World Politics Lucky Question #13

Here's lucky question #13 -- only one more this whole semester!

On p. 250, Todorov writes: "'The man who finds his country sweet is only a raw beginner; the man for whom each country is as his own is already strong; but only the man for whom the whole world is as a foreign country is perfect' (I myself, a Bulgarian living in France, borrow this quotation from Edward Said, a Palestinian living in the United States, who himself found it in Erich Auerbach, a German exiled in Turkey)." Is he right?


World Politics Question #12

In class today we covered quite a bit of ground relating to the ambiguity of the forces driving Columbus, but one thing that we all agreed on was that Columbus' way of knowing was somewhat different from ours. (Of course, Todorov presents the situation this way, so that's not a surprising conclusion for us to come to.) Hence, this question for us to wrestle with: is our way of knowing better than Columbus' way of knowing?

Note that I'm italicizing the word "better" to call attention to it. We tossed around a lot of stuff in the last fifteen minutes of class about how we now "knew more" or had "made progress" since Columbus' time; there's an implied value-judgment there, and I want to bring it to the forefront of our online deliberations.

Note also that I am not defining what "better" means. That's up to us to grapple with. [Also: this is something that Todorov grapples with throughout the book.]


World Politics Question #11

With the common event prep and such, I neglected to post this until now -- sorry.

When addressing the problem of global poverty, is it better to concentrate on meeting people's basic needs, or to concentrating on modifying structural conditions? In other words, give people the basics, or give people a broader set of opportunities?


World Politics Question #10

Ruggie argues that the social purpose of the Bretton Woods system was to enable states to pursue full employment policies, which in a way implies both that a) a wealthy state is one with full employment and b) a wealthy individual is one with a job. The question is: do you agree?


World Politics Question #9

There was a question #8, about whether the current financial crisis was a security issue, but I forgot to post that question here. Sorry.

Anyway, on to this week's conundrum: near the end of class Athkor suggested something like "because of the infinite meanings of the term 'security,' it is impossible for a country to ever be fully secure, because no country can possibly prepare for threats that it can't imagine or hasn't considered." I'm paraphrasing, but I think this grabs the heart of it. If not, Athkor, feel free to post a reply to this post correcting my memory of the statement. In any event, this is what I'd like us to wrestle with this week: because of the ambiguity of the term "security," can any country ever be fully secure?


The Global Vote Project

Apropos our class discussions about who should be able to vote for the President of the United States, this project seems relevant and intriguing:


Something to ponder.

World Politics Question #7

Yesterday's in-class simulation concluded with the President -- me -- giving a political analysis of whose interest group I probably would have sided with, based largely on campaign contributions. But this does not answer the question of who won the debate on argumentative grounds, so that's your question for this week: which team had the best case? (Note: you need not say that it was your team that had the best case.)

Also, if you didn't receive the pdf of the essay assignment that I e-mailed to everyone yesterday, please let me know ASAP.


World Politics Question #6

Today in class we spent our time discussing different theoretical accounts of the Bretton Woods system/ by the end of the class period, it seemed possible to construct arguments from a variety of theoretical perspectives that could plausibly explain the postwar international economic system. This leads to the more general question: are theoretically informed analyses of empirical events and situations -- like Bretton Woods, for instance -- anything but opinions? In other words, can they be right or wrong, or is the answer always just "it depends on your point of view"?

Tip of the lightsaber to Athkor, whose reflective post inspired this question.


World Politics Question #5

And now for something completely different (but perhaps not so different):

If aliens landed on the White House lawn, what do you think that the response of the world's governments would be? How about the response of the US government in particular?

I ask this question both because it's an example that Wendt uses in the article we're reading for Friday, and because it's an excellent test case for various IR theories -- we can talk about courses of action unfettered by any serious need to be historically accurate. In this way, maybe we can grasp the logic of these theories more profoundly.

Besides, writing about possible alien encounters is often less depressing then writing about, say, the present state of the global financial system.


World Politics Question #4

Whoops -- completely forgot to post this after class on Tuesday, sorry…

The question was and is: is the United Nations a realist or a liberal organization? There's material in the history and design of the organization to support both claims, so your job is to make the most compelling case that you can make.


Technical requirements

In my syllabi for any of my courses that utilize blogging, I spell out a set of "technical requirements" that a course blog has to meet. These usually involve things like: each post needs to have a unique url, comments must be public, etc. Sometimes students ask me to take class time to teach them how to do these things with their blogs, especially one of the requirements I spell out:

each blog must have some easy way that a viewer can bring up all posts written by a specific author. With Blogger, this is a matter of using Google’s “Blog Search” technology and then adding a link to your blog’s template, but note that you have to add the search links to the blog template; it is not enough to simply set up the blog! Other options exist for other blogging platforms.)

But I am extremely reluctant to spend class-time on this, for three reasons.

1) when I require papers to be e-mailed to me, I do not consider it my obligation to train anyone in the techniques of word-processing a document or attaching a document to e-mail. Similarly, I would not consider it my obligation to train anyone in handwriting if I were administering an in-class exam, or in basic English grammar and syntax if I assign a text to read. I presume that the student has acquired those skills elsewhere, and if not, that other offices and services exist on and off-campus to help the student in this respect. I am more than happy to point to the student towards the correct office, and help them get the support that they need, but that does not mean that I am prepared to provide that support myself.

2) one of the things that people have to be comfortable doing in the age of the Internet is googling around to find out how to do things online. This goes doubly for basic web work. "Adding a link" is the sort of thing all competent web users ought to be able to do, kind of like "gassing up the car" and "checking the tire pressure" are things licensed automobile drivers ought to be able to do as a matter of course. By now I presume that everyone in one of my classes has conducted a basic web search, read through online discussion boards, and looked at the ways that other web pages are put together, so looking around for a few minutes at basic html syntax and Blogger's voluminous help files and FAQs should not be beyond anyone's competence. Seriously, this will take you about ten minutes -- and if you find out how to do it yourself, you might even remember it, or at least remember how you figured it out.

