An Interview with Slavoj Zizek: Star Trek and the Interpretativism of Race
[Note: This is taken from the forthcoming ‘Redeemshun’ zine…]
The People’s Recreation Community Cafe in Hong Kong is well stocked with people. They’re all looking at the books that have been banned on the mainland. The interviewer does the same. He asks the manager if he sells many of these books. Yes, he says. But only 70-80% of them make it back past the border guards.
The interviewer orders some coffee and finds a seat. He takes out his notes and goes through them one more time.
Twenty minutes later, Zizek arrives, without apology.
Zizek: You are my interrogator then?
The interviewer stands up and offers his hand. Zizek ignores it and sits down, glancing at the interviewer’s notes on the table.
Interviewer: Mr. Zizek, would you like a drink first?
Zizek: No, no need for that. I don’t intend to stay long.
The interviewer sits down.
Interviewer: I imagine you have lots of people who want to spend a bit of time with you…hearing your ideas on…
Zizek: Yes, yes, it’s a common event.
Zizek rubs his eyes and breathes out like he’s on stage.
Zizek: I suppose some, like yourself, will write this up as shortness, an abandonment of manners on my part. He came late, gave short replies, seemed irritated, that sort of narrative.
Interviewer: Not at all. I know you’re busy, and you…
Zizek waves his hand through the air, almost hitting a Chinese guy walking past.
Zizek: Come on, let’s costume our words with some honesty, shall we? We both know how this whole procedure works, myself a lot better than you do obviously. It’s…the whole charade is…
He seems to lose his bearings and doesn’t finish the sentence. He looks at the edge of the table instead, touching it with his finger.
Interviewer: Do you mean, myself as a fan, and you as someone who has some kind of…fame already…are you saying this is uneven?
Zizek: Ha, the second level, I see. Good, good.
Zizek: The second level of mannered conversation, as outlined by Kapok in his…well, let’s name it for what it is, his polemic on dialogue. Tell me, do you know Kapok, el joven?
Interviewer: Kapok? You mean the cultural theorist?
Zizek: Perhaps…perhaps you know, perhaps you don’t. Yes, Kapok, the cultural theorist. The first level of dialogue, the automatic. You say you’re a fan, I say thank you for your kind words. The second level, normally initiated by the higher subject, is a diversion, a refusal to subsist on the automatic. You say you’re a fan, I say, yes, but what does that mean? And perhaps a further analysis of the dynamics of the dialogue, an inversion common to post-modernist thought. As a fan, you cannot possibly impress me and every noise you make is borne out of the artificial history of the higher subject, me. You fear offending me, or challenging me, and the only path open to you is the second level, where you invert the procedure yourself, before I myself have a chance to do so, and therefore open up the circuitry of the whole process. And then…what? We laugh about it, we invert other functionalities of process, and so on and so on…do you understand what I’m saying, El Joven?
Interviewer: I believe so.
Zizek: And, tell me, would you confess if you found it patronising?
Interviewer: I don’t know…I guess not.
Zizek: Of course not, how could you? You want my mind for the next hour or so, do you not? And you can’t write very much if my mind walks out offended after the first few minutes.
Interviewer: Maybe not. [Pause] But then, it also depends on whether or not you can…
The interviewer looks at Zizek, unsure. He stops and looks at his notes.
Zizek: Go on…
Interviewer: Never mind.
Zizek: Ha, very well. We are chained by the absurdity of the normal, as always. God, I despise interviews.
The interviewer looks around then back at his notes, wiping his head. Is he sweating?
Interviewer: So…I’d like to talk about Star Trek, if you don’t mind?
Zizek: Star Trek, yes, I know.
Interviewer: I’d like to focus mainly on the original series, if possible. Have you seen much of it?
Zizek: The Shatner era? Yes, yes, I know it. Although I dread the idea of picking through the scraps of yet another analysis of political metaphor and parallel ideology. I don’t suppose you have something fresh for us, do you?
Interviewer: Actually, I don’t know if it’s fresh, but I’d like to talk about race…
Zizek: Ah, the third point of the triangle. Politics, ideology, race.
