Monday, August 29, 2011

Lying at the core

Just wait til you realize how clever that post title is!!

Joanna Russ, in her indispensable How to Suppress Women's Writing, has a tangent (and as always with Russ's tangents, it's so much more than just that) about Herman Melville and the silly things that can happen when critics fail--whether deliberately or by way of academic and/or privileged obtuseness--to consider social context:
I have read several pieces of criticism about "Bartleby" and although one of them compared Melville's position to Carlyle's Eternal No, not one of them began, "Did you ever work on an assembly line for ten years?" (Or in Woolworth's for six months or typing address labels for as little as one summer?) These questions are very much to the point... But then I worked as a secretary for three years and typed address labels for a mere six weeks--and that six weeks was enough to reveal Bartleby's situation to me as twenty years of reading literary criticism could not. (In a recent collection of Melville's stories, Harold Beaver sums up his remarks on "Bartleby" as follows: "Bartleby can never be wholly interpreted as either . . . Christ-figure, artist, or ascetic saint, nor is the story exhausted by such interpretations. At its root lies a theme more compelling than both: of the doppelganger . . . the figure of death . . . behind the green screen" of life. The actual nature of Bartleby's work--its isolation, its rote nature, its hideous boredom--and the social situation of employer-employee, as well as Bartleby's sitdown strike and the sentimental liberalism of his employer, are never mentioned.)
It was with considerable enjoyment that I recalled that passage while reading Adam J. Frisch's utterly pointless essay, "Language Fragmentation in Recent Science-Fiction Novels," in the utterly pointless book The Intersection of Science Fiction and Philosophy, edited by Robert E. Myers. Here's how Frisch begins his second paragraph:
Lying at the core of Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To... is an examination of language and meaning.
Oh, how I hope Russ happened upon this essay; I imagine she would have very much enjoyed savaging it. (Hint: if you're talking about what "lies at the core" of that novel, and you don't talk about patriarchy, capitalism, or at least the dark side of technological progress, you've pretty much missed the point.)

Frisch follows up his, shall we say, startling intro by giving a quick summary of the events of the book: "small group of travelers accidentally marooned on an isolated planet," violence, yadda. He makes me cringe again by saying that the "unnamed narrator becomes more and more disenchanted with her fellow travelers," because a) she starts out pretty much as disenchanted as you can be, and, more important, b) she has reasons for being so disenchanted, which aren't mentioned here*; but OK, maybe Frisch is gonna get around to it, now that the summary's taken care of.

*And also c) Frisch doesn't seem to realize that "fellow travelers" is an inappropriately meaningful phrase for his purposes here, especially since the novel deals heavily in Communism, dissent, and the totalitarian quashing of dissent.

He soon makes me a bit more nervous by quoting a passage in which the narrator quotes Emily Dickinson ("I'm Nobody, who are you? Are you Nobody, too?") without recognizing that it is a Dickinson quote, even though I'm fairly certain she doesn't have a more famous line. (In How to Suppress Women's Writing, incidentally, Russ spends quite a lot of pages talking about how the reality of a continuity of women's writing--of woman writers influencing one another and communicating with one another--has been systematically hidden, so that writers like, say, Emily Dickinson appear to have come out of nowhere and to have led nowhere; but I'm not sure why I'm bringing that up right now.) He then goes ahead and says this:
But the narrator's companions are incapable of change because they are incapable of listening. They have been nurtured in a culture that is almost devoid of the ability to discriminate sounds. The narrator finds their music mere noise that "goes deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle for half an hour and then it goes doodle just once, and you could die with excitement." Thus, when the males in the group, in an assumption of atavistic roles, decide the women must bear children immediately to insure "survival," she feels threatened and attempts to flee.
Let me take a deep breath and take this slowly. First of all, the narrator's "companions" (poor choice of word, there!) are most certainly not "incapable of listening"; they are, rather, very capable of listening to themselves, one another, and the dominant culture from which they came and of which they are desperate to think of themselves as still a part; they will listen to anyone and anything who does not stand against all of this--in the context of the novel, anyone and anything who is not the narrator (and even there, it doesn't apply to music--at least not the same way--as they do listen to her sing). Second, and here is where Frisch throws all credibility away by being utterly wrong about something that's not a matter of interpretation, the "deedle doodle" quote is dialogue spoken by a small girl--one of the other survivors--describing the serial music she loves and wants to compose, emphatically not the narrator dismissing popular music. This is not presented ambiguously in the text. It is impossible to mistake this even at the briefest of glances at the page: it is immediately preceded in this first person narration with "Then she added," and is immediately followed by "'Uh huh,' I said." (Also, distinguishing "doodle" from "deedle" and then dying with excitement is obviously not something that one does if one is "almost devoid of the ability to discriminate sounds.")

And then the paragraph takes what is to me a completely incomprehensible turn. If you can explain that "thus" to me, if you can explain how what comes after it follows from what comes before it, please, please do. Because for god's sake, the narrator doesn't "feel threatened and try to flee" because these people who want to force her to have a baby can't discriminate sounds; she feels threatened and tries to flee because she is in imminent danger of rape and forced pregnancy. Another way of saying this is that, no, the narrator does not feel threatened, she very concretely is threatened.

