Second Skin, white masks: Postcolonial reparation in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Melanie Klein’s theory of psychic reparation has been rightly criticized for colonial assumptions about which objects and populations are deemed worthy of political reparation. Yet this article cautions against dismissing Klein’s account of reparation altogether, and advocates reading Klein against herself. Illustrating this argument, I offer an against-the-grain reading of the psychic dynamics of postcolonial conflict in another text widely criticized for its colonial assumptions: Star Trek. I focus on the anticolonial revolutionary character Kira Nerys in spinoff Deep Space Nine, who never forgives her colonial oppressors, but does integrate love and hate in the context of radical anticolonial coalition-building.
KeywordsMelanie Klein postcolonial race reparation coalition
In his important essay “Colonial object relations,” Eng (2016) traces the nefarious genealogies of Melanie Klein’s theory of reparation within racial hierarchy and colonial biopolitics. His argument builds on Judith Butler (2009), who critiques Klein’s rendition of reparation in early childhood development for the primacy it places on survival over morality. The Kleinian child, in Butler’s reading, realizes its vulnerability and dependency, but seemingly only makes repair to the object it needs in order to survive. Klein’s account (1946/1975) of the integration and synthesis of a love object’s good and bad fragments, Eng points out, is only available to objects that are deemed worthy of repair in the first place. Moreover, after a child’s initial experience of repairing a relationship to a maternal object, she suggests that children go on to displace and separate love, meaning Kleinian patterns of aggression, guilt, repair, and love are always a partial and selective process, including only some love objects within their folds. In this regard, love for an integrated and synthesized mother becomes a template for love at other scales, including that of a national motherland. Klein’s (1937/1964) use of colonial and racial metaphor, Eng argues, is particularly telling, as in her example of European colonizers making reparation for genocide through repopulation – repopulation not with Indigenous peoples, but with their European countrymen. While Klein seems ambivalent about the colonial project, leaving open the question of whether Europe could or should have made reparation to Indigenous peoples, Eng (2016) contends that Klein’s failure to work through that ambivalence results in “the production of a (bad-faith) liberal white guilt” (p. 14).
While Eng’s critique of Klein is persuasive, it also raises questions about the tension between the exposure of a theory’s complicit genealogies and the possibility of repetition with a difference. If Klein’s thinking was constitutively Eurocentric and sustained unmarked investments in colonial horizons on the (in)human, does this baggage evacuate her idioms (integration, the relation between guilt and repair, paranoid and depressive positions) of potential salience for making sense of colonial and postcolonial affective and political predicaments? To paraphrase Haraway (1990), is the “mother” (Mrs. Klein) inessential, or are the limits on her thinking so constitutive as to necessitate throwing the “bad” object out with its bad fragments? Can scholars whose interests or politics depart from Klein’s continue to follow Butler (2009), reading Klein in ways that are “decidedly un-Kleinian” (p. 44)? Eng’s own scholarship (2010) puts both Klein and Winnicott to good use in making sense of the fraught affective dynamics of transnational and interracial adoption (see also Diaz, 2006). In that work, Eng asks what it would mean to make psychic space capacious enough to accommodate two good enough, racialized mothers. His newer writing, however, asks after alternative genealogies of repair and reparation, particularly in east Asian and diasporic responses to genocidal violence, departing from Klein’s limited topographies of liberal white guilt.
This paper’s archive remains in the domain of liberal white guilt, considering what it would mean to read both a psychoanalytic theorist and a hegemonic cultural text against themselves. Building on Eng, I argue that while Klein’s (1937/1964) account of colonial reparation proves decidedly problematic, many of her key concepts – particularly the concept of integration as a synthesis of fragments of an object that one has psychically bifurcated into good and bad parts – remain recuperable and valuable in the affective dynamics and politics of postcoloniality. I support this argument with a perhaps incongruous but purposive object choice: Star Trek. I have chosen this pairing of thinker and object for two reasons. First, as Eng (2016) argues is true of Klein’s account of reparation, Star Trek’s roots lie in profoundly Eurocentric civilizational imaginaries (Bernardi, 1998) about which populations are worth saving or sympathizing with, and which are disposable in both internal object-world and external reality. Second, however, just as some of Klein’s core concepts remain open to reformulation and contrapuntal reading (Said, 1993), so, too, do key narratives, characters, and especially affective processes in Trek.
