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  • An Other Frontier: Voyaging West with Mark Twain and Star Trek’s Imperial Subject 1
  • Valerie Fulton

“In the twenty-fourth century, there will be no hunger, and there will be no greed.”

—Gene Roddenberry, to actor Jonathan Frakes

Following in the footsteps of another primetime television drama, Northern Exposure, which has featured both Franz Kafka and Federico Fellini in recent programming, Star Trek: The Next Generation bridged its 1992 and ‘93 seasons with a cliffhanger that meshed the cast of fictional Star Fleet officers with another “real-life” historical figure, Samuel Clemens. This trend of having writers and avant-garde film makers appear in popular t.v. series suggests not so much an acceptance of the sort of cultural criticism going on in academia today as it does an appropriation of high cultural figures by the corporate television industry. The industry “sells” Kafka and Fellini to the viewer, complete with the signifying props that have come to denote intellectualism—dark clothing, moodiness, an aura of mystery—all of which serve to take the place of any real attempt to engage the potentially subversive ideas expressed either in Kafka’s fiction or in Fellini’s films. Such strategies of appropriation are particularly important to a show like Northern Exposure, whose success depends less on the images of alternative living it presents than on the standard t.v. equation of thriving capitalism—its main characters include an ambitious doctor, a millionaire entrepreneur, and a restaurant owner—with Kantian altruism, here reenforced by the program’s background cast of righteous but predominantly voiceless Native Americans.

This process by which commodification finally stifles alternative discourse is described well in Susan Willis’s study, A Primer for Daily Life. Willis uses the California school system’s promotion of “earthquake kits” to demonstrate how consumer packaging can result in a series of items’ “complete condensation to the commodity form” (165). She differentiates between camping out, which relies on articles developed for military use yet can also be used to stage anti-military protests, and the earthquake kit itself, the contents of which merely “embody the simulated remembrance of how they might have been used if purchased for a camping trip, but . . . do not give access to social practice or its guerrilla theatre reversal” (168). The process by which high cultural figures become reduced to t.v.’s commodity form differs only in the sense that few Americans are aware of the originary ideas behind a signifying figure. When a friend once defended Northern Exposure to me on the ground that “a show that quotes Nietzsche can’t be all bad,” she hit on the central problem. We live in a culture where “Nietzsche” is a metonym for intellectual thought much in the way that “Kleenex” is a metonym for something to wipe one’s nose on: to appreciate, even identify with, the t.v. character who quotes from Beyond Good and Evil, one hardly needs to have read or even to know of the text. Networks can thus extend their appeal to (and in the process help define) the “thinking American,” whose pleasure comes from seeing the metonymic association in this unfamiliar context, while at the same time risking neither their mainstream audience nor their corporate sponsorship.

The appearance of Samuel Clemens on Star Trek: The Next Generation confirms the idea that intellectual thought can be reduced to the least common denominator of the commodity form. Moreover, Clemens’s appearance on the show underscores the extent to which t.v. programs themselves may unintentionally reproduce ideological assumptions that we consume, store, and later regurgitate. Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show about the future’s altruistic exploration of life on other planets, tacitly helps to perpetuate the conventional U.S. wisdom that acts of imperialism by our government against third world nations are benevolent rather than self-serving, benign rather than aggressive. Clemens’s appearance on the episode in question as an inquisitive and bothersome fixture of the western American frontier situates him firmly in a past where the imperial self was a fixture both dominant and heroic. This portrayal does more than belie the strong anti-imperialist tenor of Clemens’s later work. In...

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