Sunday, June 12, 2011

Spock as Modernism

When I was in graduate school in the early 1980s important questions that guided Anthropology seminars were “what is human” and “what distinguishes humans from other animals.”  Of course, in those days, the answer often turned to the word “culture” as so many believed that it distinguishes humans from other animals.  Culture was also tied to the use of tools and having language.

I guess these questions are always relevant.  However, I think the answers change with the changing cultural seasons.

Soft modernist Kenneth Burke wrote in 1966:  "Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal, inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative), separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order), and rotten with perfection".

Modernists liked to focus on ‘exclusive’ ideas, ones that separate and distinguish humans from other animals and from nature.  They also suppressed and ignored studying human emotionalism because it is too animal-like.  Early modernists wanted to put emotional people into psycho wards along with the insane.  Inability to control ones emotions was thought to be abnormal.

Post modernists tend to be eclectic and they
a) are holistic were they recognize both inclusive and exclusive views, or
b) ignore the humanness issue, or
c) focus on naturalism, as in “it’s part of human nature for some to believe they are separate from nature.”

Post modernists now believe that studying emotions is important to understanding human cognition.

The shift from Modernism to Post Modernism occurred during the Fourth Awakening (ca. 1960-1990).  In those years the definition of what is human changed from ideas like Burke’s to those such as a, b, and c above. (My graduate school was conservative at the time).

One of the means of making this shift was by representing humanness in new ways during those Awakening years.  Star Trek was one of the popular series that made it all happen.  The original series ran 1966-1969 and it then became a major franchise of new series and spin offs that continue to today.  The original series focused on Capt Kirk and Mr. Spock with Kirk showing the range of feeling and characteristics of humans and Spock as the Vulcan alien who suppresses emotions and pursues logic--the ultimate modernist. Throughout the Star Trek franchise the contrast of Vulcan as the pinnacle of Apollonian pursuit versus “human” is a major theme.  See this video montage of Mr Spock the Logic Man

What these clips reveal is that pure logic and rationalism were challenged during and after the Awakening as being exceptional human traits; they are, in fact, deemed too cold, too clinical, often flawed. Modernism is flawed humanity.

Over the whole Star Trek franchise there grows a fairly well defined sense of what is human and what is beyond it.  Vulcans are eventually softened into having feelings and their cousins the Romulans are shown to be pure Dionysian.  The Klingons start out as enemies but become allies; they are a warrior culture similar to samurai Japanese and Plains Indians (Dionysian).

By surrounding humans with species with extreme traits then humanness get defined as the balanced center, a typical awakening posture.

Now that the Awakening is far behind us, has American culture changed from the modernist scientism of Spock to the eye bedazzling sneaky Romulan? or are we more like the honorable Klingons?

Spock photo here; Romulan photo here.

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