Star Trek into Archaeology: Captain James T. Kirk and Heritage from the Future
Definitely, it was not a good day for Theodor Adorno (2005: 25), otherwise great German philosopher, when he honestly admitted in Minima Moralia: ‘Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse’. What Adorno despised was not only Hollywood movies, but generally, popular culture per se that was part of culture industry. However, it can be said that today there are many interesting things taking place in cinema that can inspire archaeologists. One of them concerns heritage; the subject that is very close to our hearts.
For many decades cultural heritage was seen through the lens of great monuments/buildings from the past (e.g. Stonehenge). Nonetheless, some new trends have been recently observed within the heritage sector. That is to say, more and more ordinary, day-to-day things are recognized as cultural heritage. This is one of the faces of spirit of our time (Zeitgeist): even an ordinary object has its own historical and cultural value (figure 1). By the same token, cultural heritage seems to be everything what we inherit from the past. Popular culture gives conceptual tools to slightly correct this point of view. To put it paradoxically, cultural heritage is also everything what we inherit from the future.
Star Trek is, without any doubt, one of the greatest cultural goods created in the US. It is a series of novels, comic books, TV series and movies, about the crew of the starship Enterprise and its different stories that happen during the exploration of the universe. The Captain of the starship is my beloved hero from childhood: Captain James T. Kirk. And he might be the key to understanding archaeological Zeitgeist, so to speak.
In Riverside, Iowa is a small plaque (figure 2). It commemorates the fact that captain Kirk will be born in this town on March 22, 2228. The plaque is very ambiguous. It does not concern with some true event from the past as it is usually in the case of such monuments. On the contrary, it says about a fictional, future event. The usual logic is turned around here. The plague might embody some trends of crucial significance for today’s archaeology. In other words, instead of focusing on hard data and heritage from the past, archaeologists need to focus also on the role of fiction (popular culture) and heritage from the future for contemporary society.
The Captain Kirk plaque is not the only example that indicates the increasing role of popular culture heritage from the future. Another one that was also extremely popular on the Internet is Rä di Martimo’s pictures took in the desert of Tunisia and Morocco (e.g Gorence 2013). What made the pictures so intriguing is the fact that they present buildings and other facilities from George Lucas’ Star Wars. One is seeing in them ‘real’, ‘material’ buildings from the planet Tatooine. It is as if reality and fiction became one. The point to be made here is very simple: these buildings, although belonging to a different universe (as it is known to every devotee of Star Wars, Taooine is located in Outer Rim Territories), are our common heritage. But this heritage comes from the future….
Archaeology is a social and cultural practice. In accordance with that, to be important for contemporary society, archaeology needs to address topics of general interest. One way of doing it goes, in my opinion, through the links between popular culture and heritage (from the future). The heritage of popular culture is the one that we as archaeologists should more carefully reflect upon. Who knows?: perhaps contemporary archaeologies and the heritage sector should be more about the future than the past (see also Holtorf & Högberg 2013).
 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Future_Birthplace_of_Captain_James_T_Kirk.jpg [accessed October 1, 2013].
Adorno, T. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. by E. F. N. Jephcott. London & New York, Verso.
Gorence, A. 2013. Remnants of abandoned Star Wars Sets in Morocco and Tunisia reminiscent of ancient ruins. Feature shoot, February 1, 2013. Available at: http://www.featureshoot.com/2013/02/remnants-of-abandoned-star-wars-sets-in-morocco-and-tunisia-reminiscent-of-ancient-ruins/ [accessed October 1, 2013].
Holtorf, C. & Högberg, A. 2013. Heritage futures and the future of heritage. In: S. Bergerbrant & S. Sabatini (eds.), Counterpoint: Essays in Archaeology and Heritage Studies in Honour of Professor Kritisian Kristiansen, BAR International Series 2508. Archaeopress: Oxford, pp. 739-46.
As a lifelong science fiction fan, I was fascinated to read Dawid Kobiałka’s thoughts on a sort of “future heritage” pinned to the delightfully anachronistic, extant material culture of Star Trek and Star Wars. I would like to briefly raise one concern and one point of expansion.
Leaving aside the vision of Theodor Adorno sitting in on the latest Star Trek film, the Frankfurt School’s criticism of the culture industry runs deeper than mere dislike. To Adorno and others, the troubling thing about a cultural production like a film was its ability to create a false sense of choice and freedom in the viewer, while reproducing the structural conditions within which that viewer was enmeshed (Horkheimer and Adorno 1982). A material object, of course, has a use-value, while a cultural production has value only in the way it instills prestige and knowledge in its consumer. The culture industry manipulates those created needs, thus appearing to provide what consumers want, while actually training them to want more things that are of less value. Just as “the diner must be satisfied with the menu,” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1982: 139), the viewer must be satisfied with the film. So goes the criticism.
Yet I have trouble accepting that as the end of the discussion. To me, the best science fiction articulates a hopeful vision of human possibility. This is particularly true for Star Trek, with its celebration of unity in diversity and its future history in which we have moved beyond superstition and want and war. To that end, I find the memorialization of Captain Kirk’s future birthplace to be, as Kobiałka notes, quite compelling. I agree that the concept of heritage can, and perhaps should be, extended to a vision of the future, and I suggest that memory offers a way out of the “hard data” bind to which Kobiałka makes reference.
The immateriality of fiction appears to be a hurdle to using a certain vision of the future to organize praxis in the present. But this hurdle is itself illusory: Archaeology is in the business of presencing the absent, “enfranchising it as an object of social discourse” (Buchli and Lucas 2001: 174). Fiction’s locations are by definition absent, but monumental buildings and memorials can concretize that absence, serving as foci for remembrance. Moreover, as Joan W. Scott (2001) makes clear, history (and, I would add, heritage work) constructs its object, it does not discover it. In light of this, there is no particular reason an object or locus inspired by a work of fiction cannot serve as a site of cultural memory (Connerton 1989, 2009).
My concern is with what memories and memorial practices would be foregrounded at such a site. Kobiałka suggests greater attention to the heritage of popular culture. The term itself is too vague to suit me; I tend to lean toward the Frankfurt School’s critique of popular culture and the capitalism-serving consumption that it engenders. Star Trek, though, is different. A monument that serves to recall the values it lauds and suggests concrete practices to achieve them is a small step to making that future less fictional and more possible.
Buchli, Victor, and Gavin Lucas. 2001. “Presencing Absence.” In Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, edited by Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas, 171-174. London: Routledge.
Connerton, Paul. 1989. How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Connerton, Paul. 2009. How Modernity Forgets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. 1982. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum.
Scott, Joan W. 2001. “After History?” In Schools of Thought: Twenty-Five Years of Interpretive Social Science, edited by Joan W. Scott and Debra Keates, 85-103.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.