Well I’ve read waaaay too much of the culture to keep everything straight, so this post will probably veer into the very general. Anyway I think the culture novels are a fascinating kind of window into a world of post scarcity. The message seems to be, post scarcity economies breed anarchists with extreme boredom, which must be satisfied by liberal doo gooder interventions to help others. I think this is a really interesting end result. In “Player of Games” one of the characters remarks that “we don’t live in an age of heroes anymore.” With sufficiently advanced technology what are we to do with ourselves? Are we to descend into a complete Dionysian hedonism? Or will that ultimately fall short of what we want? The culture feels the need to justify and support its own hedonism and as a result they engage in countless interventions through their contact consortium.
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
However, the conversation that arose when they were discussing the motives behind the mission made me think of another discussion I had in a different class. Huyler is trying to justify what they are about to do, kill 5 billion innocent people as revenge, and he says that any culture recognizes this kind of trade. “They cost us that; we cost them that. They recognize that sort of revenge, that sort of trade, like any other civilization. A life for a life.” It occurred to me that this sort mentality is exactly how we think about war today, and have thought about it for a very long time. We had a similar discussion in my War and Personal Responsibility class the other day. Is anyone really innocent in a time of war? Are the five billion people that Quilan is supposed to kill guilty simply because they were complacent in what happened during the war all those years ago and have done nothing to make up for it since then? In my class, we had a discussion about whether Americans today are equivalent to the Good Germans during WWII; ordinary citizens who never harmed anyone but never did anything to stop what was happening.In a sense, complacency equals guilt. I think the ending of the novel proves that Banks does not believe this to be true and does not feel that those who do nothing are just as bad as those who did everything. This parallel did not occur to me until the end of the novel, when I finally had most everything straight in my head about who was who and what was going on.
Additionally, I would have liked a little more background on the war, the Chel people, and the Culture. I had a hard time figuring out why the Chel were so blasé about the fact that they needed to kill all these people, and what exactly the Culture had done during the war that would have justified such a severe reaction. It was hard for me to empathize with the Chel people throughout much of the novel. Hopefully in class today, someone will be able to shed some light on the background story so that I can better appreciate the novel itself.
Thursday, May 1, 2008
So the meat of prof’s argument is that science and God, are as Doria claims, “parallel ways” and that the two are categorically different, therefore they should not concern one another. According to PTJ, I and Chris’s attack on Russell’s tolerance of belief in the face of scientific reason is invalid in this case. I do not agree. Science and God are not parallel in a social context. Faith is a subjective personal attribute that defies rationality and is pretty near impossible to convey through language. Language exists in the rational interpersonal realm. Thus when you try to convey faith to someone you sound like an irrational imbecile.
Now what does this have to do with the parallel ways? Well the parallel works so long as you restrict your God stuff to the subjective personal and your science stuff to the rational outer world. When one’s religious faith influences actions taken in the outer world you fall into dangerous territory. The two worlds are irreconcilable for a reason you see. When people start claiming that evolution is wrong because “god said so” we have an epistemological failure to communicate.
Chris and I wouldn’t be such secular assholes if those with faith kept to PTJ’s cultivated Weberian neutrality, but they don’t. Religion has always tried to make the lines perpendicular and the results have been disastrous. PTJ may be right that miracles exist outside of the scientific paradigm. If the only result was a renewal of faith then no one would care. But religious sillies have used this sign of miracles to justify their own idiocy in the real world. They claim that Katrina is an intervention of God rather than a byproduct of environmental destruction; they refuse medical treatment because God will save them. A refusal to acknowledge the natural law of the phenomenological world is a big freakin danger. Whether you believe in miracles or not, you will still fall accelerating at 9.81 meters per second squared if you jump from a cliff.
