Kol-Ut-Shan: "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations" -- Vulcan Precept
I've been an sf geek for as long as I can remember. The planet Dune mattered far more to me as a kid than Jeffersonville, Indiana did (or, for your information, Middle Earth), and the identification I felt with Meg in Madeleine L'Engle's books was like a shard of glass in my chest for a decade (would I find my Calvin?), but few things spoke to me more deeply than Spock in ST re-runs Sunday mornings before I had to go to Mass. Later, in high school I read and loved Middlemarch, War and Peace, Leaves of Grass, To Kill a Mockingbird through a kind of weird Wannabe Vulcan lens.
The ongoing elaboration of Vulcan lifeways and philosophy in subsequent ST series and films has been a triumph in popular sf, proving that the gravity well of the lowest common denominator doesn't have to take everything that seems the least bit original, fine, interesting, or good and sentimentalize it and dumb it down over time into the same insipid vulgar falsified crap as everything else according to some inexplicable inextricable law.
I have heard some people declare that the Vulcans were in some sense inspired by the popularity of the Ayn Rand cult of Might and Magical Thinking Mistaken for Reason, but of course Randroidal market fundamentalism and sociopathy is the farthest imaginable thing from Vulcan good sense and generosity of spirit.
Anyway, I always thought Vulcans were seriously sexy, not to mention also model progressives (part of what makes them so sexy of course), and they certainly always seemed compelling both because they were so worthy of emulation and at once so palpably nonidealized.
Part One: The Vulcan Contradiction
LEO: Doesn't the eye of Heaven mean anything to you? GILDA: Only when it winks. --Noel Coward, Design for Living
Charlie Jane Anders posted a marvelous paean to Vulcan lifeways that really spoke to the Vulcan Wannabe I've nurtured in my breast since I was a kid. The article contains links to Vulcan proverbs and philosophy that can swallow an afternoon. Indeed, contemplating the richness of the literary figure of the Vulcan did more than send me down memory lane. I found myself thinking quite a bit about a particular observation in the Anders piece: "Vulcans have something most made-up races can only dream of: a central contradiction that's ultra-compelling. They're overflowing cauldrons of passion, who have mastered their emotions to such a high degree they appear almost robotic."
The first thing I guess I would want to say is that Vulcans have never appeared robotic to me in the least, indeed they have always spoken to me both in the irony of their dry humor and in the earnestness of their aspiration to radical empathy as exemplars of humanity and humaneness. After all, to be human is far more a quandary than a surety. Who could glimpse that raised eyebrow and doubt that Vulcans have both a head and a heart, and that both are in the right place? I can't do the eyebrow thing myself, but if I may be permitted some artistic license I suspect that my own soul is something like the Emersonian eyeball but with one permanently raised Vulcan eyebrow on top.
Einstein famously declared that "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." I always wished that Spock would have been more fond of that chestnut than Sherlock Holmes' "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" (that an error-prone being with a comparatively brief life-span could be counted upon to eliminate the impossible has always seemed to me a manic and narcissistic cocaine fantasy if ever I heard one). In part because Vulcan characters do say such things from time to time, it is easy to misread Vulcan logic as Leonard McCoy mistakenly tends to do, as an engine of endless delusive rationalizations and deranging repressions, but I agree with Anders' eventual point that Vulcan logic is actually directed to the service of an appreciation and facilitation of life and of diversity which suggests that something is afoot in the Vulcan spiritual practice of logic far more compelling than, say, simply the sublimation of anti-social impulses.
I want to propose three ways in which the Vulcan Contradiction is not compelling so much because it is a fascinating alien spectacle as because it connects us to our own. The first two are familiar and rather quotidian but the third will take me from sf's great gift to me in childhood -- my formative fascination with Vulcans -- to sf's great gift to me in adulthood, Octavia Butler.
The first of these that I would point out is that in my view the ethos of democratization and social justice (both definitively Vulcan notions) demand an ongoing renegotiation in the face of changing circumstances and stakeholder demands between the value of equity and the value of diversity: Lose sight of the democratic value of diversity and the pursuit of equity polices conformity, lose sight of the democratic value of equity and the celebration of diversity justifies and facilitates exploitation. Another way of putting the same point: Provide equity and you can be sure that a diversity of human lifeways and personal perfections will follow, just as problems for and challenges to the provision of equity will follow from the play of that diversity in the world. Many quandaries of Vulcan logic depicted in ST derive from (not to mention respond to) this contradiction, or as I would prefer to put it, this paradoxical dynamic at the heart of the democratic ethos, which makes the Vulcan Contradiction our own (or at any rate that of the best among us, or that of the best within us).