Clearly, Mr. Frisch, you've never typed address labels for six months, if you know what I mean. Nor have you ever, ahem, listened to anyone who has, even when one has been trying to tell you about it for 118 pages.

By now it's pretty clear that Frisch is never going to get around to mentioning what this story is about. Oh, but wait! Do I see the word "patriarchy" comin' round the bend?
Throughout the novel, the narrator is desperate to communicate [True! I wonder why? -E]. When her fellow survivors cannot or will not listen, she turns to her imagined future listener, the reader:
"Speaking" comes from a different place than "breathing." You must understand this. Those marks, "-", indicate speech. Communication. You must listen. You must understand that the patriarchy is coming back, has returned (in fact) in two days. By no design.
Although the narrator at first attributes her desire to communicate to the return of "the patriarchy" (that is, to the group's rapid reversion to male dominance), her repetition of the phrase "I must" suggests that the need for communication may arise from each individual's perception of death's inevitability. "I must speak" becomes "I must die."
[Moment of silence.]

OK, so just on a functional level: "at first" she mentions the patriarchy, then she repeats "I must"? In the passage I read, she repeats "you must," not "I must", and then, after the second repetition, she brings up the patriarchy. Hey, it's almost as if she wanted to really emphasize that, listen up, this mention of the patriarchy is really important, so don't try to dismiss it with scare quotes and that very dudely "Oh don't worry, she said patriarchy but really what she's talking about is Eternal Existential Verities for Men" nonsense.

Yes. One of the many things this book is about is death, the inevitability of death, the necessity of death, and how to go about dying. (It's not exactly hidden; the well-known completion of the title phrase is the word die, and "About to die" are the first three words of the novel; the third sentence is "We're all going to die.") However, it is about death in context, in the specific context of patriarchal, progress-oriented society, which denies, defies, mystifies, and fetishizes death; the context we pretty much all have to live and die in. (Also, how the fuck do you get from "repeating 'I must'" to "see, she's really talking about death here"? Again, when the book's title and opening words form the clause "We who are about to die," you don't have to go looking for cryptic clues and acrostics to figure out that death is on this book's mind.)

Similarly, yes, by god, We Who Are About To... is in large part about the difficulties of communication. But to talk about this like it's an end in itself is absurd. Like, oh, OK, it's a book about how it's hard to talk to people; no shit, now what? Why is communication a problem? What is the narrator so desperate to communicate? If you read this book and then feel the need to put quotation marks around "the patriarchy," you're not going to get very far in answering that question. In terms of Frisch's analysis, you'd think Russ would have been better off printing a book full of a random assortment of words in no particular order; that would have been the meaningless, apolitical representation of "language fragmentation" he's so desperate to shape the novel into.

The two best things about the hurricane

1. After it passed, the Baronette and I went for a walk around the neighborhood--and so did everybody else. I've never seen my neighborhood with even a tenth that many people out and about.

2. With about half of the state electricitiless, it was dark last night. I could see stars! Not, like, all of them, but a hell of a lot more than usual.

Friday, August 26, 2011

This is no dream, this is really happening

CNN, State-by-state developments related to Hurricane Irene:

Rhode Island's Emergency Management Agency held a press conference on Thursday. Officials urged residents to put together emergency kits to tide them over for up to three days.There were no immediate plans for evacuations. Lt. Col. Denis Riel, spokesman for the Rhode Island National Guard, said personal preparedness is important. "It's not a matter of if it hits us it's when," he said.

Saturday's Newport Bucket Regatta, a yachting event in Rhode Island, has been canceled. A gala dinner was moved up to Friday.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A letter I got today

Dear Ethan:

As Councilman representing [your ward], one of my main priorities is safety, especially your safety.

Recently, there has been an increase in crime in our neighborhood. Breaking and entering is on the rise; therefore, I would like to stress the importance of locking all doors. Be sure to secure your home and automobiles, and, if you are fortunate to have a house alarm; engage your alarm system in your absence and at night while sleeping.

Due to the importance of this matter, I will be conducting a neighborhood meeting on September 12, 2011, at [a local elementary school] from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm to discuss this safety issue and any other matters and concerns.

The area Crime Watch program has been successful and will continue to do well if we all contribute in any way we can in deterring crime in our neighborhood. Please continue to be observant and contact the police to report any suspicious activity.

Thank you for your help in making our community safe. If you need my assistance, please contact me at the council office, [phone number]. Also, please sign-up for news and events at [url made into a link automatically by Microsoft Word which is a bit useless in a printed letter].

[Rich white dude]

cc: [A bunch of cops]
I'm half-thinking about going and asking if he's taking any time out of his busy fearmongering, alarm system-advertising, and overemphasizing-of-dates-places-and-times schedule to, you know, do anything about the causes of those tiny actions that fit into his definition of "crime." The theft of huge swathes of people's ability to support themselves continues into its nth century of not prompting any important meetings at elementary schools.

