FOUND SUBJECTS at the Moonspeaker
Puzzling Over Authenticity (2019-01-10)
There are No Oppression Olympics (2019-06-05)
Consider the Source (2019-05-28)
More Reasons to Reject the Modern (2019-05-21)
Not too long ago I wrote about why we should refuse the notions of "modern" and "modernity," focussing primarily on Indigenous reasons for that. As that previous piece should have made evident, refusing these terms and the complexes of ideas attached to them has nothing to do with absurd attempts to return to some idealized past era, especially considering I have been writing about this alongside criticism of the new medievalism. Rejecting "modernity" has nothing to do with refusing to challenge and end oppression, quite the opposite, because as developed and applied, "modernity" and its accompanying ideas and rationalizations are tools of oppression. It is certainly true that this is too bad. It is always a shame when some idea, person, or practice can't live up to its hype. In the earlier thoughtpiece, I emphasized the meanings of "modern" derived from its roots in a latin word for "now." Here I want to take up a more detailed definition of the derivative term modernity, which comes from my readings in historiography. Here's the definition.
Modernity, the state of social organization in which people and social structures follow artificial rhythms and are no longer tied to a specific place or culture.
Sounds almost innocuous, doesn't it? After all, following artificial rhythms merely suggests that we use artificial lighting and so we can do things when the Sun isn't up. Many people conflate "modernity" with increased secularism, but that is hardly a given when there are at least four major proselytizing religions, two of which continue to serve as keystone rationalizations for colonialism, authoritarianism, and exploitation all over the world. They are only nominally tied to specific places, one each. The tie to place is not a mere head nod, like declaring "the west" to be wherever is originally west of troy, nowadays usually west of jerusalem. (See Richard Wawso's The Founding legend of Western Civilization for a brilliant tracing of this mode of pseudo-placing.) Alas, "modernity" is not so innocuous. The dissociation from any specific place serves a very specific dual purpose: colonialism and exploitation. In fact, "modernity" is argued for and framed in a way that equates it to a religion, and proselytizing for it neatly rationalizes every form of violence used to impose loss of placedness and sense of time everywhere people have them. A factory runs according to no mores of any specific place or time, it is an abstracted unit intended to be set up anywhere to organize maximally profitable labour – however profit may be defined – by a strictly controlled workforce. The same is true of highly standardized housing. In moderation, keyed to specific place and to such values as supporting a decent life for as many people as possible, using a small number of compatible house designs or cooperating to carry out a large task, trying to standardize a bit can be just fine. But again, that is not the same as living in the past.
In many ways "modernity" is an attempt to stop time and create the sort of completely uniform military installations so beloved of science fiction centred on military organizations and colonization. As a matter of fact, Joanna Russ' first published science fiction short story, even though it does not feature the military in any way, "Nor Custom Stale," draws out the underlying anxiety that drives the proselytes for modernity. The fear is the very same one that animates the other proselytizing religions: fear of death. If there is only "now" and therefore no real change, then there is no end to us or the particular social circumstances we are committed to, especially if those circumstances are working out well for us. There is another intriguing and nasty feature "modernity" or perhaps I should take another derivative of "modern," "modernism" – to draw out the parallel more – shares with at least two of the major proselytizing religions on the planet right now. They are all three rationalizations and reinforcements of systems of pastoral nomadism. And since pastoral nomadism is a great way to reduce the land to desert and cause everybody eventually to starve to death or die of thirst, both horrible ways to go, that is yet more reason to drop the whole thing.
I can almost hear the startled protests of annoyed readers. For those who haven't abandoned this thoughtpiece, here is my argument for the equivalence. I understand pastoralism to be a way of living based on keeping and grazing sheep or cattle, which demands regular moves to ensure the herds have enough food and water and are able to avoid getting overwhelmed by their own faeces or opportunistic predators. The last part comes from the fact that we humans don't like domesticated animals to be too inclined to kick our butts, so this usually leads us to try to breed them into docility and hopefully not being too clever. This never works out, but leave that issue aside for the moment. So long as the pastoralists don't try to build the herds larger and larger, it is actually possible to develop a place-based equilibrium in which people and herds travel a regular sequence each year that helps them feed the land that feeds them. Cool stuff. However, if for whatever reason the pastoralists opt to keep adding to their herds, most likely by stealing from the neighbours, then it isn't too long before they become pastoral nomads. Nomads have no stable homes, and if they are pastoral nomads, it doesn't take much before they are militarized and have to keep moving on in whatever direction is easiest to find easier or at least new pickings, grazing land, and so forth. Their herds are too hungry and thirsty to survive in a stable cycle of moves over a specific area, and the pastoral nomads can't stay anywhere long enough to figure out how to establish a stable cycle anyway because they have become violent anathema to their neighbours. Even if they want to change, it is hard, due to the legacy of mistrust and loss of knowledge of how to live otherwise.
The earliest forms of pastoral nomadism are literal expressions of disconnection from any specific place. All there has to be is enough forage and water, and once that is used up, the people and their herds move on. No need to follow place-specific practices because they aren't staying, and anyway, they'd never have a chance to learn them. Eventually somebody had the clever idea that the problem was that they needed to stop moving around, but it was hard to avoid when they had moving herds. Worse yet, herds are prone to mass death by epidemic disease, and people kept running away since understandably, they wanted to stop fighting and being afraid all the time. The solution ultimately selected by the people trying to hang onto pastoralism – in other words, the so-called elites who were getting the most out of it, is so meanly clever that it is chilling.
Originally it seemed to me that the solution was in fact monocropping, which sounds clever and all settled down. Except, monocropping also desertifies the land, although not quite so fast at least at first. So the pastoral nomadism cycle continues, just slower, using fewer animals and more deliberately manipulated plants. The loss of placeness gets exacerbated, because the plants in question are species that evolved to grow in highly disturbed ground, which can't be too wet or too dry. To make the monocropping task easier and get around the specifics of place, it is necessary to drain or irrigate, and survey and plough. Move on a bit further, and people are busy figuring out how to pay less and less attention to the season by finding monocrops that grow at different rates and can be harvested at different times of the year. In science fiction this is called "terraforming." The results are never permanent. To keep doing mostly the same thing somehow, people have to move on. And that's when it finally hit me. Yes, this is a newer pastoralism. But the new cattle is not the various monocropped plants. It's the people. (Top)
Some Meanings of Invisible Economics (2019-05-14)
Even as the efforts to impose mass censorship online continue, there are still opportunities to read great material out there, including P. Tittle's brilliant essay Solo Women's Invisible Economic Expenses. Being one among the many single women handling their own economic expenses, Tittle's essay was notably on point. Her descriptions of the apparent doublethink of relatives who can look around your home, the evidence of your job and ongoing adult-level activities and responsibilities while behaving as if you were a thirteen year old living at home were all too familiar. Not too long ago I had to have a rather awkward conversation with a relative who apparently had concluded that the reason I was not taking part in an upcoming family gathering because somehow I couldn't scrape together the pennies to travel to it. It couldn't possibly have anything to do with the fact that my home is where I live or other commitments. Never mind that I have been supporting myself successfully for well over twenty years, including moves back and forth across the country and managing to get out from under significant student loan debt, a piece of good fortune I am thankful for everyday. When that was hanging over my head, I could certainly have used some help. In that case there wasn't even twenty bucks for a pizza forthcoming. Meanwhile, my younger brother was not only enjoying subsidized rent while living half time with his girlfriend at the time, the family was busy finding him apprenticeship after apprenticeship opportunity. Funny that.
Of course, a key point is that socially speaking in north american patriarchal society, single women, regardless of how hard working and self-supporting they are, are derogated as perpetual children for not being perma-servants to a man. They haven't acted according to the deal that supposedly pays us off for knuckling down to patriarchy by ensuring that we get a room, board, some personal safety, and recognition as adults. This is just a fairy story. The most dangerous place for any woman or child is any home they may share with an adult male, whatever his position within the so-called family unit may be. Dangerous as the street is, for women and children without any means to establish an independent, safe home and means to provide themselves with food and clothing while living there, can still safer than living with adult males. That is a flabberghasting thought even to me, and I am deeply cynical on the matter. Of course, the street is not always safer, and the street is not a safe place to live or try to make a living. The key, as Andrea Dworkin pointed out not so long ago that we have any business forgetting it, is what a woman or child's primary emergency is.
Stepping back to the wider point, what we have here is another gaslighting technique, in which adult behaviour and activity is denied by people who expect that their opinions should matter to us. Some of those people will make a point of using their power positions to force their bullshit to matter, like bank loan officers who make a point of denying single women access to loans. Or interviewers who make a point of asking illegal interview questions in part as a way of saying, "you only got the interview so that we could say we talked to enough candidates." In the context of treating economic independence as if it were invisible effectively mocks it, implying that somehow the independence isn't "real." There is a lot of that going around. The ongoing capitalist fundamentalist denial that non-wage work is work, or that capitalism depends on that work to allow its proponents to pretend that the count of money can always go up is the other side of the same coin. In both cases the claim is, if the work and its products are not being stolen by a man or by a capitalist, it doesn't count. The intertwined rationalizations being of course denial of adulthood in one case, denial that the person works in the other.