3) by giving an expectation rather than a procedure, I am allowing -- even encouraging -- students to be creative in how they meet that technical requirement. In my syllabus text I suggest one method, which involves adding a link to the blog template that points to a blog search, but there are other methods: the proper use of tags/labels for posts, the construction of a simple image map overlaying a graphic featuring everyone's name and pointing to aggregate posts, etc. I am indifferent as to how you accomplish the goal, so long as I can visit everyone's blog and with one click get access to all of the posts written by each individual person.

And as I said, I am happy to talk to people outside of class as they think about this technical requirement -- I'm more than happy to point people toward appropriate resources. But this is not a technology class so I am not going to spend class-time training people in the use of technology.


World Politics Question #3

Apologies for posting this question a couple of hours late -- my flight back from Germany was a bit longer than expected. Anyway, the question:

Is the security -- defined as the territorial integrity -- of the state the first and foremost thing that a state's leader ought to concern her- or himself with?


World Politics Question #2

Should powerful countries look after the interests of less-powerful countries? In other words, is there any particular obligation to others associated with being a powerful country?

Note that, in light of our class discussion, I am deliberately going back to the ambiguous word "power" rather than the more precise "authority"/"capacity" distinction. I do this because I want to give maximum latitude to the ensuing online conversation.


World Politics Question #1

Here it is, the first weekly question:

What is the most important issue in world politics today? Why?


Carl Sagan's Religion

I have about three things swirling around in my head that I want to try to forge into a blog post on Russell's novel Children of God, the relationship between science and religion, and in particular Chris' virulent reaction to the novel, especially to one particular piece of it which summarizes Russell's overall take:

And the thing that annoyed me the most: "...the difference between God and science, that there were different ways - parallel ways - to think about the world." - page 259. This isn't true, though it's a convenient out if you don't want to be controversial. Science deals with everything that is empirically disprovable (Disprovable. That's why I loved Sandoz's line, that he "felt once more the strangely visceral thrill of trying to disprove a hypothesis he suspected was robust."-page 93 - that's the way you do it, goddamn it. That's the way you do it!). The God hypothesis itself is not disprovable, but that God is exerting influence is. Following Occam's Razor, nothing in either book happened because of God because that would be an unnecessarily complicated step in the causation. Everything can be explained the simpler way, equally well, so it should be.

This was obviously not Andrew's favorite book either, and in part for the same reason: "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 "live and let live" attitude that they read Russell as adopting towards the great irreconcilables -- particularly science and religion -- seems unsatisfying to Andrew and to Chris and I'm sure to others as well. I find this all fascinating both because a) that's not what I see as Russell's point, and b) I can't get worked up about a potential conflict between science and religion because I fail to see a conflict unless people work really hard to produce one, so "live and let live" strikes me as the beginning of wisdom in situations like this. It's not a cheap cop-out. Indeed, it might be the beginning of Torodov's ideal of "difference with equality," since it would take weapons out of the hand of each side and stop people from trying to kill one another over what I can't help but see as a misinterpretation.

Okay, let me be more specific about this. The story Russell was telling in the second novel seems to me a richer story than the story in the first novel, precisely because the terrestrial machinations of The Sparrow is dominated by the question of whether Emilio had willingly prostituted himself -- and did anyone reading the book actually think he had? Both novels are about the problem of faith in the face of adversity, and the challenge to a system of claims posed by discrepant experience, but neither novel is about simply abandoning faith or a system of propositions because they come under challenge. And Emilio, obviously the central focus for the drama, is a fascinating contrast: in mundane matters, he's a devoted falsificationist (which is what Chris likes about page 93 in the quotation above), but in matters of ultimate significance, he is unable to do without God.

The contrast between mundane and ultimate matters is important, and it's the key to the sentiment that science and religion are "parallel ways . . . to think about the world." The key word here is "parallel," as in "lines of thought that never cross." Such a sentiment, properly understood, eliminates the possibility that a scientific claim and a religious claim might ever, even in principle, be in conflict with one another -- if they were, they wouldn't be "parallel" any longer. How can this happen? Quite simply, it can happen if science and religion are directed to different aspects of the world, which is what I think is captured by the mundane/ultimate distinction is so important. Science, in whatever form (and parenthetically, I'm not convinced that the falsification of hypothetical claims is self-evidently equal to "science" per se; there are inductive sciences, experiential sciences, and a whole plethora of things that fit under the heading of "science" -- I'm writing a book about this at the moment, but that's material for another discussion forum altogether) is necessarily concerned with things we can perceive, observe, and experience in a way that is directly communicable to others. "God" does not fit that category, and it's an egregious mistake to treat religious statements as akin to scientific ones. Religious statements deal with questions like "what is the value of the world as a whole?" while scientific statements deal with questions like "why does time slow down for observes traveling near the speed of light?"

Now, the fact that religious claims deal with ultimate significance does mean that "because God wanted it that way" is always an appropriate -- if scientifically unrevealing -- answer to any question about how or why something happened. Treating that claim as a scientific claim would be a serious category mistake, and in some ways this kind of category mistake is precisely what keeps getting people -- both in the novels and in life -- in trouble. That, for me, is the real power of John Candotti's reformulation of the notion off faith near the end of the second novel: to say that "now I see the hand of God in those events" is emphatically not to displace the scientific explanation of those ocurrences, but to imbue them with meaning and significance irreducible to those occurrences themselves. Ultimate significance.

On the other hand, you could live without any such thing. You could try to just treat everything as shit that happens, to rigorously confine yourself to mundane explanations and a view of the world devoid of ultimate significance. And some people do manage to get close to that, although I'm not sure how they really answer Camus' question about why not to just commit suicide. I reference Carl Sagan in the title of this post because he was an outspoken atheist, opponent of mysticism and psuedo-science, and anti-religious skeptic (besides being a brilliant astronomer and gifted popularizer of science), and someone who is often cited (including by Chris!) as dispensing with ultimate significance in favor of a focus on what is scientifically knowable. but much like Duran in Todorov's account, or like Emilio at the beginning of Children of God, Sagan can't make that position stick, and even he turns to claims about ultimate significance to underpin his overall endeavor:

We are one species. We are star stuff harvesting star light. Our lives, our past and our future are tied to the sun, the moon and the stars . . . we who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos, we have begun at least to wonder about our origins -- star stuff contemplating the stars, organized collections of ten billion billion billion atoms, contemplating the evolution of nature, tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet earth, and perhaps throughout the cosmos. Our loyalties are to the species and to the planet. We speak for earth. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but also to that cosmos ancient and vast from which we spring!