Interviewer: Yeah…maybe. But mostly I want to talk about the characterisation of the minority racial…
Zizek: The racial minorities…
The interviewer coughs.
Zizek: Don’t worry, an uninteresting mistake. You’re not racist…at least you haven’t exposed yourself as such yet…
The interviewer drinks some of his coffee.
Interviewer: Okay, the first thing I want to discuss is the bridge crew in general. Sulu, Uhura, Chekov…
Zizek: No, Chekov is unimportant. The Slav has differences, but it’s not a systemic diagnosis of his race. Simply, he is a cultural alien, not a racial one. The problematic is beyond the concept of the physical unknown other that forms the basis of racial bigotry. He’s strange, but he’s white, so the split will pin him on the side of the interrogator, not opposed to him.
Interviewer: I’m not sure I completely agree, but…okay, let’s stick to Sulu and Uhura.
Zizek: Or we could expand into your disagreement, perhaps? Tell me, in what way does Chekov deviate from the territorial prime mover, that is, the white man?
Interviewer: Well, he doesn’t exactly deviate from it, but contextually…at the time the show was made, the US was in the cold war with the Russians…
Zizek: Yes, yes, and the Russian was foreign and his machinations were alien and sinister, and all the rest of it. And what does this mean exactly? Nothing of importance. You see, El Joven, this split is not racial, it is cultural. No, more than that, it is ideological. There is no fear of Chekov until he opens his mouth and launches the accent. Then he becomes the other. But then he is not an outsider, he is part of the system, thus reducing his otherness. And he is not in a position of authority, he is a servant…he drives the ship, and he takes orders even if the ideology behind that order is foreign to his own. And even then, it isn’t. If you watch a few shows, you see that Chekov is very much in love with Starfleet, and the Captain’s enemies are his enemies too. So you see, Chekov is very much an insider, a cog of the system, and his representation is really, very unimportant.
Interviewer: I still don’t think I agree completely…but we’ll move on…
Zizek: No, please…explain your position. I am not a tyrant, El Joven.
Interviewer: I don’t know if we have time…it’s okay, I think, if the readers just read what’s written and make up their own mind…
Zizek: Ha, make up their own minds? This is not a colourless room, it is persuasion. The reader by its very role has no choice in the matter. They will read, they will decide who they like best, and they will wear the clothes of conviction. Well, they’ll wear them until I do something they don’t like then my theories will decay…ah, the instant decay, an impossibility, you think? No, no, it is all too real. Already my early theories have been placed in intellectual internment, and why? Because I talk about movies, I pander to the proles…
Interviewer: Are you saying the reader has no choice but to side with you? Even if your theories are…
Zizek: No, not at all. That’s what you believe I’m saying, because you have already chosen your position and, perhaps, you are looking for cracks. But no, what I am saying, quite clearly I thought, is that the reader, as soon as he engages with a text, is in very little control of what his response will be. The concept of becoming, you see? He is one thing before the reading, and possibly another after it, depending entirely on the strengths of the convictions established by previous textual engagements. If he’s heard I cheated on my wife prior to reading my theory then he will already be positioned against it, and there is little I can do. Unless of course I chance upon another conviction of his, and then there will be battle. Not war, of course, as the continuation of such a metaphysical conflict cannot be allowed…the result of constant struggle between two strong convictions would be insanity.
Interviewer: I feel we’re getting off track a little here…
Zizek: Off one track, onto another, that is all…
Interviewer: Maybe…but if we could just jump back onto the track with Star Trek, I think it’d be…
Zizek: Yes, yes…I think what we should focus on is the characterisation of the African American in Star Trek. That is the meat of the debate, certainly.
Interviewer: You don’t think we should discuss Sulu?
Zizek: Sulu is unimportant. Frankly, the history just isn’t there.
Interviewer: What do you mean?
Zizek: I mean, slavery. The concept of the African American becoming a symbol of constant struggle, or constant debasement. That is the clearing in the forest we should aim for.
