Wednesday, October 24, 2012

More thoughts on privilege: a reading of John Scalzi's Redshirts

       I found myself returning to the question of privilege as I read John Scalzi's Redshirts over the past few days.  Scalzi's novel can be largely understood as a satire on the tropes and conventions of Star Trek, and the many shows that it influenced.  The novel begins with the growing recognition on the part of a number of junior officers on a number of away missions, and follows their efforts to understand the reasons for that phenomenon.  The novel is clearly premised on the well recognized trope in the show in which a junior, red-shirted officer will inevitably die on the away missions, in order to create tension and drama in the show without sacrificing any major members of the crew.  Scalzi's narrative moves on from this premise to begin to explore a number of ideas, notably around intertextuality and the function and role of the author.  Without dismissing the larger telos of the narrative, I want to read the novel as a remarkably sensitive engagement with the role of privilege in the interactions of the crew of the ship, and the ways that it isolates individuals through a combination of fear and consent, to use Machiavelli's classic categories of governance.  Scalzi both invites a significant critical rereading of the Star Trek franchise, and allows for a further exploration of the ways that privilege naturalizes and perpetuates structures of domination and exploitation.

      Early in the narrative, the text establishes the privileges of rank through the ability or inability to speak, as we can see in this early interaction between the protagonist, Dahl, and the Chief Science Officer, Q'eeng, in  a brief interaction about foreign languages.

      "I understand you spent several years on Forshan, and that you speak the language," Q'eeng said. "All four dialects."
      "Yes, sir," Dahl said.
      "I studied it briefly at the academy," Q'eeng said, and then cleared his throat.  "Aaachka, faaachklalhach ghalall chkalalal."
     Dahl kept his face very still. Q'eeng had just attempted in the third dialect the traditional rightward schism greeting of "I offer you the bread of life," but his phrasing and accent had transmuted the statement into "Let us violate cakes together."  Leaving aside the fact it would be highly unusual for a member of the rightward schism to voluntarily speak the third dialect, it being the native dialect of the  founder of the leftward schism and therefore traditionally eschewed, mutual cake violation was not an accepted practice anywhere on Forshan.
     "Asschkla faaachklalhalu faadalalu chkalalal," Dahl said, returning the correct traditional response of "I break the bread of life with you" in the third dialect."
     "Did I say that correctly?" Q'eeng asked.
     "Your accent is very unusual, sir," Dahl said.
     "Indeed," Q'eeng said, "Then perhaps I will leave any necessary Forshan speaking to you."
     "Yes, sir," Dahl said.

      Within this brief interaction, the formal structure of rank also translates into an informal series of privileges of speech, of who can correct an error, of who can act without sufficient expertise, etc.  Rank not only allows for formal decision making, but it also gives those who have it the ability to claim a whole series of skills and abilities that they clearly don't have.  Subordinates have to pretend that the types of incompetence occurring in front of their eyes, simply didn't occur.  The interaction depends on an incredible degree of self-consciousness on the part of Dahl, while Q'eeng remains oblivious.  The social labor of the entire conversation is thereby put onto one party, rather than the other.  In many ways, the micro-structures of power exemplified by privilege is tied into these inequalities in affective labor.  It also invites a certain rereading of the the hobbies and casual interests of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Instead of figures such as Picard and others being extraordinarily versatile and skilled figures, the crew of the ship simply could not comment on their immense incompetence.

      However, the politics of privilege doesn't stop at the relationships between the senior officers and the subalterns, it also ties into the relationships of the subaltern structures of the staff itself.  The text carefully maps out how the crew itself interacts collectively.  The older members of the crew have begun to recognize the mysterious deaths happening on the ship, but attempt to keep that information to themselves, in order to sacrifice new crew members so that the older crew will not be put at risk.  In effect, rather than challenging the structure that unnecessarily kills so many crew members, they take advantage of their relative status within that system to preserve themselves, which also, in effect, preserves the system.  Moreover, they are willing to take actions that will lead to crew deaths to reinforce that system, and respond with anger when those perceived systems of privilege are broken by the protagonist.  These actions also preserve the larger structure of the ship, a structure that puts all of the subaltern staff of the ship at risk, it acts as an implicit form of consent for those structures, an act of voluntary preservation.  The micro-structures of privilege divide the interests of the crew, constructing small factions who implicitly accept the rules of the game. 

      The text moves away from this exploration of the life of the ship to a set of an exploration of the author function, but it's worth lingering on this early section of the text, which offers such a useful analysis of the functioning of privilege, at a multiplicity of levels.  Probably most significantly, Scalzi creates a narrative that both recognizes the ways that these informal and formal structures of privilege help to reproduce structures of domination and exploitation that may not have their origins in any of the parties involved.  After all, neither the crew nor the officers ultimately created the narrative shifts that affect the crew, but they all acted to preserve that system, despite that fact. I'll leave it there.

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