I don't want to disagree with Sagan here; I think his claims rather poetic and inspiring. But I do want to call attention to the fact that they aren't scientific claims; they're religious claims, religious in the "ultimate significance" sense if not religious in the theistic sense. They transcend the bounds of the mundane world in order to impute significance to that world. There is no way to go from a physical account of the formation of elements in stellar furnaces to statements about loyalty and obligation without, in effect, taking what appears to be an empirical claim and subtly twisting it -- seeing it with the eyes of faith -- so that it serves as a foundation for a grander moral claim. And how, precisely, is this different than looking at some bizarre coincidences and reading them as "turtles on fenceposts"? As far as I can tell, it's not different at all. Sagan's obligation and loyalty come not purely from the scientific, empirical facts, but from the same basic process as Emilio goes through (obviously, the details are different) -- here's a system of claims that informs my take on the empirics of the situation, but is not reducible to them; this means that I can "lose my faith" and have the empirics look and feel different, and then "regain some measure of faith" and presto, the world changes again. There is no difference here, and there is no conflict, unless we are bound and determined to fabricate one.

A coincidence's status as a miracle is neither provable nor disprovable. It's not a scientific claim. Whether Isaac's music is evidence of God's existence or not says little about the music, or for that matter about God, but it does say a lot about the communities interpreting the music. To go beyond that -- to make categorical claims about the existence or non-existence of God -- is to commit the very same category-mistake as those people who insist that the earth is 6000 years old because "it says so in the Bible" (which it actually doesn't, but that's another story). Under such circumstances, "live and let live" strikes me as a thoroughly reasonable suggestion.



A couple of times in The Sparrow, Russell makes reference to the Runa's fear and awe of thunder, and its function in Runa society. Page 324 is a good example, as that's where Emilio spells out the use of the thunderstorm as a means of social control among the Runa: don't make a fierno, Runa parents tell their children, or you'll attract a thunderstorm. There's a whole social ethic compressed into that one little phrase, and it is easy to imagine the devastating impact of such parental advice on any Runa who did manage to get any ideas about competition or combat into her or his head.

I want to connect the thunder reference to another of the novel's central themes: that one cannot understand what one has not experienced. Emilio continually tells his inquisitors that they don't just fail to understand, but that they can't understand what he went through; they lack, as it were, the raw experiential basis that might make the words sensible. Hence he can't simply tell them what took place, and he has to lead them through the process so that perhaps, just perhaps, they can experience a little bit of his utter disillusionment and loss of faith. The words occupy a subordinate role to the experience; their efficacy is sharply limited by the experiences out of which they arise.

The connection to thunder is simply that the Runa's world is as rooted in experience as Emilio's is (and perhaps as all of our worlds are?). A threat of "thunder" makes sense to a Runa child because thunderstorms are both frightening and frequent; the experience of raw terror at the sound and light from the sky lends credence, and power, to the words, and it's that power and credence that underpins the social sanction. Similarly, Emilio's wrenching indictment of God on p. 394 only really makes sense in the light of his experience of feeling chosen, divinely guided, prepared for an ultimate communion . . . and then viciously raped. Experience, wordless and potent, supports and gives rise to the mere words that cannot possibly express it fully.

That said, there's a certain irony in the fact that we're getting all of this from a novel, a fictional work where no living person's actual experiences are in play. How successful is Russell at portraying those experiences that none of us -- even her -- could possibly have had? In what way might words about things not experienced make sense to us? Is there some "thunder," some raw experience, forming a common ground between ourselves and Emilio (or between us and the Runa? between us and Supaari?) and thus giving rise to the possibility of communication?


The embracing strategy

A quick note on a thought I had after class on Tuesday, concerning the last paragraph of Schmitt's book: as Phil pointed out as we were ending class, the last sentence of the text seems to undermine Schmitt's declared hostility to liberal universalism by observing at even such claims fail to escape the logic of the political. It might therefore follow that Schmitt is not really all that annoyed with universalism, since after all, it's just political. But I think that what is going on here is a tip of the intellectual hat -- and almost certainly a more profound intellectual debt -- to a stratey that Friedrich Nietzsche pursues in On the Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche spends most of that book railing against ascetic ideals, the separation of the mind from the body, the cultivation of abstraction as opposed to vigor, and the life-denying character of science and religion and modernity as a whole. But then, just like Schmitt, he seems to turn on a dime and declare that even these (according to his argument) terrible and reprehensible things end up serving life:

Apart from the ascetic ideal, man, the human animal, had no meaning so far. His existence on earth contained no goal; "why man at all?" -- was a question without an answer; the will for man and earth was lacking; behind every great human destiny there sounded as a refrain a yet greater "in vain!" . . . The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far -- and the ascetic ideal offered man meaning! . . . man was saved thereby, he possessed a meaning, he was henceforth no longer like a leaf in the wind, a plaything of nonsense -- the "sense-less" -- he could now will something; no matter at first to what end, why, with what he willed: the will itself was saved.

Here at the end of Nietzsche's text the same thing happens as happens at the end of Schmitt's: that which was previously castigated as false and misleading is captured by the broader logic and sweep of the argument, and reworked into something that (as Goethe once wrote of the Devil) tries to do evil but always ends up doing good. This kind of intellectual move is characteristic of "genealogical" approaches to the writing of history and philosophy, since all are of necessity driven by what Nietzsche called amor fati, the love of (one's) fate: whatever led to the present cannot be ultimately bad, because after all it contributed to the place where we currently find ourselves. And, according to this approach, not to embrace the present is to invoke transcendental evaluative ideals that end up undermining themselves. [How one criticizes a present that one is presently embracing is the conceptual problem all of these thinkers end up wrestling with.]

So, we either have here a) a strategy of ultimately defeating universal liberal claims by disclosing their hidden local-political character, or b) a sophisticated rehabilitation of universal liberal claims at the cost of their manifest content. In either case, it's clear that Schmitt is not in any sense embracing liberal universalism, and we have to be very careful not to misread his claims as some kind of retraction of the earlier argument. "Accepting" liberalism on his terms, after all, basically vitiates liberalism -- which is, after all, his point.