Now PTJ brings up a good point. A life dedicated to “shit happens” is no life at all. You should just kill yourself and be done with it. But there’s no reason why I can’t construct meaning in my life without the assistance of a God or an organized religion. As Camus says we are truly free when we acknowledge that there is no ultimate meaning, for then we are the ultimate arbiters of what that meaning is. Some of the happiest, most caring and moral people I know are atheists. They’ve fought all their lives against oppression and injustice and gotten very little in the way of accolades or material reward (well except for gains from collective struggle). These folks believe in science and reason and gravity and still live a life full of purpose.
I think part of the greatest danger to leading a meaningful life is organized religion. Unlike a personal philosophy constructed from community and personal input, organized religion is a whole set of beliefs sold as package deal. You can’t pick and choose what makes the most sense to you and your community; you just take the whole friggen box. That’s a danger as totalizing ideologies (Catholicism, Leninism, fascism, Hinduism etc.) are always the ones that claim complete truth and complete authenticity. Those with a monopoly on truth tend to take that into the real world and slaughter a whole lot of people. Nor are you allowed much of a choice in the matter. Unless you convert to a religion the adherent is usually inculcated from birth to believe and follow the dictates of the church/mosque/synagogue/temple etc. That’s no way to construct meaning. That’s brainwashing. You can’t truly believe in something if you have never sampled different fare on a level playing field.
Worst of all, organized religion often pits spiritual and godly knowledge within a sect of specialists. The priest or the rabbi hold a monopoly on proper meaning and can use that to discipline and manipulate those in their flocks. It destroys human freedom in the name of a God perpetuated by those in power. Now this is partially addressed by some of the mainline protestant denominations. Quakers, UCC’s (PTJs chosen flavor of Christ) and their ilk are pretty good about devolving spiritual knowledge to the laity. But even so I feel like it’s an impoverished philosophy. Only drawing from a single book? A big book indeed, but still only one source? Just doesn’t pace with common sense.
The only religious group I genuinely think is alright has got to be the Unitarian Universalists. They claim no official dogma and stake no claim to universal truth. Now I find their services kind of uninteresting, but some folk like them. I’d say my spiritual experience is out there in thick of it, fighting the good fight. There’s a certain joyous exuberance to it that’s hard to describe. But why I fight has a lot to do with thinking reasoned arguments, I may find a spiritual zeal within it, but I also provide arguments that can exist in the rational outer world on their own merits. Anyway that’s All I got right now.
Keep on thinking and always be skeptical of prophets.
However, I really like the quote that was brought up in class "whatever the truth is, blessed be the truth". While this would probably be seen, and may have been written, as a religious statement, I see it as more of a statement of acceptence of the world and of its beauty, separate or with something religious. While goodness and truth were brought up in the conversation, they were discussed as founding blocks and intrinsically connected with theistic models of world view. While religion is the main theme, whether something is good or not can have absolutely nothing to do with religion, even in a theisticly questioning novel.
One thing I really did enjoy about these two novels was how differently they approached he fact of dealing with and finding of a new world. Although she went very little into the actual what would have happened on Earth as an effect of the discovery in terms of technology, business and exploration, I still found it refreshing. Immersed in Star Trek for my humans making contact literature, the amount of change on Rakath that occurred because of human landing at first felt very wrong, especially once Sophie started to directly influence the settlement she was with. What this really reveled to me is that the question is actually why not participate? In Star Trek, working on a non-warp drive world is considered interfering, while here it was presented much more as if Sophie was participating and doing her part.
Thursday, April 24, 2008
I agree with the conclusion that Russell was instead saying, “Be careful what you wish for”. They went all the way to Rakhat because of the music and they all had to endure so much death, suffering, and pain and in the end what do they get? Music. Its kind of a cynical way of saying, well you asked God for this and here it is, whether you like it or not. I would have liked to have Russell made Emilio’s character a little more disappointed with the music at the end, that yes it’s beautiful but was it really worth it? What, if anything did it change? I don’t think she explored that as much as she could have. Sequels usually aren’t as good as the first one was and, while I enjoyed Children of God, I feel The Sparrow did a better job at fully exploring its themes and really making the reader think about things even after they were done reading. Children of God leaves you wondering, but not in the same way. I agree that perhaps it could have ended with a bigger bang or a bigger twist, but I think Russell’s intention was to have the ending be as plain and simple as the whole thing started: with a beautiful piece of music and a question about what it means.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
AAArgh. I’m sorry but that novel was a total mary sue. Carlo gets it in the end. Emilio has a child and grandchild, and his mental sanity. And we’ve all got purpose because genetic sequences harmonize! Whooptee doo! While I certainly didn’t detest the novel as Chris did. I definitely didn’t think it was a tour de force. 438 pages and the payoff is…well…bland. The janata will live as an intellectual curiosity and the Runa march on.
