Category: Philosophy

Walkaway and being rich

Early in my conversion to Marxist ideology, I would have “but what about…” discussions with the professor who guided me there. There was this one conversation we had where he had mentioned something about how the rich were always part of the problem, the capitalists. And I asked, well, what about rich philanthropists like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, who give millions to various charities and funds?

And Dr. Burling started to tell me about how that’s part of the problem as well, that that simply contributes to the wealth inequality and perpetuates the status quo . . . and wasn’t able to really explain before we got interrupted. We never did get back to that specific topic before he died, and while I could extrapolate an explanation from everything else I’ve learned from Marxist criticism, I’ve not seen much direct discussion on the exact issue.

Then, the other day, I read a passage in the new Cory Doctorow book, Walkaway. (See my last post, on seeing him talk recently) :

“What about being being richer than Scrooge McDuck and staging a Communist party?”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“It’s not like you need to–”

“But I can. Remember, it’s not just ‘to each according to her need,’ it’s ‘from each according to her ability.’ I know how to find factories that are perfect for direct action. I know how to get into them. I know how to pwnify their machines. I know how to throw a hell of a party. I have all this unearned, undeserved privilege. Apart from killing myself as an enemy of the human species, can you think of anything better for me to do with it?”

“You could give money to–”

She froze him with a look. “Haven’t you figured it out? Giving money away doesn’t solve anything. Asking the zottarich to redeem themselves by giving money away acknowledges that they deserve it all, should be in charge of deciding where it goes. It’s pretending that you can get rich without being a bandit. Letting them decide what gets funded declares that the planet to be a giant corporation that the major shareholders get to direct. It says that government is just middle-management, hired or fired on the whim of the directors.”

I’m barely started in on the novel, but I know that much of the novel revolves around using the wealth of resources, knowledge, infrastructure, technology to step out of the current system: the wealth and money, the institutions and processes that justify the wealth inequality and exploitation, and creating a “utopian” society that isn’t perfect, but is just prepared for anything that can come, and can provide needs and wants better without wealth and scarcity markets.

So far, this novel feels a lot like the best of William Gibson during his post-cyberpunk stage of cultural criticism in his “Bridge trilogy,” except, with characters a little bit more relatable.

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My future plans for study and growth

scholarHaving just moved to Portland from the midwest, it’s obvious I’m looking to start a new life. Well, a new chapter. I like my life, and most of what’s in it, so I don’t want a new one. Just, improved. Full disclosure, a large part of the “deal” with moving here is so that my wife can find her own new life. I won’t go into detail as that’s her story to tell. But, suffice it to say, much of my role, at least initially here, is to support her in her search and discovery. And I’m happy to do so! But, while I’m looking for that elusive and decent-paying tech job, I do have some of my own goals — some I’m already working on. . . .

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m working on the sequel to Singularity Deferred. And, just moments ago, I finished two intense chapters of it and feel really good about where it’s going. I’m making a decision about its structure that fans of the first novel may find annoying, or really like — we’ll see. Anyway, that’s my main personal goal right now. But, ennui, dissatisfaction, the draw and tease of scholarly subjects, many influences have made me pine for grad school. I miss it. I miss the research, the studying, the reading, the papers, the learning and developing and widening and understanding of things…. I miss it something terrible.

Of course there’s no reason to stop learning and developing! Of course. But since graduating with my Masters, it’s felt like a demarcation, a transition from “scholar” back to working drone, and the old habits and floundering. (Although, like I said, I’m somewhat pleased that I’ve been writing semi-regularly, still!)

Today, it hit me hard. I was reminded of my work in mediated experience in a postmodern world, and the writers I used to research and use, and discovered new books by them… and I felt the need, the absolute need, to continue to study them, model them, and carry on my own scholarship and add to the discourse.