Pax Wiggina

It's amazing to me how one can read a really good book so many times and miss little things on every reading, so that each time you re-read it you notice something new. (With a poorly written book this does not seem to be the case -- read it once, suck everything you can from it, discard husk and walk away. I pride myself on not assigning that kind of book unless absolutely necessary; it's sometimes necessary when I'm teaching disciplinarily-based IR courses, because there are badly-written books which are nonetheless important to have read, but not in a course like this ... but I digress.) Of all the books we're reading this semester, Ender's Game is probably the one I've read the second-most times over the course of my life. (Yes, V for Vendetta would the the one I've read the most.) I remember first hearing of Orson Scott Card in about 1986 when the novel won the 1985 Hugo and Nebula awards, although I don't precisely remember from whom I first heard Card's name; I do distinctly remember reading the novel in my room at boarding school, having that same experience that so many bright kids did when reading this novel: wow, that's my life! Thereafter I became a Card fanatic, hunting down obscure little novels like Hart's Hope and Hot Sleep, and generally waiting with great anticipation for the man's next work. Remember, this was in the old days, before the InterNet; there was no Hatrak River online community to join, and it was rare to meet another geek like myself in person . . . so I re-read novels. And re-read novels. And re-read novels.

I must have read this novel about twenty times -- and that's just in high school.

So it's safe to say that I've probably gotten everything out of this book that I'm likely to get out of it, right? Wrong. The words on the page may not change from reading to reading, but I sure as heck have. So has Orson Scott Card's corpus of work, both fictional and -- I was about to say "non-fictional," but some might question whether his political commentaries are in fact works of non-fiction, so I'll just elave it at that. Both of those changes, I think, alter the book in subtle ways: points previously seen but not grasped rise to the fore, significant scenes lose their significance, sudden reveals and plot twists are no longer as surprising (but I think Card'a good enough writer that even if you know what's going on when Ender is working with the simulator on Eros and commanding his battle school buddies, you still feel Ender's gut-wrenching outrage on pp. 296-298. That even I, who have read this more times than is probably healthy, can still feel that is a testimony to Card's skills as a writer.

So, in brief, what's changed? I'm not going to go into biographical details about myself, but suffice to say that in high school I didn't care all that much for or about politics, so I kind of breezed through the bits about Peter's plans for world domination -- the idea of kids being taken seriously based on their arguments and not on their ages appealed to me, and the obvious parallels between the root ability of the three Wiggin children (to know the other, and to know them completely) which set up a series of moral dilemmas (is Ender like Peter? would Valentine be able to kill if the situation required it?) made sense. But the actual content of Locke and Demosthenes's programs? Never paid it a second thought. I know I read those words, and I've checked my earlier editions to make sure that Card didn't slip things into the present Author's Definitive Edition -- and no, they were there all along. But literally, this is the first time I actually noticed that Peter Wiggin was striving for "a Pax Americana through the whole world" (p. 132).

There are other examples, like the fact that I never remembered that Ender's mother was established as a Mormon in this novel; I thought that was a new addition in the parallel Ender novels that discuss Peter's rise to power. But the Pax Americana thing really struck me this time. In part I think it's because Card's subsequent political commentary -- unapologetically, even brashly, pro-American -- makes me more aware of those moments in his novels where characters say and do things that involve praising America and American liberal democracy (even when, in extreme situations, the civil liberties usually associated with that liberal democracy have to be set aside in order to ensure survival . . . gee, does that sound familiar). In part it's because Card's triumphalism, like Peter's, doesn't really give reasons for the superiority of the American system; it just relies on oppositions (America/terrorists in Card's political commentary, or America/Warsaw Pact in the novel) and clearly steers the reader towards the first term rather than the second one. No one, least of all Peter, questions whether a Pax Americana would be the best way of spreading the human race into the stars -- this despite the fact that the most impressive focusing of human effort for the previous eight decades or so has been through the virtual dictatorship of the I.F.! Given that evidence, why wouldn't a more authoritarian system of governance be more effective than a liberal-democratic one at moving people off-planet into space? Peter, and I think we can infer Card, doesn't even regard this as a question worth asking.

Card used to be my favorite living science-fiction author. But his most recent novels kind of turned me off, especially his re-writing of key moments in Ender's Game through the parallel novel Ender's Shadow, a book I rather liked up until the end when Bean, not Ender, is the one who figures out how to win the final battle with the buggers, and figures out that it's actually the final battle with the buggers. Then there was his criticism of Star Wars, pretty much an unforgivable sin in my book. And then there came along Iain M. Banks, and I had a new favorite to replace the old one. But still I marvel at his talent -- his talent as a writer, if not his talent as a political scientist.


Poor Reflection

In class last week I made several disparaging comments about the film version ofV for Vendetta. Upon reflection it it clear to me that I ought to have been more careful -- I can't speak ill of the film as a film, simply because I can't (in the sense of "am incapable of") see that film as just a film. For me it will always, always be a poor reflection of the graphic novel -- and since the novel came first in my experience, the film is basically doomed from the start.

I was actually quite excited when I first heard that the Wachowskis were planning to direct the film version. I was pretty sure that the guys who'd made the Matrix trilogy -- and especially, the guys who had made the second and third films of that trilogy, going for philosophical consistency over populist appeal -- would really grok what Moore and Lloyd had been up to. And I thought that Amidala, er, Natalie Portman would make a good Evey, even if she was a little older than the character had been in the novel -- she had the right blend of innocence and determination. Instead, I was bitterly disappointed at the way that the Wachowskis changed the central themes of the story, and basically only retained some of the design elements and the names of characters. Everything else was either re-plotted or just modified beyond recognition.

Now, let me say again that I am not capable of giving an opinion on whether V for Vendetta was a good film or not. I can't watch it without thinking of the novel, so I have no idea whether what the Wachowskis produced is even decent. I do know that it's a very different product, and having basically memorized the novel from many, many years of close reading, seeing their changes was just uncomfortable. Let me just flag three:

1) the movie's tagline was something like "Freedom! Forever!" That's a very un-V-like statement, at least going by the novel. V believes that individuals are free when they are willing to sacrifice themselves for their ideals; the core of his insight is that the only one holding an individual in prison or bondage is, in the end, the individual her- or himself. [This is not a Marxist novel about oppressive structures.] That being said, freedom can't be given, and it's no one else's fault that freedom isn't presently much in evidence in England. V is many things, but he's not a conventional revolutionary, seeking to liberate by removing obstacles. Instead, V is a conductor or a director, and what he's interested in is less freedom defined as the removal of governmental constraints, and more freedom defined as existential selfhood. So the tagline is misleading.