By the way, the "area Crime Watch" that has been so "successful" so far in my experience consists of 1) a woman who has lived down the street from me for two years but who apparently doesn't recognize me following me at low speed (her in her car, me on my bike) for three blocks and around several turns before stopping and yelling "Where do you live??!!?!" at me and accusing me of being shady because I kept looking behind myself at the car following me at about ten miles an hour for three blocks and around several turns, and 2) our probably diagnosably sociopathic next door neighbor begging us to let him string a trip wire in our backyard so that if people come through it in the middle of the night he can catch them and beat them with a baseball bat. Given these encounters, I'm wondering if you understand why I'm made a bit queasy by Rich white dude's urging my neighbors to "contribute in any way we can to deterring crime in our neighborhood."

PS I wish someone would break into his office and steal from his semicolon and hyphen budget, because it's clearly overfunded.

Weird words

When I was younger--like, ten to twelve, say--I was perfectly aware of how the word enigma was spelled and pronounced, and of what it meant, but for some reason most of the time when I saw it written I would misread it as engima, switching the g and the i, pronouncing it en-JEE-ma. In my head, without realizing it consciously, I worked up a whole definition of engima based on the contexts I thought I was seeing it in, which was almost, but (in some way I couldn't define) not quite, the same as the definition of enigma.

I've been typing up some quotes from Maria Mies' fascinating Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale on my Commonplace (I'll get around to either discussing them or putting them in a digest here sometime around 2015, at the rate I'm going, but if you want to look at them now, have at it), and as I do it I'm starting to realize that in recent years I've been doing the enigma/engima switcheroo with the real word subsistence and the word-of-my-misreading-invention substinence, which of course means almost the same thing as subsistence, and almost the same thing as sustenance, but not quite the same as either.

My point? Why, you think I should have one?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

RIP Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford

Of course, I wasn't particularly aware that either of them was alive, but still. Jerry Leiber:

And Nick Ashford:

(That last one is on not just my short list, but my very short list of favorite Supremes songs, which for me is saying a lot.)

Friday, August 19, 2011

More on science fiction, from one of many possible thoughts on Frankenstein

One of the many fascinating things about Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein is that it is (among other things) a woman's rejection, not of Romanticism in its entirety, but of the male-based subjectivity that is so central to the Romanticism of her contemporaries. By attacking the whole notion of the individual (assumed male) genius while leaving intact the awe of nature, the skepticism about science and rationalism, the intensity of emotion, Shelley creates something remarkably different from--and to me, both more interesting and more what you might call morally sound than--what we normally expect of a Romantic work.*

*Analysis of Frankenstein in and of itself isn't what I'm primarily interested in here, so I'm not going into the ways in which she does this, but treating it as a given. If you want further analysis of this, I would imagine that there are plenty of published works as well as high school and college term papers about it.

It's especially interesting (to me) to think about what this means in terms of Frankenstein's place as one of the founding texts of science fiction (and some would, not without justification, leave off "one of" and italicize "the").

While it would take almost 150 years for any significant number of SF writers to catch up to Shelley's distrust of the nobility of science, not to mention her woman's perspective (though on both terms there were always exceptions), the rejection of heroic subjectivity is, to my mind, central to SF, despite any appearance to the contrary created by the plethora of individual heroes in the history of the genre. These heroes are, almost without exception,* not so much characters--individuals--as stand-ins for what many (including me in my last SF post) call "the idea as hero." Indeed, it would be very difficult to have a literature where the idea is itself the hero without the rejection of Romantic subjectivity.

*At least in SF of the "classic," pre-1960s era; after about the mid-60s the story of SF gets way more complicated, sometimes for the good, sometimes not.

It doesn't stop there--the SFnal concept of "the sense of wonder," for one, though it is superficially very similar to the traditional Romantic awe in the face of nature, is in fact almost completely different in both content and impact, in a way that is difficult to explain if we don't take Shelley's rejection as foundational. There is much more that could be said about this, and about other aspects of SF that are hugely informed by her rejection, but this post is getting way longer than I meant it to be and I'm not finished yet.

One of the most interesting (again, to me) aspects of this is that Shelley's rejection comes largely out of her perspective as a woman--a perspective that is noticeably absent from almost--but not quite--all pre-1960s SF, and still absent from a majority of the mainstream of the SF of the 1960s and later. The genre is notoriously masculine--even, all too frequently, macho. But the fact that a woman's perspective is so foundational to the genre carries through strongly.