Part of me has been in wait. I’ve known since before I graduated in 2010 (oh my god!) that my next step was to be a PhD from Trent University in Ontario. Their Cultural Studies department is enviable and arguably the best in North America. Either their “culture and tech” or “culture and theory” course of study, I can’t yet decide. But, I figured that’d be something I’d do after our daughter graduated high school, three years from now. Sure, by that time I’d likely be one of the oldest PhD candidates they probably have (I was one of the oldest MA students MSU’s English department had), but I don’t care. I can’t let the unstoppable passage of time and my advancing age prevent me from seeking my goals. After all, how many people take up and climb mountains mid- and post-mid-life? Explore other countries? Take up diving and explore the ocean bottom? Why can’t my graduate degrees be my Mount Everest?

But will Trent happen? Even in three years? I’m in Portland now, and Portland is my home. Sure, I could move to Ontario for 2 to 3 years, then come back. But will I? Sure, if I want it enough, and can afford it….

But then, if I want it enough, why wait until then? Why not start now? Why wait until I enroll in a new school? Do Sherry Turkle or Katherine Hayles or Slavoj Zizek or Hardt and Negri wait to get yet another degree before they research and write their next books?! Of course not! They are scholars, and that’s what it means to be a scholar. You research, study, synthesize, and contribute now, despite where and when you are. Why can’t I do that now?

Soon I will have another mind and body sapping job in order to pay the bills, and I will have to conform and contort my writing and scholarship around that. To do that, I’ll have to give up other distractions: Facebook for the most part, TV and movies, sleep. But it’s not enough, for me, just just proclaim abstinence from distraction, find the latest book on posthuman cultural criticism and read… I need focus, goals, a program and a plan. I need to create my own doctorate program. No, I won’t get more letters I can put after my name from it, but that doesn’t matter. Zizek doesn’t get a new degree for every new topic he researches and then writes a book on. Just as I can’t in good conscience call myself “a writer” unless I’m actually writing, I can’t call myself “a scholar” unless I’m doing the work of scholarship. And I know myself well enough to know I’m unlikely to engage in actual scholarship (and commenting on Facebook articles is not scholarship), unless I have a plan and structure and goalposts.

And so, before work takes up most of my time and energy, I need to get to work creating my own personal PhD program. I feel excited, challenged…happy at the prospect!

…starting and editing a regular literary journal has been a goal of mine for a few years now–I wonder how to incorporate that.

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“Sucker Punch”; the perfect postmodern flick

sucker punch posterNow, don’t get me wrong: when I say “perfect,” I don’t mean Sucker Punch is a perfect film in general. On the contrary. It’s a bad film! The script is spare, uninspired, and tedious, and the acting (with the slight exception of supporting actors Oscar Isaac as “Blue” and Carla Gugino as “Dr. Vera,” and the pathos-saturated sad face from lead Emily Browning as “Baby Doll”) is equally tedious and as thin as tissue. Fortunately, this isn’t exactly a review of the film but a critique.

Now, don’t get me wrong. . . again. While I declare the film as bad, I also loved it. I had fun time watching it and would willingly see it again in the theater a couple more times. The action sequences are as amazing audio-visually as they are the epitome of sound and fury signifying nothing. And pardon me if I prevaricate about the shrubbery and mention the 800-pound gorilla only so much as to say I can’t really discuss the 800-pound gorilla. (By which I mean the 800-pound gorilla that’s the object of 15-year-old boys’ dreams dressed up in fetish costumes not lacking in stockings and garters. How’s that for a disturbing image).

I don’t want to discuss the over-saturation of objectified female sexuality in the film (which is difficult as that’s basically what a solid half of this film consists of), because while I count myself as a feminist and constantly aware of the use and effect of themale gaze, I do happen to be a privileged male and the owner of a male gaze. On top of that, while I don’t accept all (or most) of what evolutionary psychology claims, I also don’t dismiss the concept and some of its hypotheses out of hand. So, if I try critiquing the blitzkrieg use of sexuality in the film, I’ll likely get accused of being too sympathetic to its use or unqualified to critique (even to criticize) it since I am a target consumer of the cinematic male gaze. (A criticism I often hear about many subjects and ideologies. Which I, obviously, don’t believe. I think it is indeed possible to critique a thing even while existing within its sphere of effect. If that were true that it weren’t possible, then, for example, since all of western culture operates within the contradictions of postmodern capitalism, any kind of Marxist criticism would have to be impossible. Sorry, Fredric Jameson — you need to find a new career!) So, end of topic right there. (Except to mention this amusing and sadly accurate comic I read just today, by feminist blogger Jen McCreight.)