2) along those lines, one of the most egregious modifications in the film -- spoiler alert -- is the provision of multiple "V" masks for the citizens of England. The idea that "we are all V" venerates mass democracy and populist control of government rather than existential selfhood; it places liberation in the hands of the masses, not in the hands of individuals. This seems an odd move for V, since history has shown time and again how easy it is to mobilize the masses behind the idea of abandoning their individual responsibilities and turning them over to some kind of leader who represents the people as a whole . . . unless one is very careful, the idea and even the physical presence of "the people" can underwrite all kinds of deprivations of liberty, especially when "national security" gets involved. But the film doesn't even broach that possibility, and instead we get a straightforward opposition of democracy and dictatorship.

3) but the really disappointing thing about the film, in my opinion, was how it ended the ambiguity about V's goals that animates the novel. Is V just out for revenge, or is he doing something else and using revenge as a means to get there? In the novel, that remains an open question, exemplified by Evey's final goodbye to V when on one page (p. 260) she gives both rationales together. The film, on the other hand, makes V entirely out for revenge, except for his odd and largely unexplained dalliance with Evey -- a dalliance which is also far less ambiguous, since the film makes it clear that their relationship is more of a Phantom of the Opera unrequited love kind of thing (only a bit less psychotic -- only a bit). In the film V is obsessed with Evey, clearly in love with her, and seems to want nothing more than for her to love him. This strikes me as a belittling of V, who in the novel clearly cares for Evey but is not simply trying to pursue a relationship with her! So the V of the film is the Phantom, out for revenge and out to claim his Angel of Music.

I was not at all surprised when I saw that Moore had taken his name off of the film. To these three issues, we could add the removal of the supercomputer Fate, the absence of Rosemary, the fact that V kills the Leader himself, and on, and on . . .

As I said at the outset, I can't say whether the resulting film was any good. But I can say that it is a thinner product than the novel. There have been good, faithful adaptations of complex novels, but thus wasn't one of them. I really hope that the Watchmen film is better -- we'll know in a year, apparently.


St. Riva

I find it fascinating that Riva, data pirate and anarchist revolutionary extraordinare, is the one character in Piercy's book who is referred to as a "saint." Yes, it's Nili who make that reference, so it's not like the author (either actual or implied) is designating Riva with that title. But it's fascinating to me nonetheless. "Saint," so far as I am aware, is not really a Jewish concept; it's more closely associated with th Christian tradition of sanctification, wherein a particularly holy person whose will is thought to be aligned with the will of God becomes in some sense a focal-point for divine energy. There's quite an elaborate tradition in both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches of particular saintly individuals acting as intercessors with God on behalf of faithful congregants, and although scholars speak of "Hindu saints" and "Buddhist saints" this looks more like an analogy to me than anything else.

My point is that calling Riva a saint takes her out of the Jewish tradition that animates much of the novel. This is appropriate for Riva, since she seems to have absented herself from all of that some point in her past -- she's gone out on her own, existing in some sense outside of all of the various traditions that have survived on the planet. She's outside of all of the multis, outside of the freetowns, outside of Nili's Radioactive Amazonian Utopia, even outside of the Glop and the various movements within it. She interacts with all of these, but seems beholden to none. In that way she's marvelously existential: I, the individual, exist and am a higher value than these communities, so I remove myself from them in order to be authentically true to myself.

Of course, the difference between a saint and a rugged individualist is that the saint's orientation is towards God. In Nili's designation of Riva as a saint, I think we see just the awe of someone deeply rooted in a string communal tradition for someone else seemingly able to survive all on her own. But saints are not just striking individuals; they're somehow exemplars or messengers or avatars of the divine will. If Riva's a saint, what is her God? To what is her life a testimony? Does she, in some sense, have special divine dispensation to violate the ordinary laws and constraints binding most people, in order to bring about some transformative goal?


sufficiently advanced technology

Presumably we're all familiar with Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." (If you weren't familiar with it before this class, the facts that a) it's on the syllabus and b) we discussed it at least twice in class already should at least make it recognizable.) To see what's ogin on there, we have to first recognize that "technology" is a name that we give to those practices that are, so to speak, "disenchanted" -- even if we don't understand them at present, we are pretty certain that given the correct preparation and training we could understand them. Technology is in principle rationally comprehensible; no faith required, just something wholly mundane and worldly. Magic, on the other hand, implies something extra-rational, supernatural, not capable of being understood by everyone. The Force is magic, in that only special individuals can do anything with it; warp drive is technological, in that anyone with the proper mathematical and physics and engineering training can build a warp core.

Clarke's Third Law, however, disturbs that sharp demarcation. Once technology gets sufficiently far ahead of our experiences and our contemporary science, Clarke seems to suggest, it might as well be mystical. We have as little hope of understanding it rationally as the ancient Sumerians or Egyptians might have had of understanding extraterrestrial aliens (this is the basic idea of, say, Stargate). What is the practical difference between the alchemical transformation of lead into gold, and the replicators on Star Trek producing food and drink out of thin air? Not much, except that the replicator occasionally breaks down and is fixed not through incantations and faith, but with cool-looking luminescent tools. Hence, what makes something "technology" is not what it does, but how we understand what it does -- and beyond a certain point, the distinction becomes meaningless.

Piercy plays with that, I think. Among other striking things about the novel is her juxtaposition of the story of Joseph the Golem with the story of Yod the Cyborg. one is "magic" and one is "technology," but as she is at great pains to point out, both are in a sense created through the power of words. And both pose similar ethical dilemmas for their compatriots and companions.

