Sunday, November 22, 2009

Interstellar Intimacies

The Star Trek universe, whether on television or film has fascinated viewers for decades now. More than just a medium of entertainment, its themes have striking resonance for those studying international law and international relations (see the sources section below). The most recent addition to the science fiction enterprise (no pun intended) is the recent film, simply titled, Star Trek. In addition to exploring (legal) issues related to torture and genocide (as my Jurisculture partner in crime Alexandra examined in her posting "Genocidal Trek" from earlier this year) this film focuses, in part, on the origins of the characters from the original 1960s television series that made the Star Trek industry famous. In so doing, it draws attention to themes that made the original Star Trek series so revolutionary for its time - the breaking of socially-constructed boundaries.

In tracing the origins of one of Star Trek's leading characters, Spock, the film touches upon issues of discrimination and ostracism experienced by individuals of mixed racial parentage. Spock, as many are surely aware, is the progeny of a Vulcan father, Sarek, and a human mother, Amanda. Although a bi-racial child, in the literal sense, Spock is raised (culturally) in the Vulcan way - that is, he is raised to subordinate all personal emotions and subjective feelings to the demands of logic and scientific thinking.

While culturally and by all appearances Vulcan, a young Spock is shown being taunted and ostracized by fellow Vulcan students on account of his mixed parentage, and particularly for being the son of a human mother. Spock gives into his emotions and attacks one of his peers who insults his mother. From the Vulcan perspective, humans are largely derided as emotional, intemperate, undisciplined and most sinfully, illogical beings. This explicit prejudice follows Spock throughout his life. During an assembly where he is granted admission into the Vulcan Science Academy (considered a rather prestigious honour for Vulcans), Spock is given a backhanded compliment by a high official about his ability to succeed notwithstanding his biological deficit. Consequently, Spock declines the offer of admission and instead opts for a seat in Starfleet Academy, situated in San Francisco.

Interestingly, while Spock is derided by his fellow Vulcans as being too human, and not Vulcan enough, he is similarly not fully at ease amongst his human counterparts, except with perhaps cadet Uhura. Indeed, amongst humans and his Starfleet colleagues, Spock identifies himself and is identified as a Vulcan, rather than as biracial. This is usually raised by the emotional and antagonistic Dr. Leonard McCoy who has in previous films and the television series referred to Spock as inhuman, replete with references to Spock's pointy Vulcan ears.

Spock's challenge as a bi-racial child to navigate between two worlds that do not completely accept him is something that many bi-racial children experience today. There are challenges to navigating between two different normative structures each replete with their own set of values and expectations for individuals within their respective systems. Although there are probably few countries that formally prohibit interracial relationships as a matter of state law, there is still a tremendous degree of resistance by members of different civil societies across the world toward such relationships.

This resistance can even impact upon the decisions of legal actors. One need only recall a Justice of the Peace in Louisiana who, this past summer, refused to marry an interracial couple on the basis that he was concerned about the effect that such a relationship would have on the couple's prospective offspring and their acceptance in a racialized society. While the Justice certainly had no legal right to abstain from performing the marriage on this ground, his belief is not completely unfounded as there are certainly parents and families who still evidence significant resistance towards one of their own marrying someone outside of their particular ethnic, class, linguistic and caste group. This isn't to suggest that such barriers and resistance shouldn't be broken or challenged, merely that such resistance is palpable and needs to be addressed. The Justice's decision should have been geared toward confronting those barriers rather than succumbing to them.

But returning to Spock's narrative and its relevance to interracial relationships in our time(s) and place(s) speaks to something far from anachronistic, not only in North America (the cultural backdrop for the creators and writers of Star Trek), but around the world. It speaks to some rather powerful and pervasive non-state legal orders that can have an impact on the decision of interracial couples (or couples who cross distinct cultural boundaries) to pursue their unions or have children. In some cases, the opposition will be limited to mild ostracism while in other extremes, it might lead to physical harm, if not execution. Whatever their forms, these are types of enforcement within socio-legal systems that do not recognize or accept such unions.

The relationship between Sarek and Amanda also speaks to the norms that may govern the raising of children in such contexts. Although half-human, Spock is rather explicitly raised in the Vulcan way. Anything human is derided as clearly inferior and lacking in logical thinking. In many mixed families (whether the mix is on the basis of race, religion and/or other distinction), the cultural values of one spouse may dominate over the other's in the raising of their children. Rather than both cultural frameworks having equal representation, there is perhaps in many instances a pattern of dominance. One of the cultural frameworks, whether explicitly or implicitly is presented as dominant so as to impose some sense of uniformity. One of the spouses "converts" and/or otherwise accepts and assimilates (although perhaps not completely) the other spouse's cultural framework and the norms that come with it. The children are raised within the dominant framework while the other may be diminished. This is of course not the case in every such familial context.

Star Trek, as always presents its viewers with a wide range of norms and normative structures. In this posting, I have focused on what the film has shown. In a subsequent posting, I shall explore what was left out and was such omissions suggest about the limitations of Star Trek's implicit commitment to breaking social, political and legal boundaries.

Sources consulted:

Randall Kennedy, Interracial Intimacies: Sex Marriage, Identity and Adoption (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003).

Michael Scharf and Lawrence Roberts, "The Interstellar Relations of the Federation: International Law and Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1994) 25 University of Toledo Law review 577.

Star Trek (Paramount Pictures 2009).

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