Archive for the Writing Category

Excerpt from my review of Stiegler’s Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 March 2013 by Ben

A paragraph from my forthcoming review of the second volume in Stiegler’s Disbelief and Discredit, recently translated for Polity by Daniel Ross.

For Stiegler, there are three forms or conditions of “being”: subsistence, existence, and consistence. That which subsists (and therefore does not exist), such as animal life, merely is and leads a life without reason. That which consists (and therefore does not exist), leads a “life” in which being and reason are one, even if the relation between the two remains incalculable (and therefore beyond the scope of political economy). That which exists seeks to avoid mere being by pursuing the incalculable consistency of its being and its reason, at which it will never arrive. Such human being becomes, or individuates in a term Stiegler borrows from Gilbert Simondon, towards a consistence that only manifests on another plane (and Stiegler here draws from Deleuze and Guattari who write of planes of consistency on which assemblages manifest by finding a proper level of abstraction). In order for the existent to pursue its consistence—and avoid the disindividuation, desublimation, and/or disaffection that lead to subsistence—it must have a reason, something in which to believe: a symbol, something that possesses consistence, something whose meaning is at one with its being. In this manner, as well as in a more conventional sense, Stiegler claims that such symbols do not exist.

Chapter from my dissertation: The Declaration of Future Democracy

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 3 March 2013 by Ben

Another text from the archives, a more complete and wide-ranging version of the MLA paper I posted last week. This was the dissertation chapter form which that paper was culled. This was the third chapter in the diss, following from a long discussion of Octavia Butler’s Kindred in chapter one (published in somewhat different form in Science Fiction Studies) and a discussion of politics and science in the context of Stuart Kauffman’s theory of complexity in chapter two (published in Configurations–my first ever publication! Thanks Jim Bono, Hugh Crawford, and Mark Hansen!). Chapter four dealt with the problem of the monster and offered a conceptualization of wonder.

For the most part, I don’t like my dissertation as a dissertation. It’s all over the place, and this chapter is sort of a microcosm of that all-over-the-placeness (it’s a word). I do like a lot of things I say, and I do like my attempt to draw together theories of democracy and violence from Agamben, Schmitt, Benjamin, Deleuze, Derrida, and others with literature by DeLillo, Coupland, Gibson and others. Also here is Battle of Algiers and Syriana as well as Robert Baer’s See No Evil, upon which Syriana was based. Oh, also: Thoreau and the Declaration of Independence.

I appear to myself, six or seven years later, a much less mature writer. So many block quotes here, which appear to me now as a mask for misunderstanding. I could not discuss or deploy these texts effectively, so I let them speak for themselves far too often and only addressed what I wanted to. In any case, not sure my readings of these texts hold up under scrutiny. Rather, I am pretty sure that my readings of individual texts hold up (simple as they are), but that these texts don’t play as nicely with each other as I might want them to, or believe them to. I am not sure how I feel about that now. I find being RIGHT so uninteresting, and abhor debates about what so-and-so REALLY means a waste of time. As such, if these texts don’t play well together, on some deeper level that only a proper close reading can find and address, then I am not sure I care.

The Declaration of Future Democracy

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, begun at a distinguished period and pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government.1

—The Declaration of Independence

 

Revolution.

In “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau reiterates Jefferson’s claim that when the situation warrants, citizens have the right to change their government: “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable” (389). However, what Thoreau is able to accomplish in his essay is not simply an affirmation of the right to revolution, but an expansion of Jefferson’s argument. For Thoreau, while political processes must include revolution (or at least its possibility), he also understands that not all decisions involve the dissolution and recreation of government. Thus the right to revolution becomes for him the right to make political decisions, specifically the right to decide upon slavery and the Mexican-American War. The problem, of course, is that while “all men” might recognize the “right to revolution” cum the “right to decide,” they will not all agree upon the proper moment for such decisions or even what decisions should be made and how.