Here's what I wonder: does it matter that Yod is a technological creature? Would it make a difference if Arvam were a gifted rabbi who prayed Yod into existence? Would the story really be any different if it were, in many ways, no longer science fiction?


substantive #4: training the faithful

Several times throughout Dune we encounter some variant of the phrase "Arrakis was created to train the faithful." It's an intriguing phrase, and not just because it appears to provide a catch-all explanation for the hardships of life on Dune. What intrigues me most about this phrase is the fact that it neatly encapsulates a basic gesture common to almost all religious systems and more than a few non-religious systems: an teleological gesture whereby the meaning of a present event (in this case, a hardship) is given with reference to some future end. Such a motif is at the heart of many traditional religious (especially Christian) strategies for dealing with the problem of evil in the world: yes, this situation is bad, but God has a plan that we cannot yet see, and this plan in some sense justifies or at least explains the evil that we presently experience. "Arrakis was created to train the faithful" is a claim of the same species.

Setting aside for the moment the question of how well the phrase actually works to make the hardship of life on Dune bearable -- and I wonder how much of what we see of the Fremen's commitment is due to this kind of religious resignation, how much is due to the terraforming dream of Liet-Keyes, and how much is just the grim necessity of surving while being hunted by all manner of offworlders -- one thing I want to linger on for a moment is the phrase's odd temporality. Who would speak such a phrase? Obviously someone who wasn't one of "the faithful" wouldn't say it, or if they did they would be saying it in the company of "the faithful" as a way of trying to influence them or appeal to them or something similar. Either way, "the faithful" are centrally involved. And if the faithful are saying this, then presumably they've been trained by Arrakis already, because they are already "the faithful." So here's the odd temporality: when, precisely, was Arrakis a training-ground for the faithful? I'd posit that it only becomes a training-ground in retrospect, when "the faithful" are looking back on their experiences and integrating them into their contemporary awareness. At the time, prospectively, it's just a hell of a place to live.

Of course, the audience for a phrase like that is also important. Perhaps one of the faithful is saying it to a younger person, someone being raised in the faith, someone wondering why she or he has to do the things that she or he has been taught -- and wonders why life can't be easier. "Arrakis was created to train the faithful" might provide such a person some inner strength to get through hardship. Placing local events in context, especially cosmic context, is a time-honored strategy for transmitting tradition -- especially since providing a context also means providing a vantage-point from which to view events as fitting into that context. Ironically, saying "Arrakis was created to train the faithful" might be a significant part of a strategy of training the faithful in the first place.


reflective #3: insight

One of the most intriguing things about our conversation on Tuesday was, I thought, the fact that no group actually challenged Stephanson's thesis entirely. Yes, we raised objections to specific claims, and yes, we had some disagreement about the precise scope of Stephanson's argument. But no one tried to prove that the US was not a country animated by a sense of its own election, especially when acting on the world stage. I wonder about that. Is it just that Stephanson is somehow right? Or is it that his thesis conforms to the way that we Americans think of ourselves? There is something ironic about a book on manifest destiny, I think, in that anyone already convinced that the country actually is specially chosen will read such a book, even if the book itself is gently critical of the notion, as an affirmation of what they already know to be true. Under such circumstances, it's tough to determine whether our reaction to the book is really a reaction to the author's argument, or to the claims of chosenness themselves. It's difficult to keep the claim of chosenness separate from the claims about claims of chosenness.


substantive #3: view from outside

I often wonder whether Stephanson could have written his remarkable little book if he were an American. There are aspects of the book -- aspects of America -- that, I think, could only have been created or even perceived by someone who hadn't grown up with or in it. Heinlein's appreciation of the religious and specifically Christian character of American society, as comes through in several of his novels and stories, is I think deeply insightful, but is shall we say bounded by his own American-ness. That's not a knock on Heinlein; for a fish to see the water through which it is swimming is always complicated, and one of my sneaking suspicions is that many artists and authors have a better handle on this than most social scientists do. The social scientists who do, I think, are those who are outsiders to what they are studying -- as Stephanson is to America (and, in fact, to social science -- he's a historian, and he has zippo invested in the putatively "scientific" character of his analysis).

What Stephanson sees, I think, is that the United States of America is so deeply a Christian country (and I mean that typologically, not normatively -- see below) that even and perhaps especially our supposedly "secular" debates and discussions are firmly surrounded by a set of images, themes, ideas, and principles that come more or less directly from Christian sources. Our most cherished images of America are entwined with Christian images; our distinctive sense of national pride is in many ways inseparable from the notion of the nation having been chosen by God to fulfill some kind of trans-historical mission; our tendency to equate "the American way" with "the way things ought to be" is wrapped up with ideas of universal salvation and progress. Our politicians speak in these terms even when they aren't making explicit references to God or salvation -- how else are we to make sense of notions like "the indispensable nation" or "the evil empire"?

I think that we Americans are sometimes blinded to this because of our justly-celebrated but often misunderstood separation of church and state. We sometimes think that that separation means that the state operates in a non-religious manner, but that's not what that clause of the Constitution is about -- it simply declares that there should be no established national church or religion. As observers back to Tocqueville have noted, the disestablishment of religion in the US simply permits religion to thrive in the private sphere -- and from this basis, religion continues to influence politics and policy in a profound way. Think for a moment of the controversies surrounding Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, featuring questions about whether Mormons are Christians. Think back to John F. Kennedy's campaign and the issues surrounding Catholicism. Imagine, if you can -- and I don't think that you can! -- a declared atheist making a serious run for the presidency. Religion, and Christianity in particular, marks our society -- it's a Christian country, by which I don't mean that it's officially Christian or that it's officially intolerant towards other faiths (let aone that it should be). But our social and intellectual heritage is firmly marked with Christianity, and marked in ways that perhaps someone not raised within it and not fixated on the disestablishment clause (and the separation of church and state) might be.

The parallel here might be with "industrial policy." The US proudly maintains that it has no industrial policy, that there's no centralized planning of economic development, that the marketplace reigns supreme and the government doesn't tell anyone what to produce -- or choose "winners" in conflicts between industries. No, the market gets to do all of that. But to foreign observers, the US very much appears to have an industrial policy; it's just that we call it "military procurement" and "tax incentives" and "regulatory oversight." The effect is similar: state action affects the direction of industrial development. To Americans the important thing is the absence of a formal, centralized policy; to others, the important thing is the effect and the broad outline. [Discussions about "empire" often follow this pattern too, I'd say.]

Is this something unique to the United States? Or is every country relatively blind to the cultural preconditions of its politics?

reflective #2: testing

Family illnesses this past week, so this reflective post is late. Apologies.