Also I didn’t notice any of that “whaaa?” that we were supposed to experience. Maybe its because I read way too much sci-fi but nothing was too out of the ordinary. I was waiting for something a bit more expansive. Like, Isaac has bioengineered a new virus that does x or that the janata are actually a subset of earth wolves brought here by y. Instead it was just “oh the perspective has changed and these folks aren’t as evil as we thought..” Though I did find it deliciously pleasurable to see Kitheri get trampled to death. Too bad there was no specific detail.
Stemming from the good but kind of eh plot, the message of the novel was eh too. God is there if you believe in him, and he’s not if you don’t. What simplified nonsense is that? Pascal’s wager is more sophisticated than this. Russell just gets mired in postmodern relativism. We don’t need 438 pages for “to each his own,” That’s all grand and magical but, really find something a tad more interesting The only useful message of this novel is “Catholics and Jews are really stupid for believing in God.” They go through trial and tribulation and never seem to wonder, “Maybe God sent us that meteorite?” No its always “God sent that meteorite at this angle so it would only damage us! Praise the Lord!” They’re like a bunch of abused kids exclaiming when daddy buys them a soda after a particularly vicious beating. Wake up you nonces, God does not love you. This is all a product of natural forces. Some of which you control, some you don’t. If god does exist, he’s not helping!
Also, why couldn’t Russel resolve some of the big questions such as where the Magellan party went or why 6 missions failed? All of this was left unexplained so that she could focus on healing her main man sandoz. And she only accomplished this mixing some genotypes together to make a song. Ggarg. This book frustrates me.
I think a lot of our discussion danced around two issues that were never completely addressed, ontological displacement, and epistemic frameworks.
So first let’s get into ontological displacement. Basically ontological displacement is a total displacement of being. The thing, or the Other is so utterly different that it cannot truly relate to us, its ontology. Its being is alien to us. I’m not sure this can happen between humans, but it could certainly happen across species. There may be aliens that are so different we don’t even know that they’re aliens. So different that we cannot understand the other on anything but a superficial level; think of the planet in Solaris.
Perhaps this is unnecessarily privileging experiential knowledge over everything else, but I think that in order to understand a person you must have some sort of common referent i.e. a common experience. When your natures of being are completely divorced, this is rather difficult. There’s a taste of this in Todorov, as the natives and the Spaniards seemed to exist on different planes of existence, though they were not so different that they were totally unrecognizable to one another
That sort of dove tails into my other point about epistemic frameworks. As I was saying in class, you can only really empathize with an Other if your epistemic and moral frameworks have some sort of commonality. Cortes could understand the how of Aztec ruled, but could never sympathize with or fully grasp the why. This cyclical time stuff was as nonsensical to him as it sounds to most westerners. I’ve read about the Aztecs, and taken classes on Latin American history. All I really know is the how. Their world view still sounds like nonsense on stilts. Circular time and ritualized speaking do not appeal to me and I do not empathize with the decisions drawn from them (ex. human sacrifice). I can still hate their leaders for these practices with much ease.. Tim mentioned how much we hated on
I think the only real hatred is a hatred based on knowledge of the other. Chris and I were discussing this and we agreed that the sensationalized other as the “foe” is more or less just fear. It’s an enhanced fight or flight response, not real hate. You’re not really fighting a person but a wild animal that will stop at nothing to destroy you. Thus it is not hate but instinctual fear that drives us to atrocities. Hate is only made possible through active participation. You have to fully understand how radically different your moral frameworks for two people to truly despise each other. In other words, hate’s a garden and it needs tender loving care.
