Tuesday, December 22, 2015
“Everything is alive”: If Wishes Were Horses
Stories have power. That much we have established: “What war hasn't been a war of fiction?” as Alan Moore would say. Our ideas of how the world is are cultivated in the stories we tell about them and guide our actions in a myriad of ways, from the material psychology of the copycat effect to the more intangible power of symbols and synchromysticism. And so it's no great stretch to see, in “If Wishes Were Horses”, our stories take on a very real life of themselves derived from the meaning we imbue them with. One way to look at it is to argue that all our knowledge of the world is in some sense a kind of story-A representative facsimile meant to stand in for experiential perception. Our conscious understanding of others in necessarily incomplete, based as it must be on what we see, what we are allowed to see and how we interpret what we see. Fantasies are narratives we outline ourselves deliberately built out of distortions and exaggerations.
None of this is new for us: We know spirituality goes hand in hand with performativity. Like Alan Moore also said, “there's a certain amount of sham in shamanism”. Some shamanic rituals involve adopting the guise of spirits or the retelling of sacred stories. Magic, in the western sense, is just another form of symbolic language representation of individual experience. The occult is “hidden” specifically because it belongs to a realm we're not consciously aware on an everyday basis. It's also well-trod ground for Star Trek: The obvious point of comparison is “Where No One Has Gone Before”, but Michael Piller said since that was “six years ago on a different show” there was no reason not to do another story that “celebrated imagination”. I agree inasmuch as I believe it's *always* important to tell stories like this.
I'm not convinced Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are different shows.
But going back beyond this particular series, the theme does tend to reoccur; “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” being possibly the other biggest example in Star Trek's history prior to “Where No One Has Gone Before”. This does seem odd territory for science fiction, though: It's the very thing you might think Hard SF, or at least the proponents of Hard SF, would denounce as fantasy at best and “woo” at worst. Mind and consciousness, and thus the experiential, is something traditionally seen as taboo for empiricism. And yet even in the celebrated works of the old masters you see things like “telepathic science”, hinting that perhaps the experience and the observational process aren't as irreconcilable as we might think. Star Trek is not Hard SF, but this only means that it lacks the self-conscious narrow materialist focus that the genre has come to represent in this day and age: It does not mean, and should not mean, that it is anti-science.
Being anti-science is a very different thing, I should add, to being anti-Science, which Star Trek should *always* be, especially as so many of its fans tend to be Scientistic. Despite what certain staffers on the sister show might think, Star Trek is fundamentally not a work of secular humanism, because secular humanism almost demands New Atheism and arch-rationalism, and those are concepts that are patently anathema to Star Trek, especially now. And one way in which it can be pro-science without being pro-Science is through the techniques of anthropology: In spite of the show's rather questionable history of attempting to diegetically engage with the field, it remains an unseen mover in the narrative because Star Trek uniquely privileges empathy, problem solving and utopian conflict resolution.
One of the earliest, and still arguably the most influential, anthropological constructs was the theory of animism. Animism is a singular term coined to describe a set of spiritual belief systems that are effectively universal throughout humanity: The idea that everything, from people and animals to plants and rocks and water and storms is a spiritual being. In fact, “animism” translates out to “breath” and “spirit”. Indeed, what anthropologists call animism is so universal and taken for granted for almost every indigenous culture that they don't even have a word to describe it themselves: In the act of naming itself the anthropological perspective and positionality must necessarily be highlighted.
One thing that people often misunderstand about animism is that it's not pantheistic or polytheistic, nor does it rest on a premise of Cartesian dualism: It's a far more subtle and holistic approach than any of those. The idea is not that everything has a soul so much as it is that the soul is everything. Everyone and everything is sacred because the universe is sacred and everyone and everything is part of the universe. It's a thin distinction, but an important one, because in doing so animism stresses the interconnectedness of all things. Our greatest actions are therefore in service to sublimating reality instead of transcending it. Enlightenment lies in the knowledge and embrace of this fact rather than an escape from it.
Curiously enough, it's in this way that the apparent schism between spirituality and science is overcome. Science has long struggled with that problem of consciousness. The best reductiveness can do is come up with handewavey comparisons to computational theory that, after a history of constant nervous repetition, start to come across less as actual scientific theories and more like insecure attempts to shut down discourse in the hope the problem will go away if we don't think about it. Perhaps part of the reason Science is so quick to denounce and dismiss any ethnoknown indigenous knowledge about the nature of perception and reality is that it doesn't have any better theories of its own. But what if science has actually got us *closer* to the answer than even it realises?
Physicist Nick Herbert holds to a system of beliefs he calls “holistic physics”, “quantum tantra” and “quantum animism”. Herbert literally wrote the textbook on quantum physics and quantum mechanics in (naturally) the 1980s and his experience in the field led him to believe that the mind and consciousness is an emergent property of the universe itself at the quantum level. Herbert believes that this would explain not just things like wave-particle duality but also the argument in some theoretical camps that quantum mechanics is necessarily mathematically incomplete: Consciousness is literally the missing variable in explaining what happens during quantum jumps. Thought, belief and consciousness creates reality in a very material way. And of course, this is something that it would seem indigenous people around the world and throughout history have known intuitively from time immemorial, even if they didn't explain it in quite those terms. The answers to all our questions about the nature of reality come to us through the joining of science and ancient traditional wisdom. The answer, quite literally, is to remember we're all connected.