What I do want to discuss is how Sucker Punch exists as the distilled and purified essence of postmodern production. And to do so, I’m afraid I’m going to need to be spoilery. So, if you’ve not seen the film and want to remain surprised (it would be much too easy to insert a joke there), read this after viewing.

The film exists in three realms or reality: layer one is the “real world” which lands somewhere in the 1950s, best I can tell from the brief view of automobiles, layer two is the fantasy-world brothel inside Baby Doll’s head as she tries to cope with being institutionalized by her abusive stepfather and an impending lobotomy back in the real world, and layer three is the action vignettes that represent the fantasy world of fantasy world’s Baby Doll. Now, I have to give writer/director Zack Snyder a bit of credit here for not trying to trick the audience into thinking layer two or three is the Real World or that layer one is actually layer two and there’s a unrevealed layer one to be pulled out as a shock ending. However, this doesn’t get him off the hook for making layer one just as fantastically impossible as the other layers — and that complete disregard for any semblance of reality within the real is one of the primary reasons for the film being perfect postmodernism.

The movie opens with a slow-motion montage of scenes showing Baby Doll’s mother’s death, funeral, establishing threat of violence from stepfather, accidental death of Baby Doll’s younger sister as she tries to protect the younger sibling from their evil stepfather, and then her being institutionalized. The only sound on top of this establishing background setup, is a cover of The Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams” with the lyrics “Some of them want to abuse you” placed like a delicate sledgehammer on top of the scene of stepfather entering the bedroom, like an auditory Lord Privy Seal. And it’s from this opening segment that the dislocation, the crisis of historicity and sincere schizoidness, that mark late postmodern artistic production is established. We, the viewer, are given clues to the setting being some olden day of curvy cars and men wearing hats, but the sound places us in modernity. (Not to mention the fact that the song is a remake which adds yet another layer of separation from any idea of the original, or the authentic.) The film situates us in a simulacrum of an historical moment with no interest in actually representing authentic history. The quasi-1950s setting of the movie essentially becomes nothing more than style — not setting, not placement.

The dizzying, disorienting confusion of time and place only increases from there. In the layer two world, in which we spend most of our time (actually, that may be debatable; the wall-to-wall action scenes of world layer three seem like interruptions, but actually may account for half the film or more), Baby Doll, as the “new girl” trapped in the brothel, is compelled to dance as part of her job to entertain the sleaze the establishment caters to. We never see layer two Baby Doll dance, as that is when she enters her head and we’re transported to various war/fantasy/sci-fi battle sequences, but we do get to hear the music that gets played on the 50-year-old reel-to-real or radio. And that music includes such classics as a souped-up remix of Björk’s “Army of Me,” a remake of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” a hip-hopped mashup-remix of Queen’s “I Want it All” and “We Will Rock You,” and a cover of the Beatle’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which, ironically, sounds in its original 1960s form like a 2000s Chemical Brothers’ techo-rave track. Weird, that).

