Sunday, February 25, 2007

Bourdieu Saved From Drowning: Supertoys, Cyborg Theory, and Cultural Capital

This week the readings for LIT 6932 are Brian Aldiss' "Supertoys Last All Summer Long" (better known as the film A.I. -- which still makes me cry like a river whenever I see it or even think about it too much -- or as Walt Disney's Pinocchio), Walter Jon Williams' "Daddy's World," and Pierre Bourdieu's "Postscript: Towards a 'Vulgar' Critique of 'Pure Critiques,'" from Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. The title of this essay is a parody of Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux (Boudu Saved From Drowning), a classic 1932 film by Jean Renoir which was remade in 1986 as Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and again in 2005 as Boudu.

1. MORE HUMAN THAN HUMAN: In "Supertoys" David asks the question "How do you tell what are real things from what aren't real things?" "Supertoys" and "Daddy's World" are all about the distinction between the mechanical and the natural, of which the latter is traditionally supposed to be more "real." That's a bogus decision, of course. As Heinlein pointed out, whatever humans do is as natural as, say, beavers building a dam. (Lewis also discussed the distinction between "natural" and "artificial" as part of his discussion of "natural" vs. "supernatural" in Miracles.)

Donna Haraway's "cyborg theory" also relates to this. The point is, everyone from Heinlein to Lewis to Haraway agrees, "mechanical" or "artificial" is not necessarily "wrong" or "bad." And there's no reason why a cyborg, mutant, alien, robot, or A.I. shouldn't have the same rights as a human being, and vice versa.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep the dividing line between human and replicant is based on empathy; but I am sure that plenty of replicants and other artificial life forms possess more empathy than many natural-born humans.I also find it ironic that David displays emotions, and is afraid of his mother because she seems so cold and distant. Even more ironically, Teddy tells David "We're both real. You're as real as I am," and both Teddy and David lie to Monica.

2. GHOSTS IN THE MACHINE: "Daddy's World" is also about living in a virtual world. Please see Nick Bostrom's "Are You Living In A Simulation?", and Robin Hanson's "How to Live in a Simulation" as well as his article "If Uploads Come First: The Crack of a Future Dawn" (Of course, as a Christian I already believe this world is just the moral equivalent of a simulation; but that simulations are also the moral equivalent of true Reality.)

3. NOBODY KNOWS WHAT "REAL" REALLY MEANS: "Supertoys" is also about alienation from others as well as from self (for being unreal). The world is overcrowded but people suffer from loneliness, so they want robotic companions. Henry also says that people will be linked to the Ambient (i.e., the Internet). The Internet gives me the equivalent of three billion people I can speak with on the phone, i.e. have a realtime conversation with. And most of them can pass the Turing test. I'm not trying to say we don't need plenty of human contact -- I love giving and getting hugs and backrubs. (I don't list sex in there, since sex seems to be masturbation plus hugs and backrubs, and it's easy to masturbate over the Internet.) But I don't see any reason to consider email or IM inferior to letter-writing or phone calls.

4. I GOT YER VULGAR CRITIQUE RIGHT HERE: Bourdieu is the fellow who invented the ideas of cultural capital and social capital, and appropriated -- how ironic -- the idea of intellectual capital from economics. In economics, remember, capital is different from ordinary property because it is *productive* -- in other words, it can be used to produce additional quantities of ordinary property, and possibly additional capital as well. One presumes that cultural capital is what allows one to produce ordinary culture, and so forth; however, one should never expect consistency from /F/r/e/n/c/h/m/e/n/ philosophers.

"Daddy's World" shows the use of virtual reality as (primarily) intellectual and cultural capital, by educating Digit; "Supertoys" shows the use of artificial intelligences as intellectual and social capital. The humans in "Supertoys" control intellectual and social capital, as well as controlling the society and its definitions of humanity.

Bourdieu's other key idea is that "where you stand depends upon where you sit," i.e. that taste is determined by culture and more specifically by sub-culture, which includes class, gender, religion, etc. Pseudo-intellectuals scorn popular culture just because it is popular, a form of reverse-fetishization. C. S. Lewis' essay "Good and Bad Books" is about why genre fiction and alternative media should be treated the same as "real literature." One of my ongoing projects is to do this by applying critical theory to roleplaying games.