There never was any divide in the beginning, but we believed that there was, and thus we found one.
Perhaps the real occult secret may lie within the connection between animism and magic. Traditional shamans and spirit healers learn how to cure diseases and make positive changes by tapping into the experiential knowledge of the spirit world all around them. If this knowledge is occult, and thus hidden, it may only be because there are realms of experience and consciousness inaccessible to humans in normal states of perception: It's well-known that humans can only see, for example, a small percentage of the spectrum of light that exists in the universe, and Nick Herbert theorizes that the limitations of human consciousness can be explained by each one of us being a self-contained quantum system residing within the brain. And yet, because *everything* is a quantum system, that world is all around us and we remain part of it. Once you learn to live by empathy and with respect to the universe around you as life that's as sacred as you are, your perspective shifts.
This is something Star Trek and Star Trek's tradition have always intuitively known, because empathy and shamanic folk magic have always gone hand-in-hand. I know he's on “another show”, but does anyone remember by this point that Geordi can see well beyond the visible light portion of the spectrum? Think of Guinan and Jadzia Dax. Or Deanna Troi. The starship Enterprise was designed with organic curves to demonstrate how human engineering had learned to become one with nature. In narrative we see it in this episode and in “Where No One Has Gone Before” most blatantly, of course: Time, space and thought are all the same. But it's an omnipresent theme in Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, even just this season alone. Think back to “Frame of Mind”, “The Storyteller”, “Birthright, Part I” and “Emissary”. This was the predominant theme in all of those stories. Thinking back to earlier on in the show, we see obviously “Remember Me”, but also “The Inner Light” and, brilliantly, “Transfigurations”.
Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is in good company amongst its peers in this regard. The Dirty Pair Strike Again is fundamentally about different faiths and cultural knowledge systems clashing over their interpretation of divine nature and what it looks like when that energy gets transformed as its channeled through each one of them, and this is explored in even more intuitive depth in the Classic Anime series in the OVA Series episodes “No Thanks! No Need For a Halloween Party”, “We're Not Afraid of Divine Judgment! It's Like Magic?!” and the movie Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia. Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is nothing if not a sprawling treatise on the place of animism and traditional shamanism in a world of modernity, as only a science fiction story could ever do. And even going all the way back to Star Trek: The Animated Series, you see the germs of this idea beginning to take root in certain episodes. Most notably “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” and “Once Upon a Planet”...but also in “The Jihad”.
And it's “The Jihad” that gives us the clearest look at how this translates into utopianism. One of that episode's heroes was named Lara, a hunter and tracker from a group of humans who rejected the expansionism of their ancestral home on Earth and kept their traditional indigenous way of life well into a future out in the stars. Lara and her people didn't just survive in a universe arguably defined by the Federation's extrapolated modernity, but they thrived in it, taking the best aspects of a high-tech society to create a genuinely postmodern and post scarcity society. And “The Jihad” is dripping in animism elsewhere, from its sacred totem imbued with the power and thoughts of its people to a planet that seems alive from the soil to the sky, testing our heroes to see if they can adapt to its challenges. Star Trek is in truth a fundamentally animist sci-fi, and this is what makes it and the tradition it belongs to so utterly unique. It's not Hard SF, and it's not even really fantasy, but rather oral history reinterpreted through the lens and trappings of modernity. It's speculative fiction that, through metaphor and allegory, constantly reminds us of where we came from and where we can go.
Or at least that's how *I* choose to read it. Take it or leave it: Go make your own reality.
But even if this is true of Star Trek and its ilk on the whole, what of its manifestation in “If Wishes Were Horses”? What's special about the way the story is told here, and why is it so important that it happen at the Celestial Temple? Because while this is a truth that permeates the Star Trek universe at every level and can be internalized by anyone, Deep Space 9 is a diegetic metaphor that's constantly present. The station is a liminal space, and the Bajoran Wormhole is the doorway to the Otherworld. And the Otherworld is the domain of the gods and spirits forgotten by the advent of modernity, so reconnecting with them means we reconnect with our own birthright too. Even the fact that this episode is such a strong ensemble show (as Terry Farrell puts it, the first time the cast felt like a family unit that understood and got each other) is eerily prescient. Odo and Quark's brilliant dialog in the teaser that's equal parts naturalistic and poetic in a way that's demonstrative of immense writerly skill, Dax's own empathetic acceptance of Doctor Bashir's fantasy life; her nurturing and reassuring tone spiced up with gentle, good-natured needling. Commander Sisko and Major Kira's introspectiveness. Miles O'Brien The Storyteller. The climax itself. It's all there to remind us that we're all in this together dreaming a collective dream.
That's the dream Buck Bokai wants us to remember. We, like Commander Sisko, want to know more about his people, to reconnect with that dream. But that's the voyage. That's what we're out here for.