more notes on Parable of the Talents: entering history and the books of the living

Some more thoughts on the Butler novel. Still thinking about the relationship between history and media, with some implication of how SF fits into this whole thing.

taking part in history

  • last time we defined history not as what happened but rather the account of what happened
  • today, we refine that definition
    • history is not simply the account of what happened, but specifically human progress
    • while history as a concept has a long history, most contemporary understandings of history owe at least something to Hegel’s theory as described by Alexandre Kojeve
    • Kojeve, following Hegel, argued that History is the “space” of meaning
    • history is human conflict and the meaning that derives from that conflict
    • only in history is there meaning
      • animals exist outside of history because they have no meaning and they have no meaning because they are outside of history
    • Kojeve, again following Hegel, understands history to be progressive, that humans are working towards the fulfillment or end of history, a time when there will be no more conflict and therefore no more meaning (no more art, etc)
      • things will still happen but they will no longer be meaningful because human destiny (not his word or concept) will have been fulfilled
      • Hegel understood this to have happened after the Battle of Jena in 1806
      • more recently, Francis Fukuyama understood this to happen with the end of the Cold War, which Butler had thematized quite dramatically in Xenogenesis
  • in any case, we must understand the context in which the events of this novel take place
    • the glory years to which Jarret refers are the 1950s, which we have discussed as being uniformly white in their representation and in our “memories”
    • more that that, they were also the start of the Cold War and the start of American world dominance
    • in part that dominance came about because America was competing with the Soviet Union
      • we put a man on the moon to make sure we were the first to do so
      • spending on defense drove the national economy and educational initiatives in science, engineering, and later computer science
      • we have the Cold War to thank for the Internet
  • Jarret becomes president in 2032, some four decades after the end of the Cold War
    • Butler writing in 1998 was well aware of the problems that the fall of the Berlin Wall meant for the US, which found itself for the first time in half a century without an enemy and therefore without an identity
    • history was over with the end of this conflict and with it went meaning
    • we might speculate that this is the reason that Bankole says the Pox began in the late 20th century, because it was at that moment that the US had lost its identity, its reason for existence
    • it took forty years in this fiction, but Jarret comes along to give America its identity back
  • one of the primary questions facing Americans generally and Acorn specifically is whether to re-enter history
    • people debate whether they should use the truck they acquire to trade or if they should withdraw further into the mountains
    • Lauren believes that they need to trade
      • of course, Lauren also believes in a sort of destiny, although whether her goal involves re-entering history or surpassing it is an open question
      • as is whether there is any difference between these two ideas is another open question
  • and here we can revisit Butler’s thematization of the connection between past and future, and the way that Bankole and Lauren come into conflict with regard to this issue
    • see 62 – 64
    • see also 66: looking back/looking forward discussion
    • B and L argue because he thinks the world used to be good and is getting worse
    • she thinks it can get better, but the idea that it was better in the past is something of a fiction
      • hence her personal dislike for Jarret, who to her lies about past greatness
    • see 133 where Lauren describes Bankole’s anger with her
      • she is “unrealistic”, in contrast with what she thinks of herself
    • we will come back to the question of realism at a future date, but note that the conflict here has to do with how one re-enters history
      • Bankole wants to return to history, to the past, to what no longer exists
      • that is meaning to him
      • Lauren wants to shape the future, to MAKE history (again, maybe to leave it behind altogether or to surpass it in some way)
    • see also 215: Bankole’s trust in law and order
      • he is afraid of the world and believes that adhering to old standards will save them
      • could be returning to town
      • could be having a will
      • one of the things Butler has always known is that text is inconsequential when one does not have power
      • but see 234: element of horror: should not have happened here
        • the rational belief in law confronts the law’s lack of power
  • there is a similar tension between Lauren and Marcos
    • see 109
    • he thinks that the world WAS better, got worse, and can return to past glory
    • Lauren thinks that it can only get better by leaving that past behind
    • see 111, where daughter calls Marcos a “realist”, in tension with Lauren’s claim to the same earlier (page 97)
    • Marcos also wants to return to the past, but unlike Bankole wants to shape the future into that past where Bankole only wants to return
  • also note that “god is change” is predicated on the notion of looking forward and the painful truth that Lauren often refers to is related to the issue that humans want things to remain the same, to NOT change, to not progress or move forward
    • see page 72 for example of this
      • one of the conflicts of the novel has to do with to what extent Acorn should be a part of human history
    • one of the thing that the west is about is progress, and history has often been the story of that progress
    • however, times change but times do not always progress
      • see 75: things will settle into a NEW norm
      • see also 86: negative change
      • 87
      • 115: how much it hurts to change
    • sometimes they get worse, or they might get better for or in the opinion of some people even as they get worse for or in the opinion of others
      • history is uneven
      • see 67 and discussion of what civilization is
      • also see 69 where some people buy into older notions of progress
      • it may be that Lauren also buys into progress, as she buys into SF and the notion of progress it implicitly contains
      • see 70 where Lauren imagines Acorn much as the founding fathers imagined America
  • as I mentioned, one of the conflicts in the novel is whether Acorn should take part in history
    • this is expressed by those who wish to remain apart from society and to ignore the world in the hopes that the world ignores them
    • we have seen that the world will not ignore them, that the world often if not always insists that everyone take part in history either as the master or the slave
      • and, it should be noted that Hegel developed this idea along with our most prominent theory of history
    • 81: news media; related to whether Acorn should join history (some people do not want detailed news, which is the stuff of history, perhaps feeling it’s not important to their situation)
    • and it is here that we should
      • first, note that Lauren wants to enter human history but also transform it
        • (although perhaps only augment it)
      • and second that we can see a connection between the issue of history and that of media in the novel