The second thing I would point out is that our personal and collective agency (a word that describes our ability to accomplish ends and make sense of events) demand an ongoing renegotiation in the face of failure, that success is tied to failure far more deeply than the will will ever admit of. Language speaks us quite as profoundly as we speak it, and certainly we did not individually choose to speak the language through which we become individuals who value choosing as we do. "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans," wrote John Lennon. We do not choose the circumstances that impinge upon our lives and force the decisions out of which our private perfections emerge: it is not so much that we are obligated by the cry of the drowning man to save his life as that we had no part in putting the drowning man in our path just as we have no power to elude becoming in response to his cry the person who saved him or the person who did not, with all that this decision entails for the one who made it. It is precisely because we respond to the world that we are responsible beings, not because we are signatories to a social contract that establishes terms in the abstract in which we will deal with the world.
We do not will that we will be willful, we do not choose the time or the circumstances in which we will choose and so become ourselves, the authors do not own the final meaning of the texts we release into the hearing of the world, the texts we incarnate as selves least of all, the autonomous are not independent from those among whom we rightly assert
If Vulcan logic were a facile repression of passion it would not drive its initiates to exploration of the cosmos, nor would it express itself as it does in elaborate rituals of meditation, if Vulcan logic were reductive and instrumental it would not aspire to apprehend "infinite diversity in infinite combinations," if Vulcan logic were lifeless and computational it would not wish others to "live long and prosper," if Vulcan logic rendered its practitioners robotic it would not leave them so regularly "fascinated" "intrigued" and raised-eyebrow bemused. Here, as before (the paradoxes of the Democratic Ethos I mentioned before actually seem to me to derive from these paradoxes of rationality), the Vulcan Contradiction -- or better, the Vulcan negotiation of the constitutive paradoxes of rationality -- provides less an alien spectacle than a glimpse into our own profoundest predicaments and inquiries.
Part Two: The Human Contradiction
Still I sent up my prayer, wondering where it had to go, with heaven full of astronauts and the Lord on death row.--Joni Mitchell, "Same Situation"
In the Star Trek mythos there are few encounters more profound than the first contact between humans and Vulcans, an encounter out of which the multicultural social democratic United Federation of Planets eventually emerged. Contact stories also recur throughout the works of the late Octavia Butler, my favorite science fiction author, most notably in her masterpiece the Xenogenesis Trilogy or Lilith's Brood.
In Xenogenesis the human protagonist Lilith ambivalently collaborates with an immensely powerful alien species that "saves" the human race from the aftermath of nuclear annihilation only to midwife the transformation of humanity into a species that is no longer legibly human but a blending of humanity with the aliens themselves. The spacefaring Oankali are driven to share genes with aliens in this way, a sharing in which both parties are radically transformed. They suggest that to refrain from such sharing is as impossible for them as it would be for a human to perish by holding their breath, an irresistible compulsion that presumably gets them off the hook when we realize that most human beings are far from happy with the sharing the Oankali impose on them and which they view as an effacement of humanity as conclusive as the one humans nearly managed themselves with their reckless exploitation of the environment and violent exploitation and warmaking on one another.
In part what justifies the Oankali's imposition of this transformation on humanity (which they call "trade" despite the fact that it is a trade under circumstances of extreme duress and unequal information -- come to think of it, this is true of most things that get described as trade now isn't it?) is that they see the nuclear suicide of humanity as the necessary and not accidental consequence of what they describe "The Human Contradiction," a basic flaw in human nature, a kind of genetic "original sin" that doesn't so much inescapably memorialize the Fall as inevitably presage the Apocalypse. The inevitably suicidal Human Contradiction is that we are a species at once both intelligent and hierarchical. The applications of our intelligence inevitably express our hierarchical evolutionary legacies rather than successfully providing for their overcoming (the substance of every Ethical project), and eventually intelligence placed in the service of hierarchy destroys the world.