Now, as I admitted already, I’m a wall-of-sound mindless-action-flick fan (to an extent; Jurassic Park 2 was the worst film I’ve ever seen and I have no interest in the current Transformers CGI porn), so a significant part of me really loved the music, it’s grab-your-eardrums-and-feed-them-to-you-with-gunpowder sonic brutality. But the cognitive dissonance of hearing the thumping indie-industrial music of “Army of Me” played by a Slavic-ish choreographer on a reel-to-reel in a mid-20th century dance studio in a brothel-prison, was enough to actually short-circuit my thinking for a moment and leave me literally disoriented. That kind of guerrilla attack on the senses, leaving one’s thinking disconnected and susceptible to better apprehending Lacan’s Real, was an intentional tool of “theatre of cruelty.” (The 60s attempt to use the technique of Artaud and surrealism ended up being just a late modernism parody of surrealism, by the way.) Sucker Punch’s use of sensual-shock-treatment is, I believe, entirely unintentional and without any greater purpose than an exercise in style. Thus, exhibiting, no, embodying, one of the arch-typical qualities of postmodern art — that of pastiche.

What Zack Snyder intended by the title, Sucker Punch, can only be guessed at. The film implies that Baby Doll’s dancing, unseen by the film’s audience, leaves all who view it stunned and bewildered — sucker punched by a performance only they are exposed to. Though, that might be too subtle for Snyder. Maybe he’s referring to the beatdown the various baddies in the layer three fantasy worlds get (giant samurai, steampunk Nazis, orcs ripped right from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, terrorist robots…). Perhaps he’s being meta-aware enough to be commenting, tongue in cheek, on what the movie delivers to the audience: The mismatched and cobbled elements that make this Frankenstein’s monster of a film hits the viewer from beginning to end with a relentless barrage of simulacrum, washing over the viewer and pulling them into a riptide of hyperreality. At best, maybe he is self-aware enough to consider that he’s hitting the audience with an audio-visual shock to the senses — after all, the poster tagline is “You will be unprepared.” But this only supports the contention that Snyder’s only goal with this film is to have no goal, only to affect. Only to create sensation disconnected from anything concrete, anything with a veneer of tangibility. Snyder wants to blind-side pummel the audience and then disappear without a trace before the viewer knows what hit them. When your only interest is in stylized effect, there’s no reason not to use re-makes of music without connection to the setting, which is itself a carnival mirror reflection of an attempted setting, punctuated by completely unreal collages of literally pointless action (albeit exciting and expertly crafted) appropriating and blending elements from across multiple genre.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I sat for the ending credits, how much of any of this analysis could apply or appeal to the younger members of the audience. I wonder if filmgoers who don’t know what a reel-to-reel is, couldn’t tell a 1950s car from a 1920s from a 1980s, feel an iota of the disorientation I felt watching it. Do younger viewers, who have entirely grown up in a culture inherently of pastiche and ahistoricity, feel the least bit of anxiety when exposed to cultural production which seeks to simulate, blithely unironically, a reality that doesn’t exist? Does the obvious fantastical elements counteract the fact that the movie, apart from the fantasy, exists in crisis? Or does all of it exist to the viewer on the same plane of blatant unreality? I compare this film to last year’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. That movie was skillful on many levels and entirely fun while managing to have a solid storyline and characters one can feel something for. But from the beginning of that film, which is solidly set in contemporary Toronto-area, the viewer is asked to accept that the world of the film exists in a different reality from our own as videogame elements co-exist with the presumed real. What makes Scott Pilgrim simply a postmodern production while Sucker Punch is postmodernism itself? I think it comes down to how while both films attempt to anchor time and place to our own reality, we can recognize reality in Scott Pilgrim even though it’s superseded by the impossible. Sucker Punch presents us, from the opening seconds, with a lie. It promises to be rooted, at least on one layer, in reality, and it (the gestalt of the filmakers) may even believe it’s sincere in doing so — but the fact that the reality it believes it’s anchored to is as fantastical as the 40-foot, machine gun-totin’ samurai it presents, we’re fed the very antithesis of what science fiction provides: discognitive estrangement. And this mirrors the very condition we live in, in late postmodern cultural logic.