An interesting parallel with the title which might have been completely unintentional is that Emilio's constant refrain seems to be "don't do this to me again, kids and babies". However, the title directly relates to Children (although here it is meant in the wider since of the three separate species all of children of the same God). Perhaps the parallel here is that despite however much he tries not to, Emilio will meet up with all the children again. I'm not certain about this interpretation, and wonder if Russel purposefully does not have Emilio use the word children or child to reduce this parallel, however, to me it seems something that should be significant in this imagery laden novel.
One strong compulsion I felt throughout the later half of the novel was just to yell the word 'genocide' at Sophie. Even through all her prejudeces and the evil she felt had been committed by the Jana'ata, with her history and the conditioning against genocide she almost certainly has, one would hope she would pause to consider what she was truly doing. Sophie's complete blindness to this fact only worked for her, although it would have felt jarring with anyother character, because of her proven ability to shut out her emotions and disconnect herself from the realities of what were going on around her. This is also why Russel couldn't allow any of the other humans to survive, if just one other had, they may have been able to rein in the attempted genocide to a role reversal where the Runa became masters of the land, while the Jana'ata became the lower class species.
Sunday, April 20, 2008
My first thought in the first few chapters about Columbus was how well Orson Scott Card's novel Pastwatch fit into this narrative. The way Columbus is represented in both books as a man more on a quest for the Church than trying to gain money. The impression I truly got of Columbus was of a noble, if time-misplaced, nitwit who without many forceful hints, would completely miss the importance of reality and continue on in his own world.
The analysis of the differences in communication methods also struck me. The presented idea that Montozuma and the other civilizations did not wish to speak to the envoys when they were there, but still preferred to ask the soothsayers what their chances were and what the state of affairs were. This seems perfectly nonsensical until the differing modes of communication are thought of. A person-to-person mode of communication is assumed and is actually what the basis of communication analysis is in the "Western" context. The idea that this second mode of communication with the natural and social group and religious world would be the more dependable runs counter to what I can see as provable. Coming out of an anaylsis of Methods from my IR research class, I believe then this is when other methods than a scientific or neo-postivist must come to bear as with these you would quickly notice that not everything matched. However, if the entire society is forming itself with a constructivist/relational view, they are building the world among the way they see it and they agree it to be, regardless of how a truthful discourse between themselves might present it. To me, this makes the most sense on how to see a how this completely different way of communicating with the universe might come to work.
However, these differing types of thinking are what we are looking for in our classic 'other', and cause me to doubt many of the science fiction aliens that we find. The oddest thing is how we often find patterns of thought and physical shapes on Earth that are more bizarre or different than many from other worlds, even when the ones that are supposed to be "human" aliens are excluded.
An interesting point we touched on in class was the differentiation that evolves when we chose or chose not title someone/thing as human. If they are human, they can be equal. However, Todorov argues that almost by definition, if the other is not human, it cannot be equal, as we have delineated a difference that can not be overcome. This is unequally troublesome for an even hopeful idealist as the hope would be when other alien races are found that we learn to eventually work with them as equals. But can we truly accept that someone is truly 'other' in practically every way, except that they are inherently have the same moral and "human" rights as us, even when there moral structure is alien to us? It is hard to truly conceptualize what this would mean, let alone how an individual or humanity as a group would handle it. But looking at Todorov and pasts where we have met alien humans for the first time probably is the closest we can come to analyzing how we might feel.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
I definitely also agree with the point that just because you understand someone doesn't mean that you sympathize with them or even like them. I can think of a few people that I know pretty well and still absolutely dislike. In fact, understanding your enemy is perhaps the best way to beat them. The more you understand about how someone does something, the easier it becomes to destroy them in the end. I also think that it is possible to sympathize with someone and still dislike them. Empathizing with ones enemy is one way to get and to keep the upper hand. Perhaps this is why Cortez seemed to understand, and even sympathize in the end, with those that he encountered? Was he doing this because he knew that this was an easy way to get what he wanted in the end? Maybe Cortez is proof that it is possible to understand, sympathize, and even feel sorry for someone, but still destroy them in the end.