5. FANTASY GAMES UNLIMITED: Just a reminder that Walter Jon Williams was in a roleplaying group with several other sf/fantasy authors including George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass; and Williams himself wrote game rulebooks as well as paperback novels for the games Privateers and Gentlemen (from Fantasy Games Unlimited) and Cyberpunk (from R. Talsorian Games). In fact, the virtual world in "Daddy's World" has many of the same characteristics as a roleplaying game-world -- interesting, colorful characters, intelligent puzzles, and striking scenery.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Analyze *This*

I sadly recommend "Right Slight: Why Did the GOP Lose the Election?" at TNR:

There are two very unpleasant truths that we have to face,
in order to change them:

"While the publicly-available election data can't answer this
question definitively, everything we know about public opinion
suggests there isn't a majority constituency for economic
libertarianism. (Tax cuts, perhaps, but not the smaller government
that goes along with it.)"

"When small-government conservatives abandon their principles
and become big-government conservatives--usually because voters
demand more government (as in the case of Bush's prescription
drug entitlement) or revolt when they try to cut it (Social
Security privatization)--scandal is a predictable result. The
reason is that people ideologically predisposed to doubt the
effectiveness of government don't see much practical difference
between running programs in the public interest and running them
as vast kickback operations, in which they spread government
lucre among their favorite interest groups (e.g., the
pharmaceutical industry). If government won't work either way,
you might as well make your friends happy."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


My first paper for LIT 6932 (Time, Space, and Science Fiction) is called "Alien/Nations: Cyborg Politics in Lafferty's 'Slow Tuesday Night' and Pohl's 'Day Million.'" As usual, I picked a couple of stories so obscure that there has been absolutely no scholarly research done on them since the year 2000.

On the other hand, I also picked a contemporary critical theorist, Donna Haraway, who is (in)famous for her works "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" and "The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others." I'm using Haraway's ideology, generally known as "Cyborg Theory," as a springboard for a more general discussion of transhumanism. That brings me out of the postmodern wilderness and back to more familiar territory: political ideology, especially social justice, which is my primary specialty in political science.

Here's my outline:

A. Transhumanism and Cyborg Theory
1. What is Transhumanism?
2. Cyborg Theory = Transhumanism + Feminism + Socialism
B. Significance of the Cyborg Manifesto
1. Feminism (but Transhumanist)

2. Socialism (but Transhumanist)

3. Transhumanism (but Socialist)
4. Very popular, famous, critical theory (anthologized in Norton)
C. "Slow Tuesday Night" and "Day Million" as responses to the same phenomena that engaged Haraway

A. Romance vs. Enlightenment (Brin)
1. Neophobia vs. Neophilia
2. Third Axis of Political Spectrum
3. Luddites vs. Transhumanists in all camps
B. Transhumanism
1. Definition and Camps
2. Significance: All Your Luddites Are Belong To Us (dustbin of history)
3. Post-Scarcity and Distribution of Goods (quote Ackerman and Friedman)
4. Identity Crisis; Property Rights Over One's Own Body (quote Friedman and Locke)

A. Transhumanism
1. Extropianism (Libertarian Transhumanism)
2. Democratic Transhumanism
3. Technoconservatism (Anti-Transhumanism)
B. Cyborg Theory as a branch of Transhumanism
1. Primary aspects
2. Relationship to Feminism

3. Relationship to Socialism

4. Relationship to Transhumanism

A. "Slow Tuesday Night"
1. Postmodernist (critique of Modernism), and Romantic (prefers good old days);
2. "playful and sarcastic" "ironic political fable" like Haraway
3. Critique of Capitalism (Postmodernist)
a. Alienation of Labor
b. Fetishism of Commodity
c. Financial insecurity (giant roulette wheel)
4. Critique of Sexism
5. Critique of Consumerism/Materialism

B. "Day Million" -- A Transhuman Future!
1. Description/Classifications
a.Modernist (Pohl is an old-fashioned Social Democrat)
b. Enlightenment (pro-future)
c. Not ironic about self (Modernist, not PoMo)
d. Humanist
e. Socialist by Interpolation (from Pohl's views)
f. Uses colloquial language, friendly attitude, dialogue with the reader

2. Cyborgs With A Human Face
a. Fits all of Haraway's definitions of Cyborgs (three transgressions), and all her other characteristics as well. These folks are literally cyborgs as well as being genetically engineered.
b. Alienation of Reproduction from Sex (Sulva) -- it's a Cyborg Sex Story!
c. Individualist Transhumanism, plus Socialism, and Feminism

A. Romance vs. Enlightenment (been around since ~1800)
D. These Two Stories Showcase All This!

Viscus: The Problem with Legalizing Drugs

Viscus suggests that Ilya Somin's article in favor of drug re-legalization (at the Volokh Conspiracy) misses the point when it apparently claims the main benefit would be reducing prison rapes (by reducing the number of people in prison). Instead, Viscus asks "Would it make cases like, People v. Bell, more or less common?"