Towards the end of Joanna Russ's frustratingly short essay, "On the Fascination of Horror Stories, Including Lovecraft's" (as collected in the indispensable To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction), Russ describes a fan party she attended, where the conversation turned to favorite horror stories, and then to the implications of the appeal of horror and SF:
[O]ne very bright young woman described her adolescent reading of SF as a genuinely subversive force in her life, a real alternative to the fundamentalist community into which she had been born. This alternative had nothing to do with the cardboard heroes and heroines or the imperial American/engineering values which she had skipped right over. What got to her were the alien landscapes and the alien creatures. We scholars perhaps tend to forget how much subversive potential both SF and fantasy have, even at their crudest.
Unfortunately, as with so many of the countless fascinating points she raises in this uncharacteristically skimpy essay, she leaves it there. But the point is made, and taken--and recognized. I have seen numerous accounts of women saying similar things--and though I am not a woman, nor did I grow up in an environment that was at all oppressive (thanks, mom and dad!) beyond the general background radiation of our culture, I am queer and a general discontent who grew up in a heterosexist, conformist society, and what this unnamed woman and Russ have to say strikes a strong chord with me. On reading Frankenstein, I can't help but think that we all have Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley to thank for this intrinsic subversivity,* indestructible despite the occasional best efforts of macho writers who wished it would go away. It didn't.

*Yes, I know, Firefox's spelling check knows, the dictionary knows that it should be subversiveness, but that word is wicked ugly to me.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Enclosure, colonization, reproduction, and the subjugation of women

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, page 17:
This is what occurred in the 19th century, when the responses to the rise of socialism, the Paris Commune, and the accumulation crisis of 1873 were the "Scramble for Africa" and the simultaneous creation in Europe of the nuclear family, centered on the economic dependence of women to men--following the expulsion of women from the waged work-place. This is also what is happening today, as a new global expansion of the labor-market is attempting to set back the clock with respect to the anti-colonial struggle, and the struggles of other rebel subjects--students, feminists, blue collar workers--who, in the 1960s and 1970s, undermined the sexual and international division of labor.

It is not surprising, then, if large-scale violence and enslavement have been on the agenda, as they were in the period of the "transition," with the difference that today the conquistadors are the officers of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, who are still preaching the worth of a penny to the same populations which the dominant world powers have for centuries robbed and pauperized. Once again, much of the violence unleashed is directed against women, for in the age of the computer, the conquest of the female body is still a precondition for the accumulation of labor and wealth, as demonstrated by the institutional investment in the development of new reproductive technologies that, more than ever, reduce women to wombs.
One of the things Federici does nicely here is to emphasize the way that in a colonial power (like the contemporary United States or the European countries of the 19th century) repression at home and repression abroad, though they take different forms, are parts of the same system. As she described in the last quote I wrote about, the "primitive accumulation" of capital that occurred in Europe primarily around the 16th and 17th centuries--the enclosure of the commons, the destruction of traditional modes of knowledge, the attack on the power of women, and so on, all of which is Federici's primary subject matter in the book--all of this is occurring, right now, in extremely similar ways, in the so-called "third world," because once you've subjugated and stolen everything from your "own" people, the next step is to do it to other people. I'm reminded forcefully of Derrick Jensen's argument that civilization, based as it is in the degradation of one's own landbase until it is unable to support its populations, is inherently violent--it always needs to expand, because once you've taken everything "your" land and "your" people have to give, you have to look elsewhere for more.

Of course, I'm making it sound like a linear process--steal everything at home, then steal everything somewhere else, then steal everything somewhere else--when of course it is not. The attacks on the lower classes in Europe happened at the same time as the colonization of huge swathes of the rest of the world, including among other things genocide of unmatched scale in the Americas and the transformation of the people of Africa into property that could then be stolen en masse (and, of course, the genocide that inevitably accompanied this). And, again, as Federici points out, the processes of enclosure, colonization, and theft are ongoing today. Whether with explicit military invasion or the machinations of the IMF (or both or more), most of the world is directly subjugated to international capital.

And here (in the US, where I'm writing from, but to my knowledge this applies similarly to anywhere inside the walls), processes similar in shape if not in scale--the militarization of the police, the slaveries of debt and the wage (made possible by that not-so-long-ago enclosure of the commons)--are in play. Also in play: women's bodies, and the struggle over who controls them.

Embarrassingly, I thought once upon a time that the struggle over reproductive freedom, though real enough down here at the bottom with the rank and file of "pro-life" and "pro-choice" groups, at the top was "really" about the fact that Roe v. Wade rested on an expansion of the concept of the "right to privacy." In other words, I thought that powerful people smiled on attempts to criminalize abortion as a step in the creation of a surveillance state. (I also thought that, by thinking this, I was being more clear-sighted than most people.) What I didn't realize was that this idea rested on three incorrect assumptions: first, that people in power care about laws and judicial decisions in any capacity beyond PR when necessary; second, that the surveillance state is an end in itself rather than one part of a multi-tiered system of resource extraction; and third, that power's interest in controlling reproduction started and stopped with Roe v. Wade (and, therefore, incidentally was only concerned with abortion itself). My introduction to anarchist analysis wiped out the first assumption, my increasing knowledge of class struggle and the true nature of civilization itself wiped out the second, and, the past few years of chipping away at reproductive freedom in creative ways while leaving Roe nominally intact wiped out the third. I started to think--my god, is this actually a case of people in power objecting to something on purely moral grounds?