Of course, in reality, if those rationalizations and the premises behind them were true, no gaslighting would be required at all. Everything would come together as expected in the ideal image of a capitalist patriarchal world – why, all those structures of oppression wouldn't even exist, because they would serve no purpose. Nobody would be behaving otherwise than the ideal, and presumably there would be no single women for instance, whether by choice or not, at least in the sense of outside of a "family unit." Except – without the oppressive structures and the gaslighting, capitalism and patriarchy and racism and... well, you get the idea – these forms of oppression don't survive. People live quite differently. (Top)
More Mystifications of Capitalism (2019-05-07)
I can't leave Joanna Russ' work without zooming in on another node to consider what she had to say in more detail, especially because of two earlier thoughtpieces, Sprinkle a Little Technology On It and The AI Conundrum. This node is included in Russ' collection To Write Like a Woman, in her essay "SF and Technology as Mystification." Having begun her published writing career in science fiction with the story "Nor Custom Stale" which gives an early sense of the uncanny nature of her writing in the genre, Russ gave considerable thought to the social and technical areas tied to it. This specific essay includes a brilliant few sentences that set out the not so subtle pressure on academics in the humanities to uphold the illusion that they work in what is unnecessary and somehow have such great independent wealth they don't actually need to be paid for it. All part of the pressure to act as if education that depends on literacy as an unearned luxury for the poor and a birthright of the rich. That's not the node I am going to zoom in here though. Instead, consider this quote, a paragraph from page 36:
Hiding greyly behind that sexy rock star, technology, is a much more sinister and powerful figure. It is the entire social system that surrounds us; hence the sense of being at the mercy of an all-encompassing, autonomous process that we cannot control. If you add the monster's location in time (during and after the Industrial Revolution), I think you can see what is being discussed when most people say "technology." They are politically mystifying a much bigger moster: capitalism in its advanced, industrial phase. Such mystification is easy to spot when silly people do it. I recall a student of mine who said that technology was evil and then hastily excepted his stereo set. When intelligent people do it, the mystification is harder to see. Yet technology, so used, is a non-subject and talk about it is bound to be non-discourse. Either the talk becomes digressive and serves as a pretext for everyone displaying his or her academic speciality (the most harmless form non-discourse can take), or it is downright false.
Let's try a few examples that are not quite as fraught as Elon Musk apparently cultivating a crop of lawsuits on not so social media. How about – technological change is inevitable, and the newest technology has to be adapted as quickly as possible. That's a pretty common message, all the more for sounding at least half plausible in the sense that change is inevitable, in the most trivial sense. Still, let's experiment with swapping the word "capitalism" in and see what we get, bearing in mind that we are trying to unpack the demystified message and there is no requirement that we agree with its content. "Capitalism is inevitable, and the newest capitalism has to be adapted as quickly as possible." Okay, I bent the rules a bit by dropping the word "change" from the first part, but then this is parallel to taking an adjectival form of technology in the original. The unmystified claim doesn't impress me any and is hardly true, though any diehard capitalist fundamentalist would disagree, of course.
Here is another one, pulled from one of the myriad on-line dictionaries that plagiarize each other shamelessly even when that means they repeat mistakes. The original is "An example of technology is the Internet which has made up-to-date information available to anyone with access in a matter of moments and provides real time information about events around the world," which gives us "An example of capitalism is the Internet which has made up-to-date information available to anyone with access in a matter of moments and provides real time information about events around the world." I am quite serious about trying this one out. Russ wasn't claiming that every statement about technology or that literally uses the word is mystifying technology, it's just good to draw out the nuances a bit. I actually like this one because it reminds me that a key element of capitalism right now is the ongoing propaganda that conflates "the internet" with capitalism, as if it is impossible to have easy access to real time information could not be achieved under any other system. That is far from the case, setting aside for now the growing question of whether it is such a good idea after all as implemented. (This is what I mean by "nodes," ideas and considerations that insistently connect to others in a way that makes you sit and think about them.)
The more common statements about technology come from the media, whether advertising or – well, advertising. I can no longer pretend that "product reviews" are anything else. And they mostly aren't directly using the word "technology," as in this, the latest come on from apple to persuade people to but a new iphone, "All-screen design. Longest battery life ever in an iPhone. Fastest performance. And studio-quality photos. Trade in your current iPhone and upgrade to iPhone XR." After a point I am not at all sure why you would want some of the features they have added to these phones in a device that can be easily dropped in the toilet or down a sewer grating on a bad day. But evidently, I digress. The advertisement is supposed to be about technology, right? Except it is really about capitalism, in particular capitalism's desperate need for churn. Somehow profit must be dragged out of the people who still have money for something other than necessities, and convincing them they most have the most advanced and feature-ful of whatever new "tech" is out there is one way.
Why go for all this mystification? Russ explored in detail how the first reason is that capitalism is a massive system of theft, and it needs some pretty hefty obfuscation and fig leaves to keep it from being overturned. Between that and the drive to pretend that actually academics don't really have bills to pay otherwise they wouldn't be academics – or writers, or nurses, or whatever ill-paid but actually socially necessary job you might want to pick. Oh yes, I do think there is such a thing as academics who do socially necessary work! Not all academics alas, as the hall of shame at the chicago school of economics for several decades remind us. That is another node to be examined in a greater detail in a different thoughtpiece. (Top)
More on the New Medievalism (2019-04-30)
I have been on a Joanna Russ extended read-a-thon of late, enjoying her non-fiction and fiction writing roughly in turns. Even her shortest stories and essays repay rereading, so it is no surprise to me when the library copies I can find turn out to be well-worn, the larger volumes with broken spines. As is all too typical for women authors, much of her work is out of print at the moment, barely seven years since her death. Her work is politically and philosophically challenging, and in her non-fiction carefully worked into the clearest prose she could manage on a wild range of topics. Over a fifty year writing career she resisted massive rewrites of her older essays, instead providing thoughtful introductions to her collections Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts, To Write Like A Woman, and What Are We Fighting For, and The Country You Have Never Seen. In both broad categories of writing, Russ developed as a writer and in her political thought in ways that she openly discussed. Her oeuvre is discomforting in the best way, and includes a whole range of intriguing recognitions and arguments that Feminists in particular would do well to give some more thought to, including many asides tucked into footnotes.
For instance, Russ' explication of marxism in the essay "Seeing Red: My Life is Harder Because Yours is Easier" includes the following note, "My college history textbook noted the medieval European slogan 'city air is free air,' which meant (it said) that a peasant escaping to the growing medieval towns was safe from the feudal obligations (work and taxes) that he otherwise 'owed' his feudal lord. Women are not mentioned in this connection." Newer textbooks add other details to such an account as Russ is summarizing, but let's take note of at least two eye opening points that these two sentences draw out. First, the simple and short one. "Taxes" today are still treated as if they were feudal obligations, no matter who the taxes are paid to and what the taxes may be set aside for. I have no argument with anyone who resents paying taxes for making war on others, giving money to rich people who prefer not to pay their own bills, and to build monuments to stupidity and ego. I do argue with those who argue that money collected to provide things like schooling and medical care are by definition the same sort of thing. But that is because those things benefit society at large and myself in particular, whereas the other three things seem based on the evidence before us right now to be literal detriments, not theoretical ones. Paying taxes for things that actively hurt ourselves and others is especially galling precisely because it is meant to demonstrate power over and contempt for those of us doing the paying. There is a cruel cleverness in labelling money we put aside in public funds for what we want and as a society choose that is positive with such a negatively loaded term as "taxes."
The second one is less simple, and just as telling. Russ comments in this essay and one other that woman's relationship to man in the patriarchal family, including heterosexual marriage remains a feudal one. As a daughter her social status is defined by her blood relationship to her male relatives, especially of course, her father. Due to that relationship, she is expected to work loyally and constantly for her social superior, that is her father, and any men he may choose to direct her services to. He defines the services. If he decides to marry her off, or allow her to marry, the husband is expected to take on this role. She is not owed any wages that she could in anyway to live independently in this arrangement, in the most patriarchal forms of this relationship. Far from it. She is permitted room and board to whatever level the man in charge allows, certainly not money of her own. It's all justified by insistence that the woman is by definition socially subordinate, and where religion is still overt, by claims that this was divinely ordained. When women break away from this claptrap by winning things like separate legal existence and rights to keep their own property, the handwringing and outcry by the usual suspects begins. "What can they possibly be unhappy about? We give the women everything!" Such bleating is not usually done in such obvious terms anymore, because the evidence of violence against women, girls, and children generally in this form of feudal relationship is impossible to ignore, although it remains all too possible that "authorities" will refuse to act honourably on it.
