Afraid of Nothing

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The International Conference on High Energy Physics met in Chicago earlier this month, and some heads are exploding in the aftermath. Portions of the particle physics community have gone a bit mental, and not because of any mind-blowing discoveries. On the contrary, the culprit is the seeming perpetuity of “null results” at the Large Hadron Collider, and at smaller experiments searching for dark matter or supersymmetry.

You might say these particle theorists have developed cabin fever.

First of all, some background. For a subject with aims as broad as physics, which seeks a framework of understanding capable of explaining both the large scale structure of the cosmos as well as the microphysics of the atomic nucleus, the current paradigm of empirical exploration has become remarkably linear. In effect, we just bang particles together at higher and higher energies and see what comes popping out.

The full story behind this linearity is complicated and rests on the achievements of 20th century physicists, who were so successful at unifying what was previously known into a single framework that (in an admittedly somewhat oversimplified sense) we only have one variable left to vary.

A short version of the story might go like this. Einstein’s relativity theories relate physics at different velocities, so that if we know how to describe the experience/behaviors of slow moving objects, we know how to describe physics at any other speed as well. They also relate energy directly to mass. On the other hand quantum mechanics unifies the notion of particles and waves in such a way that exploring the universe on short distance scales amounts to doing high energy physics experiments. This is because short wavelengths are needed to probe short distances, and short wavelengths correspond to high energy, just as ultraviolet light is more energetic than infrared.

Assisting this simplicity is what Gell-Mann, the discoverer of quarks, called the totalitarian principle: “Everything that isn’t impossible is mandatory.” Essentially, the inherent randomness of quantum mechanics aides our empirical searches. As long as sufficient energy is present, any possibility is a certainty given enough trials.

So in a (somewhat oversimplified sense), “all” physicists have to do is bang particles together at higher and higher energies and record the results. Particle physicists have become less like explorers of the Earth, with four cardinal directions to head off in and many continents to explore, and more like ocean divers, striving primarily to reach greater depths.

This game has worked for a long time. For the past half century, the deeper into the depths we’ve gone, the more we’ve found, culminating in the well-publicized discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012.

But now it looks like that era may be coming to an end. The only hint of anything new at the LHC since the Higgs discovery ultimately turned out to be a statistical fluke. This while increasing the energy scale from 8 TeV all the way up to 13 TeV. So our best divers have nearly doubled our penetration down into the depths, and in their explorations they have found nothing but nothingness. This “null result” has left many physicists in fear, staring into an emptiness of unknown extent. They’re afraid of the nothing we’ve found.

And so heads are exploding. It’s being called the “nightmare scenario.”

But it’s not a nightmare, it’s just science. And the proper response isn’t panic, its diligence, and also a bit of a return to a broader exploratory framework.

The most important comment here is that this result, and “null results” in general, are not failures. In fact, it’s been widely acknowledged that a major problem with modern science is its refusal to recognize null results for the achievements they are, which has led to destructive research incentives. I would go so far as to say that anyone claiming the recent achievements of the particle physics community are actually “failures” worth lamenting is doing a grave disservice to science. The physicists at the LHC have accomplished one of greatest scientific discoveries of all time. We should celebrate their professionalism, precision, skill, and diligence in exploring deeper into the unknown than anyone who came before them. And we should be proud that our current theories are so stubbornly resisting falsification. It means they’re good theories.

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(Source xkcd)

In fact, there’s even a sense in which this “null result” provides more of a hint for future physics than a normal scientific non-discovery would. This is due to a physics principle called “naturalness.” Our current theories are incredibly successful at predicting experimental results, but their mathematical structure is puzzlingly awkward, “unnatural.” Some physicists have derided the naturalness criterion as philosophical or aesthetic in nature. I’d argue that even if that were true, it’d hardly be grounds for dismissal. Absent guidance from nature, we should look to whatever arbiters we can to help us find our way, as long as we never stop yearning for a final answer from experiment.

But naturalness is not just an arbitrary preference, it’s both a sound logical concept and a very physical insight about general tendencies.

On the simplest level, it’s just a matter of having a reasonable discomfort with improbable results. If a physical theory is able to predict that a variable X must be between 0 and 100, but cannot say anything else, we expect that most likely X will be greater than, say, 10. That’s just probability. If we then measure X, and find that it’s actually .00001, that would be an “unnatural result”: not strictly speaking illogical, but improbable enough to make us think we were missing something when made our prediction for X in the first place.

The mass of the Higgs boson is a little like our variable X. In principle, the Higgs mass could’ve fallen anywhere on the range from the electroweak scale, .2 TeV, to the plank scale (the expected scale of quantum gravity), 10^16 TeV. In fact, it turns out to be .246 TeV. Very unnatural.