Well, of course it isn't. By thinking so, I was without realizing it still thinking in terms of the first faulty assumption. When power makes laws against a certain behavior, they don't do it to keep everyone from engaging in that behavior; they do it to keep the wrong people from engaging in it. Making laws that restrict reproductive freedom will never stop powerful people from controlling their own reproduction--but it does take the reproduction of the lower classes out of lower class women's hands.

And why does power care about this? It's because the exploitation of a class of people isn't a one-time thing; it's an ongoing process which requires the ongoing reproduction of that class. Of course it is in power's interest to take control over that reproduction away from the people responsible for it, the people who historically used to have control over it--women. When the ruling classes, as Federici puts it, "reduce women to wombs," they do it to make sure that people get born at the rate they need.

Of course, after all these words I'm still oversimplifying this, and there are all kinds of quibbles and caveats that could be made, not to mention the fact that I've only--so far--looked at one aspect, the directly biological, of what Marxist analysis calls the "reproduction of labor." But the overall point is honestly kind of a simple one: power faced a crisis in the 15th and 16th centuries; it faced another in the 19th century; and it faces another now,* and it is reacting in very similar ways. One of those ways, indeed one of the pillars that capitalist power rests upon, is the subjugation of women.

*That the first two crises were caused in large part by popular revolution and the current one is caused more by the fact that power is almost done burning through everything this planet was generous enough to give us, is of course extremely important, but not right now for the purposes of this discussion.

More coming; if you want to look at all of the quotes I pulled from Federici's extremely important book before I get around to discussing them, they're all on the Commonplace.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Trivial observation

People travel a lot in 19th century novels.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Of limited interest, very long, written for my own entertainment; feel free to skip

For reasons unrelated to what I usually write about here, I've been reading a lot of science fiction criticism lately. Some of it has been great (Joanna Russ*), some of it has been entertainingly awful (the dunderheaded blowhard Kingsley Amis**), some of it has been so unrelated to what I'm interested in as to be, through no fault of its own, just kind of dull (Algis Budrys***), and then some of it has just been utterly, unredeemably awful. I give you M. Keith Booker's Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946-1964.

*Whose critical ideas are not quite what I would have expected from reading her fiction, in a fascinating way.
**Who, just as an example, in his
New Maps of Hell blithely states as if he were unaware of saying something remotely controversial--or just plain wrong--that H.G. Wells' writing is entirely apolitical!
***Even though his
Who? is one of my very favorite novels. His understanding of what he did in that book is very different from mine.

After an absurdly lengthy introduction (taking up well over 15% of the book) that consists of nothing other than a bunch of utterly standard scene-setting about the social milieu of the American 1950s (McCarthyism! Fear! The nuclear family! The Bomb!), material I literally cannot imagine any potential reader of this book being unfamiliar with and to which Booker adds less than nothing, he finally gets around to discussing SF and makes a big hash of it.

He introduces this section on Asimov by asserting that that writer is a "notoriously bad stylist." This is admittedly a very common view among those who don't read much SF (and among those unfortunate SF fans who, I can only surmise, have far too much of that silly literary jealousy that still taints so much of the SF world), but it would be nice if, just once, a critical study that explicitly intends to take the SF of the 50s seriously would dare to, you know, like the SF of the 50s, rather than condescend to it. Booker makes matters worse by saying that Asimov's style and plotting in the Foundation trilogy reveal the work's origins in "fanzine culture." First, it is quite a shock to me to learn that Astounding (now Analog), where all of the stories that ended up being "fixed up" into the trilogy were originally published, and which is one of the best-known, longest lived professional SF magazines, is a "fanzine." This is not an insignificant mistake. For another--again, stop condescending to the field. Though the phenomenon was largely over before I was born, the SF fanzines were to all appearances the home to fantastically brilliant writing far more often than not.

Anyway, after ensuring that no one could think for a moment that he respected the work he's discussing, and after discussing the technology-boosterism of Foundation (which is of course present in the books, though I strongly disagree with Booker's interpretation of it), Booker gives us this, which I am quoting at length from pages 32-33:
A similar pro-technology theme was central to Asimov's robot fiction, including such novels as The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun (1957), which combine science fiction with detective fiction. In such works, Asimov addressed a number of issues related to artificial intelligence long before it became a technological possibility, again ultimately endorsing robots as aids to humanity.

Asimov's famed Laws of Robotics presumably ensured the benevolent nature of his robots, though even he occasionally depicted renegade robots, as in The Caves of Steel. Thus, his robots represented particularly comforting visions of Otherness: easily distinguished from human beings, but entirely pro-human in their behavior. Such useful, but lovable, machines would eventually culminate in the charmingly chubby robot of the Lost in Space television series of the mid-1960s. Other science fiction writers were not necessarily so benevolent, and writers such as Dick, in works such as Dr. Futurity (1960), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and We Can Build You (published in 1972, but written in 1962), would eventually extend the robot theme in the postmodernist direction of android simulacra, indistinguishable from humans by all but specially trained experts. Such creatures, of course, precisely reversed Asimov's assurances, blurring the boundary between the animate and the inanimate and introducing the frightening (especially in the 1950s) possibility that technology might advance to the point where we cannot tell ourselves from our own machines.
On reading this, I feel the urge to congratulate Booker for having read someone else's facile criticism of Asimov, and also to ask him if he's ever read any Asimov.