To overcome this problem, democracy asks citizens to express their desires first in deliberation and then through their vote, with the majority awarded the right to make decisions (or the majority’s decision being enforced). However, for Thoreau, the ends reached via this method (what Kaufmann would call consensus) are not satisfactory:

After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. (386-87)

The important aspect of Thoreau’s claim is not the notion of “might makes right” (what Jacques Derrida calls “the reason of the strongest”2). Thoreau does not mean here simply that a majority of citizens can forcefully execute their will upon a minority, as in a physical confrontation. What is important in Thoreau’s argument is the implicit claim that decisions cannot be rightfully made on the basis of the deliberation and agreement of the majority, but through an appeal to conscience. In that conscience is for Thoreau only found in the individual and never in groups (unless the groups are comprised of conscientious individuals acting in their capacity as conscientious individuals), the decision making process he advocates is, it would appear, fundamentally undemocratic. It is the purpose of this chapter to explain what Thoreau means as well as to explain the necessary non-democratic aspects of the democratic process.

We should not misinterpret what Thoreau means by “conscience,” or, rather, underestimate such a faculty. While conscience here retains its common meaning of a “moral sense” by which we determine right from wrong, it is not relativistic. The last line of the above passage informs this reading. There Thoreau seems to state that obligations are taken on through a choice, well-informed or otherwise. However, in the previous sentence he contrasts “law” with “right.” If we understand “right” in the context of chapter two, as a power coextensive with its exercise, then we must also understand that such rights are not simply taken on or left aside through a choice, but are obligations in the strongest sense of the term. So to follow conscience, or more appropriately to have a conscience, is to always do what one thinks is right. More specifically, to have a conscience is to use that conscience to the extent that one cannot do anything but what is right.

The difficulty for democracy, according to Thoreau, is that while individuals can and do make use of their consciences, groups of people, taken in total, lose their ability to distinguish between right and wrong, a fact that is demonstrated during voting procedures.

All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote. (392)

That there is an election day once per year does less to afford right action than it does to obfuscate the structuring of action in a specific form. Along with Thoreau, thinkers as historically and politically diverse as Alexis de Toqueville, Carl Schmitt, and Derrida have made clear that voting is not what is important for democracy. What is clear, and here we must extend Thoreau’s discussion of this issue, is that voting, while necessary, is action in a form dictated by the state. It is rationality applied to human action, the naturalization of what Thoreau calls conscience. In that it is the design of a group rather than an individual, it is not guaranteed to be in the right. In that it operates according to juridical structures, it is manipuable in the manner of the history described in chapter one. I do not mean to suggest that elections can be bought or that elections are fraudulent (although both cases are sometimes true). Rather, what I would like to consider is the manner in which the juridical impinges upon the natural, how law (and the representations surrounding it) constrains right.

Most importantly, what I would like to offer is an analysis of the manner in which right must be brought to bear in the name of law, how juridical structures, how democratic institutions, can only ever be effectively democratic by allowing that which is not democratic to influence their behaviors. This statement is no doubt one that will cause concern, and I would like to be able to address it immediately. However, in order to do so effectively I will first turn to a further discussion of right in the context of democracy in order to demonstrate the tenuous legitimacy of democracy itself as well as the problematic legitimation it affords.

Continue reading

Everything looks worse in black and white: Graphic Violence in From Hell: My Proposal for ROMOCOCO:

Posted in papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , on 1 March 2013 by Ben

It’s not quite BI-MON-SCI-FI-CON (“Be there and be square!”), but ROMOCOCO (The Rocky Mountain Comic Convention) has a great name. and now it has this proposal to consider.

Everything looks worse in black and white: Graphic Violence in From Hell

Benjamin J. Robertson

In the early 1970s, I recall looking through HBO’s monthly guide and discovering that among the reasons a film might be rated R was something called “graphic violence.” My parents explained that graphic violence involved a lot of blood. For years I understood the word graphic to mean something like “gratuitous and visual.”

From Hell is an unquestionably violent text and a certain amount of this violence seems to be graphic in the manner of those movies on HBO after the kids are sent to bed. Absent, of course, in From Hell’s black-and-white artwork, are the red of the blood and the sheen of the guts of Sir William Gull’s victims. And while HBO’s definition of “graphic” applies to this text, its another form of “graphic violence” that is all the more notable in it.