Interviewer: Okay, that’s kind of what I wanted to talk about anyway…
Zizek: Possibly…but the only place we can really start this dialectic is with the concept I have just outlined. The African American hero constantly climbing the mountain, with the weight of social-political history on his back, and the scurrying for position of the white man. Where can he fit in exactly? He cannot accept the role of eternal villain or apologist so he must transform into the saviour, the rhizomatic hero apart from history.
A phone rings. It’s Zizek’s.
He talks for a few minutes then gestures to the interviewer, stands up and walks out.
The interviewer waits an hour for Zizek to come back, but he doesn’t.
E-mail to Slavoj Zizek from interviewer
Mr Zizek, it’s me, the man who interviewed you about Star Trek and the portrayal of race. Well, I started to interview you…we never finished…remember?
I’ve tried calling you several times during the last few months but have received no answer. A friend of mine gave me your e-mail. If you could get in touch, perhaps we could finish what we started?
The interviewer sits in an underground bar in London. It’s late afternoon and there’s no one else there except for a signed photo of Peter Falk high on one of the walls.
Zizek walks in, his beard a little longer than before, his eyes annoyed.
He sits down, takes off his scarf and nods.
Interviewer: Hi. Did you find the place okay?
Zizek: This? Clearly, I did.
The interviewer looks through his notes.
Zizek: Don’t worry, El Joven, I can play your role. Now, where were we? Star Trek, was it not?
Interviewer: Yes, Star Trek. I think we were talking about the role of black people in the original Star Trek series and whether or not they…
Zizek: Ah, the progression of the Afro-American, yes, I remember.
Interviewer: I had an idea…there were a few distinct episodes that featured Afro-Americans in major roles and…maybe that’s a good place to start?
Zizek: Naturally, where else would we start? The blacks in the background? They have no meaning, or if they do, only in the most meagre of ways. What is the background? It is nothing. It is a service element, not a productive one.
Interviewer: I’m not sure I totally agree. I think the whole point of putting different ethnic people in the background was to show the mixing of the races and the different responsibilities they could share in the future on a…an equal footing.
Zizek: Oh, of course. A simplistic reading, no doubt. But no, you are wrong, very wrong. The background means nothing. It is a facade, a trick played by the producers to make you believe there is equality among those moving figures. But there are two problems with this thesis: One, we do not know what duties these moving figures have. They could be toilet cleaners for all we know. And two, the most important aspect, we are watching a show about the future, not looking through a window into the actual future. There is profound awareness on the part of the audience that they are watching a rendering of what might be, not an actual reality.
Interviewer: Well, yeah, but…
Zizek: No, no buts…this is crucial to everything. An Afro-American placed in the background is meaningless because he has no role in the scene. He has no dialogue, no inner life, and therefore it represents nothing. You see, the simplest way to dig at the truth of this presentation is to ask a basic question: What resistance would there be to background Afro-Americans?
Interviewer: Well, some, I imagine. They are on a starship, so they must have some skills to get to that…
Zizek: No, no, this is false. They are not on a starship, they are in the background of a TV presentation.
Interviewer: But…the show is about a starship…
Zizek: Yes, and Casablanca was set in a bar with a black piano player. It is not the setting that defines progress, it is the role in the scene, the placing of the character, the extent of their dialogue, the number of their dimensions.
Interviewer: Okay, I guess I see what you’re trying to say…
Zizek: You guess? It is really not that difficult to comprehend, El Joven.
Interviewer: Err…right. How about we move on to the episodes I talked about…the ones where the Afro-American actors are…more involved.
Zizek: Yes, yes, this is where the meaning lies. Proceed.
Interviewer: If we go by the chronology of the seasons…so, starting with season one, I think the first episode with an Afro-American character involved is…The Galileo Seven. Do you know it?
Zizek: Perhaps. The one where the shuttle crashes…correct?
Interviewer: Yeah, and Spock is left in charge and the other characters begin to chafe against his style of leadership and…I think, actually, it’s the Afro-American character who stands up to Spock the most…
Zizek: I remember, yes. He is a geologist…he calls Spock a machine and almost mutinies at one point I believe…
Interviewer: Well, maybe not mutiny…but he does speak out of turn.