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Brust on Capital

First, a little story:

I’ve been a huge fan of SF author Steven Brust since circa 1988 when Taltos came out. (I didn’t know at the time that was not the first in the “Vlad Taltos” series, but it worked out OK.) After becoming a fan, I discovered Brust was a self-described Trotskyist. Being in my teens, early to mid-20s, I really didn’t have any idea what that was but I knew it was somehow connected to GASP! evil Communism! One part of my brain processed this information something like, “Huh, his writing is kick-ass, he seems really cool…perhaps whatever Trotskyism is it’s either a) inconsequential to who he is, or b) it’s not some all-encompassing evilness as my culture leads me to believe.” The other half of my mind processed more like, “LA LA LA LA I’M NOT LISTENING! I SEE NOTHINK! I HEAR NOTHINK! MOVE ALONG, CITIZEN!”

So the cognitive dissonance was dealt with by ardently ignoring it.

Until around 2007 when I started grad school and my first instructor was Dr. William Burling: the most influential professor, and one of the most influential persons, I’d ever met. I had the privilege of being a student of his for three (almost four) fantastic classes. What his greatest influence on me was to introduce me to the idea of questioning culture, society, government, art, everything. Everything is, to a greater or lesser degree, either a product of or a reflector of the socio-economic base of a culture and nearly everything in the culture is in service to those who control the wealth in society. In short, Dr. Burling was a Marxist, and by the fortune of serendipity, happened to come into my life just as I was questioning political structures.

At that time I was moving from Democrat to vague libertarian. It took nearly a year of questioning and study and investigation and debate, but eventually I too became a self-described Marxist. Although I’ve barely scratched the surface still of Marxist theory.

So, at one point as Dr. Burling and I were discussing Marxist theory and SF and fantasy literature, I realized something from the long forgotten recesses of my mind… (See, I kinda stopped reading Mr. Brust’s books by this point–not because I stopped liking them, but I’d pretty much stopped reading for pleasure altogether! I am glad to say I’ve since picked pleasure reading back up and have caught back up with all of Mr. Brust’s “Taltos” books at least.) I recalled that tidbit of info about my favorite fantasy author being a Trotskyist. I asked Dr. Burling, who had introduced me to Stanley Kim Robinson, and China Miéville, and Philip K. Dick, and a Marxist outlook of William Gibson (who, now, I have no idea how you couldn’t read Gibson with a Marxist outlook! My god, the man is postmodern materialist cultural criticism up and down!) if he had read any Steven Brust. He replied, somewhat dismissively that he didn’t have time for any pleasure reading. Then I mentioned Mr. Brust was a Trotskyist and, if I recalled, wrote in a couple of his novels about a peasant uprising in his fantasy world.

Dr. Burling grabbed a pen and asked me what that name was again.

Sadly, Dr. Burling passed away a couple of years later. I never did find out if he started looking into Brust’s writing. Probably not; he was pretty busy, in addition to teaching, editing a book of essays on Kim Stanley Robinson and working with  Miéville on a book of criticism about Marxist SF. *sigh* I still feel acute sense of honor of having been able to know the man and learn from him. He changed my entire way of looking at life and I could have missed it if I’d been a couple of years too late.

Anyway, so now that I’m deep in trying to learn and understand Marxist theory, both as it applies to literature and culture, guess what my favorite Trotskyist fantasy author has started doing? He’s reading and commenting on Karl Marx’s seminal work on socio-economics, Das Kapital.* (Volume 1, I believe, which is the one Marx had worked mostly on before he died, while Engels wrote the other volumes.)

What’s really cool is that just before this he had read through and commented on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (arguably the father of and the manual of modern capitalism). This kicked-ass because not only did I learn something from it (unfortunately I came in rather late), it just goes to show that Brust is interested in exploring all the angles of modern socio-economics and doesn’t just surround himself with material that fits his perceptions or ideologies. That’s certainly a quality to admire and emulate.

marx-victoryI’m looking forward to reading what he has to say about the tome. And I’m very glad that one side of my brain stopped being a pest and started paying attention. Marxism is not evil, Trotskyism is not evil, communism is not evil. These are just ideas, concepts, ways of investigating and ideas are never evil. They may not be good or practical ideas, but one should never dismiss a way of thinking, a way of investigating, because authority has proclaimed it verboten, taboo, out of bounds. Question everything, especially authority. There’s a reason why they are in power, and a means by which they stay in power.