I argue that reading Star Trek against itself – in particular the franchise’s third iteration, Deep Space Nine or DS9 (Berman, 1993–1999) – resonates with contemporary critical approaches to Klein, which retain key features of reparation while troubling her account of conscience and displaced love (see Butler, 2009; Eng, 2010). If Klein’s account of morality, as well as the horizons on her own moral geographies, prove inadequate, I argue that returning to her somewhat grim, synthetic approach to affective reparation can nevertheless productively inform both debates on reparative reading practices (Sedgwick, 2003; Berlant and Edelman, 2013) and the pursuit of more capacious forms of coalitional politics. My argument focuses on the character of Kira Nerys, a former anticolonial revolutionary who never relinquishes her anticolonial politics, but continues to evaluate, in a depressive modality, whether the psychic strategies of resistance continue to serve her political values. After providing context on DS9 and highlighting the conceptual tools that psychoanalytic and affect theories provide, I perform a close reading of Kira’s affective and political life. I argue that it is Kira’s rather Kleinian capacity to maintain a tensile relationship between love and aggression that both sustains her anticolonial politics, and forces her to revisit resistant and paranoid psychic strategies that may have outlived their usefulness. I conclude by returning to Eng’s critical reading of Klein, asking what it means to read both Star Trek and Klein against their odious Eurocentric genealogies, and what surprises might result.
DS9 as Postcolonial Space
Often referred to as the darkest, most inwardly focused of the series, DS9 stands in contrast to its Trek counterparts, which tend to feature state-of-the art starships, built by and for humans and their allies, which traipse around the galaxy. “Deep Space Nine,” the titular station and the primary lifeworld of the series, is quite literally a colonial ruin, reinhabited with the hope of a difference. Originally named “Terok Nor,” the station was emblematic of the murderous (necro)political economy of the 50-year colonial occupation of the planet Bajor by another species, the Cardassians (Mbembe, 2003). Over five decades of occupation, Cardassian rule resulted in a massive diaspora from Bajor, with those who could not flee consigned to refugee and labor camps. By the time colonization formally ended, the genocidal regime had left at least five million premature deaths in its wake.
At the beginning of the series, franchise protagonists the United Federation of Planets and the newly independent Bajoran provisional government have collaboratively taken over Terok Nor, transforming it from colonial ruin into postcolonial port. But this project of shared governance proves difficult. When the Cardassians depart from Terok Nor with the knowledge that its next occupants will be Bajoran and Federation officers, they leave it scorched by weaponry, technologically sabotaged, and haunted by memories of the routinized atrocities of colonial times. Series writer Michael Piller, who lived in Los Angeles during the 1992 Rodney King riots, said that the conflict – a mass reaction to racist police brutality and impunity that left dozens of deaths, thousands of injuries, and blazing detritus and cars in its wake – was an inspiration for both the design set and the imagined political geography of DS9 (Erdmann and Block, 2000; De Gaia, 2003; Pounds, 2009). So where the inaugural Star Trek series of the 1960s sought to remedy racial conflict with liberal humanist hope – depicting interracial intimacy and harmony in the wake of the 1965 Watts Riots – Deep Space Nine asked what it would mean to imagine a future in which differently situated people weren’t “all just getting along,” in which people were embedded, emplaced, and stuck with the power relations and intimate relationships they have rather than the ones they want. Rather than a “safe space” – a technologically enhanced liberal humanist future without war, poverty, greed, or hate – DS9 presents a galaxy marred by the legacies of colonial violence and their uneven geographies. And, like Klein, DS9 suggests that aggression (and, by extension, political conflict) may never be eradicated, even in the most generous or technologically sophisticated of futures.
The context of protracted occupation and decolonization proves crucial to understanding Kira Nerys, the station’s first officer and the show’s primary interlocutor for working through the losses and afterlives of colonialism. A child of the occupation, Kira joins a resistance cell in her home province, exploiting her knowledge of local topography to confuse, outrun, and kill Cardassian troops. Kira is 26 when Cardassia ultimately succumbs to the resistance, leaving her planet in shambles, nearly drained of agricultural and resource capacity, without adequate fuel or infrastructure, and devastated by the loss of five million Bajorans. Both of Kira’s parents are gone, but the changing political conditions on Bajor leave little room for the work of mourning. As a young adult who has known nothing but resistance as a horizon for politics, Kira finds herself abruptly transitioning from anticolonial revolutionary to military officer and agent of the state. She is appointed to the rank of major in the incipient Bajoran militia, and ordered to liaise with Federation as it assists with peacekeeping and reconstruction. From the beginning of the series, Kira harbors serious misgivings about the Federation – its relative privilege, she suggests, belies a lack of empathy for the dispossession and the trauma that Bajor has undergone, and its protective intentions suggest a kind of colonial paternalism – a repetition Kira fears will not prove substantially different from Cardassian colonialism.