I have few major objections to the first paragraph, though I would argue that what Asimov "ultimately endorses" in the robot novels is the attitude of making the best you can out of uniformly unbearable options rather than all technology all the time (after all, it is the high technology of industrial civilization that has led Earth to the crisis it finds itself in in the novels), though I freely admit that even Asimov might possibly disagree with me there.

But after that, sheesh. First of all, the Three Laws never "ensured the benevolent behavior" of the robots; from the very beginning the whole point of the robot stories was to find ways that the Three Laws, which were constructed to appear as a foolproof method of ensuring the harmlessness of the robots, could be logically shown to fail. Second, I challenge Booker to find me even one "renegade robot" in Caves. Seriously, just one. Booker first underestimates Asimov by suggesting his portrayal of robots is simple-minded, then underestimates him again by suggesting he cannot even stay mildly consistent to his supposedly simple-minded vision.

Third, the robots have never been uncomplicatedly "comforting"; though Asimov does indeed tend to fall on the side of "it's silly to be afraid of these things," they are always presented as problematic, controversial, and uncanny. On this point Booker is not so much wrong as overly simple-minded, possibly as a result of assuming, as I have mentioned, that his subject is similarly simple-minded.

It continues. The next clause, the "easily distinguished from human beings" one, makes me wonder if he has read either Caves or Sun at all, considering that one of the two main characters in both books is R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot who looks exactly, and acts almost exactly, like a human. And this is not a small point--major plot developments in both novels depend precisely upon most people's inability to distinguish him from a human. To complete Booker's sentence, Olivaw is indeed "entirely pro-human" in his behavior; however, the way in which he is so is, importantly, as perceived from a robot's perspective and, again, far from "comforting."

Suggesting that the Robot from Lost in Space--or anything having to do with that show, for that matter--is a "culmination" of Asimov's work is tantamount to slander, as well as ignoring the obvious fact that that robot is plainly a dumbed-down version of Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet and nothing else.

As far as the comments on Dick go, I would argue that he is, in the end, if anything more "benevolent" than Asimov, but that is a probably contentious opinion, and I suppose I cannot fault Booker for disagreeing. However, the idea that Dick "extended" the idea of robots, while true, is not true in the way Booker suggests, for as I have already mentioned, Asimov's robots are frequently "android simulacra, indistinguishable from humans by all but specially trained experts," which experts as a matter of fact make explicit, pivotal appearances in both Asimov novels under discussion. Again, I can't help but wonder if Booker has even bothered to take the most cursory of peeks at the books he's discussing.

The "observation" of Dick's "blurring the boundary between the animate and the inanimate" where Asimov supposedly failed to gives me the opportunity to point out that, throughout this whole "analysis," Booker misses completely the fact that what Asimov did in his robot stories was to present, and then problematize, the concept of tools that were also characters (without bringing in the complicating issue of real-world slavery, i.e., tools that are also humans, which we can regard as a strength or a weakness as we please), thus enabling him to seamlessly dramatize the traditional SFnal concern with "the idea as hero," as countless commentators have put it. (This concern, incidentally, seems to be one of the things that presents non-SF readers with the most difficulty when approaching SF, and I suspect that that is one of the problems here.*)

*I have a theory, which I can't figure out where to place so it's gonna go here, that the only reason Booker ever thought about SF in the first place was Fredric Jameson's praise of cyberpunk, and now that baby's all grown up and trying to think for himself he doesn't know how to.

Finally, where previous points caused me to wonder if Booker has deigned to glance at Asimov's books, the end of this passage makes me wonder if he's even bothered to read his own book. After listing Dick novels published in 1960, 1968, and 1972, he then discusses their concerns as being particularly topical in the 1950s. Note again the dates of publication of the books listed. Even if we grant Booker the "long fifties" of 1946-1964, which I am eminently willing to do, only one of the three books listed was published in this period. One out of three ain't bad, I guess?

(I need hardly mention that "the frightening...possibility that technology might advance to the point where we cannot tell ourselves from our own machines" is everpresent in Asimov, though from a different point of view than it is present in Dick. Speaking of that difference, throughout what I've written here I have not meant to suggest that there is little difference between Dick and Asimov; the difference is of course huge. It also happens to be completely unrelated to what Booker seems to think it is.)