On a deeper, and more physical level, the naturalness principle has to do with the relationships that exist between physics at different scales. Just as one would not expect, for example, the viscosity of water to be ultrasensitive to the electron mass, even though water is made up of atoms which include electrons, one does not expect physics at the LHC to depend too dramatically on the details of physics at the plank scale. But, as it turns out, this is precisely the implication of a lightweight Higgs boson.

An analogy with physical distances is useful. The sun, though far away, is very influential for the trajectory of the Earth through space, because it is very massive. But by “very influential” we mean that it determines the general shape of Earth’s orbit, not its every tilt and wobble. Likewise, it is the general form of the structure of the sun that determines the orbit of the earth. We do not worry that weather patterns on the sun may send the Earth suddenly careening into Mars.

Likewise, we expect the Higgs mass to be influenced by plank scale physics, but in a very general sort of way. The awkward issue is that, for reasons too difficult to explain precisely here, if it were influenced by plank scale physics in this generic sort of way, we’d expect the Higgs mass to be close to the plank scale, not the lower bound at electroweak scale. We expect the Higgs mass to be influenced in a large, but not precise, way, by plank scale physics.

It’s sort of like if the Earth’s trajectory were straight rather than circular, despite the existence of the sun. How could that be, given what we know about gravity? Tinkering with our models of solar structure won’t help much, sense as we said the details don’t matter. On the other hand one could speculate that there are other, unseen, massive objects in the solar system, which exactly balance the gravitational influence of the sun and allow the Earth to move unimpeded onward in a nearly straight line. For example we could speculate that the Earth lies at a Lagrangian point of the sun and an unseen black hole. But even though that would be logically sound, it would be an incredibly awkward explanation: how did that unseen massive object get itself into the perfect location to EXACTLY CANCEL the effects of the sun? And given this precise cancellation, the Earth’s trajectory now WOULD depend precisely on the details of the structure of the sun.

This is the issue with the Higgs mass. Its lightness is unexpected given the influence of plank scale physics. We may of course postulate a full circus of effects at the plank scale that could contrive to produce this result, but it is nevertheless unlikely. Unlikely results deserve explanations.

The unnaturalness of our physical theories, then, is fairly interesting in light of their tremendous empirical success. The more we verify these theories, the weirder it gets. All the more reason to continue patiently working.

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(You think Null Result sounds like a good name for a band? You’re too late apparently)

But there’s a larger point here. It might end up being that particle colliders just don’t have much more to offer us for a while. That wouldn’t be unusual. It’s rare that progress is so straightforwardly linear for so long.

Many particle physicists have expressed frustration at the increasing disconnect between theoretical physics and the empirical world it’s meant to explain. They’ve blamed this on some sort of imagined complacency on the part of theoretical physicists, especially string theorists. But it’s been fairly clear to me for a while that this disconnect is not borne of complacency but is just a reality of our time that we must contend with. The disconnect has been forced upon us by nature. We need to encourage an exploratory spirit if we’re going to overcome it. Attacking people studying String Theory or other ambitious attempts to provide a new framework of thinking isn’t helping provide focus, it’s narrowing our ability to innovate our way out of this impasse.

It might be that the immediate future of physics lies in studying condensed matter systems, or early universe cosmology, rather than particle accelerators. String theorists, for example, have had some (limited, but real) success in these areas, and with more abstract issues like relating gravitation and quantum information theory. On another front, observational astronomy is opening up whole new windows into the universe with LIGO, Icecube, etc. Obviously a need to reorient in favor of exploring these possibilities would be a disappointment to particle physicists, but this is just the reality of progress, scientific or otherwise. We don’t know in advance what will work and what won’t.

We should keep calm, keep exploring, and keep an open mind. This isn’t a nightmare, and admittedly it’s not a dream either. It’s the hard work of living and working and moving forward in the real world.

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How to Not Be a Metaphysician

Most people live in such a way that they are the center of their own lives. I believe that mindset can be happy and valuable when deliberately chosen, but we run into problems when it becomes our default setting. I call someone who is unreflectively self-centered in this way a “metaphysician.” In philosophy, a metaphysician is someone who spends time thinking about the first principles of things. I mean it in a more existential sense: someone who assumes that he or she has access to the bones of reality inside himself or herself, rather than considering that they may lie somewhere on the outside. Recently, I became interested in developing some practical tips on how to become something other than this. They are included below:

-Find a reliable way of reminding yourself that you do not have anything close to all the answers.

-Meditate twice a day.

-Understand the difference between knowing and understanding.

-Make sure that your own decisions have a proximate relation to the forces driving your life.

