The Shipped and the Bereft, or, Seven Backward Glances that won’t turn you to Salt

6 Mar

By Tav Nyong’o

insp_sexual_tension_preview7. It’s S/K, not K/S (yes, it matters)

 As any slash fiction writer, or semiologist, will tell you, order matters. And so the fantasy of a love relation between Spock and Kirk is no more reversible than any other romantic entanglement. Identification always runs to one side or the other of the slash between Spock and Kirk. Outsider that I am, my own identifications have always run to the half-alien, S/K, not K/S. This is a S/K story.
In the image above, Kirk glances  up from his seat of authority and is startled and allured by the nearness of his enigmatic “number one.” As he extends one arm unnecessarily, invitingly far, draping it over the back of his chair in faux insouciance, Spock leans in with both arms around him, as if he is about wrap Kirk up in the folds of his logic. Okay, maybe this is a K/S story too … we will have to see how it goes.

KirkSpockWallSfSI never quite got it, by the way. Slash fiction, that is: the fan genre of narrative that fantasizes catching Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Mister Spock in flagrante delicto. I’ll say it here: William Shatner does nothing for me. And I think I identify too much as a Vulcan to really relish being with a Vulcan like Leonard Nimoy. So despite a queer trekkie, I never “shipped” Kirk and Spock, as the kids now say. At least not until the latest reboot of the franchise — with its casting of queer, doe-eyed Zachary Pinto in the role a knowing wink at its shipping audience — practically begged me to.

6. Slash is neither the love of sameness nor of difference, but of the performative punctuation of the two

A slash is a punctuation mark, not an equal sign. Two bodies in color put the rest of the world in greyscale. They are not the same, not different. Not “men.” The military hierarchy, the ship of state, the errand into the astral wilderness, these masculine concerns are as nothing compared to a friendly look of concern across the species divide on the harsh passage through life. Two actors given genre roles on television in the Sixties invented one of the twentieth centuries great cinematic love affairs, conducted through the subtle innuendo they developed in a command performance that, by the time the franchise was reinvented for the millennial generation, had to be incorporated into the making and marketing of the film, a knowing if anxious calculation that covert queer tension could outlive the closet.
 roflbot-kirkspockxishipFor more on the queer performativity of punctuation, see here. The principle that a slash is a punctuation mark, not an equal sign applies, by the way, to the delight slash fantasy takes in reconjugating the relationship between actor and role. Long before Hollywood wrapped it’s head around openly queer actors playing straight, slash writers and artists understood the pleasures to be found in the interstices between what is seen and what is shown, delighting, as proper fans will, in candid shots of the actors on set, or in their leisure time, displaying the kind of foreplay affection that would find, in their fan fictions and images, a more heated description. Depicting not just the characters but the actors in shipped roles becomes a key more fan participation; creepy at times, to be sure, but also silly and playful, an little sharing out of the unshareable (J-L Nancy) in an unequal, unfair, hostile and unforgiving world.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA tumblr_kxxjxje0Fo1qaoozxo1_500One received wisdom holds that slash fiction is actually a genre written by and for straight women, who insist on projecting romantic scenarios where no screenwriter had gone before. Despite being an ardent Trekkie, I have however never really immersed myself in this particular fan archive, so I just, a bit idly, imagine slash to be a kind of feminine ecriture, a queer feminist rewriting of a master text whose blatant violations of the Bechdel test admits no possible response short of a complete transcoding. In this world, Kirk and Spock are not lonely bachelors stranded in space, but loving bedfellows who exchange thoughts and sentiments (the one more thought, the other more sentiment) and give themselves over to langour and play.

Kirk-Spock-Behind-the-Scenes-james-t-kirk-7759433-650-450a2100fbd46106c9f66399fb79bf059a6I suspect, nonetheless, as does the cartoonist below, that any number of straight men also “ship” Kirk/Spock (probably, fewer I am guessing ship Spock/Kirk). I have no novel theory of heteroflexibility to offer to account for this: Freud taught us a century ago that everyone is capable of making a same sex object choice and in fact has already done so in their unconscious. And if shipping is just having a wet dream under erasure, perhaps it is no surprise to find Kirk and Spock still secluding themselves from this generation’s pornographic spotlight. Not closeted, not self-hating, they are simply discreet. Three’s a crowd.

826480_original5. Spock is a Jew

 See #7 above. And “Vulcan logic” could be another term, of course, for “kabbalistic” ritual; according to my web sleuthing,  the other features of Spock’s Jewishness are very apparent. The absence of an openly Jewish character from the ostentatiously multicultural cast of the original Star Trek is a historical chronotope of a moment of American assimilation that is even now passing, one rendered all the more glaring by the casting of two Jewish actors to play the leads: assimilation into whiteness in action. Hiding in plain sight, however, was the Live Long and Prosper gesture of the Vulcan race, invented by the actor Leonard Nimoy based on a sign he had encountered during his orthodox upbringing. Through this gesture, Nimoy held open an allegorical door for all of us for whom the price of assimilation into or accommodation with white supremacy always remained too high. Now everywhere on the web, even in outer space, hands can be seen making the gesture, hashtaged #LLAP.

kirk_Spock_by_Athewvulcan_kiss_by_anubis_admirer-d52fs96

4. Spock is Asian, and a woman

The orientalist overcoding of the Vulcans as some ancient wise race from the East increasingly finds a contemporary sequel in manga depictions of an Asian Spock and blond Kirk. Again, I have no theories beyond the obvious nod to postmodern pastiche and cultural globalization, but I do find it both interesting (and maybe even a bit worrisome) that K/S should be pulled out of taciturn obscurity and made to conform too easily to a legible East/West dualism. On the other hand, when the creativity capacity of queer fabulists the world over fully outstrip the source text, they unsettle a certain white supremacist logic of discovery and conquest, opening outer space to other, decolonial uses.