I completely agree with Viscus on that -- I support drug re-legalization because I want to reduce (actually, I want to eliminate) the murders of (and other harms to) innocent bystanders.

If legalizing drugs means more people will use more drugs, quite frankly, I think it's absolutely worth it AS LONG AS IT MEANS NO INNOCENT PEOPLE GET HURT BY DRUG ADDICTS ANY MORE!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Iraq and a Hard Place

Obviously the most important issue in American politics is the Iraq War, just as from 1965 to 1975 the most important issue in American politics was the Vietnam War. Casualties since the 2003 invasion include over 3,000 gallant Coalition soldiers, civilians, and contractors (about 3 every day) and somewhere between twenty and two hundred times that many Iraqis, depending on which figures you believe.

My views on this issue are simple and clear:

1. Removing Saddam Hussein from power was a good act that was justified by international law for several different reasons: because of his crimes against humanity (war crimes and genocide), his violations of human rights, and the fact that he wanted to get and use more weapons of mass destruction. (Remember, Saddam had used poison gas and biological warfare, which are both WMDs, against Iranian soldiers and against Iraqi civilians. His nuclear weapons program was not active, but if he could have gotten away with building or buying a nuke he absolutely would have. I assume even the most extreme left-winger agrees with those facts.)

2. As a libertarian, I understand that there are many good actions which still should not be done by government for moral reasons, practical reasons, or both. For example, libertarians and conservatives believe it is wrong to force people to pay money to finance government welfare programs that they don't agree with; libertarians also understand (and so should conservatives) that it's just as wrong to force people to pay for government warfare programs that they don't support.

I assume almost all the liberals out there believe it should be legal, or at least moral for people to practice nonviolent civil disobedience by refusing to pay taxes to support things like the Iraq War, the Vietnam War, or the stockpiling of nuclear weapons. I agree, and would ask them, in order to avoid being hypocrites, to extend the same privilege to those who want to practice nonviolent civil disobedience concerning other government programs.

3. I also think the occupation shows that our government, like all governments, is inherently short-sighted and incompetent. I am continually amazed -- although I shouldn't be -- that conservatives who complain about the inefficiency of government bureaucracies like the post office and welfare system seem to overlook that the Pentagon is the biggest and most inefficient bureaucracy of all.

4. If our invasion of Iraq was justified on humanitarian grounds because it helped innocent Iraqi dissidents and other civilians, this means our occupation cannot be justified unless it is still helping them; and that is best measured by whether the local population wants us to stay or leave. And obviously a majority of the locals want us to leave everywhere in Iraq except Kurdistan and perhaps one or two other places.

5. To summarize everything so far: I agreed with getting rid of Saddam Hussein and making sure that Iraq had no WMD's, although I think an assassination or coup would have been better than the invasion, because there would have been fewer innocent casualties, which is always the supreme moral imperative for judging a war. After the invasion, we should have left immediately, except in those areas (such as Kurdistan) where the local population wanted us to stay for either protection or reconstruction. I wish that President Bush had made this (unfortunately imaginary) speech long before the 2004 elections; but we should do it now, better late than never.

6. In addition to withdrawing from Iraq (except for those areas where the local population actually wants us to stay), we should also offer asylum for those Iraqis who would be in danger after we leave, such as Christians, Iraqis who actively worked for human rights, and those who actually helped us. Specifically, we should allow them to immigrate to the U.S. without any limitation on numbers, as long as they have evidence (in each individual case) that they are in danger because of their pro-western, pro-Coalition, pro-human rights political or religious beliefs or actions.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Viscus: Eminent Domain, Libertarians, and Consent

Viscus: Eminent Domain, Libertarians, and Consent is disappointed that "from the libertarian perspective, just about any dignitary harm foisted on another is justified if there is consent. That is, using people and disregarding their dignity is okay if they consent. [...] It seems the primary factor driving libertarian opposition to takigns (sic) is lack of consent."

He then explains to the unenlightened that "A superior ethical view would be that one does not violate another person's dignity, regardless of whether 'consent' is forthcoming."