One of the issues that we touched on in class involved the feasibility or plausibility of Heinlein's lunar society. It seemed important to us to ask whether some of the social conventions and norms that Heinlein explicates would, "in fact", obtain -- whether, in particular, the differential freedoms of action accorded to men and women would evolve and remain. [Interestingly, we didn't talk much about Heinlein's physics, particularly his elaborate discussion of escape velocities and the "cannon" technique of orbital delivery -- that's curious to me, since Heinlein goes into at least as much detail about that as he goes into about lunar social norms. Maybe it's because this is a class about social science and science fiction? Hmm.]

Scott made a claim in class that a differential male/female population ratio would, over time, naturally self-correct to something like 50-50. Subsequently he sought to substantiate that claim through some research and a simple iterated computer model. ["Simple" is not a knock on Scott here; "complex" models get very complex indeed, so the term is descriptive here and in no way pejorative. Indeed, my hat is off to Scott for his efforts.] Scott's model demonstrates that an imbalanced population will, in fact, self-correct back towards 50-50 over time. Of course, like any model, there is some sensitivity to parameters and assumptions, such as Scott's assumption of two healthy births per woman and an equal chance of male and female births; there is research out there that suggests that the actual percentage is not quite equal, although it's pretty close (but over time, those small deviations from 50-50 can add up). So in that way, it looks like the imbalance that Heinlein describes on Luna might not last too long.

This suggests another issue, however, which is the implied assumption that the physical male-female ratio at a given point in time will necessarily generate a certain set of social norms. This kind of naturalism is, as I've said, is a feature of Heinlein's position in this novel (and in other novels), so it's perfectly understandable that we might simply rest on it. But I'm not completely sure that we should, especially given the vast amount of scholarship on social norms and their "stickiness" -- their persistence after the conditions within which they arose alter. If that's the case, then the changing male-female might not have an impact on social norms. This is an idea that Heinlein plays with in some of his later novels, in which the incest taboo is treated as something that arose in a context where inbreeding might result, but which the availability of modern techniques of birth-control renders antiquated. But the norm remains, regardless -- his characters play around with it in various ways, and he is obviously playing on the reader's sensibilities about such things, but the fact remains that the norm is treated as sticky.

All of this poses a wider question about evaluation. Clearly a good work of science fiction has to display some degree of verisimilitude, literally, a resemblance to truth -- otherwise the reader doesn't buy it. The precise limits of this verisimilitude are, shall we say, open to negotiation, since a skilled author can often get a reader to suspend disbelief more broadly than a weaker author can. But the question remains: how should we deal with the evaluation of the verisimilitude of a science fiction novel, since by definition such a novel has some elements that are not realized in our present situation? What constitutes a "fair test" for a novel?

This gives me an idea for class tomorrow -- and that's the only hint you're going to get :-)


substantive #2: laws of nature

Among all of the fascinating things Heinlein does in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, one of the things I find most striking is his consistent naturalizing of social relations. By this I mean not that he takes established social conventions and backward-abduces their natural character; that's what a certain kind of conservative does, and Heinlein is certainly no conservative. Instead, what I mean is that Heinlein's fictional world is one in which many of the social conventions that exist have the same status as natural laws -- and are treated as such.

Take, for example, Mannie'e explanation to Stu about precisely what Stu did wrong in making a pass at Tish:

Here we are, two million males, less than one million females. A physical fact, basic as rock or vacuum. Then add idea of tanstaafl. When thing is scarce, price goes up. Women are scarce; aren't enough to go around -- that makes them most valuable thing in Luna, more precious than ice or air . . . women are scarce and call tune . . . and you are surrounded by two million men who see to it that you dance to that tune. You have no choice; she has all choice. (p. 164, emphasis added)

Three very interesting things about this.

1) Heinlein apparently has no problem equating women and ice and air; all are commodities, all are desired, all have a market price. Does this celebrate or denigrate women? Mannie -- and Heinlein, I think -- clearly vote for "celebrate."

2) the scarcity of women seems to have provoked decidedly genteel behavior on the part of the Loonies. Instead of teaming up to exploit their scarce resource, they have collectively abdicated any striving to control all of the women's daily actions -- and thereby disempowered themselves as individuals, at least somewhat. The fact that Luna doesn't turn into a situation where women are sex slaves without rights says something quite striking about Heinlein's view of human nature.

3) The Lunar Revolution, as Heinlein presents it to us, is a matter of natural necessity: the moon is losing resources by shipping grain to Earth, and left unchecked that will of necessity produce food riots, cannibalism, etc. The success of the Revolution isn't foreordained, but the need to have some change in the Earth/moon resource relationship is absolute. If the natural trumps the social this completely, both in the case of the Revolution and in the case of male-female social interaction norms, how much freedom do human beings actually have to modify their circumstances?

Note that we can't answer these questions, particularly the third one, for Heinlein's corpus as a whole by reading only this novel. At the very least we'd need his other great revolution story "If This Goes On --" and probably more works besides. But even within the confines of this novel, I think, there's ample material to use in exploring the issues.


reflection on class #2: "all over the place"

For this reflection on class I want to riff on a comment that Jen made in her reflective blog entry: "we really went all over the place during class, didn't we?"

Yes, we did. And that's precisely what we ought to be doing.

One of my pet peeves is what I sometimes call the "stealth lecture." A stealth lecture is a lecture masquerading as some other form of conversational interaction, pretending to be something other than what it is: a dissemination of information from an authoritative center to the subordinate, receptive periphery. A lecture, at least, is an honest form of this kind of thing, with someone standing up and saying, in effect, Here I am, the authoritative source, so shut up and listen to what I have to say about this. But in my years in academia I have found -- more often than I like to admit -- various instructors who appear to run discussions and seminars in their classrooms, but who secretly or not-so-secretly have a main point that they want their students to get out of the text(s) under consideration. Then these instructors shape and guide the discussion so that it goes more or less where they wanted it to go all along, and the point that they wanted to make gets made -- perhaps by one of the students, perhaps by the instructor directly.

