The Kirk/Spock Dichotomy and Toxic Rationality
Nerd culture is ascendant: video games are mainstream entertainment; bland superhero movies top the box office with depressing regularity; and everyone binge-watches TV in order to earn social capital and remain part of the cultural elite. But nerd culture is also fundamentally broken: an ageing generation reacts with rage to almost every attempt to modernise their childhood myths, and yet can’t but help but reproduce them through its social behaviour. As I’ve written before, the counter-culture of yesterday is becoming the hegemonic conservative culture of tomorrow, and that transition is fraught with danger for women and other minorities that were historically marginalised within that culture. The modern white, male 30- or 40-something sees their cultural ascendency as a triumph over the stultifying, Cold War environment of their childhood, and has difficulty seeing themself as subjects of critique.
The Kirk/Spock Dialectic
To my mind, the Kirk/Spock dialectic is one of the foundational archetypes of nerd culture and at the root of one of its most toxic aspects. In the original Star Trek, the hot-headed cowboy Captain Kirk is defined by his humanity: confident, suave and capable of violence at a moment’s notice, he represents the archetypal masculine hero of the mid-20th century. But for the nerds his First Officer, the half-Vulcan Spock, is the protagonist of the narrative: an outsider in the human-dominated Federation, he struggles to suppress his own emotions and solves problems using logic, reason and utilitarian calculus. Speaking as a member the nerd demographic, I can attest that the Spock archetype came to embody the ideal of masculinity for multiple generations of scientists, engineers, wonks and other social outcasts. And it was by-and-large a successful ideal: Gates, Jobs and Musk are the protagonists of the popular age, the Iowa farmboys of the American mid-west relics of a by-gone era.
The Kirk/Spock archetype dates from the sixties, but became culturally fixed because it suited the times. When the world poised on the edge of an irrational nuclear holocaust, the logical cool of the negotiator offered hope for the future of humanity. The “Next Generation” doubled down on the Kirk/Spock structure, with the erudite Captain Picard working in partnership with the android Data, whose literal incapacity to experience emotion made him the vital point-of-view character for many people with autism and autism-like personalities. As the Soviet Union disintegrated in the 1990s, and with seemingly incomprehensible ethnic and religious rivalries tearing societies apart, Data and Spock were role models of emotionless and disinterested technocratic expertise. The last of the original Star Trek films, the excellent “Undiscovered Country” makes this explicit with Spock the peace-maker convincing the Cold Warrior Kirk (who at one points literally shakes with grief and vengeance over the death of his son) to give peace a chance and save the Klingons from extinction.
Nerd culture, or ‘wonk culture’ if we’re describing the variant that actually holds power, is not unemotional: in fact, it is often hyper-emotional when activated by a backlash bias towards those that challenge their social position. But it does prize rationality above perhaps all other values. We are a generation of critics, who can’t simply say that we like or dislike a cultural product (or policy or social outcome) but must articulate the reasons why. Statistics and data are valued; subjective experiences and empathy are devalued. We can blame the technocratic utilitarianism of neoliberalism for this, in part, and we can also blame the values of the patriarchy — which teaches men, and particularly men in positions of authority, to distrust and suppress their emotions. But the Spock (and/or Data) character provides the role archetype that I believe a culturally significant group of smart, perhaps well-meaning men, are subconciously performing and reproducing because at the time they grew up the rationalist hero was the man they desired to be.
My book, “Politics for the New Dark Age: Staying Positive Amidst Disorder” is in part a critique of the privileging of supposedly neutral logical of utilitarianism in the public sphere. The policy wonks and elites of my generation — the Obama-types, the centrists and neoliberals — do certainly offer an improved quality of governance over some of the alternatives and the world is certainly a better place because of it. But their instinctual distrust of emotion, including the dismissal of the rage and loss felt by those that have been made worse off by their policies and their inability to offer a positive, hopeful vision of the future of society, has led them to a political cul-de-sac and is arguably contributing to the fraying of liberal democratic societies. There are many (many!) good reasons to oppose Trump, but the way he makes his supporters *feel* positive and energised must be acknowledged as potent political technique.
The sceptical culture of the internet has birthed multiple manifestations of this cult of rationality, including the New Atheism movement, the so-called rationalist/effective altruist community and the Intellectual Dark Web. But all too often this is rationality without a moral compass: it’s no coincidence that the same communities have become a treadmill pushing people towards Islamophobia, opposition to trans rights (muh chromosomes!), and outright racism (the “human biodiversity” crowd) and the privileging of pseudo-scientism as an explanation of inequality rather than the real culprit, y’know: the capitalist order). The Kirk/Spock dialectic has produced a generation of wannabe Spocks who don’t know how to govern real people and on a deep level don’t want to. Ironically, this is because it was the underdog Spock they most empathised with as children, rather than the bullying Captain Kirk. But they’ve got it wrong. Spock is not the hero of the Original Series: the Federation is — a society that creates room for both Spock and Kirk to co-exist in leadership.
Re-Discovering the Social Emotions
What fans tend to forget is that the Original Series is based around a leadership triad, not a duo: Doctor McCoy is the emotional and empathetic heart of the system, the balance to the hyper-rationality of Spock and the dominance drive of Captain Kirk. The Original Series makes it clear that heroic actions result when all three perspectives are taken into account; it’s to the Abrams reboot’s great discredit that this dynamic is wholly absent. Hell, multiple Star Trek films were devoted to the lesson that the needs of the one can outweigh the needs of the many, yet this lesson is anathema to the modern Spock archetype. The Southern gentleman McCoy represents the other-regarding outlook of traditional societies, and this might explain why it’s a perspective that is devalued by an increasingly elite community that sees empathy (and demands for empathy) as a archaic characteristic of alien ‘others’. The New Generation didn’t help in this regard by making the McCoy archetype a female alien whose empathy was a literal superpower; Counsellor Troi was a neat concept whose character development and depth was sacrificed to focus on the Picard/Data dyad.
What the cult of rationality misses, in its blanket dismissal of emotion, is that many emotions are a positive force in people’s lives and that other-regarding preferences are actually necessary to make cooperative societies sustainable. One of the key insights of evolutionary game theory is that self-regarding rationality alone is insufficient to sustain large scale societies: emotions are not vestigial organs that lead to adverse results in modern conditions, as the Santa Barbara-style evolutionary psychologists believe, but refined tools that make it easier for humans to act in ways that maintain the integrity of their communities. Daniel Kahnemann and Johnathan Haidt are right in at least this sense: rationality is a better tool for post hoc justification of our behaviour than an a priori generator of moral behaviour. So today we see rationality offered up as an exculpatory excuse for abhorrent opinions and social policies.
It’s ironic, then, that the most recent Star Trek Series (“Discovery”) has received a fan backlash because to my mind it actually gets this right. In a fascinating reversal of the situation in “Undiscovered Country”, the season one finale of Discovery has the Vulcans (in fact, Spock’s father) and Starfleet willing to commit genocide against the Klingons in order to contain them as a threat, and it’s up to the human character, who was raised by Vulcans, to reject that sort of utilitarian calculus and advocate the heroic position of hope and trust in the future. It’s probably indicative of the times that the protagonist (Burnham) is both female and non-white, but the message would be and should be the same regardless of the character’s identity. The writers of Discovery recognise, in a way that perhaps the writers of the Next Generation didn’t appreciate, that emotion and empathy can have both positive and negative aspects, and that the privileging of rationality as paramount value lead to a society that can be morally monstrous. As a society, we need irrational optimism to survive and thrive.