This paper investigates the manner in which From Hell’s black-and-white artwork interacts with, underscores, and augments the text’s themes of violence and history. The most violent aspect of the text is not its portrayal of the relentlessness of William Gull but the relentlessness of its representational strategy. Moore and Campbell offer no respite from the onslaught of rough black-and-white images, images which assault the reader with their sameness and with their inability to render any clarity. Far from offering the simplicity or morality that “black and white” implies (following from, for example, the nostalgia we feel for the image of the 1950s given us in the television reruns from that era), From Hell instead offers the past as an elaborate sketch. Indeed, From Hell appears to the reader as more of a study for some as yet incompletely imagined work than it does a finished product.

The Illegible and the Interface

Posted in papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 24 February 2013 by Ben

Another conference paper (given two or three times) from the vaults that never went anywhere more productive. I don’t know what happens at the end. So many of these papers just sort of trail off. The session must have been starting and I had to “finish” writing.

————————————————-

Derrida, in Dissemination: “a readability without a signified (which will be decreed to be an unreadability by the reflexes of fright)” (253)

Bremer - Untitled

Claus Bremer – Untitled

In an early critical evaluation of concrete poetry, RP Draper writes:

In European printed language it is an automatic assumption that letters forming words are separated by space from other letters forming words, that these letters march across the page from left to right, and that the lines so formed are strictly parallel and progress downwards at equal intervals. Concrete poetry plays upon these expectations, but itself takes nothing for granted.

Among his many examples of this “taking nothing for granted, Draper notes that the spacing between words may be erased, as in Ilse and Pierre Garnier’s “cinema”, shown here

Garniers - cinema

Ilse and Pierre Garnier – “cinema”

[Sorry for the quality of the scan]

Continue reading

MLA 07 Paper: Sameness or, the Declaration of Futuristic Democracy

Posted in papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 24 February 2013 by Ben

Another one from the vaults. Although I am certain that I am making mistakes in my readings of the various thinkers I engage here, I am nevertheless rather proud of this paper, which was easily the most well-received of any paper I have ever given. It is also much more coherent. I must have put a lot more effort into conference papers back then.

————————————-

My plans for this paper initially included a formulation of a theory of declaration, a means by which to break the Sameness of the endless present, a means of destroying extant relationships, especially those that involve asymmetrical power. In fact, this declaration was to posit a means by which asymmetrical power can become symmetrical, much in the manner that Thoreau claims that a single just man can stand up to the power of the state and disrupt its hegemony. However, what I discovered in my thinking was that, far from interrupting Sameness, declaration, as it is understood historically and in the context of documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, far from being that which interrupts Sameness and inaugurates the future, is that which produces Sameness. It is thus, in my argument, an agent of the futuristic, a false future that is merely an extrapolation from the present. This paper is about this issue.

Throughout his work Giorgio Agamben returns to Aristotle’s conception of the ground, that formulation through which things are categorized. As he puts it in The Open, in reference to a passage from De anima, “Here we see at work that principal of foundation which constitutes the strategic device par excellance of Aristotle’s thought. It consists in reformulating every question concerning ‘what something is’ as a question concerning ‘through what something belongs to another thing’” (14). Following from his attention to the Aristotelian ground, Agamben is concerned in much of his work on biopolitics with the question of inclusion and exclusion and the role it plays in the modern nation-state.

Similarly, Carl Schmitt turns to Aristotle in the preface to the second edition of The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, where he first notes that the notion of government by discussion, parliamentarianism, belongs not to democracy but, rather, to liberalism, a concept that Schmitt distinguishes from democracy. Writes Schmitt, cribbing from Aristotle’s Politics, “Every actual democracy rests on the principal that not only are equals equal but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second—if the need arises—elimination or eradication of heterogeneity” (9). Building upon his claim, Schmitt populates this equation with what, for Agamben and this paper, are problematic terms when he states that a “democracy demonstrates its political power by knowing how to refuse or keep at bay something foreign and unequal that threatens its homogeneity” (9). Schmitt would elaborate this distinction between the interior that is equal and the exterior that is not in The Concept of the Political, where he claims that the primary political opposition is that between friend and enemy. Agamben’s work marks a decisive turning away from Schmitt’s categories characterized by a reading of Aristotle that demonstrates the primacy of the formulation of the ground rather than the appearance of any particular instantiation of that formula. The significance of this turning away will become evident in the course of this paper.