Russ' comments in that footnote also clarified for me the intensive appeal of the imaginary medieval era that sexist men and their allies like so much. Yes, the sexism and the supposedly clear binaries and what they think was license for total male violence regardless of social status. Just as important if not more is the economic implications, the notion of having unrestricted parasitical access to women's resources again. Feudalism doesn't fit with capitalism too well, even when capitalists try to have the best of both worlds by stealing more from "breadwinners" with the expectation that they can do so with impunity because the wives and children will make up the difference or they will all die off. After all, "the poor" are numerous, and by definition the rich are not. The drive towards a new-style feudalism is not going to succeed, though it is probably going to get messy before that reality sinks into the people trying to make it happen. (Top)
Presentism Ad Absurdum (2019-04-23)
The issue of social and political polarization has been getting a lot play over the past several years, as authoritarian political and social movements resurge. A whole bunch of precariously "on top" people can feel the rumblings of change, and their best hope is to somehow stop it by fooling the rest of us to run in the same old circle of an authoritarian screw down followed by something branded usually as a "sexual" revolution. Polarization is a problem. Yet it seems to me may of those decrying it don't have a clear sense of what they are decrying. One minute they are protesting the role of identity politics, then trying to conflate any effort to destroy structural oppression as identity politics no matter how violently absurd the attempts get. Then there are the people who have decided that they are going to try to undermine the ongoing Feminist and antiracist organizing by reframing that work as actually about punishing mean people. Punishing a person for oppressive behaviour who by the nature of their position is not merely benefiting by an oppressive structure but actively holding it up seems quite reasonable. After all, if such a person is active right now, their present action is a source of primary emergency for the oppressed persons within their immediate reach. We can't ignore emergencies. However, we have to watch out for getting fooled into acting as if what we have before us is a primary emergency, when in fact we are being encouraged to distract ourselves with virtue signalling rather than making real change.
I've been thinking about this a lot in the context of a range of people some of whom I agree with, some of whom I don't, and some of whom I have a mix of agreement and disagreement with. There is a remarkable set of arguments that we can't possibly take say, Margaret Sanger or Nelly McClung's Feminism seriously, because they were racists. Yet, if the person at hand is say Karl Marx or for somebody who is alive and running around today and considered influential like the guy currently recognized as the head of the catholic church, I am supposed to honour and use the good bits and ignore their sexism. Since I agree with critiques of John A. MacDonald's genocidal policies against Indigenous peoples and question the construction of the colonial canadian state on those policies, I have been told I must be throwing out his entire legacy. Except, this really doesn't make any sense. Damned real life being complicated again, of course. Among history students, this tends to get tangled up in arguments about presentism, which might make better sense for everyone concerned if we had all agreed on what the hell the term means to start with.
A loose definition I have often seen is that presentism is what it is when we judge the behaviour of people in the past by our own values now. Sounds kind of good. But as I have mentioned in a different thoughtpiece, a brilliant fellow history student pointed out that whatever John A. MacDonald believed and whatever his milieu at the time, the fact is no Indigenous person at that time agreed with being targeted for genocide. No slave ever agreed with slavery. If they ever had, then there would never have been a need for entire systems of rationalization and incessant violence to prop slavery up. Which is not to say presentism isn't a thing. If we simply said anybody in the past did something or argued something we disagreed with and dispensed with everything that ever was derived from what they said, certainly that would be outrageous. John A. MacDonald sucked, Karl Marx didn't have all the answers. When we critique men in the past, we are expected to contextualize their behaviour and ideas, and having considered that, then make a nuanced critique of their positions. Obviously I think that women deserve as much courtesy, especially considering the habit of treating women as guilty by mere accusation, no need to check what they said or the factors influencing their actions and ideas.
I appreciate this is not easy, and it may be uncomfortable, especially right now when to be labelled Feminist, especially radical or lesbian feminist, or right wing, is to be labelled beyond the pale and beyond any right to respectful engagement and consideration. But we should watch out for how we are encouraged to act according to such labellings. It isn't merely, so and so is a leftist, out the door they go if you are supposedly a rightist. It seems to be, we thought so and so was a leftist, but it turns out they don't agree with this idea that this party of the left says must be right, therefore so and so is not a leftist and should be banished. This is a confused knot with many parallels to the strain of thought that claims if a woman is critical of gender and acting according to gender stereotypes, she must hate anyone who labels themselves "trans." Never mind that critical analysis is not just about finding fault, and that criticism of a structure of oppression is not in fact a criticism of people who are doing what they need to in order to cope with the primary emergencies that structure causes them. That's a harder path to stick to than a simple cut à la "either you're with us or against us."
With this in mind, it seems that the key problem with polarization is its weaponization to close down thought. From what I can see, it is a key tool in establishing and supporting that great pillar of authoritarianism, groupthink, "the practice of thinking or making decisions in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility." That's not all groupthink discourages of course, it also makes it difficult to achieve real change. The attractions are clear. No responsibility, no need to parse out ideas for yourself, no need to sit down and read anything written by anybody declared verboten. I suspect that the reason the mainstream media has suddenly rediscovered the dangers of polarization is not the risks of making it easier for authoritarianism, but the risks that their stable of pundits might find themselves swept up into a wrongthink exile that may damage their corporate bottom lines. When pillorying people in the past based on a brief claim such as "so and so was a fascist, ignore them!" becomes a regular daily practice in the present, the danger is definitely more immediate.
This way of being presentist on one hand and hunting for thoughtcrime in the present is not merely dangerous or unhelpful. It is profoundly arrogant. People in their own circumstances in the past and today may have limited knowledge and make appalling decisions or arguments based on it. Recognizing that and taking that into account before we decide whether we can support or at least accept any or all of their actions or ideas is in no way letting them off. It is admitting that we might make similar mistakes, maybe we already have, maybe we will. But we have access to information to help us do better, and at times our critiques will be harsh because the person we are considering also had such access, willfully did not use it, and/or even doubled down. We can neither claim to be absolutely knowledgeable about all the perfectly right and wrong acts and thoughts in the world, nor can we avoid the responsibility to make some kind of nuanced determination when the question comes up, because past and present actions and ideas guide our own. (Top)
Refusing "Modern" (2019-04-16)
As I get ready for a milestone in my current main academic project, I find myself dealing again with the vexed notion of the "modern" and "modernity." If you turn to any dictionary in english, most will duly and flatly inform you, as my OED does, that "modern" merely means whatever is happening now, the present as opposed to the "remote past." Quick thinking latin students will be able to pull out a stock phrase illustrating the indirect origins of the word in english, "modo" meaning "now." I think it is fair to say that at least in the "west" "we" are all expected to firmly label anything deemed modern as good and to be taken up in place of anything else that might be there instead. That this has some uncomfortable connotations due to its association with such expressions as "à la mode" meaning "in fashion" which is in turn tied to both mindless consumerism and the always derogated notions of femininity is probably a feature rather than a bug. It's good to be not quite comfortable with terms that a very small group of people would like us to accept as universal, true and right across all time, all space, and all people. "Modernity" is just supposed to be "a state of being modern." But this is bizarre and circular. If modernity means being modern, and modern is whatever is going on now or at most in the past just a short while ago, then all this means is anybody who is alive right now is modern. Okay, something else is going on here.
Let's consider who and what is considered "modern." I'm a history student, but it isn't necessary to get too academic about this, we can just consider pop culture. In fact, allow me to subject you to examples from two genres of popular fiction, westerns on one side, and science fiction on the other. There are overlaps between these two, but they are worth knocking together because writers in the one are trying to imagine a more or less plausible future, while in the other they are trying to reimagine a more or less plausible past. They agree, at least in their northern north american iterations, that only people who both think they are white and are pigment-challenged can be modern. Consider the subset of westerns that obsess over the supposed miseries of the "half-breed" for example, or how all aliens are strangely un-modern despite their high technology. They are always socially or economically backward by "western" lights, unless they are designed as super-whites, in which case they will have more or less obvious "angel-like" features. The folks who get to have recognizable technology in "western" terms, including firearms and laser guns without having to trade for or steal them at some point in the story first are always coded white. Anybody coded as Indigenous or from Africa or anywhere in teh majority of Asia? Forget it. It'll be all bows and arrows and spears or their equivalent all the time, and heaven forbid they should be depicted as having their own spaceships. There are many terrible Star Trek episodes, as it the fate of syndicated television series, but among the worst is the honker where Captain Picard finds out he is descended from a conquistador and he is being forced to deal with recalcitrant Indians who went and colonized another planet only to be unreasonable about giving up their lands all over again. I have the stubborn impression they didn't have their own ships but instead got ferried over and eschewed "modern technology" and anything that can't be construed as nonsense and superstition. As for westerns, just a few words. The oxymoronically named Lone Ranger and Tonto.