After I read that section, I decided that this book would not be important to me and that I would just skim through the rest to see if he said anything interesting about other books I was familiar with, upon which I found that Booker, in his slavish devotion to dogmatic, prescriptive, predictive Marxism, thought it was a good idea to analyze the wonderful Clifford D. Simak's beautiful agrarian SF, practically unique in the field, for signs of the author's affiliation as either "left-wing" or "right-wing," inevitably leading to Booker's dismissal of him as "muddled." This to me was the ultimate, unforgivable example of sheer stupidity and voluntary incomprehension (i.e., he's anti-capitalist, but he's not a utopian Marxist, so he must be a stupid mess!), and I decided that no, I was not missing anything by not reading another word.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Boorman after dark

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Sometimes I laugh out loud just to crack my face

Enjoy: Chumbawamba's "Rappoport's Testament: I Never Gave Up"

Friday, August 12, 2011

Stolen context

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, page 10:
By the end of 1986...I left Nigeria, in body if not in spirit. But the thought of the attacks launched on the Nigerian people never left me. Thus, the desire to restudy "the transition to capitalism" has been with me since my return. I had read the Nigerian events through the prism of 16th-century Europe. In the United States, it was the Nigerian proletariat that brought me back to the struggles over the commons and the capitalist disciplining of women, in and out of Europe. Upon my return, I also began to teach in an interdisciplinary program for undergraduates where I confronted a different type of "enclosure": the enclosure of knowledge, that is, the increasing loss, among the new generations, of the historical sense of our common past. This is why in Caliban and the Witch I reconstruct the anti-feudal struggles of the Middle Ages and the struggles by which the European proletariat resisted the advent of capitalism. My goal in doing so is not only to make available to non-specialists the evidence on which my analysis relies, but to revive among younger generations the memory of a long history of resistance that today is in danger of being erased. Saving this historical memory is crucial if we are to find an alternative to capitalism. For this possibility will depend on our capacity to hear the voices of those who have walked similar paths.
I quote this little bit of Federici's introduction because it brings up an extremely important point, what she refers to here as "the enclosure of knowledge," what I described a few hours ago in conversation with the Baronette and my parents as "our hidden shared history" and as "stolen context."

Most Americans, I imagine, if they think about capitalism at all, think of it as a pretty good thing--we've been trained pretty well to associate it with "freedom," whatever that is. In the even unlikelier, rarer situation where we think about it in relation to feudalism, the system that preceded it, we're most likely to think of it as an improvement. Feudalism, we feel, became untenable, its cruelties unbearable, and it was replaced by the more enlightened system of capitalism. We think this because the more accurate history, that capitalism was developed by the powerful in response to (for a time very successful) anti-feudal struggles on the part of the powerless--i.e., that capitalism was in fact created as a bloody, intercontinental counter-revolution--this history has been concealed from us.* Our knowledge of where today came from has been stolen. Without this context, most of us are utterly unable to figure out what the hell is happening.

*Not to mention that the counter-revolution is of course still actively ongoing today, part of which is what Federici is referring to when she talks about Nigeria. Without the context of our own past, it is harder to understand what is happening elsewhere in the world, and harder not just to feel but to recognize the urgency of solidarity.

The Baronette told me about an article she read (I don't have a link, but I'm sure if you throw a brick you'll hit an article like it) criticizing the rioters in England for looting "the commons." That businesses of any kind--and chain stores, no less!--can be referred to as "the commons" with a straight face is a sure sign of how completely they have disconnected us from our history. To me, "stealing" from a corporation is one of the most noble, not to mention pragmatic, acts available to us in our circumscribed lives. But I am only able to think this because I have been made aware that once upon a time--not that long ago, relatively--things were different. Once you're aware of that, you can realize that it is the corporations who have been stealing and continue to steal from us, not vice versa.

More on this, and on Federici, hopefully to come.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A question in a tangentially related context

As we enjoy the leisurely day off from work The Baronette has been granted in celebration of horrible screaming mass death, I'm also pondering this:

Which is more decadent: to be decadent and unaware of being so, or to be decadent and aware of it?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Friday, August 5, 2011

Crock Pot King

In general I have a hard time being interested in reading the crusty fathers of anarchism,* but I recently attempted to read Kropotkin's Mutual Aid, with the thought that, being a biology book with political implications rather than explicitly political, and being on a topic that hugely interests me, it would be, well, interesting.

*The mothers would be a different matter, if I would ever get around to them...

Not only was it not, it was also startlingly clear (and in retrospect, I should have expected this) that Kropotkin was a, y'know, European nobleman. Is all of his stuff like this? Why do people like him? It was just plain icky to read! I only made it about 75 pages in and called it quits.*

*After reading what I'm about to discuss, I found myself with little stomach for what would have been the next two sections, entitled "Mutual Aid Among Savages" and "Mutual Aid Among the Barbarians,"** which of course contrast with the shared title of the final chapters, "Mutual Aid Among Ourselves."
**No I don't know why barbarians get a definite article and savages don't.

Here's a bit from shortly before page 75:
All that natural selection can do in times of calamities is to spare the individuals endowed with the greatest endurance for privations of all kinds. So it does among the Siberian horses and cattle. They are enduring; they can feed upon the Polar birch in case of need; they resist cold and hunger. But no Siberian horse is capable of carrying half the weight which a European horse carries with ease; no Siberian cow gives half the amount given by a Jersey cow...
So we will note here that the "quality" of the animals under discussion is judged solely on the basis of their utility to humans, and not to the animals themselves. Eating Polar birch and resisting cold and hunger sounds like a pretty good life for a horse in Siberia! But since they can't carry as much as other horses, an ability totally lacking in any purpose for the horse itself, pragmatic or recreational, Kropotkin judges them evolutionarily inferior. I mean, !!?!?