Continue reading

MLA 08 paper: Corruption and Sameness in the Twenty-First-Century Oil Narrative

Posted in papers, Writing on 24 February 2013 by Ben

I’m forever bumping into old work that, while interesting to me at the time and even today, simply never went anywhere in terms of publication or as part of  a longer term project. I had been focused for a couple of years on a project called Corruption and Sameness, before I turned my attention to media and science fiction (separately and together. This was to be part of that, but it never got past the conference paper stage.

The first three sections are fairly coherent, even if they do not naturally transition into and out of one another. At the end, as is the case when I write anything, but especially conference papers, there is some miscellaneous stuff that I never had a chance to get into the body (for whatever reason–thanks Agamben). It breaks down a bit at the end of the second section and then again at the end of the third, during which I extemporized a bit–relying on my natural charm to see me through. I added in the two videos for this post.

——————————————–
I can only refer to this as a “paper” in the loosest sense of the term. It’s more a series of ideas. Or perhaps three propositions in search of an argument.

Part I: Technologies of the Same

The present state of affairs with regard to US energy policy/oil dependency, is, to me, untenable. That point is, it seems, unexceptionable in reasonable contexts, as demonstrated in documentaries such as A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash, A History of Oil, An Inconvenient Truth, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room. Of course, those contexts that count are, it seems, hardly reasonable, and, given those contexts, these texts are able to do little more than document problems; that is, they in no way set or even advise energy policy. This issue is not so much tied to this issue of rightness or wrongness, but rather to the fact that these truths are inconvenient.

The means by which these inconveniences are overcome, ignored, reconciled with other truths upon which they can gain no purchase, are what I call technologies of the same. They do nothing but sustain, even in the certain knowledge of, in fact the demonstration, unsustainability. I will discuss shortly Syriana, a film in which these technologies are on full display. Let me first mention an anecdote from the book upon which Syriana is based, ex-CIA field operative Robert Baer’s See No Evil. What’s odd about the fact that the film is based on the book is that the book has almost nothing to do with oil and is only at times about the Middle East. It is, instead, a personal history of time spent as an agent in CIA: recruiting assets and trying to get Washington to pay attention to what is actually happening in the world. Of such a moment, Baer writes: “But the point was that Washington’s fantasy about a nonviolent overthrow of Saddam helped the big thinkers there to sleep at night, and since we had no human resources inside or even near Saddam’s circle—none—there was nothing to bring them back down to earth” (175). Here Baer is not referring to the relatively recent “greetings with flowers” Cheney and Rumsfeld described, but rather to the political climate in 1995. Later, in reference to a coup attempt in Iraq that same year, one that failed largely because of a US refusal of support, Baer writes, “I knew enough about the way Washington worked to know that when it didn’t like some piece of information, it did everything in its power to discredit the messengers, which in this case were Chalabi and the general. So the corporate line in Washington was that nothing had happened in Iraq on March 4, nothing at all. Frankly, at that point, I wondered if Washington was right” (205). Perhaps it is, after postmodernism, too easy to state that these examples demonstrate yet again that representations often trump materiality, that discourse shapes the world. However, it cannot be said often enough that such representations clearly serve the interests of those with power. Most important, what must also be thought is the nature of these interests, which are not interests in the sense that they will pay actual dividends. That is, they are not financial interests, so to speak, just as we are not here discussing energy futures but rather the future of energy. We must think of these interests as something like what Ralph Ellison calls, in one of my favorite lines, “those lies [the] keepers keep their power by” (439). In other words, these present no opportunity for gain, as Washington’s inaction in 1995 demonstrate—whatever you think about outsing Saddam Hussein, you must recognize that such an event would have represented progress of some sort for Washington in 1995; rather than gain, they merely present the opportunity for more of the same, for the powerful to do what they do: congratulate each other for being powerful for the sake of being powerful over cognac and cigars.