-Maintain friendships with people from different parts of your life.

-Don’t be mysterious on purpose.

-Indulge yourself as often and as richly as it is interesting to do so.

-Ruminate forward, not backward.

-See movies without consulting Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

-If it’s not an emotion you’re comfortable sharing with anyone, you probably shouldn’t be having it.

-Grow in ways that encourage you to grow.

-Keep track of the times when you start to be a certain way and of what had just happened.

-Be more interested in what you hear and see than in what you have to say and reveal.

-If it’s not a decision you can avoid, it’s also not a decision you should rush.

-See how long you can go without forming an opinion.

-Fail as often as you are able to learn from failure. Which is most of the time.

-Cultivate a meaningful distance between your decisions and your actions.

-Use anger as a forge, not as armor.

-Aim for a filter that keeps things spiffy and doesn’t just keep things hidden.

-Try to get better at trying.

-Trust your gut, it knows more than you do.

-Aim for skillful coping, not managing success.

-Decide which parts of your life you aren’t going to try to make better right now.

-Experiment in such a way that you don’t foreclose the possibility of future experiments.

-Experiment as often as possible.

-Don’t play games with yourself you can’t win.

-When all else fails, recognize that survival is its own virtue.

-Cultivate a relationship between your ends and your means of realizing them.

-Fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, scratch where it itches.

-Make the dysfunctional functional.

-Check that the parts of your life you don’t think about are the parts that are working.

-Forge meaning, build identity.

-Be willing to sacrifice uniqueness for distinctiveness.

-Learn the difference between being outstanding and standing out.

-Date.

-Fuck up artfully. At least make it a good story.

-Do not throw away your shot, but wait for it.

-When in doubt, get more data.

-Be aware of the things you put inside your body and your mind.

-Be discreet and not duplicitous.

-Master the art of forgiving yourself.

-Ensure the ambiguities of your life are healthy.

-Be glad to share the story of your past. Be afraid to know the story of your future.

-Get in the habit of forming habits.

-If you can’t laugh about it, don’t talk about it to people you don’t trust.

-Know what it would take for you to be happy, and don’t be indifferent to the stakes.

-Discover life’s contradictions, treat them as challenges, and share them as parables.

-See fear as a resource.

-Minimize fantasies, maximize projects.

-Gain intuition about your own limits. Be the person who decides what they are.

-Front-load your pain.

-Befriend your insecurities.

-Never be afraid to compromise in the pursuit of becoming yourself. In fact, jump at the chance.

-Live one day at a time.

-Attempt to please others, and work hard for what you care about, but strive to be yourself.

-Don’t try to be a great “man.” Just be a “man,” and let history make its own judgments.

-Take a gender studies class.

Concerning the Party Poopers

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A recent politico article argued that our two political parties, being as old and firmly established as they are, perpetuate a kind of ideological or institutional inertia, stifling our political imagination with their resilience. Many voters, dissatisfied with their two presidential choices, lament the lack of a viable third party alternative.

I would advocate a completely opposite view of the political parties: they adapt to, react to, and absorb whatever cultural or ideological realities are playing out in the country. To the extent that they coerce political discourse, it’s in the direction of compromise and synthesis. It’s only stifling insofar as our democratic institutions naturally are, and there’s a strong argument to be made that this is a feature, not a bug, in our system.

For example, why don’t we have a socialist party or a libertarian party? Is it because the parties squash those ideologies or cannot accommodate them? No. They couldn’t stop Trump, or Sanders, or either of the Pauls. As hard as it may be for many Sanders supporters to accept, the people decided the fates of these candidates in the primary elections. The voters, not the party machines, are primarily responsible for our ideological emphases.

Now you could say things like, who says business interests, evangelical Christians, and war hawks should all belong to the same party? Isn’t that artificial and stifling? I’d argue it’s just a compromise formed by a political system doing its job. The only thing it “stifles” is the chaos of having a proliferation of factions. Government, democratic or otherwise, requires consensus building, and our two party system plays an important role in this process.

Right now our political system is unable to resolve some of our political conflicts. The GOP is imploding, and the Democrats arguably only narrowly avoided a similar fate. The result is that some of the absurdities of the compromises that have been made in the past are on prominent display. This is awkward for a lot of people who aren’t used to consciously acknowledging the practical realities underlying a lot of our political discourse, but not really a sign of a problem with the two party system.

Eventually the two parties will reorganize themselves. Their resilience is borne of their adaptability rather than any kind of permanence.  It’s going to be a messy affair. It’s going to involve new compromises, and some unhappiness will result. But that’s ok. Democracy’s not supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to work, and for the most part it does.

