Wednesday, January 4, 2012

You say you want a revolution

Joseph Skvorecky, a survivor of both Nazi and Communist regimes, is quoted:
In 1981, long before the Iron Curtain fell, Mr. Skvorecky shared a stage in Toronto with Margaret Atwood, Allen Ginsberg and others who were discussing “The Writer and Human Rights.” He said that an artist must be a reactionary, to stand out from his culture by offering “some little opposition.”
“Frankly, I feel frustrated whenever I have to talk about revolution for the benefit of people who have never been through one,” he said. “They are — if you’ll excuse the platitude — like a child who doesn’t believe that fire hurts, until he burns himself. I, my generation, my nation, have been involuntarily through two revolutions, both of them socialist: one of the right variety, one of the left. Together they destroyed my peripheral vision.”

Compare, oh, say Ursula LeGuin, in "The Day Before the Revolution" (1974):
Amai had grown up in Odonion Houses, born to the Revolution, a true daughter of anarchy.  And so quiet and free and beautiful a child, enough to make you cry when you thought: this is what we worked for , this is what we meant, this is it, here she is, alive, the kindly, lovely future.
reprinted in Claeys and Sargent, The Utopia Reader, p. 413

She does try to evade the peripheries via "anarchy", but, as I think we've seen (Spanish Civil War, etc.), this simply makes her revolutionaries  inept, not less burning. And LeGuin is certainly an example of someone who's been chastened to some degree at least by the 20th century:
There would not be slums like this, if the revolution prevailed. But there would be misery. There would always be misery, waste, cruelty. She had never pretended to be changing the human condition,... So long as people were free to choose [!], if they chose to drink flybane and live in sewers, it was their business. Just so long as it wasn't the business of Business, the source of profit and the means of power for other people. 
pp. 417-8

But note the old, almost medieval scarecrows of "Business" and "profit". 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

History vs. Utopia

Once upon a time, as I've said elsewhere, I was a socialist, and a "Marxian" if not a Marxist (the former indicating, not  a being from the planet Marx, but simply strong but not uncritical influence). In those days, this position was strongly associated with the idea of History (the upper case indicating that this was a special sort of abstraction). Indeed, in those days it was clear to we socialists that History was on our side, and this was a conviction built right in to the intellectual structure of the system. You can get a taste of this conviction from a passage like this, in Darko Suvin's overview of Science fiction:
When the industrial revolution becomes divorced from the democratic one [a way of putting the fact that capitalism has not given way to socialism] -- a divorce which is the fundamental political event of the bourgeois epoch -- activism becomes exasperated and leads to the demand for another epistemological and practical break, signalled by Blake's Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land and the cosmic "passionate attraction" of Fourier's phalansteries. Such imaginative energies converge in Marx, the great prefigurator of the imaginative shift still being consummated in our times.
Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, pp. 73-4 (emphasis added) 

It would never have done, of course, to admit that there might be elements of faith in such a conviction -- rather, it was always insisted that this historical bias or tendency was a matter of science, the science of history, aka dialectical materialism. But this was hardly the sort of politically disinterested science that is content to follow wherever research and observation points -- nor was it even politicized science. It was, from the beginning, a wholly political project that simply assumed or appropriated the mantle of science. And its notion of History, therefore, as a kind of force that constructs and controls the future was always merely the expression of a political desire or wish or dream.

Not unlike, ironically, the notion of Utopia. Except, of course, that Utopia is the wish or dream stripped bare, its cloak of "science" and inevitability torn away. Now, Suvin's remarks above were published sometime in 1979, before Thatcher and Reagan, and before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the global disintegration of communism or "actually existing socialism". Since all that, the confident faith that we see in Suvin has certainly been tried, and in many cases has crumbled. And with that, it's not surprising, however pathetic, to see the former believers return to musing about Utopia again, sometimes, as we see in Jameson in 2005, with a kind frustrated defiance. Contrast the tone of the passage below with the blithe confidence of the Suvin passage above:
The relationship between Utopia and the political, as well as questions about the practical-political value of Utopian thinking and the identification between socialism and Utopia [!?], very much continue to be unresolved topics today, when Utopia seems to have recovered its vitality as a political slogan and a politically energizing perspective.
... What is crippling is not the presence of an enemy but rather the universal belief, not only that this tendency is irreversible, but that the historic alternatives to capitalism have been proven unviable and impossible, and that no other socio-economic system is conceivable, let alone practically available. The Utopians not only offer to conceive of such alternate systems; Utopian form is itself a representational mediation on radical difference, radical otherness, and on the systemic nature of the social totality,...
Archaeologies of the Future, pp. xi-xii


