February 14th, 2008

Parable of the Sower, Transposed To a Less Temperate Clime

From: "Charles L. Bertsch" <cbertsch@uclink.berkeley.edu>
Sender: cbertsch@uclink.berkeley.edu
To: badsubjects@uclink.berkeley.edu
Subject: Authority: a long, but not frivolous post

While coming back from a long, uphill hike in the desert-like heat on Mt.
Diablo (S.F. Bay Area) with my friend yesterday, I shared elements of the
recent debate on this list about _Star Trek: The Next Generation_ and
authority and we had a good conversation about it all.

One interesting thing my friend said was that STTNG is a very soothing,
comforting show to watch, but that there seemed to lurk something menacing
beneath the surface calm. She likened the experience to one she has working
with Yuppies (a favorite target of hers--she means people of the 35-45
year-old range who hold managerial/executive positions in her
service-industry company), who present a very therapeutic, concerned facade
on the level of superficial interpersonal communication, but who often act
in ways that contradict that facade. Her point was that these 'Yuppies'
shared with Picard a tendency to act autocratically in the end, but with a
therapeutic--if not happy--face.

I invoked Joe Sartelle's point about the need for a Utopian model of
"structure without domination", of good leadership. My friend replied that
though she is one of those people who, largely because of bad experiences
with parents and others in power over her, always chafes under authority,
she thinks that there is "something about the species" (the human one) that
demands hierarchy and leadership and that she could see the value of good
role models for leadership, but added that she still had problems with _Star
Trek_ and constructed an argument about what _Star Trek_ leaves out and/or
represses much like Richard Singer's well-thought-out and thought-provoking
negative/demystificatory reading of STTNG.

I had been planning to make a post about my own negative experiences of
people in power over me and others who act as if they aren't because they
shun hierarchical models of domination, so my friend's likening of STTNG's
main cast to Yuppie managers got me thinking. See, at UC-Berkeley there are
a lot of professors in the 30/35-45 year-old range, especially male ones,
who disavow their authority in the graduate-school classroom while still
retaining it in practice. In the service of a post-60's democratic
classroom, they tend not to speak from the position of authority very
often. Instead, they let most of the course be taken up by students oral
reports. The idea, I suppose, is that students will learn more by teaching
each other in a non-hierarchical setting than they would by being lectured
to. Sometimes this turns out to be the case. In my experience, however, what
usually ends up happening is that students become hyper-competitive in their
oral reports in order to impress the prof who really does, as they well
know, still have the power to make or break students with grades,
evaluations, recommendations, and gossip with other professors. Many profs,
on the other hand, seem to feel threatened by their own disavowal of
authority, by the fact that they don't have much time to speak as a teacher
to their students, and thus act out in various ways, usually by suddenly
interrupting the flow of class discussion to give mini-lectures proving that
they are smarter than their students and/or suddenly attacking some point
or comment in order to reestablish their critical authority.

The point I was going to make is that I think it's better to have models of
authority that recognizes itself as such than authority that pretends it's
something else. In other words, if you have authority in practice, it's
better to spend your time trying to do something good with it, something
that will benefit the people beneath you on the 'chain of command' than it
is to waste most of your time disavowing your authority, only to
periodically act out resentment over that disavowal. I was thus going to
choose Picard's type of authority over that of the Boomer profs I mentioned
above.

And I still would. My friend's sense that Picard and other officers on STTNG
were actually more like the post-60s anti-authoritarian authority I mapped
out above than they were different from it got me thinking, however. I'm no
expert on STTNG, but am pretty sure that at least Picard's authority is more
like the authority that knows itself than than the authority that disavows
itself/is blind to itself. Nonetheless, I am also able to understand why my
friend--who works in one of those hexagonal or octagonal (it's so postmodern
yyou can't map it in your head!) buildings with mirrored glass on the
outside that looks an awful lot like a spaceship, both inside and out--felt
that STTNG was somehow like her workplace.

It's because the sort of post-60s workplace reforms that have made
Post-Fordist service and high-tech industries very different from the
classic model of American business have, I think, proceeded from a
conception of the ideal workplace strikingly similar to the one in STTNG.
For example, these reforms have established the legitimacy of feelings/vibes
in the workplace and led to the creation of personnel management
positions, filled mostly by women (Counselor Troi, Dr. Crusher), where the
concerns of therapy--people 'acting out', needing acknowledgement,
etc.--can be discussed as deadly serious workplace issues; they have
apsired to create managerial positions for women, but have often ended up
creating new positions to be filled by women instead of putting women in the
older positions (some of which have been phased out); they have emphasized
an 'outsourcing' of micro-authority in which individual units within a
company are given more authority to make substantive decisions on issues
they know about, while transforming higher-executive positions from the
old-school hands-on/a-hand-in-most-decisions autocracy into a more distant,
less involved marco-authority more concerned with long-term strategy and
'steering' than daily decision-making (Picard could be read in this
light--he's pretty hands-on, but often delegates important everyday
decision-making to his officers); the list goes on.