It is also interesting to see the loving pair grow younger as they age, a fate as inapposite as that of the original Number One in the un-signed 1964 pilot for Star Trek, played by Majel Barrett. Somehow the brainy, intellectual foil to the passionate captain did not scan for studio executives when that foil was female bodied. Although Spock appears in that original pilot, he steps into the Barrett’s role as number one in the series proper, and, thereby, into the romantic sub-plot of aloof feminine reserve played against passionate male impetuousness that she had set up in that unnumbered, unaired episode.

Number-One-star-trek-women-8427144-750-600The original pilot didn’t feature the African American starfleet member Lt. Uhura, but it was a story — deemed “too cerebral” by the network — of human captivity. Captain Pike (Kirk’s predecessor) is trapped by an alien race, the Talosians, who tries to get him to reproduce with another human, captured in an earlier crash, in order to generate a servile class. He is obliged to make love to a trapped woman at the pain of being sent mad by the mind-controlling Talosians, Vina, but his contempt and hatred of being enslaved prove too strong. (This is a classic motif in the white mythology of Anglo-Saxon liberty by the way: slavery may be a condition suited for other, lesser races, but not for us!) While the Talosians snare the two additional women from the starship Enterprise, the Captain won’t deign to mate with them either (female willingness and suitability for both marriage and slavery is, of course, assumed by both the Talosians and the screenwriters of this teleplay). Having survived a raw clash of wills, the Talosians give up and return all three starfleet members to the ship, leaving behind Vina who, it is revealed (spoiler alert) is not young and beautiful, but aged and grotestquely disfigured from her crash. Too late to be rescued by reality, Vina waves a sad goodbye to the Captain before walking off, hand in hand with the illusion of him created for her by the Talosians.

Having turned down three possible Eves in a single pilot episode, Adam is himself replaced by the second pilot (and first aired) episode of the series. Now we have a new, familar captain, James T. Kirk, who will have many lives and loves over the course of the series, but as far as the shipped and bereft are concerned, each such heterosexual plot point will be another illusion masking his singular, imperceptible, Number One love.The plot of rejected pilot, after all, could have been cribbed directly from the argument of William Blake’s poem “The Angel,” from Songs of Experience (1974):

I Dreamt a Dream! what can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen:
Guarded by an Angel mild;
Witless woe, was ne’er beguil’d!

And I wept both night and day
And he wip’d my tears away
And I wept both day and night
And hid from him my hearts delight

So he took his wings and fled:
Then the morn blush’d rosy red:
I dried my tears & armd my fears,
With ten thousand shields and spears.

Soon my Angel came again:
I was arm’d, he came in vain:
For the time of youth was fled
And grey hairs were on my head.

Blake is K/S, by the way, I think. At least in his dreams.

3. Spock isn’t Black, but Star Trek began as a captivity narrative

Which brings us to Uhura/Spock in the series reboot. Somehow the re-inventors of the franchise decided that both Spock and Lt. Uhura had to be sexed up, and given a more dramatic and turbulent inner life. Rivals for the captain’s affection (the actor who created the role of Uhura, Nichelle Nichols, also read for the part of Spock, which was a non-gendered casting), Uhura and Spock find themselves in the update thrown into a tempestous teen romance. Technically a prequel, this new scenario also plays off the idea that the starfleet officers are all younger, more impetuous, confused. (Which was is civilization heading, by the way?)
Taking all this in stride, shippers have decided that Uhura/Spock is real, but only because Spock is still confused about his feelings for another man and because, like many a white gay man before and after him, he is so compelled by what he projects to be the sassy, strong resilience of black women that he is prepared to go along with a relationship, even one with zero sparks, in order to be a little nearer to the source of that glamor. A little callous, a little racist, K/S and S/K shippers alike find it easier to imagine a cross species relationship than an interracial one, at least when one half of that race question is black.

PSSpockUhuraRomantic Are shippers just digging deeper into homonormative pathologies, or are they displaying the restless and recombinant inventiveness of a connective generation, when they attempt to resolve the real contradictions of race, gender, and sexuality by reimagining slash fiction, beyond the erotic dyad, as a kind of super team: S/U/K?

tumblr_mmwdmfScuS1qeqx7ko1_5002. Where life is an illusion, love is only logical.

The enduring appeal of slash, such as I can discern it, is that even the nerdy, awkward, overly rational and reticent can and need love. I doubt this appeal has lost its relevance in our era of alleged nerd ascendancy. Anyway, Spock wasn’t that nerdy, wasn’t that geeky. He was aloof and enigmatic, loyal and logical, cool and conflicted. Now that the actor who created the role has passed on, the actor who succeeded him might be able to perform out from under his long shadow. More likely, however, as Joseph Roach notes of all acts of surrogation, the real replacement for Spock will be found elsewhere than in his official successor.

1. Number your days

Spock cannot be replaced. He is finite, and falls back into the one. An alert shipper notes that the hashtag #LLAP may be too  crypto-Christian in its patterns of memorialization, especially in the image of an afterlife that is implicitly promised. The Vulcan do not offer that sign to the dead. When Spock or Kirk die (as they seem to die repeatedly in the incompossible worlds of Star Trek, where Adam sins and does not sin) the surviving lover refuses to receive a parting benediction in his mourning. Live long and prosper? I shall do neither. Live long and prosper. No.

The shipped and the bereft are thus brought back to the one, which teaches us to number our days, that we might get a head of wisdom.

neitherIn Memoriam: Leonard Simon Nimoy. Mar 26, 1931 – Feb 27, 2015

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