McKenzie Wark on Thu, 26 Feb 1998 00:49:22 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> NASA / TREK

"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

Not in front of the Klingons
McKenzie Wark
Wednesday, 23 July 1997

Seeing that plucky little Sojourner in the foreground of 
those sublime pictures from Mars reminds me of just how 
exciting this whole space exploration thing can be -- and how 
much its connected in my mind with images from 

When Armstrong made his "small step for a man, a great 
step for mankind" on the surface of the moon, I was about 8 
years old. I watched it on TV in a hospital ward. While 
Armstrong bounded across the surface of the moon, I was 
immobilised with both legs in plaster. Even the most far 
flung images can be deeply personal.

Constance Penley's new book NASA/TREK: Popular Science 
and Sex in America (Verso) explores this strange 
conjunction of outer space and inner life, hi tech science and 
pop culture, by looking at the connections between NASA 
and the StarTrek TV show in the American imagination.

Penley is best known for her pioneering work in feminist 
screen theory. This new book also has a Freudian basis, in 
that Penley believes in "carrying out the search for what 
really happened while acknowledging the work of fantasy." 

While the recent Mars mission boosted NASA's stocks 
among American policy makers, its still the case that in 
Washington, NASA stands for Never A Straight Answer. 
The space shuttle program in particular is plagued by claims 
of bureaucratic waste and bill padding by the aerospace 
contractors who built it. The delays and cost overruns 
involved in the joint projects with the Russians and the 
recent accident on the MIR space station don't help much, 

Penley argues that in its attempts to touch down in 
American popular culture, NASA has often been its own 
worst enemy. Popular movies like The Right Stuff and 
Apollo 13, while celebrating the macho heroics of 
astronauts, raise questions about the pop politics of space 
that NASA cannot ignore. 

Penley presents herself as a fan of NASA. Growing up in 
Florida, her father would drive through the early hours of 
the morning to show his kids the rocket launches on the 
cape. "There is no better critic than a fan," she writes. 
"Science is popular in America," and hence the need for 
research on the popular culture of science. 

The object under investigation in this book what Penley 
calls NASA/TREK, "a collectively elaborated story that 
weaves together science and science fiction to help write, 
think, and launch us into space." 

While it may at first sight seem strange to bracket these 
things together, consider the evidence: A female astronaut 
who commences her tranmissions from the shuttle with 
Lieutenant Uhura's famous line from StarTrek, "hailing 
frequencies open." Or, the Pentagon exhorting legislators to 
"set your weapons to stun" to get funding for "non-lethal" 
firepower. Or NASA giving in to a huge letter writing 
campaign from Tek fans and naming the first shuttle the 

And yet NASA doesn't always get it right, and sometimes 
fails to work as a utopian vision of social and technical 
engineering. Penley's key example was the selection of 
Christa McAuliffe to fly on the Challenger space shuttle. 
NASA could have had one of the top school teachers in 
America, even some with Phds in technical fields, but 
instead they chose McAuliffe. She "was selected for her 
representative mediocrity and knew it." 

NASA promoted McAuliffe to the public as its idea of a 
woman in space, in spite of the fact that Judith Resnick, an 
electrical engineer with mission critical tasks to perform, 
was also aboard Challenger. What Penley finds galling is the 
way the most conventional domestic stereotypes were put in 
orbit. Stereotypes so obvious that even the TV show The 
Simpsons turned it into a joke.

The fallout from the Challenger disaster was a setback for 
NASA. Penley provides a few interesting clues as to how 
traumatic this moment was for American culture. Arlington 
National Cemetery, where America's "unknown soldiers" 
lie buried, is the last resting place for the unidentified 
remains of the astronauts. The guides, she says, are rather 
coy about exactly what is buried there. Then there's the 
Building Blaster kits marketed by one toy company. Kids can 
work through the trauma of the event by building the 
shuttle, blowing it up -- and putting it back together again. 

