Sunday, January 28, 2007


David Brin's New Year's Day post discusses (among other things) "'tech-refusniks' who - for many reasons - seem prone to reject the benefits of high technology in an onrushing scientific age":

Some who despise this era relish a return to lifestyles that were less democratized or flattened by the "great equalizer" of mass access to tools. [...] At another extreme are neo-feudalists, who don't mind technology and comfort, but resent the fact that the masses are getting almost as many toys and rights and privileges as aristocrats, nowadays. How much better to have an old-fashioned pyramid of privilege, with a few on top lording it over many, below. But that won't happen if the masses are technologically empowered. Hence, much of the propaganda of fear, trying to promote refusnikism on a very broad scale.

From another angle, consider the effect of labor saving devices in the home. Today, a vast majority of Americans can avoid drudgery in ways that - formerly - only the very rich knew. Human servants used to perform the tasks now done by refrigerators and cars and microwaves and vacuum cleaners, etc. All of thistechnologically-driven equality seems to rob all our advances of their sense of wonder. This is prime territory for romantics. If everybody - the masses - has something, then it cannot be good or beautiful or worthwhile.

At the opposite extreme are folks who worry deeply about the COST of over-dependence upon technological crutches. This includes people who are concerned with the ecological damage done by wasteful-wastrel masses who seem bent on consuming simply for consumption's sake.

I don't know why Brin seems to have overlooked what seem to me to be the single largest group opposed to technology: leftists who believe that increasing technology means less social/economic equality, possibly even a lower standard of living for those at the bottom. For example, they worry about workers losing their jobs because of automation, and poor children who (because they are uneducated, thanks to government schools) will be at a greater disadvantage in a higher-tech society.

There are a number of rational ways to deal with these issues, including reforming public education and reforming welfare and the rest of the "social safety net." The solutions are relatively simple (although politically difficult, of course). But my confusion is why Brin didn't mention this concern. The only possibilities I can think of are that he either considers it part of the "folks who worry deeply about the COST" or else that he is doesn't realize that some people don't share his belief that technology helps level society.


Right now I'm only taking two courses for credit. One of them is LIN 6107: History of the English Language, known universally as H.O.T.E.L. The other is LIT 6932: Time, Space, and Science Fiction, which I have dubbed T.A.R.D.I.S.

The dynamics of the sf/fantasy program at FAU are rather curious. Professor McGuirk (who teaches TARDIS) specializes in science fiction and modern (post-1900) critical theory, while Professor Martin specializes in fantasy and early (pre-1900) literary theory. Anyone who knows me at all will realize that I have a vast knowledge of the texts of the entire genre (both sf and fantasy), and that my knowledge of post-1900 literary theory is very limited. (This is one reason I'm auditing Professor McGuirk's undergraduate course on literary criticism: I want to be able to hold my own at MLA conferences when people babble about "the radical indeterminacy of the text" and "post-colonial hermeneutics.")

This week our readings for TARDIS are Ted Sturgeon's "Thunder and Roses," Octavia Butler's "Speech Sounds," and Jean-Paul Sartre's "What is Literature?" We're asked to do a response paper every week, so here are my thoughts:

1. "Thunder and Roses" made me cry, and it also made me think of Mordechai Roshwald's horrifying Level 7 as well as Arthur C. Clarke's "The Last Command" Then I thought of On the Beach and Earth Abides and Alas, Babylon and "Solution: Unsatisfactory."

I can't think of much else to say about the story; the death of humanity, or even a large portion of it, overwhelms me and I can't think clearly. The only way I can see out of this emotional pit is to re-commit myself to activism, specifically to my project to promote the nuclear disarmament program suggested by Joe Haldeman in Tool of the Trade.

2. "Speech Sounds" -- the depiction of Los Angeles after the breakdown of civilization reminds me of Butler's The Parable of the Sower. (Could Butler have sued herself for plagiarism?) The discussion of gender relationships reminded me of the work that's been done in /s/o/c/i/o/b/i/o/l/o/g/y/ evolutionary psychology.

3. "What is Literature" -- Whenever I hear the word "existentialism" I reach for a copy of "De Futilitate" by C. S. Lewis. I'm not a fan of continental philosophy -- my specialty is classical and analytic philosophy -- but here are Sartre's points as I understand them:

1. Why write, as opposed to do something else (like start Fight Club)? Of course, as an existentialist, Sartre points out that all meaning ("relationship") comes from human existence, and then explains that "One of the chief motives of artistic creation is certainly the need of feeling that we are essential in relationship to the world." This is a clearly existentialist statement, dealing with the drive to give meaning to our lives.

2. Sartre next deals with the subject-object dichotomy. Writing (like running a roleplaying game) involves a curious relationship with the text: "The writer cannot read what he writes, whereas the shoemaker can put on the shoes he has just made." "The operation of writing involves an implicit quasi-reading which makes real reading impossible." The writer must try to imagine the way the reader will encounter the text, but he will never encounter the text that way himself, because he always knows what comes next. "There is no art except for and by others."

3. Reading involves the reader in a relationship with the text; it must be active rather than merely passive/receptive. "Reading seems, in fact, to be the synthesis of perception and creation." (You get out of it what you put into it.) "Reading is a pact of generosity between author and reader. Each one trusts the other, each one counts on the other, demands of the other as much as he demands of himself." Therefore the reader must be free; therefore there can be no truly great art that promotes tyranny, oppression, racism, and so forth. (Obviously he's overlooking works such as Birth of a Nation.)

Red Queen's Race

I just found out this week that I will need to take another graduate-level course in English, American, and/or multicultural literature for my M.A. in English. No worries, this summer I'll take ENL 6305, Professor Martin's course on Spenser.

Of course I'd like to do my research paper for that class on Spenser's influence on roleplaying games, but I don't know of anything beyond a single article in Dragon magazine, so I will probably do either his influence on later fantasy (primarily DeCamp and Pratt's Harold Shea story "The Mathematics of Magic") or else his use of political allegory.

I'm guessing this last theme is pretty much mined-out, though.

Maybe something about the various ways the word "faerie" was used in Elizabethan times, as Lewis discusses in The Discarded Image.

"[W]ithin the same island and the same century Spenser could compliment Elizabeth I by identifying her with the Faerie Queene and a woman could be burned at Edinburgh in 1576 for 'repairing with the fairies and the 'Queen of Elfame.'"(M. W. Latham, The Elizabethan Fairies (Columbia, 1940), p. 16, quoted in Lewis, The Discarded Image, p. 124.)

Or the various versions of magic according to Renaissance literature, including demonology and academic magic. "In his volume of the Oxford History of English Literature, he explains the difference between magia, high or "white" magic, such as we encounter in Merlin or Bercilek, which is associated with the world of Faerie, and goeteia, black magic, associated with witchcraft and Faustian contracts with the devil. But having made the distinction, Lewis adds that most sixteenth-century writers, including King James himself (who published his Demonology in 1597) condemned all kinds of magic as a snare, warning that even "white magic" was a danger to the soul (7-8)."

Or maybe something about David Lodge's novel Small World...

Regardless of what I do my Spenser paper on, I'm still on track to get my M.A. at the end of 2007 -- or whenever I finish my thesis, whichever comes first. And I'm also on track to teach undergraduates starting this fall.