Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘modernity

Thursday Links

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‘Climate Change Has Lost All Its Sci-Fi Tinge in My Lifetime and Is Now a Melancholy and Tiresome Reality’

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Bruce Sterling: It’s just kind of a blunt reality that the fossil-fuel enterprise has done a regulatory capture of the entire planet, and we’re involved in a war for oil, and it’s the curse of oil, and it’s a war for a curse that’s endless and happening. You know, it gets boring running around being a Cassandra. Starting Earth Day in 1970 was a pretty late start considering the multicentury scope of this problem.

I will pass the rest of my lifetime in the shadow of climate change. It’s not about warning people in 2011, or trying to avert or defuse a misfortune. The wolf is beyond the door. The wolf is in the living room. This is the anthropocenic condition. This is how we live. This is force majeure. It’s here. It’s very obvious.

The Atrocity Exhibition

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For sale: J.G. Ballard’s home. Warning: structure may be haunted by modernity’s ghosts. (Thanks Lindsey!)

Written by gerrycanavan

July 12, 2011 at 10:21 am

Really, Wednesday Already?

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* The 15 Worst Comics of the 2000s. The Mark Trail entry, while unexpected, is pretty amazing all by itself.

* Avatar and the American Man-Child: ‘Don’t you want to be an Indian little boy?'” My piece, as well as SEK’s, gets mentioned.

Where the movie goes wrong, then, is in making the sociopathic immaturity of a spoiled Western brat into the ideal form for the child-human that it wants anti-modernity to be. After all, while even your Rousseauvians understand the noble savage as a contradiction of modernity, as a cleansing bath washing away its discontents, the Na’vi only confirm Sully’s most childish presumptions of privilege: their world turns out to be nothing but toys to play with, nothing but one long summer camp fantasy of being the fastest, bestest, most awesomest ninja-Indian ever, and then a big giant womb to hide in when it all gets to be a bit much. There are no consequences there, nothing you can do to make mommy stop loving you (though Lord how he tries!). Like toys and parents to a three-year old, it is unthinkable that they say no or exist without you, and all they can ever ask is that you play with them.

* Polls prove the American public hates and loves the Afghan War as it hates and loves itself.

* Peace, tolerance, due process, oh my: Conservatives discover Star Trek is a Utopia.

* Tarantino is reportedly writing a prequel to Inglourious Basterds. I feel almost entirely certainly this is a terrible idea, and may in the end prove that those of us who liked the movie were fooling ourselves about its depth all along.

* Select Criterion Collection films are now streaming on Netflix.

* Andrew Breitbart goes deep inside the anti-American conspiracy that is the White House Christmas tree. Not a hoax!

* FiveThirtyEight.com’s Most Valuable Democrats of 2009.

* And, via Chutry, a nice encapsulation of what blogging is for.

Here’s my single favorite thing about blogging: being able to educate oneself in public. Going through this process—trying to move forward, stumbling, groping, occasionally finding—in full view of the world does not always stroke one’s ego. Each week you find yourself writing not about what you know but about what you perhaps hope to learn from the process of watching, reading, and struggling to think through and articulate.

Infinite Summer #9: A Brief Comment on the Narcissism of Grad Students and My Own Arrested Adolescence

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The salience of this particular moment fades a bit as we get further and further from Friday’s spoiler-line, but I feel compelled to comment briefly on the conversation between Marathe and Steeply that begins on page 638. How can I, or anyone who has chosen a life in academia, read this week’s material without feeling interpolated by it? How could any academic, would-be or otherwise, avoid asking him- or herself more than once just what it is that separates us from Steeply’s M*A*S*H-obsessed father beyond the razor-thin veneer of professional legitimacy? It’s my job, allegedly, to develop intricate and sometimes bizarre readings of pop-culture artifacts, which means it’s perfectly okay for me to (still) spend all my time reading science-fiction novels and watching science-fiction movies just like I did when I was twelve. Heck, I wouldn’t be doing my work if I didn’t! And if I can just trick somebody into paying me to do it I’ll never have to stop.

