Friday, February 12, 2010

Better Things for Better Living or Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky

Answers to my question, "Why do the Enterprise and the Guggenheim look like each other?" are starting to come into focus.

As often happens, once the answers appear, they begin to seem blindingly obvious, and I start to wonder why I should bother to mention them.
But I know this seeming obviousness of answers is a trick of consciousness and must be resisted.
So here's something that's coming together for me:

The clean-lined design of the Enterprise and the Guggenheim both reflect a mid-century design preference for logos (reason and clarity) over eros (passion and messiness).
Further, this kind of design tends to view machines and technology as friendly and helpful--something humans can stay on top of--rather than inherently threatening--something that will destroy or control humanity.

LEFT: "So light they almost fly!" Puffin Biscuits, 1956
From Plan 59: Vintage Ads

I. "Better Things for Better Living . . . Through Chemistry"

It's hard, now, to hear the chemical company DuPont's "better living" slogan the way it was intended: irony-free, with no Orwellian overtones.

DuPont wanted to sell the idea that its science was our salvation;
but in fact, its slogan was part of the company's public relations campaign to turn its image around, because
"by the mid-1930s, public opinion of DuPont had soured due to Depression-era anxiety, anti-big-business sentiment, and congressional hearings into World War I profiteering that tarred DuPont as merchants of death.”

It worked too, and "helped DuPont more effectively manage its World War II activities, including sensitive work on the atomic bomb."
[History from DuPont's site.]

This view of technology generally held through the post-war prosperity and pro-big-business sentiment of 1950s USA.

This ad (below)* from 1955--the same era as the space biscuits above, is meant to be a friendly image:
ABOVE: "The Voice of the Atom", Union Carbide, 1955

My imagination chokes and sputters trying to see this as less than terrifying, made as it was ten years after the atomic bombing of Japan. Then I remember 1955 is the height of the Cold War, and we are afraid.

Scary things are comforting when you think you're the one who controls them, even if that's an illusion.

Of course, not everybody ever subscribed to this "better living" model--and the 50s are full of warnings about the dangers of technology.
And in the 1960s, it all began to break apart.
1962's Silent Spring again turned public opinion against chemical industries--and Dow's manufacture of napalm between 1965 and 1969 increased that.

Nonetheless, Star Trek design is firmly in the camp that believes Technology Will Save Us:

I've been slow to see why people say Star Trek is "optimistic," since I myself don't thrill to the WASP-normative social model it envisions.
(As always, I'm only talking about TOS--the original series, 1966–1969.)

The show's optimism is in its view of technology:
Star Trek posits that in the future technology will not have enslaved or destroyed humanity. Rather, high-tech represents our rational side, which will ultimately triumph over our irrational, emotional impulses.

Einstein supposedly said, "The world we've made, as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far, creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking." [italics mine]
[Or, more reliably: "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking."]

Star Trek suggests that in the future, we humans will somehow have changed our mode of thinking, so we can solve the problems of technology and harness its powers only for peaceful ends.
(If you look closely at Star Trek, there are lots of things that undercut that philosophy. Still, it is its dominant theoretical framework.)
Talk about optimistic...

Related technology, different ends:

LEFT: USS Enterprise blueprint, from the Star Trek LCARS Blueprints Database

RIGHT: Hydrogen Fusion Bomb Design, first tested in 1952. **

II. Logos vs. Eros

The starship and the museum both come out of a mid-century machine-friendly modernist way of thinking--
--the view that rational, nonemotional, sciency design ("logos") for living is superior to irrational, emotional, animalistic/ organic, chaos ("eros").

Star Trek design--and moderinst architecture-- is stripped-down, clean, and uniform.
Technology was going to save us,
and it wasn't going to have anarchistic frippery hanging off it like Jimi Hendrix. ("Excuse me while I kiss the sky.")

[I don't know where Frank Lloyd Wright stood on this matter. He wrote a lot, so I'm sure I can find out, and will. But at any rate, his architecture has those same clean lines.]

RIGHT: Timothy Leary, a different kind of spaceman, from the Woolamaloo Gazette.

Cathy pointed out to me [thank you, Cat!], for instance, how different this "clean" design is from the psychedelic design (and drugs) of the post-modern Sixties.
Which is why I remember the show in its time being pretty square--nerdy in a non-hip way.

III. The Evolution of Starships

The new Star Trek (2009) stays with the old vision: the interior of the new ship looks like a mix of Apple and Ikea stores and a surgical theater.