Language Games

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I don’t remember the first time I heard of Star Wars. How could you? My parents, obligated to acculturate me, had recorded an ancient TV airing of Return of the Jedi that I watched religiously. At four years old, I couldn’t differentiate advertisements from the narrative; I thought commercials were a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on lightsaber battles and Ewok escapades. My deepest memories are a sense of cosmic fear that Han Solo would be smote for commandeering an Imperial shuttle (“It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature”) and anxiety that Yoda was misleading Luke about his parentage (“Ancient Chinese Secret, huh?”). The wider trilogy had no meaning for me. I recall the Death Star as a giant metallic fractured skull, not even aspiring to become a spheroid. I thought Luke Skywalker was the villain and Obi-wan Kenobi was only ever a ghost. Jabba’s job was to die. Years later, when I bothered to watch the entire trilogy before The Phantom Menace arrived in theaters, I found episodes four and five to be strange bits of exposition to a story I had already learned to love on its own terms, like a child raised on Sunday school stories who only learned of the Old Testament as an obligatory prequel that nobody takes seriously.

Star Trek was different. On a lark, at sixteen I watched an early second season episode of The Next Generation on Spike TV (“Where Silence Has Lease”). While I now recognize it as a subpar episode, I was struck by its unabashedly cerebral spirit. Jean-Luc Picard enters a completely unknown region of space; he explores it systematically; he discerns an alien intelligence is toying with him; he orders a self-destruct sequence and barely escapes; the episode’s climax stems from Picard and the alien recognizing each other through mutual curiosity. I didn’t even know it was possible for TV shows to create drama this way. I was hooked. As Youtube at that time was still mostly “fail” videos and YTMND was in its prime, I had to scour the TV schedule listings and stay up until four in the morning to watch The Original Series on TVLand, the real classics. Near the end of high school, I justified this nocturnal schedule to myself by working on college applications in the middle of the night, before watching Kirk, Spock, and McCoy debate the finer points of interstellar diplomacy; somewhere in Iowa, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were fighting over how to restore our moral standing.

Like many Americans born after 1970, Star Wars supplied the emotional syntax of my childhood. But Star Trek was my adolescence and, in an important sense, remains my semantics. Star Wars allows you to express yourself, Star Trek is about making meaning from experience; Star Wars is prehistoric, Star Trek luxuriates in futurism and progress; one provides the opening crawl, the other helps you split the infinitive. This is why, beyond their respective fandoms, I have always perceived these franchises as complementary and even mutually constitutive. They answer for each other. The granite mysteries of Star Wars have their pingback in the lapidary progressivism and wry optimism of Star Trek. Why did Obi-wan have to die? “Think positively, Spock.” Why did Luke go to Cloud City after Yoda warned him not to? “Risk is our business.” Why can’t Han and Leia admit their feelings for each other? “I can’t change the laws of physics.”

Dangling Participles

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But the contemporary versions of these franchises—kicked off with 2009’s Star Trek and 2015’s The Force Awakens—seem to have reversed roles. Star Wars is now what Star Trek used to be, and Star Trek seems happy to be a Star Wars knockoff.

The Star Trek reboot, as Mr. Plinkett put it in his incisive review, is marred by every character suffering from the “not-gays.” The adult Kirk is immediately introduced to us as a womanizer, drunkenly hitting on Uhura. He later hooks up with her roommate and expresses dismay after viewing her making out with Spock—a romance that has no precedent on the original series and makes little sense with respect to both characters’ personalities. This streak is modified in the most recent film, Star Trek Beyond, where Sulu is infamously outed as gay, apparently as an homage to George Takei (who expressed disapproval) with an awkward shot of him holding hands with another man in the company of a child—the relationship is left strategically ambiguous, the latest in a long line of Star Trek’s weak attempts to portray homosexual relationships in a non-dramatized manner. Star Trek films have become hemmed in by the bottom line in such a way that their resulting aesthetic—their sense of style—feels downright regressive.

These deficiencies do not stop at gender politics. The new Star Trek movies seem tied together by a single shared theme: the need to assume positions of authority and responsibility in order to ensure a legitimate chain of command. This fundamentally non-exploratory and hierarchical mantle is taken up most directly in the 2009 film (whose plot repeatedly bends over backwards to ensure the Enterprise becomes staffed with the original crew, under Spock Prime’s godlike meta-fictional gaze), but also its 2013 sequel (where Kirk is punished for violating the Prime Directive and learns compassion through a role reversal of Wrath of Khan’s most emotional scene). Even the most recent film, which toys with the idea of discovering unexpected sources of strength through diversity and understanding, compensates for this by rewriting Kirk as a completely conventional (if highly capable) Starfleet captain and shoring up Chekhov’s own case of the not-gays.

