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Goodbye Leonard Nimoy, hello Mr Spock!

When Leonard Nimoy, chiefly known as Mr Spock in Star Trek, one of the most famous and long-running television sci-fi series, created by Gene Roddenberry, died recently at the age of 83, millions of Trekkies, including myself, felt a huge sense of loss. This despite the fact that very few Trekkies ever knew Nimoy in real life. We knew him as Mr Spock, an “alien”, or (part-) Vulcan, to be exact, serving as first officer to Captain Kirk on board the fictional Starship Enterprise, which carried its crew boldly into space, “the last frontier”, on many imaginatively portrayed, variegated and exciting adventures.

While studying at Yale University in the United States, during the 1980s, I made sure that every evening I caught at least two episodes of Star Trek out of the approximately half a dozen that one could find on cable television in the course of an evening. These were still from the original series, long before the sequels to Star Trek (with Captain Jean-Luc Picard and others) ever aired. What I recall most vividly is the graphically depicted temperamental difference between the mercurial, human Captain Kirk and the coolly logical, semi-alien Mr Spock, who embodied what the series was all about: seeking evidence, and investigating the nature of other life-forms in the endless universe.

Instead of “other life-forms”, I should really have written “otherness in various manifestations”. In this respect Roddenberry was a visionary — while most human beings were still preoccupied with matters of race and gender (and still are, to a large extent), he had the foresight to explore varieties of imagined otherness in ways that made exceptional demands on especially the humans among the Enterprise crew. I recall an episode, for example, where a life-form was encountered that seemed to resist all presuppositions concerning life, chiefly that it be “organic”. This was a creature consisting of silicon, and against all common sense-assumptions, it was alive — and moreover, if I recall, irredeemably evil. Needless to say, under such circumstances Captain Kirk had to draw on the diverse talents and abilities of his entire crew, but none so much as Mr Spock’s.

In another episode the intrepid crew of the Enterprise encountered an invisible, but speaking being who claimed to be God when it addressed the members of the crew who had “beamed down” to the surface of a certain planet, and whose astonishing acts of creating things around them initially convinced them that they had really met the Almighty in all its overwhelming, ineffable presence. In many of these episodes it was the difference between Spock and Kirk that provided a kind of tensional field within which the “best” decisions could be made, stretched as it was between Spock’s ostensible lack of emotion, and hence optimal logical capacity, on the one hand, and Kirk’s apparently intuitive ability to gauge how matters stand in a variety of situations fraught with danger and risk, on the other.

In other words, what both the enigmatic personality of Spock and the mind-boggling multiplicity of “other” beings and worlds featured in Star Trek enabled one to do, is to stretch one’s conception of what it is to be different, or “other”. It was a constant and salutary reminder that it is not enough to think of difference in terms of gender, race or culture; true difference, one learnt, covers a spectrum that vastly exceeds these. Moreover, the series also taught one that within this dazzling multitudinousness of never-before-imagined creatures and ways of living, there was always a modicum of similarity or sameness that somewhat mitigated the implied exclusiveness accompanying such discoveries.

After all, unless some basis for communication, however tenuous, could be found, no opportunity for mutual discovery, or negotiation, in the case of hostility, was possible. And in this respect it was Mr Spock who was the paradigmatic case of simultaneous difference (or otherness) and similarity. For those who know the series it is not difficult to grasp — Spock was partially of human descent, and his otherwise almost incomprehensible Vulcan character was mitigated by this biological fact. While given to the ostensibly complete absence of feeling typical of Vulcans, Spock was a hybrid who constantly had to maintain a balance between the logical predisposition of his Vulcan legacy and the affective legacy of his human descent. In a recent obituary in TIME magazine (March 16, 2015, p. 16), James Poniewozik phrases the balancing act that it was Nimoy’s task to convey persuasively as follows:

“To say that Spock had no emotion wasn’t true. He was in fact part human, constantly wrestling to keep his emotion in control. This gave drama to his very being, and Nimoy, with his careful cadence, showed how being Spock was a job that required constant mental effort. Watch clips of Star Trek and you quickly see that Nimoy’s performance is in fact full of emotion: there are knowing smiles, rapt pauses of concentration, deliberate speeches that play musically like prayers. What Nimoy did was strip his performance not of emotion but of feelings — the little flailings of affect that most actors (and non-actors) rely on.

“The cliché is to say that this made Spock more human than any of us, but again, he was partly human in ancestry. He occupied a space between us and the purely alien, giving us perspective on ourselves … ”

I would go further than Poniewozik does, however. In the character of Spock, Nimoy did not simply position himself between human and alien; he exemplified the psychoanalytic insight that the otherness within each of us is more alien to our recognisable personalities than we could ever imagine. Furthermore, Spock is a graphic reminder that, as suggested earlier, it is not sufficient to insist on acknowledging racial, cultural and gender differences. Within each of these categories there are irreducible differences among individuals belonging to the “same” culture, race or gender. And this should not surprise anyone — we readily grant that every individual’s fingerprints are different, and even more so one’s “eyeprints”. What is so difficult, then, to grasp about individual otherness of personality, so convincingly depicted by Nimoy in the character of Spock?

Poniewozik’s concluding words are a fitting farewell to Nimoy: “In his quizzical alien, he created something bigger than himself — a figure of friendship, mindfulness and understanding that, long after Leonard Nimoy is gone, will keep spreading ripples across the universe”. In short, by creating the character of Spock, Nimoy has earned for himself an irreplaceable position in human history — what Hans Blumenberg, Claude Lefort and Joan Copjec have variously described as the properly “modern” form of immortality: “Transcending time within time”. Goodbye Leonard Nimoy, hello Mr Spock!


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.