Zizek: …and is shouted down by the doctor Bones and Scotty. Yes, I know the episode. Now, this is interesting. I’ve heard some critics argue that this is a negative portrayal of the Afro-American. That his surliness represents a lack of unity, and also an emotionalism that represents…what is it they said…it represents an attack on the Afro-American, an attack that is trying to show a lack of intelligence on the part of the black man. The idea, the concept, being that this man is someone who’s not quite on the same side as the rest of us, the white-American viewer…
Interviewer: Is this something you agree with?
Zizek: Agree with this? Ridiculous. It’s a Capperist viewpoint, how can anyone agree with it? It’s well documented how selective the Capperists are with their dialectics…ha, I shouldn’t even grant them the use of such a description…they don’t seek the truth, they merely seek fireworks. Well, if you look at this episode it is patently untrue.
Interviewer: In what way?
Zizek: In every way, El Joven. The geologist represents not only progress for the Afro-American, but progress in their role in acting. Look at the episode closely. The first scene, after the shuttle has crashed, what do we get? The Afro-American character explaining the situation to the others, the role of authority, of education, of control…but the most telling part is not that he simply reads his lines, he feels them. His dialogue is jagged, interrupted…he stops speaking to rub his head, just as a man would if he’d just been involved in a shuttle crash. So, right away, we have signs of progress, a representation of a relatable human being in a desperate situation who also happens to be Afro-American.
Interviewer: Okay, but that doesn’t address the point made by the Capperists. What about later on in the episode when he becomes more emotional and rebellious?
Zizek: Yes, yes, but this is the crowning achievement of the episode. Don’t you see it, El Joven?
Interviewer: I guess…it could show that he’s not perfect…
Zizek: That’s some of it, of course, but more than that, it puts the viewer in a predicament. They are not being asked to feel sympathy for the Afro-American character, he is not a saint or a preacher or a limb of God, he is very human, and he is rubbing against a character in Spock who…well, he was extremely popular at the time, yet what is he suggesting in the shuttle? That they should leave people behind, that the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, the words and ideas of the dictator…the reluctant dictator perhaps, but still the dictator…
Interviewer: Doesn’t that mean we are sympathising with the black character?
Zizek: No, we are not. Clearly we are not.
Interviewer: Oh. But I thought…
Zizek: Of course not. He is rebellious, he is almost annoying in his subordination, even if what he is rallying against is justified. It is Spock he is attacking, and it is the aggressor he is playing, which is the very thing that is most satisfying. You look at actors like Denzel Washington, the highest profile black actor working today, and what do you see? A man acting like an icon, afraid to play human beings, so arrogant in his position that he believes he is responsible for all black-Americans and if he plays weak or human in his films, he would be devaluing them in some way. It is ridiculous, obscene almost. You take Washington, and then you take the geologist from Star Trek and you see the difference. One is a coward, the other is a progressive.
Interviewer: That seems a bit harsh…
Zizek: Why? It only appears harsh because Washington promotes his position so often. If he did not, there would be no issue.
Interviewer: Okay, so in summation, you’re suggesting that the portrayal of this black geologist is a progressive thing…
Zizek: I’m not suggesting it, I’m stating it as fact. It is undeniable. This character is human, at the very least two dimensional, and the truth of it is, we, the viewer, forget he is black and instead fret over whether or not this man should have our sympathy and support or if we should instead oppose him. This is the triumph of the episode.
Interviewer: Interesting. So if we move on to the episode ‘The Ultimate Computer’, we could say that the black character in this episode is similar in some ways…
Zizek: Ah, the episode with the mad genius?
Interviewer: Err…yeah, I think so. The creator of the computer that controls the Enterprise is Afro-American and…yeah, I suppose he does go a bit nuts at the end…
Zizek: A bit nuts? Ah, but this is the perfect moment of Star Trek with regards to race. You see it, don’t you?
Interviewer: Maybe…you mean because he’s a genius?