Herman Blume:What’s the secret, Max?
Max Fischer: The secret?
Herman Blume: Yeah, you seem to have it pretty figured out.
Max Fischer: The secret, I don’t know… I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life. For me, it’s going to Rushmore.

Intellectually, of course, I’ve always been able to recognize the tragic irony of this exchange—Rushmore, you’ll remember, doesn’t offer a post-graduate year—but I wonder sometimes whether deep down I’ve ever really come to terms with it.

Is this addiction? Does pursuing a academic career studying literature and pop culture—a preoccupation which over the years has diverted me from any number of more financially lucrative pursuits—mark me as the writerly equivalent of a functional alcoholic? Do I even qualify as functional? And it occurs to me now, reading this section against not only my own life and those of my grad student associates but against the life of anyone who has ever been a “fan” of anything—anyone, that is, who can recognize themselves in the way Steeply’s father looked at M*A*S*H—that the danger DFW is highlighting is central to the construction of modern subjectivity. If everything is at least potentially bad for us—even/especially the things that give us pleasure, the things that make life appear to be worth living—just what is it we’re supposed to be doing? Where is the authentic, healthy, free life, if there was ever such a thing to begin with? When even the things we love conspire to destroy us, what is left?

Infinite Summer #7: Is ‘Infinite Jest’ Science Fiction?

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There have been some interesting Infinite Summer posts about whether Infinite Jest “counts” as science fiction—see, for instance, these two at Infinite Tasks and this from Chris Forster)—so I thought it might be interesting to run through some of my standard classroom definitions of science fiction and see how the book shapes up. (My notes on this are older than the Wikipedia page and mostly cribbed from Fred Chappell, but most of these definitions appear there as well.)

To begin with, there are a few classic definitions it clearly doesn’t meet.

…a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.
—Hugo Gernsback

Versions of this notion of “scientific prophecy” pop up whenever science fiction is discussed, and Infinite Jest pretty clearly meets neither criteria; its speculations are philosophical, not scientific, and it is surely a satire, not some coherent futurism.

Another take:

Science fiction is a branch of fantasy identifiable by the fact that it eases the “willing suspension of disbelief” on the part of its readers by utilizing an atmosphere of scientific credibility for its imaginative speculations in physical science, space, time, social science, and philosophy.
—Sam Moskowitz

I would defy anyone to claim that their willing suspension of disbelief is not frequently and fatally challenged by the hyperbolic “hysterical realist” elements throughout IJ. “FREAK STATUE OF LIBERTY ACCIDENT KILLS FED ENGINEER: BRAVE MAN ON CRANE CRUSHED BY 5 TON CAST IRON BURGER” (398) is not a sentence calculated to brace a spirit of credulity.

Still another:

Science fiction is anything published as science fiction.
—Norman Spinrad

This is usually the last definition I offer my students in my introductory SF lecture, and the one I usually argue is the most important. SF is, as much as it is anything else, a discrete, recognizable set of consumer practices and preferences—and here, too, Infinite Jest is clearly not science fiction because it isn’t branded as science fiction in the marketplace nor is it consumed as science fiction by “science fiction fans.” IJ pulls in dollars under an entirely different brand, mainstream literary fiction—which is a perfectly cromulent brand, if that’s what you’re into, but it’s not SF.

So, then, 0 for 3. Not a great start. But there are other definitions of science fiction that do cast a strong light on Infinite Jest:

Science fiction is the search for definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mold.
—Brian Aldiss

Here science fiction collapses into a special category of existential literature, in which the SF aspects are merely the engine motivating the text’s more-central philosophical speculations. The science-fictional elements in Infinite Jest, it seems clear to me, are operating almost entirely on this level—each inventive speculation in the novel drives existential speculation about how we might be able to live in ultratechnological modernity in the shadow of the death of God. (Side question: is Infinite Jest “in the Gothic mold”? I’d have to pull out an entirely different set of quotes to discuss that question fully, but in its massive textual sprawl, its strong tendencies towards melodrama and hyperbolic excess, and its palpable atmosphere of both individual and familial tragedy I think we could have the start of a fairly strong case.)

