Tuesday, May 10, 2011

popularity versus integrity

A common theme I noticed in a number of our week 8 discussions involved an interesting dichotomy of exposure versus integrity. For example, Professor Carrington concluded in his presentation on black women in Utopian science fiction that while figures such as Lieutenant Uhura and Cleopatra Jones certainly broke many social barriers, they often failed to address the real, socio-political issues at stake. In addition, the discussion of popular science looked at the balance between pseudoscience driving scientific interest and the integrity (or lack thereof) of the knowledge it advocated. NASA/Trek paralleled these notions, particularly in its depiction of NASA's Teacher in Space program. That is, the popular synergy between America's space program and a popular television series about the final frontier encouraged anyone and everyone to dream of space travel. Suddenly, amazing possibilities opened up for everyday men and women (particularly the latter), and NASA capitalized on the fervor by selecting a schoolteacher to fly aboard the Challenger mission. The disaster that ensued, despite not being the result of having a schoolteacher aboard, ended the program and tarnished the hopes of countless aspiring civilian space travelers. Again, this highlights the fine line between the popular and optimistic outlook people had for space exploration and the dangers of its reality.

Professor Carrington's discussion of feminist afro-futurism, while not as extreme in its outcomes as the tragedy of Christa McAuliffe, raises a number of complex issues with respect to popularity. Most notably, he introduces the term “black superwoman” to describe a black, female protagonist whose merits are exaggerated to the degree that she could not serve as a realistic role model. Carrington argues that such characters only offer stereotypical fantasies that downplay more important issues of race and exploitation. He also notes that exploitation in popular fiction can take the form of including a particular character type on someone else's terms. For example, producers increased screen time for Nichelle Nichols in order to bring “more color on the bridge.” In addition, Nichols despised the line for which she was most well known (“hailing frequencies open”) because it represented the Star Trek writers cutting back her character's role. Despite all the shortcomings of these attempts to break racial barriers, however, the very inclusion of black women in various forms of popular fiction places them at critical social junctures. As Professor Carrington lamented, the problem is not the conceptualization of a deracialized future, but rather the question as to how we can get to such Utopia.

A final instance that illustrates a cost-benefit relationship between popularity and integrity is the phenomenon of popular science. Pseudoscience, as Sagan and Penley call it, is often readily accepted by readers and fans of science fiction as scientific fact. While this certainly drives interest in actual scientific study, it tends to exclude any semblance of the rigor and methodology that underlie true scientific thinking. Consequently, we must ask ourselves if increasued exposure is worth tge sacrifice in integrity, as well as whether or not it is possible for more nuanced concepts of black feminism, space travel, and scientific learning can become popular as well.


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