On the analogy to "anti-anti-communism" (Sartre):
... even if we can no longer adhere with an unmixed conscience [!] to this unreliable form [of Utopia], we can now have recourse to that ingenious [!] political slogan Sartre invented to find his way between a flawed communism and an even more unaccaeptable anti-communism. ... for those only too wary of the motives of its critics [!?], yet no less conscious of Utopia's structural ambiguities, those mindful of the very real political function of the idea and the program of Utopia in our time, the slogan of anti-anti-Utopianism might well offer the best working strategy.
Jameson,  Archaeologies of the Future, p. xvi

 Noteworthy for its moral, political, and cultural defensiveness -- the siege mentality of the contemporary Left. Akin, in this, to the replacement of "socialism" with "anti-capitalism" among the lumpen "masses".

Underlying it is also a rather bizarre notion of a separation between "art and culture" and "the social" -- "a separation that inaugurates culture as a realm in its own right and defines it as such". But then 
... that very distance of culture from its social context which allows it to function as a critique and indictment of the latter also dooms its interventions to ineffectuality and relegates art and culture to a frivolous, trivialized space in which such intersections are neutralized in advance.
p. xv
But, amid the confusions, bad faith, and special pleading involved in such contortions, you can feel a real pathos in such passages. And perhaps a certain courage, in facing the loss of belief, unaccompanied by any foundational alternative.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Were it not that I have bad dreams

Would be interesting to know how much this is representative, albeit in a more intense way, of its intellectual/academic, ideological milieu -- from the Crooked Timber blog:
Ever since I was very young I have been able to recognize that I was dreaming (not always). The first time was awful and thus memorable: I dreamed that robbers had driven down our driveway and shot my mother and father and brother and me with shotguns. And our dog. I was in terrible pain, full of buckshot and slick with blood, but I realized that I couldn’t die, in my own dream. So I thought I would go scare the robbers, that they would think I was a ghost and maybe I could call 911, maybe my family hadn’t bled out in the yard under the big oak tree. But when I came in they laughed and said some of the worst words I have ever heard, then or since: “this is your dream. We can kill you as many times as we like.
Since then I have developed the ability to wake myself up if the dream is so awful that I can’t bear it. But since I never had anything but nightmares for years and years, with the odd exception, shit has to get pretty rough before I can pull the ripcord and sit up in bed, panting. Oddly for a person my age, I have done Freudian analysis, 3x a week on the couch just like a New Yorker cartoon, for a whole year. The goal was that I stop having nightmares. The therapy was very successful. For a time I had no nightmares at all. Even now they are scattered and few compared to my earlier life. My sister’s experience is the same, and our evening kiss good-night was always followed my the ultimate benediction: “don’t dream!”
This is representative of early childhood, I think, but the idea of "Freudian analysis, 3x a week on the couch just like a New Yorker cartoon, for a whole year" as necessary to rid an adult of bad dreams does point to other and deeper anxieties than the fears of a young child. And there's at least an irony in the notion of a person ideologically predisposed toward the idea of social control being terrified by the horrific and out-of-control creations of their own sleeping imagination. 

P.S.: Might "lucid dreaming" be a short description of socialism?

Transcendentalism and its appeal

Thoreau, Walden (order rearranged):
Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can callreality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d'appui,(27) below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer,(28) but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter,(29)and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.

Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry — determined to make a day of it. Why should we knock under and go with the stream? Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner, situated in the meridian shallows. Weather this danger and you are safe, for the rest of the way is down hill. With unrelaxed nerves, with morning vigor, sail by it, looking another way, tied to the mast like Ulysses.(26) If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they are like.

 Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.
Note the glimmers of a more mundane focus, though: "if we are alive, let us go about our business", or "I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born" (even if "wise" isn't quite the right word -- it's the craving "only reality" that underlies his regret). 

Friday, February 4, 2011

What if we were in Utopia?

Would we know it? Can Utopia only be seen from the outside?

Quotes boingboing, from a 1935 issue of Popular Mechanics:
Imagine, if you can, the delight of the woman who steps into her "ready made" house and finds the kitchen already equipped with electric refrigerator, dishwasher, sink, electric or gas stove, built-in clock, abundant cupboard space--and even a two-day supply of groceries on the shelves. And she never will be bothered by cooking odors because an electric exhaust quickly removes smoke, dust and fumes from the kitchen. In addition to the windows, indirect lighting gives plenty of illumination for her work in the compactly designed room.
In the bathroom, this same housewife will find bathtub complete with shower and anti-splash curtain, the large basin that also may serve as the baby's bathtub, triple adjustable mirrors for her husband's morning shave and an extra electric heater for warming up the room quickly. The conditioned air issues from grills set into the wall near the floor and a built-in clock tells the "man of the house" just how long he has before his train or street car comes along.
 But forget trains or street cars -- now we all have cars, with radios that play Mozart in the morning. But, as a reminder that even Utopia still has flaws, there are the "walls of asbestos-cement".

Monday, December 27, 2010

The reified future

From J. D. Bernal, "The World, the Flesh, and the Devil" (1929):
The whole question is one largely of numbers, and would become entirely so as soon as the quantity and quality of population were controlled by authority. From one point of view the scientists would emerge as a new species and leave humanity behind; from another, humanity - the humanity that counts - might seem to change en bloc, leaving behind in a relatively primitive state those too stupid or too stubborn to change. The latter view suggests another biological analogy: there may not be room for both types in the same world and the old mechanism of extinction will come into play. The better organized beings will be obliged in self-defense to reduce the numbers of the others, until they are no longer seriously inconvenienced by them. If, as we may well suppose, the colonization of space will have taken place or be taking place while these changes are occurring, it may offer a very convenient solution. Mankind - the old mankind - would be left in undisputed possession of the earth, to be regarded by the inhabitants of the celestial spheres with a curious reverence. The world might, in fact, be transformed into a human zoo, a zoo so intelligently managed that its inhabitants are not aware that they are there merely for the purposes of observation and experiment.
That prospect should please both sides: it should satisfy the scientists in their aspirations towards further knowledge and further experience, and the humanists in their looking for the good life on earth. But somehow it fails by the very virtue of its being a possible and probable solutions on the lines of our own knowledge. We do not really expect or want the probable; all, even the least religious, retain in their minds when they think of the future, an idea of the deus ex machina, of some transcendental, superhuman event which will, without their help, bring the universe to perfection or destruction. We want the future to be mysterious and full of supernatural power; and yet these very aspirations, so totally removed from the physical world, have built this material civilization and will go on building it into the future so long as there remains any relation between aspiration and action. But can we count on this? Or, rather, have we not here the criterion which will decide the direction of human development? We are on the point of being able to see the effects of our actions and their probable consequences in the future; we hold the future still timidly, but perceive it for the first time, as a function of our own action. Having seen it, are we to to turn away from something that offends the very nature of our earliest desires, or is the recognition of our new powers sufficient to change those desires into the service of the future which they will have to bring about?
(emphasis added) 

Interesting to note that he classes "[man's] desires and fears, his imaginations and stupidities" under the Devil.

Note too the tight relationship between the notions of "science" and "the future"  (of which the making of both into opaque things is only a facet) -- as expressed here, they're co-dependent.


