Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Malcolm and Fabian at Cendana

Today I, along with another YNC professor, Fabian Geier, presented a philosophy café to our students here at Yale-NUS College at the Cendana Residental College. It was Star Trek-themed, beginning with an introduction to the Original Series and its cultural context, shifting to the Next Generation and concluding with a clip from Deep Space Nine.

Given my interests, it will not come as a surprise that I chose parts of the episode "Darmok" to screen and discuss. If you're not familiar with the episode, the core of it is introduced in the first two panels of the Chainsawsuit comic above. There is an alien race, with requisite face-bumps and strange clothing, that speaks in a way the Universal Translator can't quite parse. They say things like "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" and "Shaka, when the walls fell" but seem to think they're communicating something more--and they are frustrated when the Enterprise crew doesn't understand.

And then Captain Picard and their captain (Dathon) are beamed down to a planet's surface to fight a monster and talk about being human and using language. Quickly the crew of the Enterprise orbiting above figures out that "Darmok" and "Jalad" are names, and Tanagra is a place. But they don't know what that expression is supposed to mean, and they engage the Tamarians in a fight while Picard and Dathon are becoming friends on the planet surface below. Of course, it all ends well, and Picard recounts the Epic of Gilgamesh along the way after figuring out that Darmok and Jalad met independently on some island, battled a common foe, and left as friends.

There's a lot of attempts to explain what's going on in the episode. Counselor Troi says that "images" are important to the Tamarians (the bumpy-faced aliens), and Picard says that "Darmok on the ocean" is a metaphor for being alone, and later seems to think of "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" as an analogy or allegory in some sense. At one point, it's suggested that they don't use pronouns like "I" and "you." In the real world, an article at the Atlantic argued that