Whether by admirers or by critics, Kira’s character is first and foremost read for her strength, ferocity in combat, and sovereignty – a reading I want to unsettle. As a military officer and a former resistance fighter – some would say terrorist – Kira’s character is rightly praised as a strong woman (Oglesbee, 2004; Nussbaum, 2008). Her expansive combat role, completely on a par with that of any man, was nearly unprecedented for a woman character in the franchise. Kira kicks a lot of ass in the series. Yet this fortitude is also read by critics as a deficit of compassion, an unconvincing or inauthentic representation of trauma, or as providing an inadequate allegorical figuration of the affects of genocidal and colonial violence. Kapell (2000), who positions the Bajorans as Ashkenazi Jews and the Cardassians as Germans, contends that Kira’s might, her resistance and heroism, do injustice to Jewish experiences of the Holocaust by failing to depict suffering (pp. 110–111). Such an analogy ignores the explicit statement of series creators that writing the Bajorans reflected sympathy for a diverse range of colonized or stateless people – Palestinians, Kurds, Jews, Haitians, Indigenous peoples – choosing from among the “whitest” of those referents and then insisting on direct historical fidelity to a particular set of expectations around what appropriate victimhood or post-traumatic stress should look like (Erdmann and Block, 2000). That even the series creators, who themselves assented to casting white actors in most major Bajoran roles, would consciously insist on this more complex reading of the Bajorans seems worth heeding. Further, the analogy elides the explicitly territorial dimensions of colonialism – military occupation, political sovereignty, exploitation of natural resources – that have been visited upon peoples across the globe by the project of European colonialism (Césaire, 1950/2000).
If anything, the choice to cast a white actor, Nana Visitor, in the role of Kira is one that we might scrutinize, given that Kira is the series’ primary postcolonial interlocutor. This limitation is particularly acute given DS9’s inspired casting of the Black American polymath Avery Brooks as commanding officer, Benjamin Sisko. Yet Visitor’s brilliant interpretation of the character positions Kira as neither a simply strong woman, nor a romantic anticolonial figure, but a deeply vulnerable, flawed postcolonial subject, whose capacity to suffer, to empathize in ways that sometimes surprise or disturb her, to resist grief and to grieve, and to sustain systemic critique while cultivating space for good enough relationships, makes her what Georgis (2013) might call a figure of radical postcolonial hope (see Lear, 2006). Indeed, I am less interested in how the series reflects geopolitical conditions representationally than how it refracts them affectively. So, while there are probably other, or better, identitarian or geopolitical analogies that could be drawn, what interests me most is not whom Kira is meant to represent, but how she makes viewers feel. With such an aim in mind, it proves useful to turn to writing on affect and psychoanalysis in postcolonial contexts, before engaging in a sustained close reading of her characterization.
Feeling Through DS9
While the genealogies of affect theory are multifarious (see Thrift, 2007), my approach is principally influenced by work that reformulates psychoanalysis by putting its diverse bodies of knowledge to work to understand the dilemmas of politicized identity. What a turn to affect adds to a critical reading of DS9 is, for me, threefold. First, affect helps deliteralize approaches to representation. Lacanian queer theorist Edelman (2004), for example, has been particularly provocative in his insistence on queerness not as an identity (even a resistant, discrepant, or minor one), but as a figure that resists identity and the reproduction of the socio-symbolic order. Other queer scholars have disagreed, and insisted that remaining invested in the social world while seeking to radically transmogrify it would make for a very queer intervention indeed (Muñoz, 2009; Berlant and Edelman, 2013). But the idea of queerness as figural, “subjectless” (Eng et al, 2005), or without a “proper object” (Butler, 1994) has helped scholars reimagine possibilities for intimacy, solidarity, and expansive political coalition. The point here is not that everything is suddenly queer, or that identities are simply fluid, but that there are ways of carefully sketching resonance or convergence that do not require strict fidelity, linear correspondence, or assimilation.
This figural approach to affect is particularly useful for my purposes because it helps me to read Kira for postcolonial affect, regardless of which postcolonial scenario the experience of the Bajorans is assumed to represent. Rather than quibbling over which postcolonial or stateless identity in our contemporary geopolitical scene Kira rightly stands in for – a process that can also demarcate and reify vexed lines between marginalized populations “deserving” and “undeserving” of sympathy – I’m interested in what it would mean to hear her suffering. This brings me to the second contribution of affect theory to my engagement with Star Trek – the fraught stakes, but also the potentiality, of “listening queerly” (Georgis, 2013), of empathy with suffering as an epistemological tool.
Spivak (1988) famously challenges postcolonial and Left optimism about representing the suffering of marginalized people as an emancipatory project. Anticolonial and postcolonial Indian political movements, and even the radical scholarly field of subaltern studies, Spivak contends, collapse vast differences among the subjects they purport to represent. The figure of the subaltern woman, in particular, is made to serve as a kind of psychic dumping ground for the anxieties of both colonial and postcolonial patriarchies – to such an extent that conditions foreclose the political agency and intelligibility of actual subaltern women. Moreover, better or more “authentic” representations, Spivak contends, would not “solve” the problem of representation, because the norms around public intelligibility and historical subjectivity, themselves indelibly shaped by colonialism and capitalist class formation, limit what forms of speech or agency are even admissible.