Radical architecture

From Mark Dow, "Span: A Remembrance" (NYTimes, Opinionator, Dec 22/10):
Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) believed the pier, the lintel, and the arch to be the basic elements of architecture. He called these “the three physical facts, the three symbols, I might say the three letters, which constitute the alphabet of our art.” One might imagine pier and lintel to have come first, and the arch to have followed, but Sullivan felt that all three arrived together as the result of a single imperative: span.
Proposition: One has no right to move until one can say why, why what, or at least account for it all, from the chair one was sitting on to the floor underneath it, back in time to the beginning, and forward from his getting up, if I ever did, into all contingencies. Can each thing depend on the preceding and on the subsequent thing, and be independent of them, too? The same sound will sound different according to the notes that follow and precede. Goes something like this. Preceding one: one: one subsequent to. Till eventually, after pursuing philosophy a ways into its own willful removal from what supposedly mattered to it, or had, and where it did, in my mind, do me well, I realized I was always left wanting. Needed to try to articulate the underneath of the mattering, of which I felt more certain than of anything, though I didn’t have exact words for it, or did I. Now I think I must have been paralyzed first, and that the philosophy only came afterward to justify or bind or slip me down its rope-ladder toward exactitude and escape.
Late into the early morning, in the red brick of Connecticut Hall, a student sat scrutinizing each clause’s passage of Aristotle in English out of the preceding one into the next. Metaphysics doesn’t mean esoteric or philosophical. It means “after physics.” It was called that because it came after his chapter on physics and there was no other name for the stuff. The building, oldest in New Haven, its construction financed in part by the colonies’ sale of a captured French ship, floated on the illusion of a rectangle of lawn inset into a larger lawn. Sidewalks joined at right angles, passed under stone archways into which steel gates had been set. Unsupported assumptions and flawed links, tiny knots in the grain planed flush by repeated but abandoned curiosity, hiccuped in the passageways. The student had no way of seeing that teasing the tiny knots to the surface and scratching at them until they came undone would set nothing free, or did he. He picked at his fingernails to minimize himself and get the damn world aligned.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Decadence and depravity

Decadence has both an outside and an inside. From the outside, it's simply a condition -- of resignation, self-contentment, ennui, without hope or despair. From the inside, though, it's a pose or posture -- as in Wilde or Beardsley -- a kind of rococo cool. Such a pose may or may not be itself a sign of genuine, or external decadence.

And depravity may or may not be an aspect of decadence. If it is, then it may be assumed, as part of the pose. But it can certainly be found on its own, as a condition characterized by indulgence in appetite, desire, or drive without moral considerations of any sort. Some may be born depraved, as in psychopathy, and some may become so. The latter at least have the possibility of extricating themselves from the condition -- the chance, in other words, of redemption.

Even psychopaths, i.e., the congenitally depraved, however, may learn to overcome their disability, as many do, to various degrees (making them notoriously difficult to detect). As a rule, we are all born with various instincts, including both moral and social instincts. The latter have to do with an implicit understanding of basic feelings and expectations in social situations, and those who lack these, even in varying degrees, are commonly assigned some position in a spectrum of autism disorders. The former, or moral instincts, have to do with an implicit understanding of basic fairness, justice, right and wrong, and it's interesting to consider the possibility that those who lack these, to whatever degree, might fit similarly on some spectrum of psychopathic disorders.

More interesting still is the question of how these instincts and their respective disorders might be related. Looking at them just as sets of instincts, one would tend to think of them as closely related, since social and moral behavior seem so intertwined. Yet psychopaths often have excellent social skills, and can use these skills to compensate for their lack of moral awareness; and similarly, I think, autistic people often have a strong moral sense, even if it's not always expressed in socially "appropriate" ways. So perhaps these kinds of instincts are more distinct than we might think?