I look forward to seeing Viscus' support for efforts to legally prohibit such offenses against human dignity as, hmm, consensual BDSM (which obviously violates the dignity of the sub); consensual heterosexual intercourse outside of a loving, stable (presumably married, but at least committed) monogamous relationship (which violates the dignity of the woman who is used for physical pleasure and then discarded); and, well, a whole host of other behavior which social conservatives dislike because it offends their traditional religious values.

It looks to me like Sticky has to either support the right-wing fundamentalist agenda (at least in part) or else explain the difference between prohibiting things *he* thinks violate human dignity, and prohibiting things the vast majority of people (not just conservatives, but even moderates and many liberals) think violate human dignity.

Libertarians (and most liberals) don't want to use force to prohibit things just because we dislike them or find them personally offensive, or even think that they violate human dignity. "I may be disgusted by what you two do, but I will defend to the death your right to do it, as long as you don't involve anybody without their consent."

Apparently Sticky is more "enlightened" than Voltaire and Jefferson.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Gernsback and Forth; or, Future's So Bright We Gotta Wear Shades

This week in LIT 6932 (Time, Space, and SF) we're discussing Bruce Sterling's "The Gernsback Continuum," John Varley's "Air Raid," and R. A. Lafferty's "Slow Tuesday Night," plus Edgar Allen Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition." Herewith some comments:

1. "The Gernsback Continuum" is definitely postmodern according to the simplest definition, because it is a critique of and reaction to modernism -- specifically, the modernism of pulp sf courtesy of Gernsback and John W. Campbell (whom Isaac Asimov described, in The Early Asimov, as wanting "big men solving big problems with big ideas and big machines"), illustrated by the alternate universes of Earth-Tesla and Tom Strong; and the postwar era, like Donald Fagen's beautiful album The Nightfly, particularly the songs "New Frontier" and "I.G.Y." and

I'm a fan of modernism, because I was raised an Enlightenment liberal by Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke. I remember the good old days before the defeats in Vietnam and the War on Poverty; back in 1950-1965 when we were actually making progress on civil rights and eliminating poverty and reducing inequality; back when people worried that the government's biggest problem would be figuring out how to spend the surplus. I wouldn't have a problem with someone telling me "John, we've forgotten to take our food pills." :-D

2. "Air Raid" was made into the movie Millennium. It takes a very dystopian view of the future, and there is sort of a colonial/exploitive relationship between the time travellers and our present; on the other hand there is a similar-but-opposite relationship between the pollution and waste of our time and the problems of the future. (Another paradox concerns the film itself as a product -- one reviewer described it as "smart and moronic at the same time.")

This would be a great text to pair with "Vintage Season," and the fact that the latter story was also made into a film is just icing on the cake! (In fact, I'm not sure why we're not reading them both during the same week.)

3. "Slow Tuesday Night" gives yet another view of the future, by simply extrapolating present trends the same way Heinlein did in 1950 (and again in 1965 and 1980) in "Pandora's Box" and "Where To?" I am working a paper comparing it to two similar works by Fred Pohl -- The Age of the Pussyfoot and "Day Million" -- and Edgar Allen Poe's "Mellonta Tauta." All these works extrapolate present-day trends and try to project a future that is radically different from the present at least quantitatively. "Slow Tuesday Night" shows us a world moving at breakneck speed; "Day Million" depicts a society of genetically-engineered immortals, each of which has gigawatts of power and dozens of artificial intelligences at their casual disposal; The Age of the Pussyfoot depicts a society with somewhat less advanced A.I.'s and biomedical technology, but still significantly advanced over our own, and with the consequences of centuries of relatively "mild" inflation; and "Mellonta Tauta" simply emphasizes various aspects of strangeness and discontinuity between the future world of 2848 and the past/present world of 1848.

4. Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" is a classic explication of narrative fiction, particularly short-story writing, just as Raymond Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder" is for the detective story (and Dr. Gideon Fell's lecture in Chapter 17 of The Three Coffins is for locked-room stories). Poe says that the story-writer must first figure out what sort of effect he wants to produce, and then bend every effort, use every trick that will fit, and calculate every phrase in the story, in order to produce the maximum of that effect upon the reader. (H. Bruce Franklin claims that Poe's stories fall into two categories: those in which the effect is an emotion, and those in which the effect is an idea.)

Well, /d/u/h/ of course! This is good practical advice. And the three pieces of fiction for this week all do that. As a formalist and structuralist, I look at the elements of style in the prose of each one; it's part of my job.