Writing in the context of the United States, Berlant (2000) folds affect, discourse, and ideology together in her concept of “structures of sympathetic normativity” (p. 43), which describes the systematic maldistribution of consideration and empathy in favor of people and sentiments that most closely approximate those of ideal–typical U.S. citizens. While such structures themselves work in a patterned fashion at scale, they simultaneously work to deracinate and individualize collective experiences of “suffering” into individual experiences of “injury,” remediable through liberal legal discourses predicated on ossified, atomistic identity and personal harm (see Brown, 1995). Simpson (forthcoming) has generated a trenchant critique of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to work through (or domesticate) horrific psychic, cultural, and political legacies of forced residential schooling for Indigenous children and youth. Simpson has observed that even hearing collective Indigenous suffering – scaled at the individual in the figure of the “crying Native” – can function to soothe colonial discomfort with more angry or politically organized Indigenous figures.
Still, it must be asked what hearing suffering might feel like outside – or if not outside, than in excessive and immanent relation to – prevalent structures of sympathetic normativity. In his important critique of instrumental forms of political reconciliation that tacticalize and exploit the gesture of forgiveness, Derrida (2001) suggests that true forgiveness, which forgives the unforgivable, would have to be mad – in excess of the socio-symbolic order, unintelligible, unable to be redeployed in the service of the state or capital. In a related vein, I am curious about how radical empathy might work as an epistemology for understanding how people live with political violence, and what ethical and political implications such empathy might proffer, in a necessarily belated way. Is it possible to imagine empathy in simultaneously excessive and immanent relationship to structures of sympathy?
Georgis (2013) asks what it would mean to “listen queerly” as an interpretive practice, a task that requires self-reflexivity about one’s own capacity for narcissistic identification with the pain of the other, as well as curiosity about the conditions of the other’s disclosure of affect. Rather than a relinquishment of critique and a descent into liberal universalist empathy, then, listening queerly would entail asking what affects might symbolize, symptomize, or stand in for – a non-literal approach to suffering that continues thinking, through its tears of sympathy. The task of representing an affective modality like empathy is tricky, because symbolizing affect, bringing it into discourse, inexorably produces effects beyond what one intends. But realizing that representations are always inadequate, always haunted by a melancholic remainder, can also be an enabling outcome, because it means the work of struggling to produce better narrative, more just interpretation, is endless (Oliver, 2004; see also Britzman, 2000; Georgis, 2013).
Part of my own stake in such a project is an investment in the difficult work of participating in coalitional politics among differently marginalized people, and the conviction in Black feminist and psychoanalytic circles that such work is necessarily and profoundly affective and potentially reparative (Reagon, 1981/2000; Burack, 2004). I realize that a valorization of empathy might sound profoundly naïve, given the ways in which colonial structures of sympathetic normativity and the capitalist commodity form constantly entrain the affects. There is a real risk of universalism in privileging empathy in excess of the structures that maldistribute it. But as Georgis (2013) points out, empathy is already maldistributed on the Left on terms that privilege resistance, safety, community, and group bonding as defenses against loss. Recourse to such defenses is understandable, inevitable, and often pleasurable, but it can also risk the foreclosure of working through loss – preventing vulnerable people from having empathy for their own suffering as well as that of others. Perhaps what is to be gained from empathy as an epistemological tool, then, isn’t just a liberal expansion of who gets to count as universal or fully human, but a radical re-evaluation of whose suffering matters. Empathy with suffering in the context of colonial and postcolonial violence has the potential to disrupt the privileged terms on which Left and liberal structures of sympathetic normativity benevolently extend “humanity” only to the “resistant” and ostensibly sovereign postcolonial or anticolonial subjects whose damage is sufficiently minimized enough to countenance.
Third and finally, scholarship on affect, particularly scholarship influenced by psychoanalytic theory, has developed rich and heterogeneous narrative lenses for understanding how people negotiate (geo)political and economic violence, hierarchy, and transformation in ordinary life, including in the space and time of the unconscious. Particularly fruitful – and controversial – has been a turn to reparative (Sedgwick, 2003) reading practices, a hermeneutic inspired by Klein’s account of affective reparation. Reparative readings are meant to depart from paranoid critical lenses that seek to foreclose bad surprises by placing their faith in the exposure of the relentless reiteration of hierarchies of power and relations of domination. Though the insight is often lost on those who have taken up reparative reading a bit too giddily, Sedgwick is quick to emphasize the unstable, involuntary, recurring, and somewhat grim relation between paranoia and reparativity. Sedgwick takes her inspiration from Klein’s depressive position, in which an infant integrates or synthesizes good and bad fragments of its objects in order to relate to something like a “good enough” object (see Winnicott, 1964/1992).