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Liberal guilt

A pervasive theme in Elementory -- the association of moral uncertainty with ontological uncertainty. It's a peculiar re-emergence at a time when the draining away of traditional religious "faith" has left people more exposed than ever, and when science only seems to spiral down into ever more incomprehensible and alien, even artificial, non-human "realities". The old religions, of course, had guilt aplenty to dispense, starting with Original Sin -- a concept insulting to the modern notion of the individual, but useful to a traditional social matrix as a way of asserting a kind of universal equality in compensation for hierarchy. But that was a taught guilt -- liberal guilt, on the other hand, is a free-floating, self-generating phenomenon, kind of like what happens to a flywheel when its load is removed. (But also consider Trillings' comment re: Freud, that his resort to a "death instinct" stemmed from a desire to find a source of moral gravity again, in the absence of religion; both metaphors, however -- flywheel and gravity -- may operate here.)

Let's say that such guilt constitutes a theme of Elementory, where it's especially pertinent to the first half -- in fact it becomes a lever in the hands of the main antagonist. To quote from some earlier notes:
And now consider how such a theme might relate to the larger theme of contrasting appearance-as-screen with appearance-as-foundation. The issue is complex, but free-floating, as opposed to specific, guilt acts as a source of moral gravity for those perpetually troubled by the sense of an abyss over which they hover -- i.e., specifically for those lacking a sense of a foundation or bedrock on which to stand.
This is the explanation for that bien pensant "concern" that so often manifests itself in these circles. In the second half, then, would be nice to contrast real or substantive guilt.


Monday, December 13, 2010


In the first place, we've seen that utopia needs the protection of fiction so as not to be merely sad. And we also know, of course, that utopia needs the protection of removal, either in space or time. And for these reasons, fiction that's removed in both senses -- i.e., fiction of the off-world future -- seems to have an inherently utopian element to it, as Jameson suggests, I think, in his Archeologies of the Future.

Along these lines, here's a wondrous site/sight, and a primary resource:  Atomic Rockets. Filled with facts, possibilities, calculators, links, and images -- e.g.:

That graphic was used for the end pages of a series of juvenile (these days "young adult") science fiction books published in the 1950's, and though it might seem innocuous enough now, then it inspired awe, nervous excitement (as did Gort the robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still) , and a sense of a wondrously open possibility in stark contrast to the banality of everyday waking life. A sense that, when you think about it, is a principle characteristic of utopias of all sorts, is it not?


Sunday, December 12, 2010

New blog: Paleo-future

"A look into the future that never was" (see Blogs on the right too). Organized by decade, from 1870's to 1990's (the 2000's, presumably, not being that paleo, yet), peaks in the 1960's. Sample, from 1957:

Full Image

The "About Me" entry links to the Wikipedia entry on "Retro-futurism": "... retro-futurism explores the themes of tension between past and future, and between the alienating and empowering effects of technology." More:
Retro-futurism incorporates two overlapping trends which may be summarized as the future as seen from the past and the past as seen from the future.
The first trend, retro-futurism proper, is directly inspired by the imagined future which existed in the minds of writers, artists, and filmmakers in the pre-1960 period who attempted to predict the future, either in serious projections of existing technology (e.g. in magazines like Science and Invention) or in science fiction novels and stories. Such futuristic visions are refurbished and updated for the present, and offer a nostalgic, counterfactual image of what the future might have been, but is not.
The second trend is the inverse of the first: futuristic retro. It starts with the retro appeal of old styles of art, clothing, mores, and then grafts modern or futuristic technologies onto it, creating a mélange of past, present, and future elements. Steampunk, a term applying both to the retrojection of futuristic technology into an alternative Victorian age, and the application of neo-Victorian styles to modern technology, is a highly successful version of this second trend.
In practice, the two trends cannot be sharply distinguished, as they mutually contribute to similar visions.