Unfortunately he continues, removing as he does the "sub" from the scientific racism subtext:
...and no natives of uncivilized countries can bear a comparison with Europeans. They may better endure hunger and cold, but their physical force is very far below that of a well-fed European, and their intellectual progress is despairingly slow.
Ha ha ha! Hey, Kropotkin, let's drop you alone in an "uncivilized country" in the cold and see how your wealthy Russian gentleman's style of intellectual progress helps you have a good time. Here also, though he does not state it explicitly, he is still considering the beasts of the field in terms of their use to people like him; for with neither the physical force to perform endless slave labor nor the "intellectual progress" to participate in the mummery of western civ, your average native is just going to go to waste, living a life of their own choosing and maybe even enjoying it, shudder to think.

Then there's this on the next page. For context, he's talked about ants farming aphids before, and he just loves how they've tamed the wilderness they live in! They're almost as good as people!
Happily enough, competition is not the rule either in the animal world or in mankind. It is limited among animals to exceptional periods, and natural selection finds better fields for its activity. Better conditions are created by the elimination of competition by means of mutual aid and mutual support. In the great struggle for life--for the greatest possible fulness and intensity of life with the least waste of energy--natural selection continually seeks out the ways precisely for avoiding competition as much as possible. The ants combine in nests and nations; they pile up their stores, they rear their cattle--and thus avoid competition; and natural selection picks out of the ants' family the species which know best how to avoid competition, with its unavoidably deleterious consequences.
Note please that the aphids are completely left out of this consideration. (I should note before I go on that from what I understand of it, using the word "farming" is misleading in the case of ants and aphids, who seem to have a much more, OH HO!, mutual relationship than that, but within Kropotkin's text he approaches the phenomenon, though he doesn't put it in these terms, as being entirely exploitative.) Yes, the ants have it good, in Kropotkin's telling of it. They keep their stores of aphids around to supply them with all the sugary shit they want! Freed from the labor of gathering food, they get to relax and spend their time developing a life of the mind. They don't compete! They cooperate! Liberté, égalité, fraternité! And (again, in Kropotkin's skewed accounting of the ant/aphid relationship), as with the human bourgeoisie, it appears that it's equality for me and not for thee, and as a matter of fact thee hardly existeth. Kropotkin's interpretation of the ants and the aphids is remarkably similar to your average civilized man's attitude towards all of the labor we, especially since the 1600s or so, "outsource" to slaves and colonies and wage workers and women and immigrants and so on--remarkable perhaps especially in how equally unaware Kropotkin (like your average bourge) seems to be, for all his anarchism and supposed sympathy for the lower orders, of the injustice in both situations.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Musical interlude

In case you were wondering, yes, we got back from our little vacation, and yes, it was goddam wonderful, and yes, there will be posting again probably soonish.

In the meantime, music.

Last night, inspired by some brief comments on it in David Toop's Ocean of Sound, I put on Brian Eno's 1993 Neroli for only about the second or third time ever, and for the first time in probably about a year. It's a lovely album, sparse even by the standards of Eno's ambient works, even by the standards of his 1990s, and is one of the two or three of his 90s albums that really stands out as being interestingly different from the rest.* Anyway, after listening to it for a bit, I wanted to go to sleep still listening to music, didn't want to stop listening to Neroli, but also wanted a fuller, more active sound.

*Not that the sea of very similar albums he released in the 90s--Kite Stories, I Dormienti, Music for Civic Recovery Centre, etc--aren't in themselves interesting, because they are. The other major standout from Eno's 90s, for me, is the fascinating field-recording manipulation Music for White Cube, which is both very much Eno and completely unlike anything else he ever did.

So somehow without thinking about it I opened up Eliane Radigue's Kyema, Intermediate States (which I believe I've mentioned before; in certain moods, it can be my single favorite album of all) in one program, Gas's Königsforst in another, and went back to the beginning of Neroli in aye-toonz, and played them all together (with Eno at top volume, the fuller Radigue a bit hushed, and the mixed-louder Gas almost all the way down). It was beautiful. On headphones, completely enfolding. Here's a random two-minute sample of it--though of course because of the imprecise timing of each track's start I didn't hear exactly this at any point; this is a reconstruction, and every reattempt will be slightly different.

In broad terms, Kyema provides a constant, constantly shifting baseline (not bass line); Königsforst provides structure, particularly with its periods with and without beats, and texture in counterpoint with Kyema's; and Neroli provides what might be called melody, as well as a second contrapuntal texture, if that makes sense to talk about. But then in less broad terms, it becomes difficult to figure out what sounds come from which source, and what sounds come solely from the interactions of them (I'm not positive, but I think at times I heard beat frequencies arising from the conflict between Eliane Radigue's tones and Gas's, for example). Despite my intimate familiarity with every second of Kyema, and my slightly lesser but still fairly extensive familiarity with Königsforst, I couldn't quite be sure what I was hearing doing what at any given moment. Each piece gave something to each other.

I gotta do this kind of thing more often.