I think Todorov’s greatest contribution is his emphasis on the discourse of language and epistemology. Rather than focusing on the political or material bases on which the Spaniards conquered
I also like how mike mentioned that westerners were particularly suited to understand the other so that they could annihilate them. I think this shift from
In that regard I also enjoyed the overview of
Another point that I found particularly interesting in The conquest, mostly because it is something I had never considered before, occurred in the epilogue. Todorov states that "This extraordinary success (Western European colonization) is chiefly due to one specific feature of Western civilization...among Europeans thereby becoming proof of their natural suoeriorty: it is, paradoxically, Europeans' capacity to understand the other" What I gathered from the statement is that Todorov is basically saying that the Europeans conquered the natives and not the other way around because they understood the natives better in the end. I am not sure if I believe that this is the case, but it is something that made me stop and think as I was reading. Is it really that Europeans were better communicators? Was it really nothing to do with technological might and infecting the natives with disease, i.e. smallpox? OR is it a combination of these factors that caused history to play out the way it did. Like I said, I don't know the answer or even my own opinion about it but it is a point that I found very interesting to contemplate.
So I think this class was eerie in that we seemed to be in pretty good agreement. The Jesuits were well intentioned and had some cute ideals, but they were woefully unprepared. They never thought to observe the planet from afar. They never contemplated the effects of their exploration. They never even checked if the air was breathable. The Jesuits got drunk on their own sense of serendipity and they never thought about the consequences of their actions.
I think the real message of the book lies therein. There may be a creator god or there may not be, but the fact remains that He or she or It isn’t going to interfere. You may read in that God is determining events or providing miracles, but he’s not. God if it exists is not going to interfere in worldly matters. When you choose to believe that God sent you on a mission and then that mission fails don’t blame God, blame your foolhardy assumptions. I think Mike mentioned that Abe Lincoln quote about god being on your side during war. It encapsulates everything pretty well about the whole “god’s on your side” ethic.
On a somewhat unrelated note I think this novel falls into a weird tradition of Sci-Fi/ Fantasy stories written by authors riffing on CS Lewis’s notion of the restricted God. Lewis basically stated God had to allow the universe abide by certain physical laws. If god were to screw around with miracles it would destabilize everything and well…up would be down and down would be up. Thus we need gravity and all the danger that it implies. Without physical laws, things can’t exist, but as a result existence creates evil or dissatisfaction, or whatever you wish to call it.
Russell follows in this tradition of “Well god may be out there, but he aint doing ya any favors.” Of course CS Lewis himself was notorious for breaking his own rules by allowing the introduction of “limited” miracle every now and then to show that god was still around. These miracles are quite similar to the turtles that the Jesuits kept witnessing. Further Lewis was big into science and “learning,’ much like the Jesuits. So I guess you would say that Sandoz suffered from an acute case of CS Lewis. Although Lewis was an atheist turned anglican, not an atheist turned catholic. So it doesn’t totally work. Oh Lewis, you were a traitor to your Irish brethren, no wonder your theories about God were silly and your novels sucked. And on that note, long live the IRA! The old one, not the PIRA. They’re silly.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
"I've always liked the idea of a special Hugo to be awarded (by force, perhaps) to literary authors who write books dripping with themes filleted from mainstream SF and then deny that it's science fiction 'because it's not about robots and spaceships'." (Terry Pratchett, fun sci-fi quotes)Although there are spaceships and aliens in this novel, to a "real literature" critique these elements can be safely ignored while they focus on the 'worthy' aspects of the story. But since the quality and thought-provokingness is not unique among Sci-fi novels, what is it that sets it apart to make it more relatable? It can't just be the minimization of 'technobabbel' and the fact that it isn't military or fighting-based (neither of these elements being unique either)? The reason is two fold, firstly the novel centers around the inner journey of one man, and and the religious/theological subject, themes that are associated with 'high' literature.