Perhaps most egregious is the general devaluation of clear-headed thinking in the alternate universe. Christopher Pike urges Kirk to enlist in Starfleet because that institution has apparently lost the “go with your gut” instinct that, in TOS, was responsible for virtually every failed away mission and the death of countless redshirts. Characters who rely on logic are shown to be emotionally stunted (Spock), egomaniacal (Khan), or cold-blooded and corrupt (Fleet Admiral Marcus). Of course, this mindset is not entirely alien to the Star Trek ethos, as many TOS episodes make light of Spock’s abstract reasoning and the utopian visions of opponents. But the best of Star Trek framed risk-taking as a logical extension of our drive to understand the world and expand the horizon of our capacity to make sense of it—instinct and reason are not contradictory. This is why Spock’s true counterpoint was McCoy, whose irascibility made him endearing but ultimately too hot-headed to serve as a model for self-sacrificing leadership. “The City on the Edge of Forever,” a sort of showcase for Star Trek’s unique blend of tragic pathos and indefatigable optimism, has McCoy go crazy and nearly destroy mankind’s future. The tension between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy was at the core of the show’s dramatic tension, and McCoy’s demotion to comic relief post-2009 removes a key piece of the emotional puzzle that made classic Trek work so well.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens counters these limitations systematically. Its female protagonist is backed up by two ethnic minority characters in a way that organically serves the story—she grows in confidence and self-esteem in the course of the film by overcoming the deficiencies of the men who try to control her fate. Diversity is, in fact, now a hallmark of First Order officers as a whole, evidently taken for granted across the galaxy. C-3PO corrects himself for almost calling General Organa a “princess.”

Status hierarchies are here portrayed as hindering human potential and as manifestations of emotional insecurity. The key example is the brilliantly realized General Hux, whose screen time is limited but whose rivalry with Kylo Ren and speech before the destruction of the Resistance government tells us all we need to know about what really makes the First Order tick: more like the Nazi Germany of Franz Neumann’s Behemoth than the original trilogy’s Empire, its social glue and productivity stems from a shared sense of fear and internal struggles over how to exert collective control. Real, lasting identity is shown to emerge from connections to new kinds of people, particularly in Finn’s case, whose very name is derived from a new friendship.

The film also includes a brutally honest and tragic portrayal of a dysfunctional family as the backdrop for Han’s eventual death and Rey’s acceptance of her path to becoming a Jedi-in-training. It is additionally implied that the original generation’s psychological mix of Han, Luke, and Leia was unstable, ultimately unworkable, and needs to be redeemed through the actions of better-balanced heroes (Luke’s decision to abandon the rest of the galaxy to its fate after Ben Solo’s betrayal hardly seems admirable).

The film’s sense of hope comes almost exclusively from women. Rey’s arc in particular is defined by overcoming the stinginess and greed of Unkar Plutt, Finn’s meek attempts to court her, Han’s emotional irresponsibility and passive offer of employment, the feeble-mindedness of stormtroopers, and Kylo Ren’s colossal Daddy issues. Her only reliable help comes from General Organa (who tries to talk sense into Han and comforts Rey after his death) and Maz Kanata (who tries, unsuccessfully, to introduce Rey to her Jedi calling before the plot compels her to take the leap).

How did we end up here? Star Trek has a firm reputation for social liberalism, while Star Wars takes place “a long time ago.” The former has incorporated identity politics back to its founding; Star Wars has ignored it and with the exception of Lando Calrissian (who betrayed Han) had no non-white stars. Star Trek used to be about achieving progressive harmony amongst interpersonal differences; Star Wars has always been about realizing your pre-determined potential. The 2009 reboot can even be safely considered the better film in terms of its cinematic components (its famously flare-based cinematography and zippy camera movements, tight editing, efficient plotting) even as its box office draw was more limited and male-centered. Even the films’ fan service operated differently: in The Force Awakens the celebration of the Millennium Falcon felt somewhat gratuitous, whereas in Star Trek Nimoy’s participation as deux ex machina advisor was central to the plot. Star Trek, however, had demonstrated its longevity after the 60s through a series of successful films and TV spinoffs such as The Next Generation; Star Wars was on thin ice thanks to its absolutely abysmal prequel trilogy. Why did one innovate while the other would stagnate?

Semantics

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If we want to understand the appeal of Star Wars and Star Trek and what these franchises represent, we have to go back to their origins. Each helped to revolutionize the respective genre (film and television) it entered.