As an Indigenous person, it seems to me that if we accept the validity of the colonial notion of modernity, then we have to accept the way that notion defines us. And that notion defines us not as living today, here and now, but as living somehow in a strange personal timewarp by means of which we live only in the past. Notice us using "modern" technology or somehow deviating from the stereotyped image of what an "Indian" or even a "half-breed" is, and promptly the accusations fly that somehow by daring to be alive now and adapt and develop new ideas we have ceased to be "authentic." Worse, we have ceased to be entertaining, pitiful, and a source of sighing nostalgia, because instead of playing Indians in the cupboard we are real people with real present lives. We are no more going to throw away all of our culture and history except for whatever happened in the last decade or so than anybody else. That wouldn't make even practical sense anyway. Leaving aside "technology" in the usual sloppy way the term is used right now, without more than what our parents taught us, pretty soon we would be in grave trouble. There are plenty of things that parents forget to teach or don't have time to mention, or that they have forgotten they had to learn themselves. That last type of thing is probably the most dangerous, because those things all become mystified, supposedly they just happen until one day things don't work properly. Here's a mundane example.
A young acquaintance of mine commented airily that it was easy to get the latest gaming system, he just had to tell his parents he wanted it. His mother pointed out drily that such systems were expensive, so he'd have to buy it himself. This made no sense to him. He wasn't spoiled, or at least no more than any other kid in a family that doesn't have to worry about how they are going to eat from week to week. Certainly his sense of money and how much things cost was poor at best at that time, but it could hardly be otherwise. We aren't inborn with knowledge about economic arrangements and the ways different things cost and what should be priority items, especially in the context of a modestly well off family where the fridge is always full and there is little need to save unused school supplies from the previous year and so on. This in itself tells us nothing about his character, though it tells us he was ignorant of some important life details and needed some help to rectify that as soon as possible. Yet, there he was, living in a perfectly modern fashion, using only the knowledge he had in his own short lifetime and prioritizing having the most up to date thing that mattered in his milieu. My acquaintance was being completely logical. That's the trouble with logic, it is only as good as the accuracy of our starting premises allow.
In getting ready to write this thoughtpiece, I performed an obligatory web search, thinking that some post-modernist maven has no doubt already coined the term "antimodernism" and begun telling everybody in their circles about what it means in turgid articles and monographs. The only coherent piece I have found so far is by Peter King at Arktos, called The Antimodern Condition. Well, it is fairly coherent, although his statement that "The antimodern condition is where we accept things as they are. As such, we focus on the surface of things. We do not believe that there are any hidden structures below everyday reality." strikes me as not fitting with the major themes of this condition he has identified. He declares that the antimodern condition consists of a rejection of the idea that the future is always better than the past, that the past has nothing to teach us, and that there is nothing new for us to discover. He declaims that it includes rejecting the notion of "utopia" – I wish King was a bit more specific here, because the transliteration of the ancient greek term to english is ambiguous. "Utopia" proper is "no place" but "eutopia" would be "good place." This isn't intended as a quibble, although I suppose for consistency we can take it as the latter because King is emphatic that the antimodern condition involves an acceptance that the future is not predetermined. He is pessimistic too, characterizing change as a "necessary evil" and the overall condition is about complacency and satisfaction with whatever our present circumstances are. This matches up with the notion of "satisficing" I think.
Peter King and I are certainly not talking about the same thing. It is evident that his "we" and "us" does not include me or anybody much like me. While I too am no partisan of whig history and think human futures are open though not wholly unconstrained since we are not completely isolated atoms, rejecting aspiration and sitting around content merely because I don't have immediate problems endangering my health and well-being is far from what I have in mind. At no moment would I argue that there are no hidden structures below everyday reality, because I don't think societal structures can be hidden, but when they are oppressive those who benefit by the oppression would certainly like us to act like those oppressive structures aren't there. Perhaps that is King's point, since his picture indicates that he is a quite well placed man who thinks he is white. The structures are not hidden, they aren't troubling him, they may need adjustment to keep things going as a necessary evil, but really, the underlying circumstances will not change. Except, wait. If I have that right, this walks the "antimodern condition" to little more than the "modern condition" with a bit of restyling. Which is why I think we would do better to refuse "the modern" as we have received it, because it is in effect a closed loop. If we want real change and the possibility of genuine improvement, then that loop is the first thing we have to lose. (Top)
Corporate Censorship (2019-04-09)
I have written at least two thoughtpieces already dealing with questions of censorship and free speech. In part this was so that I could sort out what the american invocations of "free speech" and inveighing against "censorship" meant in their context. Canadians make sloppy conflations between arguments set out by americans based on the american constitution and body of laws and the canadian constitution and body of laws, so this is an important step to take. There is a lot of overlap between the two in terms of principle and even in law. For better or worse, the differences do matter. Setting that aside, for my part, I agree with many people in the world generally that government suppression of speech, especially speech critical of the government or other powerful political and social players is not ethical or justifiable. Today we face the additional problem of private entities so powerful that they too can suppress speech, especially speech that is critical of them or their cherished ideas. This is also wrong. For some reason it seems to be taking quite awhile even in the united states, home of that cherished amendment about free speech, for that country to take in hand the problem of censorship by businesses deliberately or in effect. It's a hard problem, to be sure, especially right now when capitalist fundamentalism remains potent as toxic waste even as its sway over more and more people fails. (That's not a contradiction – nonsense can still poison discussion because everybody has to clear the nonsense before they can have a sensible conversation.)
My favourite example to illustrate this is of a bookstore which is certainly not practising censorship or suppression by refusing to stock certain books or host certain speakers. As pundits all over the web and off of it have pointed out already, this is accurate for one bookstore among many pursuing different audiences and customers. It does not work in the event that the bookstore in question is effectively the only one, and therefore the only source of books or speaking events. Then the situation is not like an idealized small business at all but like a monopoly that prevents access to books and authors outside of its catalogue. The prevention merely has to be "make it difficult," no outright bans or other types of sinister funny business required except not listing other authors and books, or making off-list pricing higher, or off-list books slower to get, or demanding an absurd minimum number of orders.
In the web-based world, concern about the corporate control of information has focussed on so-called social media lately, especially because the idea that twitter or facebook somehow control thought around the world is quite good for their stock evaluations and advertisement pricing. I am skeptical about these two platforms when they are depicted as such potent influencers, although that does not prevent me from agreeing that their power to manipulate discourse and information sharing is too high all the same and should be ended. Just because I don't think people on social media are completely controlled by it doesn't mean that I think advertising companies calling themselves social media shouldn't be curbed for other important reasons like stopping their mass surveillance. But I do think that too many people have their eyes off another important ball, this one in the arena of blog-hosting and web publishing outside of social media.
Most of us have heard of wordpress, the free blogging software, and many of have read blogs hosted on wordpress.com either for free or under paid plans with a company called automattic. At this point, wordpress.com is one of the largest, if not the largest blog hosting company on the web. Like twitter or facebook, it has lengthy terms of service that are forever being manipulated in an effort to manage the potential impact of what bloggers post on its legal liabilities. As a private company, automattic has brought with its growth an atitude that it doesn't have to be neutral about what it hosts, and reserves the right to shut down blogs whenever it pleases on various causes it writes into its terms of service from time to time. Okay. Except, it is no longer one among many platforms all jostling together to host blogs, favouring particular general types of material depending on their politics. It is a behemoth, and it makes it easy to get started blogging on it, and hard to get out if it becomes uncongenial for any reason, especially if you want to take your blog elsewhere instead of just abandoning it. That's a problem.
UPDATE 2018-12-14 - Some blogs at risk of being censored on automattic's wordpress server have already moved, including 4thwavenow, where the site owners have also restored the censored posts to their original state, as they committed to do at the first opportunity. At one time I would have recommended the Internet Archive as a good fallback in the event of a website being removed in today's new era of massive corporate censorship. However, it is now clear that the Internet Archive is also engaged in retrospective censorship, so it is critical to make sure to save copies of key articles and do what you can to help potentially affected bloggers and commenters to preserve and keep their works available. And no, I don't say this to mean only the people I agree with. To my mind, the only reason to take down and silence particular speech is when that speech specifically encourages and reinforces violence or directly requires violence in its making. Alas, these criteria do not instantly solve the genuine issues around speech that is controversial at minimum and outright dangerous at worst and how best to handle them, because those issues are not easy to manage effectively and honourably when our complicity with oppressive structures is encouraged in so many ways. However, I think it is important to state criteria clearly, and when the step of removing or silencing speech is taken, that must be done publicly and in a manner that includes a statement that that is what is being done and why. That is the only way to ensure that the absolutely necessary discussion of difficult cases happens, and the only way to ensure that we get better at doing the right thing, not finding excuses to pretend there is a right way to do a wrong thing.
An even bigger one is the growing evidence that automattic's team has taken to retrospectively deep sixing bogs after new terms of service changes, and even shutting down blogs and then quickly whipping up a terms of service change after the fact to justify it. The examples I am most familiar with are from the ongoing purge of lesbian, feminist, and gender critical blogs from the platform. On top of that, in at least one case that readers can check for themselves at the blog 4thwavenow, staff have silently censored a blog entry by hand. Maybe they think they are justifying this by telling themselves that it isn't about potential liability, because automattic is an american company and they have third party immunity. No, it is about maybe, fear of pressure on their servers from denial of service attacks by people incensed by controversial speech on those blogs. Or maybe they've decided they should take an editorial role, and their editorial position deems lesbian, feminist, and gender critical blogs completely unacceptable. All of which might be no more than dubious and cowardly, if wordpress.com were a mere player among players.