A basic idea/assumption, that as Americans at least we have, mentioned in the course of the discussion was that there is in fact little reason at all any aliens landing on Earth would say "take me to your leader." In fact, although I've read one book where the ET said "take me to your paleontologist", I can't recall an instance where the aliens first entered/integrated with earth culture and from there announcing themselves. It seems to me, we would be really annoyed, scared and mystified if that happened, so what reason was there to think it would be successful with that approach.
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Perhaps I'm being a bit silly, but anyone in the expedition think "hrrm maybe we should bring some future weapons." Explorers going to an alien planet unarmed, grand plan...grand. I’m of course being a bit simplistic, but a whole mess of trouble could have been avoided if the humans had brought some orbital weaponry. Obliterate a few Janata strongholds, and make em think twice before they do anything silly. Of course the risks associated with bring a whole bunch of guns, are rather legion. However, the complete lack o worry that they would be attacked or would require force is incredibly naive.
Though its no surprise that naiveté is the rule of the day. Jesus has ordained this mission so of course everything will work out real well. That is…if Jesus actually gave a flying crap. The willful delusions of the expedition’s leadership to assume that things were ordained and that the intelligent life would never attack them were poorly advised. That and bringing only one Lander. Hasn’t Aliens taught us anything? Always have a backup Lander for pilot by remote. Anyway it seems as if the Jesuits got caught up in the excitement, but never thought about the possible dangers of the mission. They made a whole lot of safely precautions on the way there. But man, they did not think about the problems of contact all too well. I mean they didn’t even try to predict if their germs could cause a disease outbreak amongst the aliens.
An interesting thing is how everything goes down the drain so quickly, when the musicologist dies right after they land, you get the feel that it is going to be a gradual dying off, not the sudden killing of everyone else in a few pages. What this showed was that even if you begin to believe you understand a society, you are still likely to miss something and that one thing can send the entire plan on a huge tremendous down swing. While it was good to see how everything feel so quickly, after all the buildup, it seemed a let down.
Stylistically, I didn't like the idea of going into the viewpoint of the two Jana'ata. It made them much more human, and this made them more relatable, which I thought was actually unfortunate as it hurt they idea of them being truly "other". While Russel may have been trying to make us relate to the Jana'ata and see how we had the potential to evolve as they did. She tries to make a contrast between, "oh don't they seem so much more like us" and "what kind of creatures are they" and while this is obviously drawn, I feel that it took concentration away from actually exploring the differences and uniqueness of their society and turning into some relation to the Middle Ages of nobles and peasants.
Monday, April 7, 2008
I noticed that the class response missed something rather key. It seemed like we kept trying to muddy the waters of what the political was, and who it pertained to. Yes the work was a bit contradictory at times. It often provided a convoluted reason for conflict that jumped between Platonist essentialism and materialist analysis. At one point economics, morality etc have little to do with the enemy, and then it seems that the enemy is created as it stems from those same moral and economic conflicts.
However, we shouldn’t let this confound what the political is. Schmidt’s discussion of the political was pretty explicit in its dualistic, dialectic obsession. He wasn’t interested in muddy waters. He discussed things in a way that Descartes called clear and distinct ie the boiled down definitions. Schmidt really should have titled it “The Concept of the Simple” because he’s not dealing in anything but simple distinctions. He wants an all encompassing, universal definition; he can’t get too complicated when dealing with absolutes. This is why he likes dialectics so much. It logically helps boil everything down to one simple distinction, to their essential properties. Putting forth an either/or dichotomy forces him and the reader to categorize something as essentially a or b. In this case something is either political or non political.
The political is not complicated for Schmidt, which as Mel points out is a key reason why I didn’t like the text. You are political based on a basic either/or question. Are you willing to use deadly force in this conflict? If yes then you have a political situation. If no, it is not political. That’s it.