This strikes me as disingenuous at best and hypocritical at worst. If I'm running a discussion, it's a discussion -- which means that I do not have a pre-planned goal or direction in mind. if I had such a point in mind, I would just say it, preferably at the outset of the session and then spare us all the agony of meandering around until we got where I wanted us to get. If I'm going to lecture, I'll lecture -- and I'm not going to, not in this class (heck, not in most of my classes, since I find lectures a pretty inefficient way to transmit information, and a waste of valuable face time besides). Instead, I'll come into class having read and thought about the text, and then preside over a free-ranging discussion. Going "all over the place" is precisely what I hope we'll keep doing.

Now, this doesn't mean that I don't have certain points I want to contribute to the discussion. I do, obviously. One of them was the importance that World War One played in producing disillusionment among European intellectuals; it had struck me before, but did so especially strongly this time I read the novel. Wells lived in a world we can't inhabit, since we don't think science is going to save us (at least, not the way that late nineteenth-century intellectuals often did). The idea of a disastrous unintended consequence to "progress" strikes us as commonplace and even commonsensical, and nowhere near the deeply shocking scandal that it would have been at that time. Wells, like Nietszche, identified a downside of scientific progress long before it was fashionable to do so. The book plays differently now that his realization has become more commonplace than critical.


substantive #1: a methodological question

Lasswell is pretty clear about what he intends for his "developmental construct" of the garrison state to do:

What, then, is the function of this picture for scientists? It is to stimulate the individual specialist to clarify for himself his expectations about the future, as a guide to the timing of scientific work.

A developmental construct, then, is a very odd kind of vision of the future. Lasswell says it may not even be the most likely expectation, as long as it is a "total" one rather than a mere extrapolation of trends into the future. So the key here seems to be two-fold: a developmental construct is a more or less complete picture, and it is a picture that is both grounded in empirical observation of contemporary possibilities and in a set of values one wishes to preserve. Indeed, part of what makes the garrison state work as a vision of a future to be avoided is that Lasswell is writing to an audience of democratic citizens, citizens who can be expected to react strongly and negatively to the brave new world he's sketching out. Take away either the empirical observations or the audience's value-commitments, and the picture ceases to be as alarming as Lasswell obviously intends it to be.

Lasswell's pretty clear; H. G. Wells, not so much. There's a point on p. 114 when he has his narrator invite the listeners -- including, presumably, the reader -- to take the story as something like one of Lasswell's developmental constructs: "Consider I have been speculating upon the destinies of our race until I have hatched this fiction. Treat my assertion of its truth as a mere stroke of art to enhance its interest. And taking it as a story, what do you think of it?" But at the same time, Wells' novel takes pains to ground the tale of the future of humankind in a whole series of empirical and scientific observations: the discussion of time as a fourth dimension, the detailed descriptions of the machine and the Time Traveler's house, even the mysterious ending-line before the Epilogue which purports to be relating what "everybody knows now."

So here's my question: do these elements of narrative in Wells' novel make his future more or less believable than Lasswell's? Should Lasswell, perhaps, have just written a novel instead?

This semester's blogs

Here are the four class blogs for this semester's social/science/fiction seminar:

Mercury Theatre
In Space No One Can Hear You Blog
Backyard Rocket
We Are The Mice



reflection on class #1: geek cred

For this reflection I want to play off of something that Andrew, a.k.a. "42", had to say at the beginning of class: he jokingly requested that we close the door so that no one would hear us talking seriously about science fiction, suggesting that he was losing "street cred" by the minute by simply being in class. Although he was joking, this got me thinking about two things: the "uncool" character of science fiction, and my own balancing-act in trying to set the proper tone in the seminar.

First, "uncool." Having been chronically uncool my entire life, it doesn't really bother me to be passionately interested in sci-fi wizardry, even though this is often looked down on as the proper province of wimpy nerds and other people who are somehow out of step with what is "really going on." Indeed, I'd actually say -- and this is part of my hunch in designing the course in the first place -- that science fiction sometimes has its finger on the pulse of what is going on better than the supposedly "realistic" treatments of things. Not only does sci-fi usually orient itself towards the envisioning of a plausible future, an orientation that demands careful attention to present-day trends and possibilities, but sci-fi is also one of the few places where we as a culture give our imaginations free reign and permit ourselves to think about things outside of the usual censoring that we use in our daily lives (you know, that little voice that tells you that something's "impossible" or "infeasible" or "absurd"). So I'm happy to sacrifice short-term street cred for long-term geek cred.

Second, the balancing act. It's always difficult to try to set a tone that both celebrates science fiction (through allusions, comments that reveal a certain depth of knowledge and experience, insider jokes, and the like) and invites others into the conversation even though they might not know off the top of their heads the names of the characters on the good ship Serenity, or be familiar with the "even-numbered rule" for Star Trek films. Part of the fun of a course on science fiction is that it creates a space where people who have read a lot of sci-fi can have a safe space to discuss it in detail without fear of ridicule or dismissal, and that's a prerequisite to the kinds of conversations about novels and films and themes I hope to have later in the semester. But if one is not already a fan of the genre, I can see how that atmosphere might be a tad off-putting. I try to balance those concerns, especially on the first day, but I'm never sure how well I do.

Let me just say for the record that not every discussion will demand an intimate acquaintance with genre trivia. It's okay if you (gasp) don't know who Robert Heinlein or Orson Scott Card or Joss Whedon are (yet); we'll get there, and other places besides. If you are not already a sci-fi expert, please don't let the enthusiasm of some of us for our favorite authors and works be off-putting! And those of us that are somewhat exuberant: remember that not everyone in the room has read or seen your favorite work of science fiction multiple times. We need to make sure that our conversations are inclusive, not exclusive.

PS some of my thoughts about the definition of "science fiction" from a couple of years ago can be found here and here.

Yet another repurposing

New semester, new purpose for the old blog! Between being Director of General Education, editing the Journal of International Relations and Development, writing a book on the philosophy of (social) science, teaching the sci-fi seminar, not to mention having a bit of a life outside of my work . . . I find myself with not a lot of time to blog (even over at Duck). So, what to do with this little bit of cyberspace?

This semester I'm going to to try to "reck my own rede" a bit and blog alongside my students in Social/Science/Fiction. That means weekly posts on the books we're reading, weekly reflections, and weekly comments. Oh, and once their blogs are all established, I'll be posting links to all of them.