Like NASA, the original StarTrek TV show was comfortable 
with a few prominent women, but didn't want to address 
their structural absence. Like NASA, it was built around the 
American myth of the frontier. "To boldly go where no man 
has gone before", as it said in every episode, in what must be 
the world's most famous split infinitive. 

StarTrek is "an uncanny mixture of suburbia and space 
travel". The bridge of the Enterprise looks remarkably like a 
family living room, with all the seating facing the TV. Its 
impossible to watch the show now without thinking of the 
fantasy of Kennedy era optimism that it so brilliantly 
articulated. The peaceful use of technology, the global 
outlook, the "Prime Directive" of not interfering in 
developing cultures -- all these features are Kennedy 
legacies. But so too are the military overtones and fantasies 
of unlimited American power. 

There's a rare moment of irony in one of the Trek movies, 
where Captain Kirk makes an emotional gesture towards 
Spock, and Spock restrains him by saying No sir, not in front 
of the Klingons." Its one of the rare details upon which a 
particular subculture within the broad church of StarTrek 
fans build their own curious interpretation of the series -- on 
premised on an underlying homosexual relationship 
between the Captain and the First Officer. 

StarTrek has one of the most dedicated and elaborate fan 
cultures of any pop culture artefact. Another example of 
how deeply strange Trek stuff gets is the Klingon Language 
institute. There are folks out there who can actually speak 
this totally artificial language, created for the series, and 
elaborated since by professional linguists. There is even a 
translation of Romeo and Juliet.

The 'slash' fans, as they are known, invent their own mix of 
romance, porn and science fiction. And strangely enough, 
most slash fans are heterosexual women. 

Penley uses the slash fans as an exemplars of the creative 
work that popular culture performs, rereading and rewriting 
mainstream media artefacts. Over the 25 years of its 
existence, slash fandom has created a whole other universe 
of characters and stories, based on their creator's shared 
experience of StarTrek. 

The literary critics Leslie Fiedler once famously claimed that 
Mark Twain's Huck and Jim were as "queer as three dollar 
bills". So perhaps there's a precedent for this homoerotic 
reading of heroic American narrative. What's curious is 
why women would find it interesting to read StarTrek along 
those lines. Penley sees it as part of a "project of retooling 
masculinity itself." Spock and Kirk have evolved beyond the 
men of this world and these times. Penley also thinks that 
the fans use the gay male couple as an image of sexual and 
professional equality. 

The slash women are proud of having created a space where 
women can reimagine and recreate images from pop 
culture. Penley also shows that they are active in rethinking 
the technology of popular culture. There are detailed 
discussions about what printing and video dubbing 
techniques to use, and how to deploy such processes without 
creating an impossible threshold for new writers and video 
makers to join the culture as creators as well as consumers. 

The slashers rewrite Startrek, and so Penley slashes NASA. 
She rewrites its project as she imagines it should be, as part 
of an American tradition of utopian experiments using 
technology to reinvent the possibities of the social. As such, 
she sees cultural studies as performing, in a more knowing 
way, the same process of creative imagining that popular 
culture itself performs whenever people seize hold of it as a 
technology for making their own kinds of space.

Penley and I were both in London for a conference at the 
Institute of Contemporary Art when Mars mission started 
sending back those pictures, so I was able to ask her what she 
thought they meant for the future of NASA. She remarked 
that its success with the public seemed to contradict the old 
NASA assumption that only 'manned' missions could be 
popular. That the NASA web site took one hundred million 
hits the week after the first pictures went up should put that 
old saw to rest. 

The Mars mission is the work mostly of university based 
engineers, rather than aerospace contractors. In part at least 
its a return to a certain creative engineering tradition. What 
remains unresolved is NASA's troubled relationship to the 
dream of space as the final frontier for social as well as 
technical change. 

McKenzie Wark is the author of the forthcomg book The 
Virtual Republic: Australia's Culture Wars of the 1990s, to 
be published in October by Allen & Unwin.

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