Star Trek, while not extremely popular during its initial run (though it was an early instance of a show being resuscitated thanks to fan letters), was a pure expression of the sixties zeitgeist safely removed to outer space: its main cast included everyman leader Kirk, southerner McCoy, half-Vulcan (and callback to the “Wandering Jew”) Spock, black woman Uhura, Asian Sulu, and Russian Chekhov. The Romulans and Klingons were straightforward clichés of Maoist China and Soviet Russia, respectively. This cultural mix was unprecedented for the time, but what was most radical about Star Trek was how unoriginal most of its tropes were. It did not invent or seriously innovate the concept of time travel since H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel; its most well crafted episodes typically functioned as genre homages (“Balance of Terror” is a straightforward retelling of Second World War submarine films); even at its thematically deepest, the show often lifted entire premises and dialogue from classic works of fiction, in particular Shakespeare (who would remain a lasting source of inspiration). Some of its episodes were simply bizarre and not “entertaining” in the conventional sense—I’m thinking of “Spock’s Brain”, “The Devil in the Dark”, “The Naked Time.” Others now serve as strangely dated depictions of racial conflict, Vietnam war deaths, the sexual revolution, and Cold War tensions. A surprisingly large number are about a single crewmember who obtains extraterrestrial powers and threatens to destroy the ship from the inside. I think most of its episodes are bad.

Yet those are some of the most representative episodes of Star Trek’s particular aesthetic—the nerdy diplomacy of the Federation; the seething insecurities of the Enterprise’s crew, the show’s willingness to produce completely weird bottle episodes (“Space Seed,” which introduced Khan, is perhaps the most successful example). Star Trek was most itself when it was charmingly bad and its miniscule budget was most apparent. This is because what distinguished Star Trek was its ability to produce dramatic situations whose components were borrowed from previously disparate parts of the zeitgeist that, once combined, were not easily reducible back to those components, however kitsch and forced they may appear. Uhura could not be un-kissed. The purest episodes (think “Mirror, Mirror”) were those that took all the most potent ingredients of the show and deliberately subverted them, often in arbitrary ways (Evil Spock’s goatee is a perfect example of a visual cue so non sequitur and yet so fully inhabited that it instantly becomes iconic). Gene Roddenberry’s genius was to trust this ability to subvert his own creations, especially those invented for stopgap storytelling purposes, for later dramatic effect. Spock turns out to be sex-crazed and emotionally fragile. Khan’s distinctive villainy was just a synthesis of McCoy’s hot temper, Spock’s cold logic, and Kirk’s decisiveness. Scotty is clearly established as a genius but refers to himself as an “old Aberdeen pub-crawler.” Kirk turns evil, twice (the first time through a transporter malfunction, the second time as a manifestation of his Terran Empire counterpart). Chekhov is repeatedly shown to be a Slavophile who claims everything was invented in Russia, until we see a reaction shot of him smiling to himself—he’s fucking with them. There is an episode where everyone gets drunk and another where everyone has a bad acid trip.

The irony of Star Trek’s aesthetic was that, of course, everyone had gone there before, and often itself—we just hadn’t done it on purpose. The show took everything we were doing but jumbled up all our hierarchical rules about how to do it, and made it mean something. It elevated pastiche into a political statement about our collective future.

Roddenberry did not originally intend the show to be utopian or optimistic about mankind’s future. But by combining different parts of ourselves into a new organic whole, classic Star Trek danced in the fragile space between what we thought might be possible and what was. It was progressive because it constructed situations whose dramatic resolution required pushing characters outside of themselves and into somewhere unprecedented. The famous Kobayashi Maru test, a glorified no-win scenario, is the heart of this aesthetic because it marries character development to situational paradox. It’s also why “The City on the Edge of Forever” is justly revered as one of the greatest Star Trek episodes: Kirk falls in love with a woman who embodies all the Federation’s ideals, but who must die to ensure that institution’s very existence. The Guardian’s final words—“Time has resumed its shape. All is as it was before.”—is true for everyone but Kirk, who must now bear the burden of mankind’s history within himself. His response was one of the first instances of outright profanity on television. Stories like this were moving in ways that were hard to define but, once told, were too singular to be forgotten. Star Trek gave us a language for what we found inside ourselves when every previous marker of meaning and mastery was cast aside in the desire to become more than ourselves.

Syntax

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Star Wars, however, was revolutionary not in content but form. There is perhaps no film that more effectively marked the transition between New Hollywood (when directors like Coppola and Scorsese enjoyed greater creative control and studio autonomy) and the modern blockbuster era (when Spielberg and his imitators remade movies as escapist, kinematic, and high concept franchise vehicles). George Lucas even had to fight his own studio representatives to craft A New Hope into something worthy of becoming the ur-blockbuster. He scuffed up the sets to make the Death Star into something more than pristine science fiction; he cast largely unknown actors (Han Solo was reportedly based on his friend, Coppola); he employed state of the art camera technology and montage editing to produce one of the most riveting climaxes in cinema history, whose substance is little more than a glorified World War II dogfight in space. The movie’s sound and visual effects were ahead of their time and remain completely singular. John Williams’ score is the greatest film soundtrack ever made.