Blogging and web site creation in general are forms of publishing. Bloggers generally work with the understanding that they are the editors and proprietors of their blogs, not the company whose server hosts them. It seems that automattic in particular is fine with this notion as long as the blogger's effective editorial policy doesn't clash with theirs or otherwise catch the attention of those with the technical access to shut down blogs at will. There are alternatives to wordpress.com, of course. One is plain website hosting for modest monthly fees, or else an alternative "free" platform such as blogger (watch out, its actually google), or tumblr (opinions vary). The big issue seems to be that so many bloggers who did not start out running web businesses are so reluctant to pay any money to put their blogs on the web. If they still receive some modest web space and blog hosting services with their internet subscription, they may not know about it. This is a grave situation.
One thing that would help considerably is the web equivalent of samizdat. According to my OED, samizdat is "the clandestine copying and distribution of literature banned by the state, especially in the former soviet union." Of course, in the case of the web we need a modified version of this definition, in fact one closer to its literal meaning in russian, which is "self-publishing house." We need a way to self-publish on the web even when the state or a corporation tries to ban what we have to say. Believe it or not, we are actually very close to having this pulled together already. Volunteer-founded projects like Archive of Our Own is a key example. For the many people who bemoan that having and running a server is hard, allow me to direct you to an alternative approach in the form of the Freedom Box and its cousin, the Library Box. Both are software packages to set up modestly priced portable file distribution servers that run on low power and are small enough to throw in a backpack or even a jacket pocket. Based on open source software and hardware, you can get full instructions and downloads so that you could set up the server software on a repurposed older, low powered machine. Public and university libraries are already experimenting with these, so it may well be you can add your blog to one of those little servers. Among the most powerful and dangerous weapons that companies like automattic or twitter or facebook have, is the fact that at least a portion of us have been persuaded that we can't do without them to publish on-line, get traffic to our web sites, and so on. If we let them convince us of this when it isn't true, they will take steps to make it true if they can. We have every reason to oppose them. (Top)
Rhetoric Versus Writing (2019-04-02)
Depending on your view of my writing style, you may or may not believe that I hated the class labelled "english" with a great hate. A tragic hate. Because evidently, writing and reading are two of my favoured activities in the world. "English" class was not a thing until senior high school, when "language arts" and its faintly fussy label vanished away. And with it all sorts of intriguing projects that encouraged what would today be called "multimedia projects" although not too much by way of video or audio yet, as they were still too expensive. Lots of posters and illustrations, experiments with calligraphy though, at least in my experience. The official art class was basically defunct, but we got to do a lot in language arts. However, once english came along, we were relegated to the useful and deadly boring five paragraph essay, reading novels and poetry that were supposed to be the best for the "correct interpretation" and being marked zero on short answers for such accidental foibles as writing "it's" (it is) when you meant "its" (possessive). I kid you not. To make it all the worse, I did very well in my english classes all the same, with excellent marks even in the exams used to determine our academic standing for post-secondary education. And then found out that in my first year of university I was required, with no appeal, to effectively take my last year of english again in a year-long course to meet my academic writing requirement. After all, everyone knows science majors can't write. Right?
This was before it occurred to anybody to make available the option of writing an exam consisting of an essay and some short questions if you felt sure that your high school english mark was not the product of crass grade inflation. It is appalling to think that this alternative has not been available very obviously or consistently for very long. Really, the whole combination is unjust to the students affected, science majors or not, and to the study of rhetoric, which is what it turns frustrated students against. Among the results is an entire generation at least of people who don't understand how to structure speeches or written documents, and don't understand how physical books or even their electronic counterparts work. This is bad for everybody.
Yes, rhetoric is popping up here again, because the rhetorical training I mentioned in the previous thoughtpiece included a great deal of training in how to write essays of various lengths, from what we now call "short answers" to the infamous five paragraphs I remember having to fit on a single sheet of foolscap. (A real paper size, standardized to 21.6 by 34.3 centimetres these days, and usually "college-ruled" with blue lines.) Those of us who formally learned how to write such things in the classroom have likely never referred to them as scintillating work. With an adult understanding, I realize they couldn't be. They were the practice part of learning how to write, and alas, it is hard to make practice anything but tedious. If practice doesn't get tedious at some point, we're in trouble, because we aren't learning. Unfortunately teachers are not always in a position to set the practice according to student, so the students who had got to the boredom point could go on to something a bit harder and stop annoying everybody else in the classroom. I don't remember any teacher framing our writing exercises as similar in principle to the endless laps and drills we might do for a sport, or scales and chords we might practice with a musical instrument.
I don't agree with claims that everything in the classroom must be immediately connected to a future task in a dead end job. I do think students should be honoured with information about why they are expected to do the tasks they are doing in the classroom, especially in a class like english, which is the butt of so much unfair censure. No doubt fourteen year old me would have been as obnoxious as any other teenager about rotten old essays and the like. Yet I wonder if it wouldn't have made some of the other aspects of the task at least a little easier to bear, knowing at least a little it wasn't in effect only to pass the class and never have to do it again. Yes, I know. Probably wishful thinking.
Meanwhile, in the real world having chucked rhetorical training, english class is apparently now mostly about reading certain things and regurgitating the interpretation the teacher dictates. Not everywhere, of course. More and more schools have more integrated classes where students get their literature with some real context via their history classes. Reading even Charles Dickens is enlivened by learning about his era and the actual social conditions and culture he came from and witnessed. The way Shakespeare is taught often achieves this, ironically because the man himself is basically an empty signifier according to orthodox understandings of who wrote his plays and sonnets. I don't believe for a second that young students are not capable of managing context and coming up with surprisingly nuanced interpretations for their ages and the material at hand. Just sit down and listen to younger students expertly take apart whatever their favourite pop culture franchise. They've got at least the beginning of the skills, they just don't want to read the stuff the adults think they should. This leads to the scandalous new courses in universities that take movies and comic books seriously, often sneeringly referred to as "service courses" intended mainly to get butts in seats.
To begin with I was deeply skeptical of such courses, and must admit to remaining at last a little skeptical of them now. Still, these courses are also ways to help students overcome their skepticism of rhetoric, deeper reading, and their own abilities in both inculcated by earlier miseducation driven by the short-sighted goals of authoritarian adults. My skepticism has more to do with the sense that they are not always as respectful of students as they are cynically hoping to exploit students expecting an easy A. I doubt that the latter is a successful strategy pedagogically or economically for anyone concerned. In a funny way, this all goes back to rhetoric, because the false message that the way we learn to write is merely by unstructured reading is so intensely wrong. Meanwhile, the role of practice in structured writing and reading, and its genuine utility – yes utility – in the workplace and the rest of our lives is lost or ignored in the rhetoric turned against it. If thinking through the social and political implications of that sentence makes your head hurt, that makes at least two of us. (Top)
Who Speaks in Public? (2019-03-26)
I have a stubborn memory of a what was probably an ancient, now firmly fossilized form of early clickbait, which claimed that according to an opinion survey, americans feared public speaking more than death. Now, it is all too easy to pick on opinion surveys because they are so notoriously bad so often. They can be designed to provide real information, but that tends to be time consuming and expensive, and entirely too annoying when what the purchaser of the survey wants is something clickbaity, or at least predictable. Sometimes the clickbaity nature is all in the spin, such as the infamous survey that showed declining newspaper subscriptions, not declining literacy in the 65 and older age bracket. Of course, newspaper company owners were terribly alarmed at these early signs that something was amiss with their business model and what they stuck on their news pages, before the web became a major factor. But the survey didn't really say anything about our grandparents' literacy at the time. So I suspect that memorable as that trilobite era clickbait evidently is, it is not likely to be true, although it is true that many people fear public speaking, regardless of nationality. It's not an irrational fear either, since so many of us have had few chances to speak in front of a group, even just of a few friends. Practice in front of friendlier audiences can banish many nerves, if we expect to give a speech at some point in our lives.
At one time, just going to basic elementary school meant that you would have to learn basic rhetoric, including not just writing five paragraph essays that bored many of us stiff in "language arts" or whatever the equivalent name was when we attended the early grades, but also declaiming those little essays as a speech in front of the class. This wasn't done to torture children, although the original exclusively male classes subjected to instruction and debate classes may have thought so. The whole reason this training was given to boys in particular, especially boys expected to "make something of themselves," therefore from middling to rich families for the most part, was precisely because they were expected to take part in public debate. That meant being able to marshal their arguments and speak fluently. Women and girls had to fight intensely to win access to this aspect of rhetoric because in patriarchal societies every effort is put into first of all keeping anyone female from speaking in public, second from being heard, third from being taken seriously. It only takes a few minutes to find current examples of all three tactics. And the thing that is particularly striking if you look into the records of early colleges and high schools, is that both boys and girls, men and women, eagerly founded extra-curricular debating groups. As in, they finished their homework in their rhetoric classes, then did some more for fun.