While I will discuss other psychic processes and mechanisms below – identification and transference, in particular – Klein’s account of integration is especially important for the reading of Kira Nerys I advance. While I am persuaded by Eng’s (2016) analysis of the constitutively violent topographies of repair in Klein’s own thinking, I still want to hold onto integration and synthesis as valuable affective mechanisms for capacious Left, anticolonial, and queer politics. Klein’s insistence on the ineradicability of aggression, and on the synthesis of love and hate as the passions that make a world (Alford, 1989), seem to me crucial for any instance of coalition across difference (Burack, 2004). As we will see, Kira’s capacity to empathize, and to tolerate ambivalence, does not result in her discarding her anticolonial politics or acceding to Federation cultural or political norms – but it does force her to revisit the psychic strategies that accompany her politics. Understanding the affective sophistication that buttresses Kira’s capacious politics requires not suspending, but revisiting paranoid judgment in moments of good surprise. As I have suggested above, Star Trek is quite unambiguously a mainstream franchise with fraught epistemic investments in Eurocentric exploration and expansion. I am not interested in how the figure of Kira redeems Star Trek, but how her affectivity both participates in and interrupts that hegemonic investment. As Georgis (2013) asks of Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri, a colonized woman whose suffering and figuration have inspired much greater controversy, one might ask of Kira: “[If] we do not hear her story through radical hegemony, and instead privilege radical listening, what would we hear?” (p. 57).
Listening to Kira
Kira’s trajectory throughout the seven seasons of DS9 is often framed as one of affective integration and repair on fairly teleological, redemptive, liberal terms. Series writer Ira Steven Behr describes Kira as initially a “very angry woman,” traumatized by the effects of decades of Cardassian occupation on her planet and loved ones, and by the killing she’s done in the name of anticolonial struggle. Visitor, likewise, describes Kira as beginning the series suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. What makes such characterizations problematic is their framing as an initial stage in Kira’s teleological journey toward forgiveness, friendship, and love. Such a neat progression toward letting go of the past seems tethered to the forms of forgiveness that Derrida (2001) argues do not constitute true forgiveness due to their political instrumentality. While Kira certainly changes over the course of the series, I would argue that her growth is characterized not by successive stages, but through repetition, through recurring and nonlinear lapses between paranoid and depressive positions (Klein, 1946/1975) – a dynamic accompanied by the modest hope, sometimes realized, of more just interpretation, of better forms of relationality (Oliver, 2004).
Indeed, the primary history of violence that engenders Kira’s paranoia – the Cardassian occupation of Bajor – is also her main locus of partial, selective, uneven affective integration. Kira never forgives the colonial project – nor indeed should she. Rather, her capacity for empathy forces her to reevaluate the Manichean narratives that helped her to survive the occupation, but now risk outliving their usefulness. Kira vacillates between what Alford (1989) calls paranoid anxieties (“why is this happening to me/us, again?”) and depressive or reparative anxieties (“am I really acting in a way that makes good on my values in this situation?”) She forges relationships with individual Cardassians – relationships that repulse, surprise, inform, and change her, not in her values, but in her psychic and political responses to loss.
Thus in “Second Skin,” Kira wakes up on Cardassia Prime, the homeworld of her oppressor and sworn adversary – and worse, she sees in the mirror the face of her hated racial other! Kira is told that she is, in fact, a Cardassian spy, implanted with false memories and surgically modified to look Bajoran to perfect her subterfuge of the Bajoran resistance. Kira’s stay on Cardassia alternates between increasingly tense, but not (yet) physically violent, interrogation sessions with her espionage colleagues, who are eager for intel on the Bajoran resistance, and time in a lavish Cardassian home with Tekeny Ghemor, a politically powerful man who claims to be her father.
Kira is absolutely mortified by her Cardassian skin and imputed Cardassian identity. Her disgust speaks back to the horror famously described by Martinique-born anticolonial revolutionary Fanon (1952/2008) at being interpellated as a Black man in public spaces in metropolitan France. Raised as an aspirational, upwardly mobile middle-class subject in Martinique who became a physician and psychiatrist, Fanon was trained by his class formation and colonial education to identify with whiteness and Frenchness, to be ashamed of his Blackness and his Black father. This affective pedagogy conditioned Fanon’s profound experience of alienation at realizing the accoutrements of whiteness he had acquired, such as education, were merely “white masks.” Kira, by contrast, comes from a poor family, grew up fighting with anticolonial resistance on Bajor, and, through her religious faith, sustains a strong identification with Bajoranness. Kira was never educated in a Cardassian cultural tradition, and never dreamt of the kind of collaboration across difference that, for Fanon, a transmogrified, antiracist humanism might proffer. Having never sustained a conscious identification with the colonizer, Kira is crushed to wake up as one.
But Kira’s resistance does not evacuate her capacity for ambivalence, empathy, or identification. Refusing to cooperate with her Cardassian intelligence “colleagues,” she is slightly more tolerant of Ghemor’s doting reminiscences about his Cardassian daughter, Iliana, who had eagerly volunteered to spy on Bajor. Increasingly frustrated with Kira’s obstinacy, her interrogators show her the corpse of the “real” Kira Nerys, whom they claim she (Iliana) replaced. Made a witness to her own death, Kira’s defenses against the loss of identity both become more adamant and begin to break down. Maintaining a strong front around the intelligence officers, she falls apart only in front of Ghemor, prying at her horrifying Cardassian face in a mirror before smashing the glass pane to bits, an obvious gesture to the fragmentation of her identity. Seeing Kira, whom he still regards as his daughter, in pain, Ghemor consoles her, holding her. Even though Kira cannot bring herself to look at Ghemor, nor at her own mirror image, she thanks him, expressing wonder that he would do such a thing for her.