One sometimes gets the impression that the Vulcan logical-pacifist philosophy arose in the "Time of Awakening" through the genius of Surak, struggling to rise above the misery and violence inhering generically in Vulcans' hitherto unmasterable passions, in which case he seems to be a figure meant to condense into a single Vulcan guru the long earthly development of human philosophies of nonviolence and forgiveness by the likes of the Buddha, Jesus, Thoreau, Addams, Einstein, Gandhi, Day, Muste, King, Arendt, Fromm, Merton, Sharpe and others. But the more specific account one finds at Memory Alpha tells a story of the Vulcan overcoming of their Contradiction that connects more closely with Butler's delineation of the Human Contradiction:
As their level of technology improved, the Vulcans eventually reached a point where their violent nature threatened species extinction. (ENT: "Awakening") In an effort to avoid this fate, a Vulcan named Surak developed a new philosophy thereby igniting the Time of Awakening."Awakening," then, arose directly as a response to the amplification of destructiveness arising out of technoscientific change. Star Trek's variation on this theme (and of course it is one with many variations in science fiction) is considerably more optimistic than Octavia Butler's: In Xenogenesis humanity needs the deus ex machina of alien invasion to remove the suicidal compulsion inhering in hierarchy amplified by intelligence. This becomes all the more clear if, as I do, one reads the Parable series Butler wrote after Xenogenesis as an effort precisely to afford a vision of an overcoming of the same Human Contradiction, but without a miraculous redemptive alien intervention. In Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents we are offered an account of the early life of Lauren Olamina, a kind of human Surak, the founder of a religious order called "Earthseed" that seeks to inspire the human race into a collective project to facilitate a vast diaspora into outer space as a way of diverting their intelligence from the destructive and self-destructive hierarchical mastery of one another into a constructive collective mastery of the rigors of space.
I find it enormously striking that the effort to tell the story of the first Earthseed colony in space, a novel Butler referred to in interviews as Parable of the Trickster was never written and in fact so stymied her that it essentially silenced her pen for most of the decade before her tragic death silenced her altogether. I say that this is striking, because it would be in this third novel that Butler likely provided some sense of the ways in which the hardships of space exploration provided the cultural and emotional resources out of which humans might overcome their Contradiction without recourse to miraculous intervention. That she couldn't manage this feat is all the more striking when we consider that the Xenogenesis books provide no account of the human colony on Mars created by humans who claimed they could overcome their hierarchical destructiveness through their collective efforts to render Mars habitable, a prelude to the hope fueling the Earthseed faith. It is also interesting that one of Butler's very last stories, "The Book of Martha" returns to the trope of divine intervention (with a uniquely Butlerian twist) to overcome The Human Contradiction. While not literally divine in the way "Martha" proposes to overcome the impasse of human self-destructiveness, it is intriguing to note how often alien encounters stand in for the divine in Butler's stories to do this work as they did on the grandest scale in Xenogenesis (the demanding topiary collectives of "Amnesty" in the human wasteland of neoliberal globalization, the under-fertile insectoid race struggling not to reduce humans merely to hosts in "Bloodchild" -- a story of mutuality in hierarchy that Butler insisted was too often misread as a raced-slavery allegory when it was instead a gendered-pregnancy allegory -- the disease, like the Clayark disease rendering humans aliens to themselves, that at once amplifies while reducing intelligence but also mutates humans into comfortable accommodation to their hierarchical nature in "The Evening, the Morning, and the Night," among others).
At the risk of getting too deep in my own Butler fandom here, I want to point out that these themes are also conspicuous in her earliest books of the Patternist series, in which the human species cleaves in three, one as hosts for an extraterrestrial disease organism that mutates them into alien morphology and intelligence, the second a super powerful race of telepaths brought into order -- and once again rendered comfortable in their hierarchy via a psychic "pattern" -- and the third conventional humans who have eluded infection by the alien disease and also enslavement by the telepaths who call them "mutes." Butler's hardest to find novel Survivor tells, yet again, the story of conventional humans seeking to elude by colonizing space the pathologies of violent hierarchy and amplified intelligence represented by the diseased and telepathic post-humans. This novel is the only work of Butler's that she disowned and refused to allow to be reprinted. It is interesting to note that the hope to overcome human tragedy through the collective struggle of making an alien planet habitable -- a precursor to the Mars colony about which she says so little in Xenogenesis as well as to the abortive effort to write Parable of the Trickster which paralyzed her for years -- is a hope that fails utterly in the book Survivor. It is also rather interesting, considering all the foregoing, that Butler often explained her dissatisfaction with the disowned book by dismissing it as her "Star Trek book."
For me the third way in which the Vulcan Contradiction is at once enormously compelling but far from alien, then, is that it proposes a practice of life-affirming peace-affirming diversity-affirming logic that would actually overcome the Human Contradiction Octavia Butler diagnosed so clearly in a species, our own, whose intelligence is too easily diverted by its hierarchical impulses into violence and self-destruction -- and overcome without recourse to the divine, the miraculous, the alien. While I find the many chapters and variants in Butler's life-long delineation of the human dilemma of hierarchy and intelligence in an epoch of amplified technoscientific capacitation absolutely compelling, I find compelling in a way she never seemed to manage herself the hopeless human hope of the "Star Trek" overcoming offered by the example of the Vulcan raised eyebrow.