Okay, okay. Not everybody did. There was always a proportion of people who said, nope not going there, you can't make me. Yet there was real enthusiasm. Instructors weren't driving this, although they might be sponsors of the clubs, especially for younger students. There were textbooks and competitions, and people used the phrases and structures they learned almost unconsciously as well as in formal writing and speaking. Skills that become practised and comfortable are like that. All of this was part of encouraging and preparing at least certain people to take political action in a hopeful vision of an actually democratic version of rome or athens. Meanwhile members of Indigenous nations wondered if all this rhetorical training would finally get more newcomers to genuinely listen to Indigenous speakers and respond with truth, I suspect. Every time you run into a reference to an Indigenous person supposedly "haranguing" ignorant white men, rest assured the white men in question are hoping to keep you from realizing that they were hearing and disrespecting a skilled speaker presenting a carefully structured set of arguments.
Now, apart from organizations like toastmasters, instruction in speaking even just before classmates has all but vanished. We seem to be encouraged to believe that being able to speak comfortably and persuasively in front of a crowd can only be the product of a mysterious inborn talent and/or a handsomely paid speechwriter and acting classes. The rationale covering this up in the end is the infamous and contemptuous claim, "oh, that's just rhetoric" meaning it must be rotten and insincere, if not outright lies, when we hear or read a persuasive speaker. There is a venerable tradition of distrust for persuasive speakers who may in fact mean to pull the wool over our eyes, six thousand and more years deep in europe alone, and that is a very small corner of the world. Which is why in many times and places and cultures, people argued that everyone must learn rhetoric even if they never engage regularly in public speaking, so that it would be that much more difficult to fool them with clever speech. This sounds like a very reasonable approach to the problem, as opposed to mystifying persuasive words.
I am no conspiracy theorist, but it seems a bit too convenient that instruction in spoken rhetoric and now written rhetoric as well has been nosediving so violently alongside the exponential rise in advertising and other modes of propaganda. No need for a conspiracy of course, just appeal to people who believe that they should make decisions for others, insisting that it is in fact questionable whether such training is truly useful for the "great unwashed" or whatever vile epithet is inflicted on the majority of the population. After all, the rationalization may run. The majority of them will never serve in any public office, or get tangled up in a law suit, where they will hardly represent themselves. Furthermore, they shouldn't be expected to waste their time and money on training that can't be marked vocational, especially if it might help them talk back successfully against the boss. At the least the correlation is far too convenient for the authoritarian and greedy among us. And the result today is vulnerability to propaganda that the "elite" of wherever we live doesn't like, generally referred to today as "fake news," to self-defeating skepticism of real information, and contemptuous media depictions of any skepticism that can be conveniently conflated with racist or sexist pseudo-arguments instead. That last one is great for generating clickbait and burying genuine debate.
The next logical question is how to get armed up against propaganda and strengthen our bullshit detectors so that they work well, not too much, not too little. This doesn't even demand that we read a book, although it can still be a tough task. Try just talking to your friends in person about some mildly controversial issue that you may even disagree on. Boxers or briefs, ketchup is a divine gift to cuisine or should have been banned the instant it was invented. Fun and great practice in learning how to listen while not desperately waiting for the other person to pause so you can jump in. (Top)
On Genre Fiction (2019-03-19)
"Genre" is a firmly neutral term, according to my OED, just a category of artistic composition. So the illustration for this thoughtpiece is a genre painting by Jan Vermeer, in which a sort of idealized representation of home interiors and application of perspective and oil brush techniques to produce what we can now call photograph-like representations is the goal. The paintings were part of the hippest decorating schemes in their time in some parts of europe, especially the netherlands where many artists working in the genre were based. A good example of the neutral application of "genre." However, somehow as soon as we turn to writing and books instead of other arts, the term "genre" isn't so neutral anymore, perhaps because it is so often conflated with "formula fiction" and similar labels that may cross-cut the more usual genre labels used for marketing. Once the marketing genres come into play, unless fiction especially can be labelled "literary" it begins to accrue the sort of mild irritation that distant relative with no dress sense who has to be invited to the bigger family gatherings does. This is too bad, because the issue is the marketing, not the genres.
I should be clear, "formula fiction" is actually hard. Seriously. The people who can churn out book after book according to a widely used formula or one that they have gradually developed within their own body of work are doing something that is far from easy. Maybe they could practically write the book in their sleep. That of course, is the problem. How they manage to write the book anyway and not begin parodying themselves or effectively wailing with boredom on the page takes work. The truly endless series of formula novels aimed at young adults are not written by just one author for that very reason. One of my relatives has an entire bookcase of Louis Lamour paperbacks, just his westerns I think. It's an impressive collection, even though when I first saw them my tastes ran more to Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie at the time. (Yes and plenty of sci-fi and fantasy too – and too many D&D tie ins.)
Practically speaking, "formula non-fiction" isn't much easier on this score, although it is easier to miss what it is on seeing it. Formula non-fiction were a staple of Time-Life books at one time, back when book series were advertised on television by short commercials, not television series. Besides encyclopaedias and Time-Life books there were sets of "do it yourself" guidebooks attached to various brands of tools and media personalities. These may be best suited to kids in their early reading days, when it is actually annoying to run out of books meant to introduce the basics of the sciences, especially biology, astronomy, and geology, which lend themselves so well to colourful pictures. Keeping the text fresh and not just swapping out a few words from book to book, which jumps out at eager readers unmercifully, is no mean feat. I suspect that this is actually one of the joys of reading them in the case of adults and children old enough to have cottoned on to the formula. And indeed, that is a key element of the enjoyment of "formula fiction." It's a bit of a game in the latter case, especially if a single author series matures enough for the author to try out in jokes or sending themselves up a bit.
Maybe that's what gets genre writing into trouble, its sheer approachability and its potential both for chumminess with regular readers, and tragically horrible quality if it becomes a stable money maker with little leeway allowed for change. As Joanna Russ noted in her 1971 essay on the subject, genre materials can wear out. They can make a come back too, but they may need a long rest and wholly new stories to hang out in first. Another troublemaker for genre fiction is its role as launch pad for many a budding writer, in which many early examples must inevitably be awful. In a new genre or one that has exploded in popularity, a whole bunch of work may be made available that ordinarily wouldn't have. The infamous slush pile would have devoured the stuff going to potentially paying venues, and the more distant corners of fannish publications would have remained untouched by voracious readers and carefully formed search queries. A surge in interest makes for not so much an undiscriminating audience as an audience willing to experiment and stretch their legs a bit more because they are impatient to see more. And of course, in such conditions, some of the experiments will not work out, and some stuff that seemed okay on first reading will fold up sadly on a second reading. Writing in a constrained genre is very much writing without a net even though it may be one of the most accessible writing entry points there is.
Yet we should never underestimate the remarkable offshoots an earlier genre fiction exemplar might produce. Take Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera. It's terrible. Really terrible, and roaring fun to read. In 1990 Susan Kay wrote a remarkable retelling of this novel, titled Phantom, with considerably more detail and compassion that led at least one reviewer to declare that the book gave the title character a soul. Leroux's potboiler had some compelling ideas in it, and the outlines of some potentially remarkable characters. Another example is Gregory Maguire's series of prequels to the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. (Top)
Voice Control Absurdities (2019-03-12)
The idea of controlling any device by talking to it has never impressed me much, it sounds like gilding the lily at best, a disaster waiting to happen at worst. Which is not to say I couldn't see any possible uses for sound controlled devices, it's just that often the uses turned out to be better served by other techniques. Automatic lighting being managed by a sensible combination of timers and/or light sensors for instance, or using motion sensors, all depending on the specifics of the lights and where they are, of course. On the other hand, there is a tremendous area where voice controls makes incredible sense and should be worked on with all due speed and carefully managed to hedge against disaster, and that is in helping people whose ability to use their hands is critically impaired. That doesn't seem to be anywhere near the centre of the heat and light of the current corporate obsession with selling devices that can "listen" for a person's commands. The corporate obsession is of a piece with the corporate obsession with surveillance and control. I am not going to write much about that in this thoughtpiece per se, but on a point raised in an article at recode.net.
Basically, according to Rani Molla, who wrote the article, corporations are hoping to achieve the passivity effect associated with radio. The passivity effect has two aspects, starting from the expectation that we will find it too much work to change the station. Personally, I think that this expectation is based on a bad data set created from cherry picking. In its early corporatizing days, after regulation drove down how many people could legally broadcast on the airwaves, there weren't many stations to listen to, so yes, listeners were stuck. But once there were more stations and radios with dials or knobs to set the stations, radio listening was not quite so passive. Even piss-poor digital tuning hasn't changed that, although the rapidly shrinking selection of radio stations is its own issue. Arguments from on-line streaming today at the other end of the technological extremes don't impress me much because that is quite a small group of people. But then again, as the resurfacing of old articles about Jeff Bezos and his dreams of unlimited monopoly to fatten his bank account ever further remind us, that small group is of special interest. They have money. These big tech corporations want money, otherwise known as profit, and data and surveillance are a means to an end there.
