I was watching Star Trek the other day (Enterprise season 4) when the crew of the Enterprise met yet another highly advanced alien species. Not just ‘faster warp drives’ or ‘bigger weapons’ but a really, truly, highly advanced alien species. So advanced that, like others that have appeared on the show, they didn’t have bodies.
Take a second to think about it: why do we assume that the more advanced you get, the less body you will have?
Star Trek is a product of its time featuring all the teleological unilinear evolution you could shake a stick at — more Leslie White and Herbert Spencer than Julian Steward and Charles Darwin. I understand that it views all life-forms as being located on a Victorian continuum with Papua New Guinea on one end and NASA on the other. But even in a world obsessed with technological improvement, since when did the body become something that, technically, it would be better for us to get rid of? I really want to hammer home the incredibly non-obvious nature of this question in: what is technologically backwards about having a body?
The answer, of course, is that contemporary Eurochristian cultures have a long history of viewing the body as the dirty, uncontrolled, appetitive fleshvelope that our pure, divine souls have been crammed into. All of the Star Trek tropes of floating pools of light entering our bodies to possess our engineers and lieutenant commanders; their need to lower themselves by using physical speech to communicate; the promise that someday we might be able to comprehend the infinite majesty of the universe once we’ve joined them…. totally different from angels, amirite?
One of the oddities of anthropology is that once you’ve tuned into a cultural pattern, you see it everywhere — that’s how you know you’ve gotten your analysis right. But for most Americans, say, it takes quite a lot of exposure to American and British culture to see the big picture. Not just because you are too close (although that is a problem) but because you spend most of your life going to work, cooking dinner, etc. and not reading Sacvan Berkovitch and Perry Miller. Or for that matter Madame Blavatsky.
And yet it is a strange, very culturally specific idea that we are more truly ourselves when we are out of our bodies rather then when we are in them. Many people in other cultures think that they are their bodies — a very sensible proposition indeed given the available evidence. It takes analysis and comparison to understand this, even though the examples of the pattern occur regularly on Netflix.