My friend and I ended up talking about these sorts of workplace-reforms,
arguing over their good and bad sides. The S.F. Bay Area is full of
companies whose corporate headquarters are highly-touted examples of the
post-60's workplace at its best: Levi Strauss, The Gap, Apple Computer etc.
Within the white-collar confines of their headquarters, corporations like
these have implemented all kinds of indisputably progressive
programs--liberal counseling/therapy for employees in crisis, equal pay for
equal work regardless of gender/sexual preference, day-care for employees
with children, benefits for domestic partners regardless of sexual
orientation and marital status.

At the same time, however, the 'progressive' aspect of these corporations
almost always extends only to the white-collar (and largely white or
white-identified) jobs within corporate headquarters or regional offices. As
a recent expose in our Sunday paper's magazine pointed out, the
'progressive' post-60's workplace, with all its extra expenses, of clothing
companies like Esprit, Levi's, and The Gap is made possible by the
exploitation of mostly Asian, often immigrant, mostly female labor in the
San Francisco sweatshops where the clothes are actually made. Similarly,
there have been numerous exposes of the ways in which the Silicon Valley
high-tech industry adopts a double-standard for its employees: the
white-collar programmers and marketing personnel experience a progressive
post-60's workplace, while the people--mostly of color--who assemble circuit
boards in highly toxic environments are badly exploited.

How does all this relate to STTNG? As Richard Singer pointed out, we don't
really see the non-officers under the cast-members command very often,
except as background. I don't think it's fair to assume that they are as
exploited as the non-white-collar employees mentioned above, since we simply
don't know much about them. However, it's certainly worth thinking about
what STTNG doesn't talk about and/or represses in order to think about the
good and bad sides of the post-60's workplace I've been going on about. One
of the points Jonathan Sterne's post (I think it was his) seemed to be
getting at was the way in which Utopian visions need to be thought through
in terms of the practices of exclusion that make them possible (an argument
Fred Jameson makes beautifully in "Of Islands and Trenches" and some of his
articles on sci-fi). There *is* a limitation in STTNG's Utopian vision of
"structure without domination", even if it's one imposed by the financial
and narrative demands that keep regular casts small: it is a Utopian vision
of a managerial--what we would call white-collar--environment (and that
includes Starfleet, whose non-Enterprise representatives tend to be
high-ranking officers or high-ranking officers in training).

Now I agree completely with Joe that the limitations of this Utopian vision
do not render it unusable to us and that, indeed, those limitations *demand*
that we use our critical skills to extract--a la Jameson--the Utopian from
its narrative/structural cage. But I think we also need to bear in mind its
negative side, in order, for example, to understand the sort of blind-spots
that can plague good-intentioned workplace reform in the present.

I'm certain that many, perhaps most, of the people who have worked hard to
make the white-collar portion of companies like The Gap, Levi's, and Apple
Computer progressive were concerned only with their own local struggle.
Indeed, they probably had to have ideological blinders on to focus their
energies on reforming their own workplace. And what they achieved is
certainly a good thing for the people it affects--it has its Utopian side.
But it also represents a further severing of the white-collar managerial
class that benefits from their efforts and the post-blue-collar workers who
often quite literally pay the price for them. To rephrase and expand upon
Walter Benjamin's famous dictum, every post-60's workplace reform represents
the putting-into-practice of an aesthetic Utopian vision that is at one and
the same time a document of barbarism.


Well, I'm tapped out. My overall point is that the Utopian vision that STTNG
presents has similar blindpsots to the sort of Utopian vision that motivated
post-60's workplace reform and that, while I by no means think we should
discard either vision, these blindspots are symptomatic--and here's my
most unashamedly Jamesonian point--of the increasingly illegible nature of
global capital and that it is our duty as analysts of contemporary culture
to try to develop and sustain a critical vision capable of relating Utopian
visions to their blindpots, negative or demystificatory Dystopian visions to
whatever signs of hope, however 'micro', are out there.

Charlie, hoping that you read the whole thing and that you share comments to
extend the debate further.