The second passivity effect is that it is hard to consider multiple options when product information is provided verbally, so people are more likely to go with the first suggested option. Molla argues then that the dream here is to take advantage of this very effect via people saying to their listening devices "order me some toilet paper" and accepting whatever the default given by the device's operating system is at that moment, presuming they would never take the time to set their own. Alas, based on the widespread evidence of failure to change default passwords in internet of shit devices, that would probably be a good bet. So if people could be persuaded to do all their shopping from home, then the listening device that can do what you tell it becomes the ultimate wet dream for advertising companies who are involved in developing this sort of technology. After all, they can turn to whatever corporation that makes stuff and have them bid against each other for position in the default product list and secondarily in a short list of products. Sounds great except it works directly against the ways in which shopping has been conflated with socializing, and also with the simple fact that people like to actually examine most of the things they buy.
But now let's try to envision the sort of world that this points to. First of all, a completely surveilled one, because right now these devices are being designed to supposedly only start listening on hearing a trigger word. Clearly that is not a final state the purveyors of these devices actually have in mind, or a "bug" couldn't lead to them listening constantly or at least more often than expected. If the trigger word were the basic idea, then the software would not be set up so that effectively the device is listening all the time, just not capturing and analyzing the sound it picks up. Economically speaking, the implications are almost as interesting as they are disturbing. If we push the notion of default purchases activated by voice commands, where most people are not setting their own defaults either via some level of passivity or the software making it despicably difficult to do, then we get a system that brings together technologies already available. RFID equipped devices report when whatever product runs out, wears out, goes out of warranty, or gets superseded by the latest version. Person decides to purchase a new one and gives an order to their listening, internet connected speaker or whatever. The default item gets ordered. But then again, the person is hardly necessary in this loop once the products are all tagged and reporting on their own to the internet connected device. In which case voice recognition isn't needed for this task at all. It all can just "magically" happen.
Suppose that somebody decides the RFID thing is going too far, and people should have to do the ordering themselves, otherwise it would be harder to get companies that make stuff to compete for the default and short list spots. After all, maybe the person would usually get the four suggestion short list, and the gamble the companies on it make is that those mentioned earlier will get more orders, and in any case they can gamble on a guaranteed twenty-five percent. To me this still sounds like something that would soon develop into a corporate command economy, because it would lend itself to cartels even more than the current economy does. The number of devices would be known, the people who use them would be the ones who have money, and if they aren't going out to shop to any degree, then to that degree they have become a captured market. Well, at least as long as their cash holds out. Limiting options and enforcing passivity may be great for extracting more profit from people buying things, yet it hardly bears any resemblance to a free or fair market even in capitalist terms.
Then again, it all depends on who is supposed to be free and what is defined as the market. If the freedom is supposed to be that of capital and of capitalists to accumulate it, then actually there is nothing to guarantee benefits for everybody else. We have already seen this in the case of the people who work for capitalists. Every form of limit is placed on the movement of people because it helps drive down the "cost of labour," a cost that in late stage capitalism apparently can never go down far enough, except the consensus now is that slavery is cost ineffective unless bankrolled by the state via prison systems. This feeds the drive to automate as well. How this all ties back to voice control and "remote shopping" via telling an internet of shit device to order things for you is whose jobs go missing if nobody leaves the house to shop. The very sorts of jobs vaunted to the sky as the future economy, all those low paid, rarely full time, often precarious "service jobs" in retail that so many of us are being shunted into. Funny that. (Top)
The Tiniest Violin is Playing... (2019-03-05)
So apparently all these media executives and such are upset, upset beyond belief. #metoo has been so unfair, they can't run around sexually abusing women and children in the industry anymore, and younger members of the industry busy writing scripts, casting, and so forth, are demanding that casts and stories reflect something more like the real world population. And the old guard is stressed, stressed, why they need tranquilizers it's so bad, and whenever they think they can get away with it they are apparently indulging in sexist and racist rants of the worst sort. Now they are angry that one of their award academies is using non-white-maleness as a tie breaker to help break the stranglehold of white males on seats, and they are even more furious because that is supposed to be unfair to them. Never mind that before now the rule was that nobody but white males could get in except as an extraordinary exception, if ever (I don't think there has been an ever if at all until now), which means nobody who was qualified but not a white male ever had a chance. It doesn't matter, they are angry, how dare anyone challenge the oppressive structures that work in their favour. How dare anyone make it impossible for them to maintain the illusion that they did this all based on their own personal skill, merit, and grit.
To which my reply is, oh fuck off and go snivel and cry somewhere else. If you're so tough and competitive, you can hold your own just fine in this new world where the playing field isn't as tilted in your favour and the referees can no longer give as many extra penalties against anyone who is not a white male.
I have certainly bumped into claims that the entertainment industry is in trouble, and all over again, and I have to wonder how anybody can claim this with a straight face. Among the strongest large and small businesses where I live are the movie theatres, and every time I glance at news reports on the music or movie industries, the messages are about rising profits and record sales, even as they try to claim piracy is sinking them forever. These two things don't go together, but, just as in the case of people committed to gun ownership past any good sense, the logic of the people making these contradictory claims and snivelling every chance they get that the women are standing up for themselves and sticking together is evidently not founded on arguments from profits. I am no fan of capitalist paeans to disruption, but that is actually what is at play here, and #metoo is an important factor but by no means a primary part of it. Pointing at #metoo is just about blaming and hating on women, the usual response in patriarchy to changes that challenge established oppressive structures and the old guard clinging to them. (The key of course is to keep the patriarchal new guard from appropriating all the hard work of those breaking down oppressive structures and setting the structures up again with a new coat of paint.)
The people crying loudest are from the older, ever more heavily concentrated media companies, whose entire business models now depend on either controlling distribution as tightly as possible or somehow maintaining vertical integration. They are struggling to deal with the affects of computers and the internet, newer huge advertising companies that are getting into media as a means to sell more advertising – that is the endgame, even if we do get some great movies and programmes out of it – and they are getting outcompeted by anybody who treats fans and viewers more broadly and even slightly more respectfully than a soft touch. The older guard clearly despises the audience and the majority of the people whose labour directly goes into the media they sell. On top of that, audiences aren't so conservative as these older players hope, and are more open to seeing new stories than they ever dreamed. So in hollywood they keep generating endless remakes, and can't figure out why this is a bad strategy, or that the remakes that do sort of okay get lots of screams from the usual white male fan brigade while doing just fine. There is such a thing as criticism that happens when you're doing something right, and that is good criticism to get. But apparently these established entities are criticism allergic, as unfortunately, are many of the larger newcomers who will probably revert to similar patterns if allowed to as soon as they feel strong enough to treat their audience as locked in.
Quite apart from technological change, the change in people is important. Younger people are getting into positions of power and influence, they have different ideas about audiences and what media is for, and their approaches are working better. They are the ones bringing in all those great new shows and unusual casts and the rest, and they form an important base in the "upstart" media sections of advertising and companies like microsoft and google. They aren't all nice, and their ideas are not all positive. As the apple and amazon approaches to "user generated content" remind us, there is an important segment among those same people desperate to capture and monitize fans and fanworks, and close up the newer doors again to independents once they have a strong foothold. The truth after all is that no matter how much they go on about "the marketplace of ideas," "the benefits of competition" and so forth, they only mean it as long as they can control and squeeze cash and other types of profit out of it.
So, the obnoxious whining is from people who are seeing their stable world upended, one in which they thought they had the whole gig sewn up and they didn't have to work for things they had come to take as their due. It seems to me that they are also uncomfortable with a real challenge to the established oppressive systems, because even if many of the large new players just want the same system but with them on top and better pressure release valves for resistance by the oppressed, that is still a risky time for those systems. Any time they change in a larger way, there is a chance the change could actually take the whole mess down. And in a patriarchy, old men in positions of power, especially in the context of the entertainment industry old white men in positions of power, have been instructed that all they have to do to put a stop to things is snivel like little boys and everyone will rush to their aid. There have been several analogous displays in politics recently, and it isn't hard to find examples in men's sports.
No sympathy here, but cautious hopes that the people who are determined to take down oppressive systems period, not just make new pressure valves, refuse to let themselves be distracted by offers to take less than that in exchange for personal benefit and complicity. Don't be fooled when the same shit turns up in the form of a svelter guy with better hair who doesn't need to wear lipstick to look like he has an expression on his face. (Top)
When the Old Outcompetes the New (2019-02-26)
Among the articles I ran my eye over towards the end of last year was one featured on motherboard, which I rarely read to be honest due to not being much of a fan of vice.com. But, as it is important to acknowledge, even broken clocks can be right twice a day, and it doesn't hurt to check them out once in awhile. This particular article dealt with the fact that amazon.com has begun the very process serious business and tech commentators have been worrying about for not nearly as long as the people who realized their figurative heads had bullseyes painted on them. In collusion with apple, amazon.com has booted anybody who repairs apple hardware but isn't specifically licensed by apple itself off of amazon.com's marketplace. Licensing is not a solution, because apple actively does everything it can now to end access to means to keep its hardware running or to run alternate software besides microsoft crud on it. I actually think that the affected businesses and people are going to make it through this, and not because of some naïve belief in the bullshittery of "the market." No, this is about human stubbornness and the fact that there is a hubris in this move that has opened a lot of people's eyes. It's about something else though, something that nobody has said out loud very consistently yet.