Earthseed: books of the living

  • the writings on Earthseed are referred to as “books of the living”
    • we should note that it’s not clear whether only the verse from the start of each chapter comes from the Earthseed books, or if all of each chapter does
      • thus it’s unclear whether these books are compiled solely by Lauren or if Larkin has a hand in them as well
    • in any case, it’s an important reminder that we are reading a book (called Parable of the Talents) and that this book is itself composed of a number of fictional books, including: Lauren’s journal, Bankole’s journal, Marcos’ journal, and Larkin’s editorial notes
  • and it’s important to note what books are: they are, first and foremost accounts of what has happened
    • of course, SF speculates about what will happen, but it does so based on the present, which to say the very recent past
    • this is something Butler more or less tells us when we read Bankole’s introduction
      • PotT may be about the 2030s, but it begins in 1998, or very shortly before 1998
    • thus we may say that books are always looking back
    • and we might say that they are part and parcel of truth, that which shapes and creates the truth of the past
    • books are, in some sense, always books of the dead
  • among the many books mentioned in PotS, perhaps the most important is the King James Bible
    • on one hand, like all books, the Bible is a book of the dead
    • it is about times past
    • but, I think that the Bible as a book does not so much refer to death in the strict sense as it does to the eternal
    • thus the books of the living, Earthseed (which refer of course to a sort of groundedness as well as life, which is never eternal) are opposed to permanence, to transcendence, to timelessness
  • Earthseed is about building a future, about shaping change, about embracing change (no matter how difficult it may be to do so)
    • it is therefore about leaving the past behind
    • it has no business with what has come before, whether it’s Jarret’s vision of the 1950s or Bankole’s notion of safety (which itself is very similar to Jarret’s vision of the 1950s
    • 260: Earthseed not very comforting
  • 185: a record of what Earthseed has survived
    • for the future
    • is this a history? a looking back?
    • or is it an opportunity for learning?
    • is there ever a book that is not a history?
    • is Earthseed rather humanist then?
    • it does seem that Lauren is at least as driven (what we would have once called monomaniacal) as her brother or Jarret
    • she buys into SF and SF-logic, which I think you could say is that of the book with its forward looking based on present conditions
    • see also 213: Lauren making copies of her writing

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