Zizek: No, El Joven, that’s not it at all. But there’s no crime in being oblivious, even though it is startlingly obvious what the truth of the presentation is.
Interviewer: And that is?
Zizek: Simple. This character has everything. He is the ultimate character for the Afro-American because it ticks every single aspect they have been denied previously. Think about the characteristics: Subservience, emotionalism, downtrodden, limited in intelligence…these are common aspects of the Afro-American socio-political identity, at least at the time Star Trek was produced, but look what they do with this character, this mad genius? Downtrodden? No, he’s dominant, smarter even than Spock. Subservient? No, he’s in command, even Kirk must follow his instructions. Emotional? No, he’s cold, detached, a carer only for his genius, his computer. What was the other aspect? No intelligence? Of course not, he’s possibly the smartest human alive. And then the final elation…the descent into madness. Tell me, where has this been allowed before [in TV]? This is at the same level as Othello, a man in every way, not only with two dimensions, but three, maybe even four…
Interviewer: He has four dimensions? Is that possible?
Zizek: Yes, why not? Four dimensions, it is a simple continuation from three dimensions, a simple step, El Joven? Can you really not take it?
Interviewer: Err…I’m not sure. You didn’t really explain how…
Zizek: So, here is this character, on a 1960s TV show, a black man, playing a cold, authoritative genius who changes as the episode develops. There is a clear arc for him to follow, and even a concept. I think it appears near the start, an aside from Spock, the idea that this great man became great in his 20s, when he was very young, and now what can he do? How can he out-strip his own achievements? So, he has a concept, and this is what progress actually is. Not playing a strong character like Washington, but playing characters who model a concept, who develop in negative ways as well as positive, this is the totem of this kind of portrayal.
Interviewer: But some have said he plays the antagonist too readily…and Kirk, the white man, is called on to defeat him…
Zizek: Well, is this not equality? The antagonist is not a one dimensional fiend, he is probably more complex than Kirk, the main character. This is the key to progress: when there is good writing and good characters, protagonist or antagonist, that a black man can play either one and not just drift around by the wall in the background, this is the endgame.
Interviewer: I guess…
Zizek: You guess? El Joven, you do nothing but guess. Stake your flag in the ground firmly, it is the only action.
Interviewer: I agree?
Interviewer: Okay. Are there any other episodes you’d like to discuss? Perhaps one where the portrayal of Afro-Americans is not so strong?
Zizek: No, not really. I’m done.
Zizek looks at his watch.
Interviewer: You have to leave already?
Zizek: Have to? No one ever has to leave, El Joven. They choose to, that is all.
Interviewer: You’re leaving then?
Zizek: Yes, I am. I must.
Zizek stands up, buttons up his jacket and nods.
Interviewer: Well, thanks for giving me some more time and…
Zizek: Yes, yes. Make sure you send me a copy of your…thing.
Interviewer: Sure, I’ll e-mail it to you when it’s done.
Zizek: Yes, do it. You writers are a dishonest group. There was one, an amateur, he tried to make me a fool…since then I have closely read everything. It is a sad thing, but this is…these are the roles we play.
Interviewer: You don’t have to worry, I won’t…
Zizek turns and walks out of the underground bar. The signed photo of Peter Falk watches him go, smiling.
The interviewer reads his notes. After a few seconds he picks up his pen and writes ‘motherfucker’. He stares at the word, lifts his pen, but doesn’t add anything.
Outside, Zizek puts a cigarette in his mouth and lights up. His hand shakes a little as he puts the lighter back in his pocket.
‘Battle won,’ he mutters, breathing out a crazy long line of smoke.
Far, far, far above, sitting on a moon near Jupiter, Gene Roddenberry takes out his earphones and shakes his head.
‘He’s right…two great characters…Afro-Americans…out of 79 episodes…’
He looks at the prop in front of him. The time portal that looks like a stone donut. It is glowing purple.
‘It wasn’t enough, was it?’
The time portal answers by changing its image to the first day of filming on Star Trek. Roddenberry stands up, straightens his jacket and walks forward towards his past.