Continue reading

A paragraph from my essay on Watchmen, about Dylan, superheroes, and nostalgia

Posted in Writing with tags , , on 20 February 2013 by Ben

Even as it reveals the always already fragmented nature of the ideal nostalgia takes as its object, Watchmen’s preoccupation with Dylan underscores its own, ironic perhaps, nostalgic dimension. The novel makes use of three Dylan lyrics. The first two, from “Desolation Row” and “All Along the Watchtower,” Moore and Gibbons explicitly attribute to their respective sources. (I shall have more to say about “Desolation Row” below.) They serve as epigraphs for two of the novel’s twelve chapters, and therefore operate outside of Watchmen’s fictional world, as if perhaps Dylan himself never existed there (indeed, he is never referenced by name in the story itself). Much as the novel posits an American nostalgia for the simplicity of superhero morality, these references to Dylan to suggest a nostalgia for Dylan himself, for a time when Dylan made sense, or perhaps for a superheroic Dylan who could make sense of the world by simplifying its problems into anthemic songs. The novel seems to long for a world which never existed even as it demonstrates the fact that, had superheroes existed, they could not have created a better future.

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

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Teaching with tags , , , , , , , on 10 February 2013 by Ben

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

Further notes on Parable of the Talents

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Teaching with tags , , , , , , on 10 February 2013 by Ben

Some further thoughts on Butler’s novel, with regard to the question of entering history.

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)
  • 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

some notes on media and history in Octavia Buter’s Parable of the Talents

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Teaching with tags , , , , , on 10 February 2013 by Ben

These are some half-finished teaching notes on Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents. I write lots of teaching notes, but I am posting these because they are becoming central to my thinking for my upcoming SFRA paper on genre and media as well as to my ongoing project on genre, Here at the End of All Things. What follows in this post are part of the notes for a class last week. In the next post I will continue some further thoughts on history that intersect with the issue of writing and media.

Again, these are notes. I fill in a lot when I speak and skip some stuff that does not work with the direction class discussion takes.

reading, writing, and media in PotT

  • I noted last time that this is a somewhat more complex novel than many of Butler’s previous ones
    • many if not all of her novels to this point were narrated by a single person from a rather consistent point of view
      • some of these characters were men and some women (one was neither)
      • some were human and some were not (most were something in between)
      • all of these texts were narrated, but none of them (to my recollection) were WRITTEN (except for PotS, which was entirely Lauren’s journals and Earthseed writings)
    • but this text is comprised of various WRITTEN texts (by Bankole, by Lauren, now by Marcos, and by Lauren’s daughter) and compiled by an editor (Lauren’s daughter
      • we can go even further and distinguish between Lauren’s journal and her Earthseed writings as well
    • other texts thematize writing
      • Dawn deals in part with Lilith’s need to write and the fact that the Oankali won’t let her at first
        • and it MAY be that that book is written, but not clear that this is the case
      • Kindred is very much about writing, but it does not make clear that the book is written
  • in any case, the fact is that this novel is composed of writing, and this is very significant for both what it means and for how it works, the latter being relevant for your paper
    • the question that springs immediately to mind is, who are we in this novel?
      • that is, how does the novel position us as readers?
      • WHEN are we reading this novel, given that it has been written down and edited?
  • we are, in fact, FUTURE readers of these texts, no?
    • and we are future readers after an era of mass illiteracy
      • we know that illiteracy is widespread in 2032 and 2033, when the novel takes place
      • 19: mass illiteracy (related to fantasies theme of decline in which skills are lost)
      • relates to the “horrible and ordinary”: 56

 

history in PotT

  • Butler often thematizes history, perhaps most obviously in Kindred and Wild Seed but also in Xenogenesis (which is a novel that takes place after history in several respects)
  • when we hear the word “history” here we should not understand it to refer to WHAT happened, but the writing down of what happened in the form of a narrative
    • history is, by one definition, human time
    • what is recorded is history, and what is not is prehistorical or ahistorical, before or outside of history
    • when we refer to history we are referring to the human construction of time and the time in which meaningful events take place
      • meaning only takes place within history and for those who take part in history
      • for example, according to Western thought animals do not take part in history because for them the world has no meaning; things simple happen
  • and because history is involved with meaning, it is always involved with interpretation, bias, choice, and power
    • history is never simply “true”
    • we can see examples of conflicting and conflicted histories at several points early in the text
      • Jarret on “a simpler time”: 19
      • mythical golden age of mid 20th c: 52
    • history here is subject to interpretation and the person with the most power has the greatest authority to interpret history, has the greatest ability to make that interpretation stick