We forget now that A New Hope is a genuinely weird and in crucial ways extremely dated film. Han occasionally slips into seventies-laden and racially tinged jargon (“It is for me, sister!”); Leia is little more than a sassy story McGuffin and adopts a posh British accent in some scenes; Luke is a whiny teenager for whom the plot functions as a manifestation of his boyish desire to fly space fighters. But these details are washed away in the face of the story’s sheer gravitational pull and existence prior to (and not, as in Star Trek’s case, beyond) conventional time and space.

Star Wars’ spell is momentarily broken when we see its deleted scenes (Luke’s awkwardly expository long take with Biggs; Han’s stepping on Jabba’s tale). But that spell is real, and stems from the film’s capacity to convey the monomyth structure in purely cinematic form. This was a story we had all encountered countless times and that was buried in our collective unconscious—but we had never seen it told this way before, with all the unique resources of filmmaking at its disposal. Star Trek told new stories out of our shared cultural debris; Star Wars used new tools to rewrite the rules for telling the only story there’s ever been. The former may be trend-setting while the latter is primordial, but they are each manifestations of the plasticity of the mediums they came to dominate.

And to understand the reboots, we need to recognize what happened when each of these storytelling logics confronted the economic logic of the 21st century film market. In the case of each, J.J. Abrams had two tasks. For The Force Awakens, Abrams had to: 1) make the best Star Wars movie possible; 2) utterly erase memory of the prequels by making it appealing for the millennial generation. So his team remade A New Hope, switched the genders around, and made the cast multiracial. The film was exactly as forward-looking as it needed to be to make the most money, and J.J. Abrams was particularly well suited to this task, having made his name with Felicity, a strong female character drama.

But for Star Trek, he was tasked to: 1) demonstrate the viability of the franchise by making it safe for mainstream American film-going audiences; 2) appease the fanboys. Thus he (and his screenwriters) had to boil down the crew of the Enterprise to their lowest common cultural denominators (“hypercharge the characters,” in Plinkett’s phrase) and construct a plot that ensured they arrive at the emotional starting point on display in each episode of The Original Series. The reason a lot of fans experienced cognitive dissonance with this film—even though it’s a very well made and enjoyable product—has nothing to do with it being sex-obsessed or action-heavy. It’s that it made its characters more interested in self-realization than self-discovery. It treated them as props for the kinematics of cinema rather than as propulsion for the situations that made Star Trek great. It tried to make syntax out of a show that was all about semantics.

Pragmatics

darmok_and_jalad

The progressivism of The Force Awakens cannot truly replace the progressivism of Star Trek; its landscape remains individualistic, apolitical, driven by personal conflict. The vision of a society trying to harmoniously get on with itself is a precious and rare commodity. Star Trek fans themselves don’t live up to it; they love to quibble about which television episode or film is the greatest and purest depiction of the series’ ethos. That sometimes cultish impulse is partly responsible for the franchise’s stagnation, but it’s a veritable pastime for a reason: Trekkies know we’re after something real when we do it. Star Trek, unlike Star Wars, is fundamentally about something larger than ourselves, and because at the end of the day I will always be more of a Trekkie, I will make my two cents known: “Darmok,” from TNG’s fifth season.

The premise is simple. The Enterprise makes first contact and offers a non-aggression pact to a new alien species. However, in another brilliant example of Star Trek subverting itself, its universal translators are unable to decode the aliens’ speech, as they communicate entirely through parable and extended metaphor. They abduct Picard and encourage him to work with their captain to defeat a monster in total isolation from both ships as a kind of learning exercise. Picard has to somehow crack the language barrier before the monster kills them and/or First Officer William Riker attacks the other ship out of frustration.

A cynic might see the episode as a highbrow retelling of TOS’s “Arena,” in which Kirk has to reinvent gunpowder to defeat a rubbery green lizard monster. On such a reading, the episode remains impressive (the writer basically invented an entirely fictional language for the characters to speak, it’s tightly plotted, and features fine acting from Patrick Stewart) but forgettable, just another cerebral episode from the highest quality follow-up series to TOS. Reportedly, even the producers were skeptical of the idea throughout its production. But the greatness of “Darmok” lies in its sly subversion of the entire architecture of Star Wars and its naïve trust in the monomyth as the ultimate vehicle for storytelling. Every scene and line of dialogue in the episode demonstrates that the rules and symbols governing a language are meaningless when divorced from their historical reference points, and can only be revitalized through the discovery of new contexts for action and meaning-making. Picard can learn to communicate with the alien only through jagged references to Western mythology and, in the process, deconstructing his own pretension to a universal language.