Compare it, however, with some of the post-modern imagined spaceships of the 21st century:

bink pointed out to me [thank-you bink!], for instance, that Dr Who's TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space) has gone from having a science-lab-like interior--

LEFT: The Tardis's original control room with console, from 1963;

--to being practically a steampunk mess inside, held together, sometimes literally, with twine.

RIGHT: The new Tardis's control room/console, 2006(?), looks like the inside of a flower or the intestines of an animal.

(Nice to know some things never change: the TARDIS is still a plain old police box on the outside.)

And Serenity, the ship in Joss Whedon's Firefly (2002), is rescued from a junkyard, a pile of parts constantly threatening to fly to pieces.

The almost last lines of Serenity, the Firefly movie, make it perfectly clear that in Whedon's universe, eros trumps logos:

Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: "But it [flying the starship] ain't all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flyin' is? Well I suppose you do, since you already know what I'm about to say."

River Tam: "I do. But I like to hear you say it."

Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: "Love. You can know all the math in the 'Verse, but take a boat in the air you don't love, she'll shake you off just as sure as the turning of worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells ya she's hurtin' 'fore she keens. Makes her home."

The movie's very last line, however, rather undercuts this romantic notion.
The last thing we hear is the captain saying, "What was that?" as a part of the ship tears off and comes flying at the camera.

We live in a broken-up post-modern world, with a zillion high-tech machines.
How do we navigate our way through it?
* Union Carbide ad from Plan 59: THE MUSEUM OF MID-CENTURY ILLUSTRATION, found at Tangerines in a Red Net Bag, whose banner includes this quote from David Mamet:
"In a world we find terrifying, we ratify that which doesn’t threaten us”.

** The hydrogen bomb blueprint on the site Time Travel Research Center comes with a note:
"It is really really hard to make the almost pure plutonium or highly enriched uranium pits for these bombs."
Just so you know not to waste your time making your own.

"The Hydrogen Bomb," from the Encarta Encyclopedia:

"The Hydrogen Bomb or H-bomb, weapon deriving a large portion of its energy from the nuclear fusion of hydrogen isotopes. In an atomic bomb, uranium or plutonium is split into lighter elements that together weigh less than the original atoms, the remainder of the mass appearing as energy.
Unlike this fission bomb, the hydrogen bomb functions by the fusion, or joining together, of lighter elements into heavier elements. The end product again weighs less than its components, the difference once more appearing as energy.
Because extremely high temperatures are required in order to initiate fusion reactions,
the hydrogen bomb is also known as a thermonuclear bomb.
The first thermonuclear bomb was exploded in 1952 at Enewetak by the United States,
the second in 1953 by Russia (then the USSR)."
Found at's "Weapons of Mass Destruction"

[The never developed cobalt bomb was called a “doomsday device” by physicist Leo Szilard.]


Margaret said...

Brilliant post. So much to think about. Like steak for the brain.

The blueprint comparison is stunning. I'm going to mulling that one over for a long, long time.

The funny thing about Star Trek: it promoted technology as our friend, like you said "something that would save us," but at the same time was always in praise of humans. Look what we've done! Are we something, or what?!

One of Spock's prime functions as a character was to emphasize Kirk's human qualities, (and Kirk happened to be a very human-y human anyway). Coincidentally, Kirk was the hero. In many episodes, the day was saved by Kirk embracing or making use his human characteristics.

Some episodes, ("The Ultimate Computer" comes to mind), are blatantly warning us against technology as something that replaces. Whenever they found a screwed up, cult-like society on another planet, it was ultimately controlled by a computer 9 out of 10 times. And how did Kirk destroy the computer? Not with his phaser. You can't beat technology with more technology. He would provoke it to feel something, at which point it would explode. Humans: 1, Technology: 0.

It was optimistic because we held the reigns. But I think there's been a shift sometime since.

bink said...

Great post! And Margaret makes a great point too about Kirk vs. computers.

After looking at your Doctor Who pix, I was trying to remember what the Dalek spaceship looked like. Googled it (I'll send you pix) and, sure enough, it's all slick and much more Star Trek.

Interesting how the Dr. Who ultimate bad guys are the ones with the star ship we would have coveted in the past as being the spaceship of the future.

deanna said...

"We live in a broken-up post-modern world, with a zillion high-tech machines.
How do we navigate our way through it?"