Space and utopia

Curious that more hasn't been made of that connection -- space as in "outer space" as a venue for utopia. There's Robinson's Mars trilogy, of course, and there's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but what else? The Soviet-era Andromeda hardly counts, since it makes no real use of space, and the same point rules out LeGuin's The Dispossessed, though both are certainly utopian. The point of space as a utopian locale is that, like any frontier, it represents the possibility of making a "fresh start", a possibility that the Mars trology exploits quite openly, and that Heinlein's novel obviously uses as well. In that sense, there might be a few other Heinlein books that are fringe utopian candidates as well, such as Farmer in the Sky, which (as best I can recall) does use the idea of creating a new society. And, for that matter, that's part of the appeal of apocalyptic fiction too, no? The idea that, having cleared out the social/cultural/political deadwood, we now have a chance to start over and do it right. But in general, though it's common enough to locate utopia in far off islands or lost valleys, and very common to locate it in the future, we don't often see them in space.

Well, but then I remember the spate of non-fiction books like Gerard K. O'Neill's The High Frontier, or T.A. Heppenheimer's Colonies in Space, certainly utopian tracts if they're anything -- e.g., the prominent blurb on the O'Neill cover: "Space colonies -- hope for your future", and on Heppenheimer's: "Take an expedition to dream cities in the stars!".


Something sad in those blurbs, isn't there? Not just their earnest naivete, or, more likely, their blatant hucksterism in attempting to appeal to people desperate for hope and dreams, but also, now, in their obvious failure. In all that, though, they're not unlike the architectural utopianism of modernism, as in Le Corbusier's "ville radieuse" or Hugh Ferriss' Metropolis of Tomorrow.

This too now just seems dated and silly, as, sadly, Metropolis itself does. Still, the point of fictionalizing utopia may well be to protect it from reality's dash of cold water.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Floating cities

See  Float!: Building on Water to Combat Urban Congestion and Climate Change by Koen Olthuis and David Keuning

Reviewed in BLDGBLOG:
A remarkably stimulating read, Float! falls somewhere between design textbook, aquatic manifesto, and environmental exhortation to explore architecture's offshore future. Water-based urban redesign; public transportation over aquatic roadways; floating barge-farms (as well as floating prisons); maneuverable bridges; entire artificial archipelagoes...
... Float! is an excellent resource for any design studio or seminar looking at the future of floating structures in an age of flooding cities.
So, a start.

10 trillion human beings could have 10 times the surface space per capita of the average urban environment today and leave most of today's land surface clear of human occupation, but only by occupying perhaps as much as half of the current sea surface (double the total land area) with a global city extending below the surface at least a mile on average and rising perhaps two miles on average -- i.e., we'd need to layer human occupation. And, in order not to swamp the existing land with the water displaced by the city, would need to excavate the equivalent of half the ocean to an average depth of a mile -- big job! But perhaps just an aspect of finding the building materials with which to construct the city over the course of a millennium anyway.


The idea of narrative

Imagine a great matrix of characters, events, places, scenes, conversations, causes and effects, motives, emotions, purposes, actions, etc. -- continual, pervasive. The raw material of narrative everywhere, in huge quantities. How then do you turn that material into actual narrative?

You need to add a structure. And, I think, you can do that with anything, literally. Just today, e.g., think of the young dad in the Blenz coffee shop with his bright, laughing, 3 year old daughter, who likes going up to the counter by herself asking for a napkin, head barely able to see over its edge, but who knows how to order a decaf lattay, the dad striking up a conversation with the young woman with her shopping bags sitting by herself with a picked up give-away tabloid, her starting it though, bringing up her niece and nephew.

Or the two boys maybe about 8 with the young mom in the Wendy's, the boys all "Dude! You're still afraid of the roller coaster!?" "Yeah," from the other off-handedly, no hint of chagrin, the mom with her iPhone, but which she's at least partly using to play some sort of guessing game with the boys, only one of whom I think is her son, and that one going at one point,"How did I live when I was in your belly?" (no idea what brought that up), and the mom saying, "Okay, you know your belly button? Right? Your belly button?" "Yeah," goes the boy, a little puzzled, "Well," says the mom, "that's where you had a tube that connected you with my uterus, which is a sack that held you and fed food to you through that tube".