Two scenes stand out. In the first, Picard retells the story of Gilgamesh as the alien captain loses consciousness, wounded by the monster. He must simplify the epic to accommodate his companion’s attention span and its relevance to the present moment. As he describes the death of Gilgamesh’s friend (“He, who was my companion, through adventure and hardship, is gone forever”), Picard is visibly moved—not by the content of the story, but by its capacity to imbue the linguistic barrier he has experienced on this strange planet with pathos and significance. He realizes the hubris of thinking he was capable of limitless communication, experiences the loss of this possibility and, by retelling the founding story of his own tradition to a total outsider, begins to establish a new canvas for making sense of this realization. He discovers that his own capacity to grow lay at the very cornerstone of Western civilization.

In the final scene, Picard returns to the Enterprise and successfully communicates the death of their captain to the alien ship, shares with them an ancient artifact, and earns their respect. The new captain adds him into their language: “Picard and Dathon at Del-Adrel,” now signifying a situation in which mutual understanding is achieved by complete strangers. Admiral8Q, in the comments section of the video on YouTube, adds an appropriate list of possible sayings:

  • “Yoda, and Luke, at Dagobah. Luke, his faith lost. Yoda, the X-wing rises.”
  • “Veers in the walker, the rebel base, at Hoth.”
  • “Vader, and Luke, at Bespin.”
  • “Ackbar, his ships lost. Lando and Wedge, Ackbar’s ships not lost. Endor, a moon.”

Other episodes and films may have more dramatic moments, better action, higher production values, or zippier storytelling. But “Darmok” is the best and purest expression of Star Trek, not to be surpassed. It utterly conveys the idea that the most interesting and inspiring stories are those whose endings are yet to be written, and whose integrity is derived from the way they are told and the different people who have tried to tell them. It is an aesthetic that classic Star Wars, in its desire to boil down rather than add to our collective mythmaking, could not hope to touch.

Is the same true now? Making a popular brand newly progressive isn’t always more interesting, ennobling, or technically impressive than making a progressive brand cool again. But it’s more rewarding and ultimately more important work, especially if you care about art, you care about the world, and you’re somewhat invested in those impulses not contradicting each other. Disney is now in the completely unexpected position of making the sequel trilogy into the “Darmok” of Star Wars. I hope they pull it off.

What made old school Star Trek (and now new school Star Wars) progressive is the intuition that you can’t raise expectations without first thoroughly subverting them. Symbols are less important than the frameworks in which they operate and the forces that maintain them. Kids post-2009 will remember “playing Kirk and Spock” and shooting phasers at each other. But now they will also remember a no-nonsense heroine who empowers herself and might successfully show up the pretensions of Luke, Han, and Leia to monopolizing the monomyth. This is progressivism on the scale not of disposable entertainment, but of generations.

We have the market to thank for this. Markets matter because they are the material frameworks in which these stories can gel. They can be helpful, but only ever in an ad hoc fashion. For example the new, arbitrarily female Ghostbusters reboot can be considered feminist only if we adopt an utterly narrow and cynical conception of women’s aspirations.

And on a more explicitly political note, progressivism needs an aesthetics to call its own and needs to have a contemporary place in our shared imaginary if it is to be truly viable. It needs to become intuitive and part of our shared dispositions, almost more style than substance. But of course, art should remain autonomous from politics if we want to steer clear of totalitarianism—progressive, but not political. Maybe this is just semantics.

But there is a strand of intellectual elitism on the left that would do well to parse this distinction in more detail. The Frankfurt School’s skepticism of Hollywood, unreflective Eurocentrism, and distrust of markets disposed it towards a belief in the total autonomy of aesthetics from political influence and control, and that mindset has deeply infected the emotional attitude many leftists have with popular art. American progressives of a less pretentious mindset tend to rationalize the violence they feel at the multiplex by reading snobs like the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, who has made a career out of dramatizing this awkward space between ironic consumption and sincere enjoyment. I like reading Anthony Lane after I watch bad movies, for exactly the same reason I like eating popcorn during them. But we need to outgrow this and find a more mature language for the complex relationship between our own political situation and our aesthetic sensibilities. The distinction between form and content, or syntax and semantics, may no longer be strictly useful.

Progressive storytelling should stop being ad hoc, start being deliberative, and become a source of organizational potential. If we want better stories than The Force Awakens, and more Darmoks, we have to figure out new ways of making them—and that always means starting with the rules we have to work with and applying them where they don’t belong.