Much to Kira’s surprise, Ghemor agrees to help her leave Cardassia. Further still, she learns that Ghemor is a dissident, critical of the Cardassian occupation of Bajor and of the Cardassian Union’s increasingly unchecked state and military power. Integrating these good surprises with her generalized paranoid suspicion of Cardassians, Kira realizes the entire scenario is a setup, meant not to access her knowledge of the Bajoran resistance, but to expose Ghemor as a dissident and fortify more authoritarian and expansionist Cardassian political factions. Kira and Ghemor succeed in escaping, and Kira’s Bajoran identity is surgically restored and psychically confirmed – but with an important difference. As Ghemor, now a dissident in exile, leaves for a planet that has granted him asylum, he asks that Kira keep a bracelet that belonged to his late wife, Iliana’s mother. Kira protests – this time, not out of revulsion but out of respect – but in a decidedly queer twist, Ghemor insists, telling Kira, “You may not be my daughter, but until I find Iliana, you’re the closest thing I have to family.” I invoke queerness here to describe the forms of kinship and intimacy, within and across racial and sexual difference, that both exceed the heteronormative family form and might provide departure points for a more capacious politics (Eng, 2010).
This transferential, interracial, even queer stand-in relationship between Kira and Ghemor is revisited and deepened several seasons later in “Ties of Blood and Water.” The latter episode precipitates a crisis that requires Kira to forge a more synthetic approach to Ghemor, who is perhaps not as “good” a Cardassian as he initially appeared. As Ghemor arrives at the station for a reunion with Kira, she is eager for him to lead a dissident Cardassian government in exile. While Ghemor is politically sympathetic to Kira’s hopes, he reveals to her that it is not only political conditions that are in flux; he is also terminally ill. Hesitantly, Kira begins the work of transcribing Ghemor’s state secrets, tending to him as he succumbs to increasingly intense pain. But Kira’s task of sitting with this dying Cardassian, who describes her as “the closest thing I have to family,” is interrupted, both from without and from within. First, Ghemor is implicated in a notorious massacre at a Bajoran monastery during the occupation. This disclosure confirms Kira’s worst persecutory fears, fears informed by years of colonial oppression: that all Cardassians really are genocidal butchers (Alford, 1989). Confronting Ghemor, she leaves his bedside, insisting that by being at the raid in question, Ghemor is just like the rest of them, and deserves to die alone.
But rage at Ghemor’s war record, we learn, is not the only reason Kira flees his room in sickbay; she is also afraid of losing the love of her father – again (Freud, 1917/1953). Spending time with Ghemor gives Kira an unsettling occasion to recall the death of her biological father, Taban, a kind and gentle bean farmer who raised Kira and her two brothers as a widower. When her father shows up badly wounded on a stretcher at Kira’s resistance encampment, she can’t bear the sight and assembles a raiding party. Returning to the camp, Kira learns that she has missed her father’s death by less than an hour. Again, Kira turns away from her suffering, refusing a religious burial for her father and leading another raiding party to “hit those Cardassians again as soon as we have a chance.”
Yet Ghemor’s impending death provides an occasion for Kira to revisit her desire to “hit those Cardassians again,” to meet violence with violence, to protect against loss by inflicting it on others, to opt for sovereign forms of group bonding as a defense against her individual dependency and vulnerability. Kira’s already transferential relationship to Ghemor intensifies, meaning she unconsciously brings old conflicts into new relationships in a new form (Britzman, 2000). As Georgis (2013) writes, “in transference, which can be seen as a waking dream, we might come to realize the affective toll that our social identities have taken had on us. We might think about how we have come to desire what we desire” (p. 63). In a moment of insight brought about by transference, instead of “hitting those Cardassians again,” Kira returns to Ghemor’s bedside, just in time to be with him at the end. Without relinquishing her anger, she extends a hand, to Ghemor and to Taban, in love. In a tellingly opaque remark, Kira confides in the station’s doctor, “I owed it to him. I owed it to my father to get it right this time.”
It is important to ask here whether Kira forgives Ghemor, whether her experience of paternal transference somehow takes precedence over her anticolonial ethics. If Kira does forgive Ghemor for his role in a brutal massacre, however, I would suggest that perhaps not even she knows. Such clemency would have to be read as forgiveness in the Derridean (2001) sense – as mad, rather than instrumental, in that it forgives the unforgivable. Indeed, in Kira’s flashbacks to her father’s death, and in her final encounter with Ghemor, it is telling how little she says, suggesting a forgiveness that is semiotic rather than symbolic, affective rather than politically representable, idiosyncratic rather than exploitable. Perhaps Ghemor is unforgivable, but he and Taban simultaneously constitute two good enough racialized fathers in Kira’s object world (Eng, 2010; Winnicott, 1964/1992).