That's a statement and question that would grab my interest on a book jacket. Not that I'd want to read someone pretending to know. But an exploration of the subject (with this wonderful stuff you're finding and processing) would be pretty cool.

TOS looked at its "squareness" in the episode with the hippies, I think. There was food for thought for both "generations" but a warning about blind faith, maybe.

Fresca said...

Thanks, peoples, for the fascinating comments--
my brain has told me it's not working anymore today; but I want to write about the stuff you all bring up soon:
Hippies, computers, and daleks, oh my!

femminismo said...

I have to say this is all fascinating. I enjoyed the comments. Made me think almost as much as the original post. But Cold War fear? Aren't we still being told to fear? Now it's mostly the people who are different. Just today, in the Oregonian newspaper, there was another article about people who follow other religions and dress differently. guess what? They're just like us under those robes and scarves! Amazing. Kirk the Hero. All those myths and beliefs he reconciled into a half-hour show. Ah, it's late and I'm babbbling. Can't type either. Good night. Check in tomorrow, I will.

Fresca said...

Thanks for your great comment!

YES! That's exactly my point about Star Trek's optimism:
The original series envisioned the peaceful outcome of the human/technology struggle we are *now* in:
We win!

The vision is that technology serves humanity, it has not [will not] destroy or dehumanize us between now and the 23rd century.

I think it's smart that TOS does hint at some big catastrophe (like World War III--the Eugenics Wars) that occurs between the 20th cent. & the 23rd.

(And this war is made explicit in "ST 8: First Contact", but that's not until 1996--thirty years after the first ST show.)

I don't see much of that specific kind of optimism--that our technology/logos/reason will save us-- in popular culture in the late '60s,
or now...

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), for instance, is a post-modern mishmash.
Its design has none of those bright, straight lines of TOS, and humanity exists in a much darker space, socially and physically.

And yes, right:
Star Trek is very humanistic.

But I'd say it was *our* boy Bill with his irrepressible eros (ham sandwich-ness) who saved Roddenberry's logos (molded plastic)-centered vision from being unbearably dry.

(Logos/eros is like yin/yang --
the rational "male" side is cool and dry;
the feeling "female" side is warm and juicy.
We all know which Bill is.)

I gather Roddenberry far preferred
Stewart's "I shall restrain myself" Picard
to Shatner's "give me more pudding" Kirk.

And of course the Kirk/Spock pair is all about opposites, which is why it sizzles:
when the cool and dry hits the hot and moist, you get Big Weather!

BINK: THanks for the pix, which I will post soon.
Great point:
you can tell whether a show favors logos or eros in the driver's seat by looking at the design not just of the good-guy's ship (hat, or whatever) but at the bad-guy's.
Clean, bright design = logos
Cluttered, warm design = eros.
These shift in different times and places, and are not always so clearly divided, but they sure are in the original Star Trek!

DEANNA: I want to write about "Way to Eden" specifically because, you're right, it very self-consciously takes on the 1960s culture, and shows it to be the sweet dreams of children in thrall to a mad man.
Star Trek over and over again comes down on the side of a rational order over chaos: dreams and passion are importnat, yes, but they must be subordinate to reason, or we get prejudice, violence, and--gasp-- laziness.

FEMMSMO: Yes, fear is a big factor of design--social, personal, and physical design.
The fear and the reaction to fear are surely a constant in human history--the specifics shift (lions? Soviets? Coca-Cola?); but the basics are the same.

I'm finding it fascinating to look at the design of Star Trek to see how it reflects the fears and hopes of its era, which was the era of my childhood.

Thanks, all, for weighing in!
I'll have more to say in future posts...

Margaret said...

'Shatner's "give me more pudding" Kirk'

I laughed so hard at that! Still laughing, in fact. Oh, goodness.

*Must resist urge to break into all caps*

Anonymous said...

Thanks Fresca,
You had me worried there for a sec, as i almost never post here in the comments section, as I almost never go back to a comment once made.

I know what you mean about the total silence, and I've grown a thicker skin over time.

I cant expect everyone to "get" me, nor would I want to. Imagine being so watered down and commercial that everyone thought you were fab?


One of my fave blogs does not allow comments, but she lurks, and you feel her presence occasionally.

cheers for responding...

ArtSparker said...

"Weapons of Mass Destruction" = the BOOGEYMAN! Interesting what the powers that be can conjure with language, that there is a scary thing out there, but by using THE WORDS, or an acronym of THE WORDS, we have exerted control over it.