Consider either as incidents that could seed a narrative -- at the start or middle or end or even climax. But those are the parts of the structure that's needed to turn raw material into narrative product, which is what's meant by the "arc" -- traditionally at least that arc is built out of tension, requiring some kind of conflict, that rises to a climax and then falls away. Like music.

The main point being that story is dense, thick, a plenitude, but in the raw or seedling form -- what realizes it as narrative is tension, that provides the possiblity (though not in itself the reality) of structure. And that's what requires invention.


Friday, December 10, 2010

3011 AD

The 1000-year future  -- pop: 10 trillion. That's trillion.

This began as a thought experiment to do with the so-called "carrying capacity" of the earth, which is supposed to be strained or exceeded  at current levels of population. Consider 3 orders of magnitude:

  • First, look back some 8000 years, at a global population 1/1000 of today's, or about 10 million human beings -- some roaming bands, some fishers, some early farmers perhaps, all starting to crowd against one another. An early population crisis, as the earth approaches its carrying capacity for Neolithic cultures.
  • Then look ahead 1000 years, say, and consider a population 1000 times as large as our current.
    • A single super-city covering a substantial portion of the ocean surface area, as well as extensive underground capacity. (If the ocean city floated or extended below sea-level, it would displace enough water to possibly drown the continents, to avoid which would need supports.)
    • Would also need a belt of equator-girdling space elevators to move excess population off planet in mass numbers, to enable population growth generally while keeping a steady-state population level on earth, finally.
    • Also need radiator vanes (connected to space elevators?) to dump waste heat?
Think of a classic Utopian narrative -- the sleepers awake, 1000 years hence. Or perhaps they're artificial constructs, in cloned bodies, with memories and selves built out of fragments from the past -- something they only learn at the climax.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

On the ambiguity of the anti-utopians

Berdiaff (or Berdyaev -- see p. 122) again:
The opponents of socialism say that socialism is a utopia and that it flies in the face of human nature. There is some ambiguity in this. It is not clear whether they do not want socialism on the ground that it is unrealizable, utopian, and a mere dream, or whether it is unrealizable because they do not want it and do everything in their power to hinder it and prevent it coming into being.
A good point, no? You might try to resolve the ambiguity by saying that what the anti-utopians struggle to prevent isn't the idealized but impossible utopia, but rather the all too possible attempt at utopia, which always turns dream into nightmare. But I don't think that's really Berdiaff's point -- nor Huxley's, at least in his Brave New World phase. No, their point is that the dream and the nightmare are really one and the same thing, the same social entity, simply seen from different perspectives....


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Kung fu and practice

Intriguing essay by Peimin Ni -- "Kung Fu for Philosophers":
An exemplary person may well have the great charisma to affect others but does not necessarily know how to affect others. In the art of kung fu, there is what Herbert Fingarette calls “the magical,” but “distinctively human” dimension of our practicality, a dimension that “always involves great effects produced effortlessly, marvelously, with an irresistible power that is itself intangible, invisible, unmanifest.”[2]
Consider the protagonist of Blood as one who, having a natural charisma, learns how to affect others.

And, more deeply, consider this philosophical turn, from a metaphysical/epistemological/ontological pursuit of truth, to a more aesthetic pursuit of a kind of beauty -- but beauty in the form of something done well, even a life done well.  Note too the link to speech as act as distinct from communication, referring to Austin's "performative" function of language.

All of which, however, is just a part of the Inversion -- to this Eastern emphasis on the practice of living we need to bring back, reintegrate a Western emphasis on knowledge, but constructed rather than discovered knowledge, and constructed on the basis of practice.


The epigraph to Brave New World

Utopias seem to be much more realizable than we formerly believed them to be. Now we find ourselves presented with another alarming question: how do we prevent their definitive realization? …Utopias are realizable. Life marches toward utopias. Perhaps a new century will begin, a century in which intellectuals and the cultivated class will dream of ways to evict utopias and return to a non-utopic society, less “perfect” and more free.”
Nicolas Berdiaff 

The source is a Russian writer (whose name is variously transliterated, often as Berdyaev), once a Marxist,   then a Christian existentialist theologian. The particular work is a French translation translated again into English under the titles of both The New Middle Ages (1924) and then as The End of Our Time (1933). Right in the midst of the great utopian "realizations" of the first half of the last century (The horror! The horror!) .