We come now to the two definitions I use most commonly in my writing and teaching, which are (I concede) are completely in conflict with one another. But I think—I hope—it’s a productive tension. First is Darko Suvin, who inspired Fredric Jameson and most of the Utopian school of SF theorists I primarily read:

SF is, then, a literary genre or verbal construct whose necessary and sufficent conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment. —Darko Suvin

There’s a lot to pull out there, but the key words are “estrangement,” “cognition,” and “imaginative framework alternative.” What Suvin argues in his work is that the defining characteristic of science fiction is the pwower of defamiliarization that allows us to see our own world more clearly (and maybe for the first time), which is accomplished through the sort of intricate, even obsessive world-building confabulations SF is famous for. In particular, Suvin and his successors argue, SF expresses the desire for another kind of life, whether explicitly (as Utopian fiction) or implicitly (the desire for a plausible alterity expressed in negative in most dystopian, anti-Utopian, and apocalyptic fictions).

Infinite Jest, it seems to me, is pretty deep in the murky swamp that divides this sort of SF from more generic Utopian/dystopian political satire. The trouble for any Suvinian analysis of Infinite Jest, I think, comes in the unstable irony I was going on about earlier in the week; as Infinite Tasks lays out in detail, O.N.A.N.-ite politics is not in any sense a imaginative framework alternative to the present. It’s a series of gags. Wallace’s world-building just isn’t on the level. It’s no coincidence, to take but one example, that a close reading of DFW’s references to the Gentle administration and the start of Subsidized Time c. the year 2000 would seem to place the “Limbaugh administration” around the year of the novel’s composition in the mid-1990s, and therefore somehow impossibly concurrent with the Clinton administration that is also occasionally referenced. Infinite Jest is our cracked self-reflection, not another world.

And finally there’s Delany, who rejects political readings of SF in favor of a definition focused on wordplay, and really on the pleasure of the text itself:

In science fiction, “science”—i.e., sentences displaying verbal emblems of scientific discourses—is used to literalize the meanings of other sentences for use in the construction of the fictional foreground. Such sentences as “His world exploded,” or “She turned on her left side,” as they subsume the proper technological discourse (of economics and cosmology in one; of switching circuitry and prosthetic surgery in the other), leave the banality of the emotionally muzzy metaphor, abandon the triviality of insomniac tossings, and, through the labyrinth of technical possibility, become possible images of the impossible.
—Samuel Delany

This literary-linguistic pleasure, I think, is quite clearly a huge part of the pleasure of IJ for those of us who are enjoying it; the way in which, 400 pages in, we find ourselves now able to parse a sentence like this one:

All this until the erection of O.N.A.N. and the inception, in Clipperton’s eighteenth summer, of Subsidized Time, the advertised Year of the Whopper, when the U.S.T.A. became the O.N.A.N.T.A., and some Mexican systems analyst—who barely spoke English and had never once even fondled a ball and knew from exactly zilch except for crunching raw results-data—this guy stepped in as manager of the O.N.A.N.T.A. computer and ranking center in Forest Lawn NNY, and didn’t know enough not to treat Clipperton’s string of six major junior-tournament championships that spring as sanctioned and real. (431)

There is surely something Delany could recognize in this sentence and the subtle mental acrobatics required to make sense of it; if this isn’t quite science fiction, exactly, it seems to me it’s something very close.

The Places We Live

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‘The Places Ee Live’: sounds and images of slums in Caracas, Nairobi, Jakarta, and Mumbai.

Written by gerrycanavan

January 28, 2009 at 3:38 pm

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