Remaking the Future Profane: The Kairotic Cultural Commentary of Swear Trek

Curator's Note

Launched in July 2016, the Swear Trek Twitter account has gained over 22,000 followers. Founded by Aaron Reynolds and curated by his friends and colleagues, the site’s gifs put profanity-laced riffs in the mouths of the Enterprise crew. Though the gifs draw from many corners of the Trek universe, Reynolds’ favorite source is Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS), a trippy 70s cartoon with a flair for the absurd. This combination of bizarre visuals and enthusiastic explatives has afforded the site a wide audience on Twitter and tumblr.

Over time, however, what began as an R-rated remix of Captain Kirk and company has evolved into overt commentary on contemporary social and political issues. From the outset, the site hadn’t shied away from cultural critique, using TAS gifs, for example, to ridicule the rhetoric and affect of so-called men’s rights activists. In light of the US presidential election, this commentary has become even more pointed, portraying Trump as a “steaming poop monster,” for example, and Abraham Lincoln as the last, disappointed gasp of democracy. Much like the TOS, which took on the Vietnam War, racial tensions, and matters of diversity and acceptance, Swear Trek offers kairotic commentary on dire current events, a present that feels to many even more bizarre than any depicted in TAS. Although some have taken offense to this turn, Reynolds notes that the Presidential debates and election night accounted for the site’s "biggest single days of growth" to date.

The optimism of the Star Trek universe is fundamental, and in some ways, it seems ironic that this vision of a diverse and mostly peaceful future would find a new purpose at a time of great uncertainty by adding dick jokes, drug references, and expletives. Indeed, the utopian dream of TOS feels farther away today than it has in decades. But rather than mourning this loss, Swear Trek helps makes the present palatable for its creators and followers by reimagining the future—Star Trek’s future—profane. Swear Trek is the Star Trek its followers need now: a re-vision of the future where humor and a spirit of no fucks given offers a means of coping with and communicating about very dark times. Through its gifs, the site’s created a surreal visual language that more effectively and affectively expresses the grief, anxiety, and determination of its creators and readers than mere (non-sweary) words could.

Comments

John Roberts's picture

Hi KT, thanks for the post. I

Hi KT, thanks for the post.

I like the way the video, and the memes themselves, rely on the incongruous tension between the world of Star Trek, where no matter how bizarre or desperate a situation gets, the Captain and crew of the Enterprise remain more or less unflappable, and the ventroloquized text, which suggests the exact opposite. It reminds me of the well-worn ‘KHAAAAN’ meme featuring Kirk, which singles out one of the rare moments in Star Trek where control is lost and frustration takes over. I am also reminded of the too-brief Cartoon Network program Sealab 2021, which operated on a somewhat similar premise in which stock animated footage was re-edited and voiced over into an entirely different program. Swear Trek strikes me as different though, in that it doesn’t seem like the jokes would be quite as funny without an awareness of who the characters are supposed to be, which I think reinforces your point that it is the utopian nature of Star Trek that is being pointed up and subverted here.

From a Star Trek fandom perspective, it seems easy enough to place Swear Trek in the lineage of fan ‘poaching’ and remixing practices, but I’m also wondering about the ways these memes promote, and in some ways engineered for, maximum shareability even beyond fandom. I’m not sure there’s really a good answer, but for me they seem to raise a question about what it means to have a wide array of Star-Trek themed negative affective responses available at one’s fingertips for situations that might call for them. In any case, I’m definitely thinking more about Star Trek memes now.

KT Torrey's picture

Thanks for your

Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

It’s funny, because Swear Trek doesn’t strike me as *just* textual poaching. Sure, it hits all the beats in Jenkins’ classic definition, but that repurposing is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. For example, given TAS’ weird space in the Star Trek canon, one effect of Swear Trek’s work, I think, is to bring TAS more firmly into the fold—to position it as a part of the ST universe that’s just as legitimate as TOS, Enterprise (shudder), the Abrams ‘verse, DS9, etc. At some level, Star Trek is a bloody *mess*; where the messiest bits are depends upon one’s perspective as a fan. Swear Trek underscores this point—the space dragons and dickbats of TAS are just as legitimate (and whacktastic) as stuff that’s officially canon, be it good (Star Trek II or bad (Star Trek V).

And you’re quite right about the site’s memes being easily spreadable (hello again, Uncle Henry!) beyond fandom. The exposure that the account has received from sites like Gizmodo has introduced the gifs and memes to a wider audience. One hiccup there is that you can no longer download gifs from Twitter (boooo), so the site’s mod set up a Tumblr account to share them. Sadly, though, there’s a lag, so the kairotic nature of the Twitter site hasn’t quite translated to tumblr.

>a question about what it means to have a wide array of Star-Trek themed negative affective responses available at one’s fingertips for situations that might call for them This is interesting—what it means to whom? To Star Trek fans? To non-fans? Would like to hear you talk more about this.

John Roberts's picture

Yes, it’s a good point about

Yes, it’s a good point about repurposing being the beginning, rather than the end of a process. With respect to the availability of affects, I was thinking along the lines of what it means for senders and receivers—what it means to be able to express an affect or be on the receiving end of one that is sort of irreducibly inflected by Star Trek, because of the incongruity between the memes and the original shows. It almost resembles branded content, but I find it interesting that it emerged spontaneously, and as you point out, kairotically, just in time to address a set of specific historical and cultural circumstances. I suppose it would depend on one’s familiarity with Star Trek, but it seems as though the use of Star Trek characters and situations as a part of the formal means for expressing an affect or message would allow someone to use Star Trek as a kind of shorthand, expressing a complex idea around the end of 2016 (i.e. ‘things weren’t supposed to turn out this way, and this isn’t the bright and rosy future we were hoping for or expecting’), making Star Trek into a sort of efficient, shared reference point for thinking about the future.

Deanna Smid's picture

All of that optimism is a bit tiring

Hi KT— I really enjoyed your post and video. I’m currently re-watching The Original Series, and Kirk’s boundless optimism in the valour of human enterprise and the human spirit certainly sounds naive now and even a bit…cute. Turning to a more profane Star Trek during the last US elections reminds me of the turn from Shakespeare to Christopher Marlowe after 9/11. Marlowe’s dark, violent, and even grotesque aesthetic had an immediate appeal to Renaissance scholars in 2001.

KT Torrey's picture

Cheers for your comments!

Cheers for your comments! Didn’t know about the turn to Marlowe after 9/11—very interesting stuff.

I take your point about the optimism of TOS, but I must admit that I find it comforting, if always already aspirational.

Indeed, the contrast between Obama’s farewell speech and Trump’s—whatever the hell that was yesterday got me thinking about Kirk’s big speech from “The Omega Glory” (i.e., Kirk yelling about the Constitution): “‘We the People,’ that which you call Ee’d Plebnista, was not written for the chiefs of kings, or the warriors or the rich or the powerful, but for *all* the people!” A delivery not unlike Trump’s, but a message that echoes Obama’s.

For all its goofiness, TOS has at its core a fundamental belief in humanity’s potential for good. These days, I sorely wish I could share it.

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