And so here we are now, a new century begun....


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Inversion illustrated

Start with the Flammarion woodcut:

Only think of it as, in a sense, reversed -- with the figure turned around and poking his head into the real world on the right.

I know, of course, that that doesn't quite work -- the point of the Inversion isn't the discovery of some other level or realm of the real, but rather the difference between discovery and construction. But note how the realm on the left might be taken as either the spiritual or scientific "reality" that lays behind or beyond the embodied life-world. Perhaps, then, the real usefulness of this famous woodcut is simply to illustrate an ironic similarity in outlook of fundamentalist (to some degree) religion and a positivist science -- little wonder the two are so often seen as at war.


The world, the flesh, and Merleau-Ponty

Which, I suppose, suggests that M-P is in some sense associated with the Devil -- well, at least in the sense of a rejection of the rejection of the world and flesh. That's important, but it isn't what distinguishes M-P himself. Here's an attempt to explain just that:
Merleau-Ponty's masterpiece, Phenomenology of Perception, was a bold, internally coherent attempt to overcome the problems of empiricism and rationalism in the Cartesian tradition of modern philosophy. As Dillon has shown in his Merleau-Ponty's Ontology, it is pedagogically instructive to introduce Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology as an attempt to resolve Meno's paradox. Meno's paradox, of course, is from the dialogue between Meno and Plato in Plato's Meno. Meno poses a dilemma to Plato: "But how will you look for something when you don't in the least know what it is? How on earth are you going to set up something you don't know as the object of your search? To put it another way, even if you come right up against it, how will you know that what you found is the thing you didn't know?"
Merleau-Ponty's existential-phenomenological epistemology and ontology can be seen as resolving the problem of Meno's paradox, and it does so by relentlessly demonstrating how both empiricism and rationalism fail to do so. Merleau-Ponty writes: "Empiricism cannot see that we need to know what we are looking for, otherwise we would not be looking for it, and intellectualism (rationalism) fails to see that we need to be ignorant of what we are looking for, or equally again we should not be searching." (Phenomenology of Perception)
Merleau-Ponty begins his phenomenology by giving primacy to perception. The phenomenologist, says Merleau-Ponty, returns "to the world which precedes (scientific description), (the world) of which science always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific characterization is an abstract and derivative sign language as is geography in relation to the countryside."
... In order to understand how Merleau-Ponty understands this subject-object dialogue, we first need to understand a new idea, something which Merleau-Ponty brought to phenomenology: the idea of the lived body.
For Merleau-Ponty, consciousness is not just something that goes on in our heads. Rather, our intentional consciousness is experienced in and through our bodies. With his concept of the lived body, Merleau-Ponty overcomes Descartes' mind-body dualism without resorting to physiological reductionism. Recall that for Descartes the body is a machine and the mind is what runs the machine. For Merleau-Ponty the body is not a machine, but a living organism by which we body-forth our possibilities in the world. The current of a person's intentional existence is lived through the body. We are our bodies, and consciousness is not just locked up inside the head. In his later thought, Merleau-Ponty talked of the body as "flesh," made of the same flesh of the world, and it is because the flesh of the body is of the flesh of the world that we can know and understand the world (see The Visible and the Invisible).
The idea of the lived body allows Merleau-Ponty to resolve Meno's paradox. The body is both transcendent and immanent. It is the "third term" between subject and object. I know that transcendent things exist because I can touch them, see them, hear them. But most importantly, I never know things in their totality, but always from an embodied perspective.
... I know when I've found what I'm looking for because the world is already pregnant with meaning in relation to my body. Things begin as ambiguous but become more determinate as I become bodily engaged with them. On the other hand, I do not already know what I am looking for, because the world transcends my total grasp. At any given time, the world as it is given includes not only what is revealed to me, but also what is concealed.