What we have here in this move by apple, is a screaming confirmation that old apple hardware vastly outperforms its current successors.
I had already gotten wind of this on what is technically an anecdotal basis. Personally I wasn't happy with the increasing impossibility of repairing or upgrading apple hardware, and the ongoing contempt for people and destruction of what had once been a well-designed and if not respectful at least not intrusive interface. That said, I am not unaware of my generally idiosyncratic notions of the world and what I want out of my regularly used tools. Still, last year I began to hear from more and more acquaintances in the graduate student demographic about how their old mac was still chugging, and the newer machine they had purchased or even received as a gift was so unstable they had given up on it. Then several of them commented on how the latest macbook air they had had been replaced three times now due to a known manufacturing flaw, among them a person who threw up her hands in understandable disgust and found the least horrible windows 10 machine she could. That machine should at least make it just past its warranty end. But all anecdotal, and as if my personal wanderings make up a scientific sample.
All that acknowledged, I think we can fairly conclude that now that apple has gone to the next level in its war against its own earlier products, that those older products must be outcompeting their successors on every level. Otherwise, why bother to force large recyclers who collect electronics recycling to sign contracts in which they promise to shred every apple computer they receive? Why go after the "unauthorized repair shops"? If it were otherwise, all apple would have to do is sit back and wait, every old machine ages out if life's misfortunes don't take it out first. There would be no need for software that prevents the machine from being repaired by "unauthorized" repairpersons, or to prevent the machines being booted with other operating systems, which is the clear next step once security on an old machine gets too precarious. There would be no need to actively crapify software even if it still runs on the old machines until a person either gives up or dumps the update, which those of us have been around awhile know how to do perfectly legally.
Then again, this isn't a war against apple's old products at all. Not really. It's a war against us oldtimers, the folks who had macs when it wasn't cool, when the company was expected to die at any moment. When fan fiction writers could fondly imagine a hyper-developed ipad as the precursor of the tricorders in star trek. It's a war against a belief that we should be allowed to select and control our tools, and that those tools should not spy on us or be made in a way that prevents us from upgrading or repairing them in order to meet our needs. Which means it isn't a war just on wryly referenced "oldtimers" like me at all, but on anyone and everyone who insists that rights to privacy and control of our tools are not to be granted by corporations and their stockholders, but facts of life to be maintained and enforced. People have them because they are people, not because a corporation or government pretended to invent those rights.
I have mentioned in other thoughtpieces my perspective on buying computers or anything analogous, that it can make sense to save the pennies and pop for the more expensive computer and get a solid five to ten years out of it before it needs replacing. (And it can make sense to refuse to spend all that much, of course, it all depends on your use case.) Hard core gamers are all over this as well and I have not doubt have far more detailed and nuanced explanations of the ways to balance the different major tasks computer hardware may be used for depending on what sort of number crunching we want it to do. Being a bit of tech person myself, I began quietly keeping an eye on hardware alternatives for apple hardware several years ago, since it is quite possible and still legal to make what are colloquially called "hackintoshes" on non-apple hardware, though obviously you can expect no tech support from apple or the manufacturer of the hardware. In light of what has already been happening with the macos, I had already switched my operating system expectations to a flavour of gnu/linux. For several years the best alternative hardware option was, yes, the original ibm thinkpad. For repairability and its record for not having difficult to remove preloaded spyware from the manufacturer on it, it was solid. This is no longer the case. The hardware option I have queued up now and that is holding its own for both hardware and software features is from Purism. The stock operating system can be replaced by any gnu/linux version you like, and several critical functions are controlled by hardware, not software switches.
So there you have it. Not only do we now have a clear confirmation that the older hardware if we can get it and it has survived to today in the apple world, and in some portions of the microsoft-running world, are outperforming their successors. And they are likely to be quite affordable as well as having repairability and better respect for security and privacy in their favour. The collapse in quality and respect in the established manufacturers is also opening up space for more companies like Purism, which have somewhat higher prices but an entirely different view of the people who buy what they sell. The possibilities are still open, if we keep them that way. (Top)
Resistance to Oppression is Perennial (2019-02-19)
I have already stated quite bluntly my views on so-called "identity politics," the latest co-optation and backlash against effective resistance to oppression by the oppressed by those doing the oppressing. As usual, the co-opting involves specious claims by oppressors that they are the ones who are really being oppressed by the awful oppressive structures they couldn't be bothered to change. They have leaned extremely heavily on the younger folks out there being too ignorant or at least too naïve to be able to spot the misdirections and lies. They definitely dislike any attempt to learn about the issues at hand independently. Co-opters and backlashers hate it with a passion when anyone, and especially those they consider easy marks like the young or the otherwise apparently uneducated or unsophisticated, insist on finding information for themselves and making up their own minds. I say "apparently" here in absolute seriousness. I disagree absolutely with any claim that people can be denied their own good sense and knowledge merely on the basis that they are young, old, or haven't got education from one or another sorts of institution. That is a backlash, anti-democratic tactic, just as anti-intellectualism is. Unfortunately, this does not protect anyone who may be more vulnerable to flimflammery due to age or experience from at least temporary periods of confusion induced by it, including by the most dangerous types inherent to backlash and co-optation.
One of the hardest things to watch and hear has been the people often labelled "millennials" for marketing purposes declaim that somehow they are the first people ever to challenge sex role based stereotypes. Well, of course, that isn't how they universally describe it. Many of them don't use terminology even remotely like this, instead inveighing against oppression against their gender identity and the failure of previous generations, especially Feminists, especially "second wave" Feminists for not doing this. Their tragic misunderstanding of the great and brilliant lineage of perennial and determined resistance they are joining to sex-based and other forms of oppression is terrible to see, because it disconnects them from the power and momentum available to them from that history. Instead they start all over, apparently from scratch, and refight the old battles all over again, starting with the basic insistence that no one ever, at any time, should ever be oppressed for their sex or their refusal to embody and perform sex-role stereotypes or the more loosely named "gender stereotypes."
As a historian, it frustrates me deeply to hear and read these younger people and others who have joined the "gender identity" train try to argue that "trans-people" existed before the twentieth century. No, they didn't. The very idea of trying to change a person's sex physically was not in play before the twentieth century, when certain endocrine hormones were selected out and labelled "sex hormones" because of their apparent connection to the development of secondary sexual characteristics. Crude sexual surgeries were available from as soon as humans figured out how to cut bits off of themselves and others, for better or worse, and the terminology and life paths varied over time and culture, but so far nobody has found evidence that these people shared the particular construction of "transsexualism" in the twentieth century and now "transgenderism" in the twenty-first. What there most certainly were, were people in places and times before the twentieth century who defied, with all their might and main if they could, restrictive sex-role stereotypes if they were present and socially valourized. It is certainly possible that if they were alive today within fundamentalist-influenced and patriarchal cultures that they might subscribe to and actively attempt to embody ideas at large among a small segment of western cultures and labelled now in the twenty-first century "transgenderism." Or they might not. We really don't know. But the circumstances of their time and place were such that we cannot retroactively impose modern notions of "transsexualism" or "transgenderism" onto them. But it is completely fair to point out that they were defying oppressive sex-roles, and that such resistance is not unique, unnatural, or evidence of a society in collapse. They are in fact evidence of a society's resilience to bullshit perking up, a sign of hope because it means that people within it are still able and willing to work to stop authoritarianism in its tracks, even if at first they were caught on the back foot.
In fact, it seems to me that the previous examples of resistance demonstrate that such resistance has a deep, cross-cultural history, and that societies that responded positively by working on removing the oppressive structures actually did better. When the system enforcing "gender conforming" or the clearer "sex-role conforming" behaviour tightened and became more oppressive, the society in question was in trouble. The people fighting that oppression were and are in fact opposing part of an authoritarian turn, which is always the right thing to do. People always resist. The resistance is perennial. Alas, so are efforts to co-opt that resistance, thereby creating a backlash to counter it. We are seeing that happening right now, in a process that began in the early days of what we can now call "austerity" thinking. But no matter how hard the co-opters and backlashers try, the perennials keep coming back, and the oppressive structures do come down.
But it is impossible for us to know that, and resist successfully or lay needed ground work for successful future resistance, if we get taken in by co-optation because we have been turned away from our own history and encouraged to project into the past concepts and acts that never happened. We can't stand our ground on purely faith-based positions or retrospective relabelling of people in quite different circumstances. But we can based on real evidence and honouring the actual efforts of past resisters, those previous perennials whose bulbs and shoots, if we are very lucky, we are today. (Top)