations, regions, and cities that fell under the Soviet sphere of political influence and economy did not enjoy this luxury. In the Soviet transition from Fordism to post-Fordism – a transition that roughly paralleled that of the US and UK – there was no shift at all. Rather was there an abrupt and harsh generation of a vacuum.

According to the standard narrative, this vacuum was filled in Yugoslavia (and then the former Yugoslavia) by the various nationalisms that had been suppressed by Soviet domination. But this is not entirely accurate. Concurrent with the rise of nationalisms was the invasion of neoliberal economic and political theory, a truncated, dehistoricized and undertheorized celebration of post-Fordism. According to neoliberal theory, partial, local, individual, personal identities are good and are to be cultivated. They constitute our liberty, our freedom.

They also completely disempower social actors who, once deconstructed by neoliberalism, find themselves at the complete mercy of trans-national, global, private economic actors who, far from embracing the virtues of the small, local, and individual, have instead used the decimation of the public sphere as a launch pad to advance their own completely privatized global vision.

What the former Yugoslavia most needs is large sums of public capital targeted at public institutions for public ends. What neoliberalism promises is the very opposite. It promises private wealth, private institutions, private growth at the expense of the public.

Post-Fordism is a global movement of capital accumulation, a regime of social, cultural, and economic regulation and integration that promotes the isolation and abandonment of the individual and particular as a means to promote private capital accumulation.

My theory is that this global transformation that took root in the late 1960s and from there spread throughout the 1970s and 1980s, is the key to understanding the specific history of Yugoslavia and the former Yugoslavia. My theory is that the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia is not a different fragmentation than that which has taken place all across the US, the UK, and is now spreading outward from Greece, Italy, Spain, and Ireland.

Interestingly, as it did prior to and during World War I, when Max Weber composed his famous meditations, Yugoslavia today is showing us our future, the future of neoliberalism, the future of post-Fordism. We might all be interested in knowing and learning whether and how Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia’s most progressive face, will create a sustainable future out of the wreckage created by neoliberalism.

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Christian Love and Roman Totality

Worshipers at St Mark’s received a rare blessing this Sunday: two clergy, one at the 8 am service and one at the 10 am, delivering homilies on the same texts. The texts were Acts 16:16-34, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, and 20-21, and John 17:20-26. Both homilies were illuminating.

In the 8 am homily, we were invited to reflect on the historical and social context of the events in Luke-Acts, in particular the oppressive presence of Roman occupation and patriarchal domination. In the 10 am homily, we were invited to reflect on the week between Assension and Pentecost, and on the wonderful and mysterious ways that the distant God is known and experienced in the small, messy, and often confusing dimensions of everyday life. I was enriched by both homilies.


Icon of the Pentecost
Icon of the Pentecost (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet, insofar as biblical interpretation is often and appropriately an ongoing never-fully-completed midrash, the combination of the two homilies left me wondering how the oneness invoked in John’s Gospel differs from the oneness confronting the slave-girl, the jailer, and Paul and Silas in Luke-Acts. And it struck me that we may occasionally be guilty of confusing the two.

For those of you who may have skipped Sunday Mass, the circumstances of all three readings are extremely interesting. The passages in Luke-Acts and Revelation were composed in the wake of the Temple’s destruction and the slaughter of Jerusalem’s Jewish community – Revelation in nearer proximity to those events, Luke-Acts more distantly from the vantage-point of the exiled community. Neither offers a particularly rosy portrayal of the Roman occupation or Roman power. John’s Gospel, written at an even greater distance, contemplates and counsels the unity of the community faith with Christ and the unity of its members with one another. This unity and the love evident in and arising out of this unity will become a hallmark of the post-Pentecost community.

More particularly, however, Luke-Acts directs our attention to the slave-girl and to her gift, a gift of divination that has made her owners quite wealthy. All metphor aside, no imagination is required to recognize the relations of domination and submission displayed in this relationship between a gifted girl, a slave, and her owners. Nor is any imagination required for us to recognize why the jailor, seeing that his prisoners have been miraculously freed by an earthquake, would prefer to take his own life rather than face torture and certain death at the hands of his Roman masters.

In both relationships ­– the slave-girl’s relationship to her owners and the jailors relationship with his masters – we find only what we might expect to find: natural relationships of domination and submission that, however distasteful, nevertheless for centuries held the Roman Empire together. There was here – as Paul himself testifies in Romans 1-3 and 13, and as Peter concurs in 1 Peter – a kind of unity, a coherence, built on hierarchy, built on patriarchy; but, as far as it goes, completely unsurprising, normal, even natural.

It strikes me that this is the kind of unity that much of Christendom mistakes for the unity to which Jesus calls our attention in John. And, no doubt, there is something comforting, familiar, and even natural about the relationships of domination and submission displayed in the slave-girl’s relationship to her owners or the jailors relationship to his master. No imagination is required here for us to recognize the deep pathologies that cut across abusive relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, substance abusers and their dependents. Nor is much imagination required for us to recognize why individuals who feel locked into oppressive personal or economic relationships – whether they are managers, like the jailor, or mere employees, like the slave-girl – might mistakenly feel that these relations are preferable to the alternatives. Such hierarchical, unequal relationships of domination and submission are so familiar to us that they feel natural, or in any event inevitable.

The tragedy is that we ourselves may be inclined to mistake these perverse social and economic relationships for the unity to which Jesus calls us in John’s Gospel. We may be inclined to reproduce in our communities the same social and economic relationships of domination and submission that we mistake for normal, natural, or unavoidable. Paul and Peter were surely inclined to make this mistake.

And, yet, perhaps as a prefiguration of Pentecost, Paul and Silas cannot help but do the right thing, loose the chains, free the captives, and proclaim the coming of the divine community on earth.

This community is one, but it is one in a completely different way than the unity of the Roman Empire, since it is grounded not on natural differences or institutional coherence or custom. It is based on love.

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Dr. Insel’s diagnosis

Here’s my problem with the remarks of Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, regarding the DSM (see Yes, we know much more than we once did about the organic contribution to mental illness and more of this knowledge needs to find its way into the DSM. At the same time, our recognition of and curiosity about the social, economic, and political dimensions of mental illness have atrophied. We live in an extraordinary violent world made more violent by the ever widening gulfs isolating different communities from one another. These divisions are not removed or healed merely because we are now bound ever more tightly around one another by the smooth, featureless immaterial value form of the commodity. Rather does this social and economic mediator invite us to credit our differences to features – race, ethnicity, gender, gender preference, economic condition – about which we can do nothing; suggesting that the only solution is that we disappear, either actually or psychically. To reduce social and/or psychological pathology to organic causes is naive, adolescent and even, dare I say, infantile insofar as it seeks to simplify what is extraordinarily complex. Dr. Insel should know better, but my guess is that he does not or cannot; which must suggest a diagnosis.