Hobbes the Science Fiction Writer (Part II)

Hobbes the Science Fiction Writer (Part II)

In Part I, I explored how Hobbes’s myth was a kind of science fiction story designed convince his readers to end the English Civil War by accepting peace under the rule of a single sovereign. (For Hobbes that meant either King or Parliament, but not both.) I also discussed how that myth “requires both the artificial man and the state of nature,” since “one part of the story cannot work without the other.” Now, in the conclusion of this two-part post, I consider how closely the appearance of the Hobbesian myth in Star Trek: Discovery and Black Panther actually fits Hobbes’s own version, and what we can learn from the differences.

SPOILER ALERT!

Star Trek Discovery

The essential tension of the final episode of Discovery’s second season, titled “Will You Take My Hand,” was between the Federation and Michael Burnham. The Federation had come to the conclusion that Klingons were irrational killers who only understood one thing: force. To this end they planned a genocidal attack on the Klingon homeward. Burnham, however, sees hope for the the Klingons as “civilizable.” She thus disobeys her direct orders and turns over control of the bomb (which was set to destroy the Klingon homeward) to L’Rell, a Klingon captive onboard the discovery who fanatically believes in uniting all Klingons under a single leader.

L'Rell from Star Trek Discovery
Pictured: Mary Chieffo as L’Rell. STAR TREK: DISCOVERY Photo: Jan Thijs ©2017 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

Miraculously, this works, and the Federation is saved. Apart from the deus ex machina laziness of this plot twist, I also find the conclusion to the second season problematic for another reason: it replicates contemporary neocon myths used to justify US imperialism. According to such narratives, other parts of the world are not yet ready for democracy and so must be guided by a strong leader, like Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi. But we also find the same contradictions that we found within Hobbes’s own version of the myth.

If you recall from the last post, I wrote that “the idea of a pre-social ‘savage’ falls apart once you accept that these pre-social humans are organized into families.” Similarly, Discovery’s Klingons have a very advanced culture with technology that is in some ways beyond that of the Federation. And yet we are supposed to accept that they are ruled by their passions in the same way that Hobbes’ “savages” are. If the Klingons have families, tribes, technology, religion, etc. why are they unable to be reasoned with except by the threat of genocidal violence?

Black Panther

The backstory of Black Panther’s Wakanda is also straight out of Hobbes. Even though the film shows Wakanda to be filled with strong women characters, it is still a monarchy based on male primogeniture, one that traces its history back to a time when, the five tribes were (like the Klingons in Discovery) in a state of war of all against all—until they were united by the Panther King using the power of vibranium. But all this is in the distant past. When we catch up with Wakanda in the film’s diegetic present, things are not so simple.

Like the Klingons, Wakanda possesses technology which is not yet possible in the outside world, but unlike the Klingon’s this technology is already under the control of a single sovereign—until that sovereignty is challenged. There are two key moments in the film when T’Challa’s ability to retain the thrown is challenged. First by M’baku of the ape-worshiping Jabari tribe—a tribe that rejects the path of scientific and technological progress embraced by the rest of Wakanda. T’Challa defeats M’baku and gains the thrown, but is then challenged by his own cousin, Killmonger, who grew up in America. Unlike M’baku, Killmonger wants to use the power and technology of Wakanda to unleash a revolutionary war on behalf of all the oppressed people on earth.

Both Christopher Lebron and Russell Rickford have written eloquently about the problems with this narrative, the latter saying “Killmonger is a revolutionary. The fact that he is presented as a sociopath is one of the most problematic aspects of the film.” In Coates’ comic the intellectual Changamire serves as a sort of anti-Hobbesian philosopher who says that “The glorious history of the kingdom is . . . just another ‘national lie.’” It would have been interesting if the film had built more on the Coates version of the story, but instead we have a CIA agent intervening to help reimpose monarchy in an African country threatened by revolutionary ideology . . .

But is Black Panther simply presenting another neocon version of sovereignty? The fact that the film, like Discovery, ends in another lazy Hollywood deus ex machina in which M’baku and the Jabari tribe inexplicably comes in to save T’Challa at the end of the film seems to suggest that the film is equally unable to resolve its own contradictions. However, I think such a reading is too simple.

M’baku Saves T’Challa

In their book, On Kings, David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins draw on the ethnographic record to argue that “political struggle over the power of the king generally takes the form of a battle between two principles: divine kingship and sacred kingship.” The former is “the ability to act as if one were a god; to step outside the confines of the human, and return to rain favor, or destruction, with arbitrariness and impunity.” Whereas the latter is “to be set apart, hedged about by customs and taboos” that serve as ways “not only of recognizing the presence of unaccountable divine power, but also, crucially, of confining, controlling, and limiting it.” If we apply this to Black Panther, Killmonger wants to be divine, while M’baku only seeks to replace T’Challa as the sacred ruler of Wakanda and so is compelled to help overthrow a ruler who does not respect the sacred limits of Wakandan tradition.

This becomes clearer if we compare and contrast the two battles for the crown in the film. In the first T’Challa gives M’baku a chance to save his life, in the second Killmonger tries, but fails, to kill T’Challa. Thus we have a contrast between, on the one hand, the traditional represented by M’baku and the Jabari. While anti-technology, they respect the spirit of the traditions and ways of the community. On the other hand, we have Killmonger who uses the tradition only to undermine it. He seeks to undermine and destroy tradition for his own revolutionary goals. The real threat here is thus the desire to use his status as sovereign in order to bring war to the world, not some pre-social state which only exists in Wakanda’s ancient past.

Discussion

In the end I find the use of Hobbes’s myth in both stories problematic, but Star Trek: Discovery much more so. In the depiction of Klingons we really have the worst of Hobbes’s racist pre-social human who is ruled only by their passions and desire for glory. They stand in stark contrast to the Federation whose rationality is seen as problematic, but is still ultimately amenable to change in the face of reasoned dissent. Black Panther is more complicated. The foundation myth of Wakanda is similar to that which ends Star Trek: Discovery’s second season, but it is in the ancient past. The debate over sovereignty which is more central to the film, while not as nuanced as the one offered by Coates in his version of the comic book, is still one that is grounded in a knowledge of real world history and ethnography and so avoids some of the traps fallen into by the writers on Discovery.

P. Kerim Friedman is an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan. His research explores language revitalization efforts among indigenous Taiwanese, looking at the relationship between language ideology, indigeneity, and political economy. An ethnographic filmmaker, he co-produced the Jean Rouch award-winning documentary, ‘Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir!’ about a street theater troupe from one of India’s Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs).

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