Kira doesn’t forgive the brutality and the genocide of the colonial project. But the tensile relationship between her grievances against Cardassians and grief at the losses of the war, on the one hand, and her surprising capacity for empathy with both colonized and colonizer, on the other, prove productive; she forms political alliances and personal relationships that serve her values. Rather than “getting over” the occupation or “opting out” of paranoia, Kira integrates love and aggression, putting her persecutory anxieties to work to protect people and the relationships she values, in excess of group distinctions. But her capacity to empathize, and perhaps, to forgive madly, is pushed almost beyond its limits in “Wrongs Darker than Death or Night.” This episode forces Kira to reassess the figure of her “good Bajoran” mother, Meru, whom Kira had idealized as an anticolonial heroine. Kira had few memories of her mother, who died in her early thirties in a refugee camp while Kira was a little girl, other than a scar on her face from an attack by a Cardassian officer who felt she “failed to show proper respect.” On what would have been her mother’s sixtieth birthday, Kira receives a message from Gul Dukat, the primary Cardassian antagonist in the series, claiming that he and Meru were lovers. Gravely agitated, Kira must know for herself; she consults Bajoran deities known as the Prophets, seeking a vision of “what really happened.”
Transported back to the days of Cardassian occupation and assuming a fake identity, Kira’s divine vision both confirms and complicates her worst fears. Meru was indeed a comfort woman, sharing Dukat’s bed for 7 years. Worse still, in Meru’s very first encounter with Dukat, he uses a piece of medical equipment to heal her scar, the sign of her defiance of occupation that Kira had so revered. The scar’s apparent erasure is the first sign of trouble for Kira’s image of her mother as a resistant anticolonial figure, and brings about the pain of de-idealization, a process one of Klein’s (1963/1975) patients once summed up with the lament: “the glamour is gone” (p. 305). It is important to recall here, though, that for Klein the de-idealization of a beloved object – in this case, Kira’s good, anticolonial Bajoran mother – is accompanied by the devastating, or at least deflating revelation that “no really ideal part of the self exists” (p. 305).
At first, Kira reacts contemptuously to Meru’s gratitude for Cardassian largesse, her eager devouring of fresh Bajoran food and adornment in fine clothing. Kira is disappointed that her mother, a refugee displaced from her home by Cardassian occupation, would prioritize the needs of basic survival – food, clothing, remittances for her husband and children – over the ethico-political urgency of opposing colonial oppression, or the moral high ground of not sleeping with the enemy. Repudiating her mother for having “fallen in love” with a Cardassian, Kira contacts the Bajoran resistance on the station, agreeing to plant a bomb in Dukat’s quarters. Near the end of her vision, however, Kira realizes how deeply she herself is implicated in the intimate economy of the comfort woman arrangement she so contemns. Kira watches Meru viewing a message from Taban, who sends love and a complex gratitude for the remittances their family has received as a result of Meru’s fraught, constrained position as a companion. Almost everything Kira had as a young girl – her family’s return from a refugee camp to their farm, the improved diet and autonomy she enjoyed, even the physical strength that enabled her to participate in the resistance – was an ironic byproduct of the remittance economy that her mother made possible.
Kira’s ambivalent desire to both destroy and save her mother recalls Klein’s account of infantile rage, realization of dependency, guilt, and reparation in relation to maternal figures. Butler (2009) critiques the turn to Klein as a basis for ethics, arguing that if reparation only happens when dependency and survival are at stake, it is instrumental rather than ethical. And indeed, from one vantage, it was Meru’s remittances that literally kept Kira alive. In that respect, saving Meru – and by extension, even saving Dukat – could be construed as an ends-oriented act of repair that prioritized the survival of the ego. But it proves vital to note that Kira’s own visceral vulnerability in the scene suggests she places the lives of Meru and even Dukat above her own; she is the last of them to leave Dukat’s quarters, the closest to the explosion. Kira both loses her mother – the idealized, scarred, anticolonial Meru – and cannot afford to lose her again, even at the cost of Kira’s own life, and even if the mother she is saving is a complicit, perhaps not even “good enough” mother (Winnicott, 1964/1992). Here, Kira’s salvific act corroborates less the original Klein than Butler’s (2009) critical reformulation of her, Klein against Klein: “If I seek to preserve your life, it is not only because I seek to preserve my own, but because ‘I’ am is nothing without your life, and life has to be rethought as this complex, passionate, antagonistic and necessary set of relations to others” (p. 44).
Kira: I’ve always hated collaborators. I mean, what could be worse than betraying your own people? During the occupation, if I ever had doubt about what their fate should be all I would think of my mother, how she gave her life for Bajor. She was a hero, they were traitors. It was that simple. Or so I thought…
Sisko: Tell me something, Nerys. If you hate her that much, why did you save her life?