* I think he’s moving his blog over to a new location. I’ll try to update this link if I can when it happens.

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MMOGs: The Avatar of Consumerism

My term paper for ENG 685 (Survey of Modern Cultural Criticism…or something like that…never did learn the full name) was actually completed last May, but I haven’t gotten around to putting it up on the blog until now.

I’m kind of proud of it. It’s not great in that the writing style could still use a lot of work, but I think it’s a solid piece. I’d like to use this as a jumping off point into writing a book on the subject sometime down the road.

Well, here it is, but if you want to read it in an easier on the eyes PDF version, right-click/save-as this link here.

MMOGs: The Avatar of Consumerism

Massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) continue to draw throngs of players every year with the promise of action, adventure, compelling stories, and untold riches and legendary artifacts that can be your very own. The most popular MMOG at this time, World of Warcraft, has over ten million paying subscribers while millions more are playing dozens of similar competing games (MMOGCHART.com). There is no doubt that, as a cultural product, the MMOG is enjoying a popularity to which few other forms of production can compare (except for perhaps popular music and television). What is perhaps most striking about this form of production is that in addition to being a commodity sold by global media corporations and thus, like all other products and creative projects, comment on the cultural logic — the MMOG is in an unusual position to actually replicate the dominate hegemonic conditions which commodify the participant in active, real-time alternate spaces. Taking a materialist approach to the subject, what follows is an analysis of how the MMOG fits among the contrivances and contradictions of the postmodern culture. But to begin, an examination of how the mystification of commodification relies on the delicate construction of the idea of “the self” will be necessary.

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Fanon and its Review from a Postmodern Perspective

Fanon and its Review from a Postmodern Perspective

In the spirit of full disclosure, it must be said that I have not read John Edgar Wideman’s Fanon; so, it will be assumed throughout this essay that what the NPR book reviewer, Maureen Corrigan, has to say about it is accurate for the basis of an analysis of cultural production. From a standpoint that “text is a social space,” this is not altogether inappropriate as one of Roland Barthes’ main contentions is that there is no absolute and empirical meaning behind a text — in contrast to the liberal humanist point of view held up through the 1950s (and continuing today in some corners). In the traditional view, it was believed that a work of literature had only one inherent meaning, one appropriate way to examine and interpret the work. Barthes, on the other hand, promoted the idea that the work itself, its form and its function, is at least as important and valuable of a subject of examination as the text — if not more so.

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“Only Words”…

“‘Only Words’: ‘Half-Life’ in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik and the Dynamics of Online Role-Playing Environments.”
Paper Presented at the 28th ICFA

I. INTRODUCTION
“Instant Ubik has all the fresh flavor of just-brewed drip coffee. Your husband will say, Christ, Sally, I used to think your coffee was only so-so. But now, wow! Safe when taken as directed.”i
That is one of seventeen different epigraphs that begin each chapter of Philip K. Dick’s novel Ubik. Each of the first sixteen is a satirical comment on the nature of advertising in the consumerist economy, where the mysterious product called “Ubik” stands in for everything from coffee to women’s undergarments, household cleaner to salad dressing. Each one safe when used as directed, of course.

Eric S. Rabkin, in his article “Irrational Expectations; or, How Economics and the Post-Industrial World Failed Philip K. Dick,” makes a point to establish Philip K. Dick as one of the most important and influential authors, in general if not in speculative fiction in particular, working in a post-World War II attempt to examine the metaphysical connections between subjective realities and the so-called “objective reality” which may or may not even exist in Dick’s work.ii Ubik, published in 1969, is one such work which takes a close examination at the nature of subjective realities. It is a novel that describes a world, and a condition of being, that is prescient when you compare it to the alternate realities of massive multi-player online games, or “MMOGs” — a condition that involves a merging and confusion of identities — identities that are defined by, and devalued due to, the commodification of reality.

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