Kira: Believe me, there’s a part of me that wishes that I hadn’t. But the fact is, no matter what she did, she was still my mother.
It is difficult to read this scene as one of forgiveness, particularly given Kira’s later remarks to Sisko. But it does paint Kira as someone who learns to live with ambivalence. What makes this episode pivotal is that it both concludes the Kira parental grief trilogy, and precedes the series’ final season. In season seven, Kira puts her skills as an anticolonial warrior to work once again under the least likely of conditions: leading an anticolonial insurrection on Cardassia, which has been annexed by a dangerous imperial power called the Dominion. While Kira does not give up on aggression, or on armed conflict, she is able to put the skills she developed as a resistance fighter to other political ends, ends more responsive to the times in which she lives. This shift in political analysis reflects the ongoing affective work Kira has had to do, navigating a Manichean internal object world that responds to a catastrophic external reality. The arc of Kira’s growth as a character doesn’t so much point to a subject who forgives and forgets colonial violence, as one whose capacity for affective integration and synthesis seems to be linked to her role in forging surprising political coalitions among differently situated people with common foes. While coalition is not a political good in and of itself, and violence in the service of that coalition is highly questionable, that Kira’s commitment to anticolonial values and popular sovereignty would lead her to rise to the defense of her most loathed oppressor, the object of her worst persecutory fears, is worth contemplating. What might we learn from Kira’s capacity to learn?
Kira Against Kira, Klein Against Klein
I began this essay by suggesting that reading both Klein and Star Trek against their epistemic investments in colonial topographies of the human could prove fruitful, that both lent themselves to contrapuntal readings, or at least contained elements worthy of recuperation and reformulation. This process has had to work against the grain, as both Klein and Star Trek are arguably hegemonic texts. In the case of Kira, however, what’s perhaps most worth troubling is not her writing but the casting choice. Again, I do not mean here to cast aspersion on Visitor’s rich and evocative interpretation of the character, which is to be applauded. Rather, I would suggest that bringing under greater scrutiny the structures of sympathetic normativity (Berlant, 2000) that delimit which subjects are even eligible for empathy. I have deliberately advanced a non-representational reading of Kira here – one that asks readers and critics to suspend our need for “x” identity to be represented in an isometric way – because I think her affectivity speaks back in important ways to debates in postcolonial affect theory. But it is worth pondering whether audiences would have received Kira, a former terrorist, the same way, had she been portrayed by a woman of color, someone whose racialized identity would correspond to colonialism as it has devastated our planet. Is the suffering and affective sophistication of the postcolonial subject only representable when refracted through white avatars? Is Kira herself a form of bad faith liberal reparation that replaces racialized natives with whites? Perhaps here we reach the limits of Star Trek’s radical potential, just as Eng traces Klein’s narrow racial horizons for which object-relations and which populations are worthy of repair. Given the dominant tropes through which racialized women’s anger is depoliticized and dismissed, and contemporary debates about casting in Hollywood, including Star Trek, there currently exists an urgent opportunity to center the suffering and affective sophistication of racialized women – by casting racialized actors.
But does structural violence simply get the last word here, letting us write of Klein and DS9 as hopelessly compromised or mere entertainment, unamenable to disidentificatory readings? As Berlant and Edelman (2013) asks, “If not repair, what?” (p. 111). In spite of many limitations, reading Kira for her affective sophistication and anticolonial politics does figure her as an important counterweight to the overwhelmingly expansionist and white masculinist ethos of Star Trek, just as DS9’s commitment to mess, embeddedness, creolization, and alterity without and within position it as contrapuntal in relation to the franchise. Likewise, Kira’s story – not forgiving and forgetting, but sustaining the productively tensile relationship between love and aggression – demonstrates the potential, perhaps ironic salience of Klein’s ideas about affective integration and synthesis in the depressive position in the context of postcolonial intimacy and coalition politics. Reparation at the geopolitical scale is indeed often framed on teleological, redemptive, and ultimately instrumental terms, terms that belie the primacy of survival over morality, and the survival of some more than others, in Klein’s thinking. But Kira’s trajectory, her capacity to both sustain anticolonial politics and work through the complexity of her interracial political and intimate attachments, suggests that not all facets or forms of reparation prove disingenuous or dictated on the terms of the colonizer. We live in an era in which the aggression and pain of postcolonial subjects who feel they have little to hope for is repudiated, exploited, and cited to justify seemingly endless cycles of violence (Georgis, 2013). Both Klein and Kira would teach us that the modest but powerful lesson that aggression is not to be eradicated, but threaded through with love in order to build alternative object worlds and external realities. If we can learn to listen to Kira, to approach her figurally, perhaps differently situated people can learn to live a little better, a little more synthetically, with the love and hate our uneven histories and geographies have taught us to harbor toward others, and especially toward ourselves.
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